‘Ms. Marvel’: Or, How I Became A Comic Book Fan (Again)
I used to be a voracious fan of comic books.
My favorites were pretty much the usual suspects… Batman was no.1, Spider-Man a close 2nd, plus a deep affection for The Hulk. Later on, I got into Dave Sim’s independent series “Cerebus” and other “more mature” titles like “Love & Rockets”, “Sandman”, etc… But I still held an affinity for the Super-Hero characters of my youth. I used to love the Stan Lee “Orgins Of Marvel Comics” trade paperback, wherein Ol’ Stan reminisced about creating the various iconic figures in Marvel History. Plus, it reprinted the character’s first-ever story and then presented a newer, more up to date version.
The funny thing? I’d always considered myself a DC fan more than a Marvel fan. And yet… As I look back, I think I had it the wrong way around. I was never an avid collector of Marvel titles, but… those characters took up a lot more psychic real estate than I admitted. I guess the appeal for me of Batman was so strong at the time it just swept any other consideration aside. Huh. Go figure.
Typically, I got tired of comics. The never-ending story arcs that always got back to the same old starting points, the shifting to Grim ‘N Gritty (which usually was just bad teen angst papered over with swear words) stylings and the simple lack of free time all combined to make me just stop buying them.
But I’m back. And a big reason for that is Ms. Marvel. (Also a better sense of how to budget my time. Who says you don’t learn as you grow up?)
Honestly, it sounds like a cliche, but this book reminds me exactly why I was so into comic books as an adolescent. Yeah the escapist element is there, but this also has the human element that hooked me into Hulk, Spidey and even Batman (before the revolutionary “Dark Knight Returns” demanded a depressingly one-note depiction of that character).
Ms Marvel, latterly Captain Marvel, has had a weird career at Marvel. From what I gather there’s some sort of legal thing that forces them to keep publishing a book with that title or else they’ll lose the copyright to the name. And, since the company brand is right there in the title I guess that explains the multitude of relaunches and reinventions over the years without it ever becoming a “major” Marvel title.
Until now, that is.
The latest rethink of Ms Marvel (Captain Marvel is a separate character now, soon to be a major motion picture, etc., etc…) has just wrapped up it’s second volume of adventures. (Apparently Marvel thinks of it’s story runs as “volumes” now? I’m honestly out of the loop.) At issue 19, it’s just shy of two years old, and it is a cracker.
Written by G. Willow Wilson with most of the artwork handled by Adrien Alphona, the newest Ms Marvel is Kamala Khan – a 16-year old Muslim girl living in Jersey City. A lot of attention was (and I guess, is still) given to the fact that Marvel was daring enough to make Kamala a practicing, real-deal Muslim, but the thing that caught my attention was more mundane.
Her name. It’s Kamala Khan.
Like Peter Parker. Or Reed Richards. And Bruce Banner.
The great, classic Stan Lee trope of naming a comic book character with an alliterative name. It’s ALIVE!
(Yeah, Yeah… I know Lee wasn’t the first. There’s Lois Lane and others… but damn if Lee didn’t run the hardest with that method.)
That, and I’d forgotten how cool it was that Marvel has always been firmly rooted in the “real world”. No abstract “Gotham City” or “Metropolis”. It’s New York. Or Jersey City. Fuhgedaboudit. Love that sense of real/unreal.
None of this basic fanboy malarky would have mattered though, if the writing had sucked. And it assuredly does not. Wilson manages to bring the “comic book” elements and the “real” elements into perfect combinations. Kamala wants to be special and powerful, but when it happens, she is utterly unprepared for it. This despite spending all her free time hero-worshipping The Avengers and writing fan-fic about them. (Wilson also has a knack for writing teenagers that seem rooted in they way they actually behave, rather than the way media portrays them. It’s a lot less common knack than you might imagine.) But she pulls through and gets better as she goes along.
This element of watching a hero “grow up” as the series’ moves forward seems most rooted in the classic Lee/Ditko Spider-Man run. Peter Parker went from High School to college, and learned and grew along with the super powers. It felt… more real than, say Superman. (I love Superman, but let’s face it: he started awesome and will always be awesome no matter how many dark ‘n gritty reboots you throw at him.)
Even when the book brings in other big-time supers it never sidelines Kamala. The Wolverine crossover was a goddamn delight, and it reminded me of how much I’d liked that character back in the day. And it uses the bigger Marvel “universe” story arcs, but you don’t have to necessarily be “on top” of those stories. One of the things that drove me away from both Marvel and DC were those insane, 12-title story crossover “events” that required you to buy 7 more titles a month than you normally would. (“Knightfall” was great. “No Man’s Land” was way too fucking much, guys.)
In contrast, Marvel’s current “Last Days” reboot has Kamala experiencing the events from exactly her perspective. She’s as caught off guard as the reader. And the last issue (#19) is a beauty. It’s essentially a character piece with nearly no action.And it manages that impossible trick of being subtle and huge at the same time.
I haven’t mentioned the artwork as much, but I should. Alphona has a quirky style that teeters right up to the edge of “cartoony” but is way too organic and messy for that designation. There was a certain depressing “sameness” creeping into a lot of comic art when I checked out of the medium a little while back. This is refreshingly not that. Alphona’s style reminds me a little bit of some of the old “underground comix” artists like Gilbert Shelton or R. Crumb. It’s busy and cluttered, but never overindulgent or confusing.
So. Buy Ms Marvel. Read it. Give it a chance. If you thought you’d never get behind a book based around a 16 year old Muslim girl from Jersey City, you may be in for a surprise.
(Also? The 1st issue of the new Guardians Of The Galaxy was pretty goddamn awesome. Can’t wait to see how that one pans out.)