When one stumbles upon an issue of a Ms. Marvel comic book, it’s not common to find a modestly attired brown teenage girl looking back at them from the front covers. The archetypal image that a reader of Ms. Marvel comics expects is more often than not of a tall, blonde, Caucasian woman decked out in a shiny leather leotard. The new Ms. Marvel, however, succeeds in breaking though said pre-set confines of superhero convention. The protagonist is a sixteen-year-old Muslim teenager and the daughter of Pakistani immigrant parents living in Jersey City. Her name is Kamala Khan and appropriately so, for the word Kamala means ‘perfection’ in Arabic. This is Marvel’s contribution towards emulating the thriving diversity existent in their vast readership while keeping true to their contemporary bearing.
What is significant about the new Ms. Marvel is not her unique circumstances, but in fact how relatable she is. Despite being a Muslim-American girl of Pakistani heritage with a challenging name, Kamala exudes familiarity. She is a high school student who wants to go to parties and hang out with all the popular kids, has constant disagreements and confrontations with her family, and (not unlike some of us here) is borderline obsessed with the Avengers. She is portrayed as a typically alienated teenager, pushed to remoteness by her family’s expectations of her.
Even though she is introduced as a member of a practicing Muslim family, Kamala herself does not seem very comfortable with the restrictions imposed upon her. She asks ethnically relevant questions like, “Why am I the only one who gets signed out of health class?” and “Why am I stuck with the weird holidays?” In fact, the comic book opens with a scene where Kamala is illustrated bending over a shelf of bacon, gratifying herself by sniffing the food due to the dietary constraints imposed upon her by her Muslim family. Caught between two distinct realities, we are witnesses to her struggle of fitting in as a ‘normal’ American teenager. The story opens with a focus on her relationship to her faith, and we readers are quickly transformed from spectators to comrades of her dynamic and relatable character.
The comic ceases to be a novel-esque drama focusing on cultural struggles soon enough with a cloud of blue smoke: Kamala’s transformation. She awakens to find herself in an impromptu assembly of the Avengers, which is attended by three iconic superheroes that we all know and love: Captain America, Iron Man, and Captain Marvel. What follows is a haunting exchange with Captain Marvel bursting into an Urdu folk song about “sakal bun” (yellow mustard flowers) and “umbva phutay” (mango buds). Driven by humiliation, she demands to be transformed into Ms. Marvel with a “classic, politically correct costume.” She regrets this decision as soon as her transformation—complete with porcelain skin, bleached blond tresses, and thigh-high stockings—is over. In her moment of much sought-after metamorphosis, she has an epiphany about her self-worth.
We are now enlightened with the most universally accurate message of all: that being a superhero has less to do with your physical appearance and more with who you are on the inside. Kamala is an out of place, unpopular kid—an issue that plagues most teenagers—who is granted powers and given a place amongst her biggest personal heroes. The story, thus, is about empowerment and self-acceptance.
In conclusion, if you want to enjoy a unique comic book experience that is relevant to today, the new Ms. Marvel is sure to quench your thirst. Kamala Khan believes in acquiring independence and acceptance and wearing giant wedge heels. She is an advocate for freedom and for going to parties and acting out her imagination. Kamala is like you, she is like me, and more importantly she is the superhero that exists not merely on the pages of a comic book but also inside all of us.
-contributed by Tooba Quidwai