Review: Ms Marvel, Volume 1
Greater south-east London, mid-1980s. My younger brother and I hold each of my mother’s hands. We’re walking to school in Plumstead. Another child, across the road from us accompanied by their mother, yells “F—ing Pakis, go home!”. Instead of getting told off their elder siblings goad them to continue. My own mother doesn’t want to address my confusion. She tells us to ignore it, and to keep walking, keep our heads down so others don’t hear or notice. Why are other brown people insulting us when we’re brown too? How are they even allowed to use a swear word that vicious and not be told off? I eventually work out that they hate us – my mum, my brother, me – for not being dark enough, for thinking that our father had somehow let down his ancestry.
Oddly enough, the year before, a Filipino uncle teased me for sitting like a boy (para kang lalaki, in Tagalog). It takes me until puberty to figure out that it wasn’t an innocent observation, but an insult. The policing of bodies starts young, and on either side of my cultural heritage. If there was representation of any of these issues in the media of my teens, then I must have missed it. I wish something like the comic series Ms. Marvel existed back then. Kamala Khan is a regular American teen – she has a sibling, attends school, has good friends, has ‘nerdy’ interests, and is clumsy.
Ms. Marvel ‘No Normal’, volume 1 (trade paperback). Collects #1-5 of Ms. Marvel & All-New Marvel Now! Point One #1, 2014). Written by G. Willow Wilson. Illustrated by Adrian Alphona (chief) & various artists (issue covers).
Her Pakistani immigrant parents are considered strict by Western standards. They’re over-protective, they want their children to do well at school, and to hopefully marry someone they approve of who can continue to keep their Pakistani traditions and cultural practices alive in 21st-century New Jersey. They also want their children to have the freedoms and choices not available to them when they were growing up. Kamala feels that this can be a bit of a killer on a her social life.
In ‘No Normal’, Kamala’s best friend Bruno and their friend Nakia watch Kamala struggle with the enticing smell of ‘forbidden meat’ in a bodega. More classmates join them to chat about an upcoming neighbourhood party. Later at family dinner, Kamala begs her parents for permission to go, angrily declaring that if she were male, permission wouldn’t be needed. Her father tells her to go to her room till she acquires better manners.
She sneaks out to the waterfront party, accidentally sips alcohol, and the partygoers are enveloped in a mist. Kamala passes out and is woken up by Captain Marvel talking in fluent Urdu, with Iron Man and Captain America beside her. She assumes she’s still dreaming or hallucinating when Captain Marvel asks her who she wants to be. Kamala describes an idealised version of herself and of Captain Marvel (historically Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel is portrayed as tall, blonde, fair-skinned, athletic).
The superhero trio vanish as her wish is granted, with a warning that she’ll get what she wants but not exactly in the manner she expects. She resumes consciousness, with the body and appearance of her idol, but with own insecurities and imperfections intact. Still processing these changes, she begins to experiment with some of her new powers to save her schoolmates, before sneaking back home. Kamala’s family are furious that she’s been out, but relieved she is safe. Her acquisition of superpowers is cleverly used throughout the series to explore issues that start to crystallise in puberty – awkwardness, expectations, desires and the discomforts of maturing sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. We start to get an idea of who we are, both separate to our peers, and sometimes defined by them, into adulthood.
Kamala has no idea how to explain her new secret to those close to her, but quickly decides that she’ll to continue to be the person she is – loyal, hard-working, loving, funny, imperfect – by keeping her friends, family, and home city safe. It will often mean running late for classes, but not for the reasons everyone around her usually thinks.
As an introduction to a cautious but loving family with a multicultural heritage, this comic art series seems like the ideal medium for reaching a wide, enthusiastic audience, which happens to educate its readers. Kamala may not have existed when I was a teenager, but my adult self is still pretty chuffed to have her around now.
Gemma Mahadeo is a queer Melbourne-based writer, poet, and occasional musician. She regularly reviews book-and-beer matches for Froth magazine, and loves watching the faces of folks morph in confusion when she explains she is from the U.K. You can find her online as (Twitter & Instagram) @snarkattack & @eatdrinkstagger.