Last year, the crew at Marvel Comics rebooted Ms. Marvel — formerly a scantily clad blonde superheroine — as a teenaged Desi Muslim high school girl living in Jersey City. Reboots of old, familiar characters are always complicated, and they are all the more so when the reboot seems suspiciously like politically correct pandering.
But Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, is a huge hit. And she’s not a hit because she’s some kind of mouthpiece for popular pieties. She’s a hit because she’s a great character, a believable teenager, and — in the style of the best superheroes — a symbol that lets us rethink our own identities while we watch her learn to balance hers.
When Kamala’s story begins, she is the mildly rebellious 16-year-old daughter of parents who have immigrated to America from Pakistan. While she chafes at some of their restrictions, she is a “good kid” — a girl who may sneak out to a party, but who spits out alcoholic punch when someone tricks her into trying it. On her way home from the forbidden party, Kamala is caught in a strange chemical mist that gives her visions of her favorite superheroes — Ironman, Captain America, and her idol, Captain Marvel, the superheroine formerly known as Ms. Marvel. (If you’re picturing the guy who says, “SHAZAM!” and turns into the Earth’s Mightiest Mortal, that’s a hero from another comic book company. Marvel Comics has a different history using the same name.)
The dream avatar of Captain Marvel asks her, “Who do you want to be?”
Kamala replies, “I want to be you.”
Captain Marvel promises her “the kind of total reboot most people only dream about.”
When Kamala wakes, she has transformed into the 1970s-style Ms. Marvel — blond hair, skimpy costume, thigh-high boots, and all. As she morphs uncontrollably back and forth between this new self and her old self, she wonders, “This is what I asked for, right? So why don’t I feel strong and confident and beautiful? Why do I just feel freaked out and underdressed?”
In this moment, as in many others throughout the comic, Kamala’s reactions to her new self are not just reactions to new superpowers. They are the reactions of a young Muslim woman wrangling with the idea that the modesty with which she has been raised, and against which she has chafed, may well have a point to it. But they are also the reactions of all young people to an unpredictably changing body that is suddenly sexy and scary in ways that it never was before.
For me, this triple layer of reactions is the strength of the Ms. Marvel reboot. Kamala is never just a superhero. And she’s never just a Muslim-American superhero. She’s a kid — smart, brave, loyal, and moral — trying to protect the people and places she loves, to learn a new identity, and to be true to herself at the same time.
As Kamala’s story develops, we discover that she is an “Inhuman” — part of a superhuman race that attains its powers when exposed to that chemical mist that Kamala wandered into after the party. Sometimes heroic and sometimes villainous, the Inhumans occupy a complicated place on the edge of the superhero world and even farther on the edge of the human world.
When a young man whom Kamala’s parents introduce her to as a potentially acceptable suitor turns out to be an Inhuman, all Kamala’s identities come into play again. The rebellious Muslim teenager wants to reject her parents’ suggested suitor out of hand. The 16-year-old girl thinks he’s completely dreamy. The superhero finds herself faced with a group of Inhumans who consider humans to be an inferior subspecies.
And you can’t quite tell if it’s the geeky teen, the post-9/11 Muslim, or the superhero who tells the Inhumans, “It’s always the same. There’s always one group of people who think they have special permission to terrorize anybody who disagrees with them. And then everybody else who looks like them suffers.”
It could be a horribly preachy moment, but somehow, it’s not. Somehow, Kamala’s three identities, and writer G. Willow Wilson’s ability to convey the naïveté and insight that come along with young adulthood, make the moment feel honest.
When Kamala follows up her comment with a massive comic book punch, we cheer for her. And when she follows up her punch with the sickening awareness that she almost killed her adversary, we panic with her.
The careful balance that Kamala must maintain as a character, and that Wilson must maintain as she writes Kamala’s story, means that each of the elements that make Kamala special is always in play.
I’m particularly fond of the cover images for the graphic novel collections of Ms. Marvel. On the first, Kamala wears a Ms. Marvel fan T-shirt and carries a US history textbook and a collection of hadith. On the second, she slugs a bank robber while checking her cellphone, wearing a new costume she has fashioned out of the burqini she refused to wear. And on the third, she punches through glass with one hand and flashes a peace sign with her other mehndi– decorated hand while a stack of vintage Ms. Marvel comics flutters away in the background.
Always, she is equally a teenager, a Muslim, and a superhero. I find the combination makes for compelling reading. Even more so, I suspect it will make for compelling reading for my daughters. I want them to think about Kamala’s multiple identities and the challenges of balancing them. And I want them to hear the surprising lecture she gets from the youth leader at her mosque when Kamala comes close to telling him about her secret identity. “If you insist on pursuing this thing you will not tell me about, do it with the qualities befitting an upright young woman: courage, strength, honesty, compassion, and self-respect.”
And if she can do all that while still writing fan fiction about the X-Men? I’ll keep reading with interest.
The fourth volume of the Ms. Marvel graphic novel collections comes out on December 1.
Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.
EDITORS NOTE: Kamala breaks the Islamic doctrine that women are inferior, second class citizens, to Muslim men. Kamala violates shariah law by not wearing traditional Muslim clothing, going out to parties and flashing the peace sign. She is the anti-Muslim Muslim girl. She wants to fit in and do good rather than perpetrate evil as we see daily in the news. Perhaps Kamala will become a figure for young Muslim girls to break away from being a devout Muslim to being a human being?