The Origin of Ms. Marvel, & the Making of a Hit, Man
(Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on July 14th, 2014.)
G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel has introduced us to a new superhero – Kamala Khan – and over five issues, has won us over. Kamala Khan’s debut as a truly original superhero has been written by Wilson with consummate skill and assurance, and Alphona’s art has been a definitive asset, establishing a style for the title which blends a ready eye for the detail of the day-to-day with hallucinatory dreamlike wonder reminiscent of Studio Ghibli.
New heroes such as Kamala, heroes that offer fresh perspectives and unique voices, are rare. Not, of course, because Pakistani-American teenage girls living in New Jersey are rare, but only because their depiction in comics has been heretofore an unheard of event. Ms. Marvel does not shy away from what makes its character important, but rather, it embraces it. The comic should be applauded for this – not just for its willingness to speak truth to a category which in Western pop culture sees nearly complete erasure (Muslim women), but to speak that truth in such a way as to retain the reader’s engagement while avoiding the appearance of tokenism or polemic. Ms Marvel retains the reader’s engagement in Kamala’s archetypal teenage dramas (unspoken crushes, popular cliques, controlling parents) while exploring issues of self-identity and cultural assimilation through a cultural lens which comics (and indeed, pop culture at large) largely leaves unexplored. The brilliance of the comic is that it makes the readers internalise and understand at least part of what the experience of being a Pakistani-American teenage girl growing up in New Jersey must be like (which, given these two readers at least are male, white, Australian and have left their teens long behind, is an accomplishment). A lot to accomplish in a mere five issues.
Much has been deservedly written about the content of these five initial issues, and though we provide the briefest of summaries above, the structure of these five issues, and their place in the shared Marvel universe, are of particular interest to us because the particulars of the origin story suggest something interesting about the value of shared superhero settings as a cultural artifact.
To step back to basics for a moment, origin stories are often the backbone of superhero stories. They establish the trinity of superheroic hooks, which are the same three jurisprudential tools used to highlight the killer (at least in an Agatha Christie novel) –
1) Means – the metaphysics by which a superhero is supremely capable of engaging in heroics (e.g. rocket from dying planet brings alien to Kansas, space cops receive magic rings, radioactive spiders can grant extraordinary powers);
2) Motive – the unique personality traits of a hero that makes them more than just their powers (e.g. Clark was raised by the Kents to be good and kind, Bruce Banner deeply repressed his infinite anger);
3) Opportunity – the call to action indelibly links the means and motive into a heroic model (e.g. uncle dies, telling spider-empowered youth “With great power…”, Hal Jordan finds a crashed alien who gifts him a magic ring, scientist saves child but releases superpowered id).
Origin stories are often the backbone of superhero stories, because they bring these elements together in their purest form, showcasing exactly what distinguishes one hero from their many broadly similar contemporaries. Superhero stories would, absent the infinite variety provided by comparing, contrasting and intertwining these three pillars possessed by each hero, usually be remarkably similar – part detective work, part action. They team up and fight crime. Superheroes maintain their interest, as a genre, by making themselves about why particular people choose to do particular things, and origin stories are the clearest representation of those factors. That was the art by which the Marvel universe shot to dominance in the early 1960s, and it is these character studies that vivify the genre to this day. That’s why superheroes are so beloved by Hollywood: because they put all that character work out on the table.
Kamala is in the midst of her origin story. Her “ordinary situation” has turned into something remarkable, her supporting cast has been introduced, her powers received and her progress has hit the penultimate point in her first arc in which she prepares to face off against her first fully fledged supervillain. Ms Marvel has taken advantage of the Marvel’s ongoing decades of history to keep the detailed and inevitably lengthy analysis of the means by which Kamala has received her powers largely kept offscreen to the wider (already finished) Inhumanity event. This is a good thing, as it is a simple rule of thumb that the more complex and multifaceted the means, the more it diverts attention from the motive and opportunity. Here, the background of the existing event allows Kamala’s own experience to come to the forefront, with very little page count needed to reference the Terrigen Mists or the former holders of the Ms Marvel legacy. Instead, even the exact moment of her empowerment, the mists became a subtle hint, a merest adjunct, not to a melodramatic, violent moment of catharsis but to the religious, aesthetic and personal tribulations of a teenage girl. There is, for example, no explicit mention of Black Bolt, the New Avengers or the resolution of the Inhumanity event titles.
This approach is similar to the technique behind creating new Marvel heroes of the mutant-kind and this may well be one of the reasons why the X-men are consistently better in regards to international diversity and minority representation than any other long-established team. Though the X-Men have unique powers, the source of those powers and its overarching cause are shared – it is the individuals who manifest their powers and their perspectives that provide the differentiation and drive the narrative. This approach also has some points of similarity with Keith Giffen, John Rogers and Cully Hamner’s Blue Beetle, which drew on the Crisis of the moment (in that case, Infinite Crisis) to debut a distinctly fresh take on a legacy character, placing them in a new cultural context. An even more exact parallel can be found with DC’s 1993 event, Bloodlines, and its contribution to the creation of Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s, Hitman.
Bloodlines was an event that leveraged threads from the wider DCU – in this case, xenomorph rip-off alien predators harvesting spinal fluid from humanity – created a raft of superhumans from those that survived their predations, justifying an influx of new heroes. Beyond the structural similarity of offloading the metaphysics of the origin to the established universe, you might think it unlikely that Ennis and McCrea’s irreverent and macho Hitman had many points of similarity with Ms Marvel. However, without in any way resembling the exact content, it is interesting to note that Hitman, Blue Beetle and Ms Marvel all deal out the gate with the immigrant experience and the more street-level, human aftereffects of the celestial chaos that make up ‘events’ comic storytelling. We would suggest that the reason that Hitman alone of the ridiculous 90s-flavoured Blood Pack thrived long after the event was deservedly forgotten was because it stood out as a comic where the motives and opportunity of Tommy Monaghan drew in readers. It was a comic that, once Bloodlines had opened the door, ran on the emotional investment and concrete vision of their creators, which lived and died on the strength and uniqueness of their voices, rather than the flashiness of the superheroic powers that manifested in the event. We can only hope that similarly long-running fate awaits Ms Marvel. It has clearly demonstrated its own voice, and the exploration of Kamala Khan’s character, through crime-fighting show infinite promise. So, having established that we are fans, and that part of what we love is this uniqueness of vision matched with the simplicity of kamala’s powers, it’s particularly notable to us that the line is about to come to a crux point.
Traditionally in modern shared-universe superhero comics, once the origin story itself is completed, the step taken is for that hero to take fledgling steps into that larger shared universe, to join in the context of the characters which have already been established and which the fans know and love. The individual personality dynamics are brought up against familiar ones, and the characters form part of the tapestry of that universe, making it all the richer for the addition of another thread.Unfortunately, this introduction of a wider superheroic context can be damaging to matters of nuance, and it is the nuanced portrayals that make this comic. It is easy for this damage to occur where the introduction of contrasting heroic narratives subsume the individualism of the hero in question, and even easier for it to occur when those heroes, in forming part of the wider universe, end up in the hands of writers and artists who are not their original creators, and lack the strong appreciation of the character’s voice which underpinned its success in the first place. We are sure that you can think of your own examples where this might have occurred.
Comics usually seek to deal with this problem in two ways. Many try to withdraw from the larger superhero context to pursue their own narrative, as Gaiman did with the Endless of Sandman fame in fairly short order, or continue to operate inside a sort of out-of-context bubble, like the way Azzarello’s Wonder Woman maintaining her stable orbit worlds away from whatever else happened in the DCU effectively split the character in two. Others seek to give strong guidance and context to how a hero integrates with that wider superhero world by having those early, defining crossovers on the creator’s terms and particularly within their auspices. This is a great way to do so as to retain the unique perspective and identity of the title character. This is where, for example, Hitman shows us Tommy playing off Catwoman, the Etrigan and Lobo, forever linking his story to Gotham and to the silly/badass antiheroes of the ’90s. This is where Blue Beetle brought in the Green Lanterns and the weight of the former Blue Beetles, ensuring there were always elements of space opera and JSA-esque legacy heroics around.
The former method may perhaps the “safer” course, preserving an auteur vision and allowing the comic to proceed without interference. The latter option has more risk of the uniqueness of narrative perspective being lost, but when executed correctly has an added richness of commentary not just on the real world, but on the iconography of the superheroes’ world as seen through fresh eyes. This can contribute tellingly to longevity beyond a nostalgic collection of trades in years to come, and can elevate sales and awareness of a character outside the already-earned core fanbase. In short, having a character that is easy to use right in crossovers is good because, yeah, let’s face it, comic fans really like team-ups, and they lend a “legitimacy” to a shared universe character who can otherwise be lost in the constant reshuffling of the hot flavours of the moment.
Whichever way Ms Marvel chooses to go at this juncture, we have every reason to anticipate success. If you haven’t already started catching Kamala Khan’s adventures, you’re about to be provided with another good point at which to begin doing so. Kamala is a warm, lovable heroine, learning more about herself and the world as she strives to do good, and Wilson and Alphona populate her world with richly drawn (and richly drawn) characters. The seeds of mystery have been sown, but the title is populated by a spirit of hope and audacity, that despite how fresh it feels, hearkens back to the great origin stories: the sensation that a hole in the world is being filled, and we should be glad of it.