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Monday, February 16, 2015

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal: A Muslim Superhero, or a Superhero Who's a Muslim?


I think that it's an established fact that these days, we view diversity as a virtue. Back in the day, diversity was nice to have, but not essential, like faith, hope, and love. I learned in my Communications Studies class that diversity is good for business, as it fosters a wide variety approaches to problem solving and so forth. But today, diversity is so important to the movers and shakers of our society that if you don't have it, you must be a racist or a bigot or a sexist or a radical right-wing haters-gotta-hate type. I mean, why wouldn't you want diversity in your workplace? Don't have any people of color? Yep, definitely racist. (Incidentally, my workplace currently employs four people, one of whom is a woman and another of whom is Vietnamese.

But once again, I'm getting off track. All that said, let's talk about Ms. Marvel.

The point of my above rant was that we value diversity very highly in today's society. Some opinionated but grossly misinformed persons believe that institutionalized racism is still a problem, but really, who honestly believes that? Walk into any Wal-Mart, Starbucks, school, gym, or government building, and you'll see people of all colors, creeds, and walks of life living, working, and playing together in peace. The very existence of the comic book Ms. Marvel is yet another nail in the coffin of the theory that institutionalized racism still exists to a large degree in this nation, even if the comic book itself doesn't seem to have gotten the message.

Under the pen of G. Willow Wilson, this new incarnation of Ms. Marvel has a 16 year old girl named Kamala Khan living a normal life in Jersey City. She's a huge Avengers fan-girl who weirdly reminds me of my sister, writing fan-fiction in her spare time, chafing at her parents' authority, and dying to eat bacon. Oh, and I forgot to mention this, but she's a Muslim, ethnically Pakistani. Anyway, on her way home one night, she gets caught up in a mysterious cloud of mist, which, after a brief hallucination, gives her superpowers. Inspired by selected quotes from what I believe is the Koran, she decides to fight crime as Ms. Marvel!

Let me tell you, I really like this book. Kamala is a likable character with a fun supporting cast. You've got her parents, her brother, her friends Bruno and Nakia, and the beginnings of her very own archvillian. The book mainly goes for the humorous side of being a superhero, such as when Kamala fails spectacularly at foiling a convenience store hold up, avoiding serious harm due to sheer luck and an incompetent robber. It's very Spider-Man-esque, sort of like Brian Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man. It also reminds me somewhat of Chuck Dixon's run on Robin when Tim Drake was in the suit back in the '90s. And considering that Tim Drake's Robin and Spider-Man are some of my favorite comic book characters of all time, that's a huge compliment coming from me. This book is more quirky than either Ultimate Spider-Man or Robin, kind of reminding me of Brian Q. Miller's Batgirl in that regard, but with a stronger emphasis on social media technology, with Kamala's unique background giving the story extra flavor.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the central point espoused in the title of this post: Is Kamala a Muslim superhero, or a superhero who's a Muslim? A similar question was addressed by Ben Stone to Paul Robinette on Law and Order. What I mean to ask is if Kamala is a superhero who is defined by her identity as a Muslim, or a superhero who just so happens to be a Muslim? Happily for the story, it so far seems to be the latter. However, it makes me wonder if the writers would be gutsy enough to address the philosophical consequences of a Muslim superhero in post-9/11 world. It would be an awfully profound story to tell if done well, but so far the closest we've seen to such questions being addressed are not-Liz-Allen's mildly offensive and ludicrously vacuous asides. And seriously, this girl, I think her name is Zoe Zimmer, is totally Liz Allen, and her boyfriend is obviously a stand-in for Flash Thompson, right down to the letterman jacket. 

It doesn't help that Kamala herself seems to buy into the presumption that a large percentage of white people are racist bigots, when this is simply not true. I mean, it's just silly to believe that in a world where people are constantly tripping over themselves to avoid being seen as racist, the currently fashionable cause of today's elite is a crusade against racism. Does racism still exist in the hearts of some people? Absolutely. I'm sure there are plenty of people, whether they're white, black, Arab, Asian, Hispanic, or polka-dot, who are racists. Is institutionalized racism a problem in this country anymore? No. You're not going to be denied entry into a hotel if you're black and the proprietor is white, nor will you be denied a BLT at Wendy's if you're Hispanic. In fact, if this did happen, you could probably sue and win.

I don't know if Kamala or her writers will come to understand this, but I do know that I will continue to follow this new Marvel comic because its a good, fun story which makes me laugh and smile. And mind you, the last Marvel comic I read was Marvel's Road to the Avengers, a terrible collection if there ever was one, which nearly drove me away from reading Marvel's stuff forever. But now, I'm willing to expand my horizons. Maybe Marvel is getting better. Maybe. I'm willing to give it chance now.

Image courtesy of goodreads.com