Ms. Marvel vol. 1 (No Normal) – G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

ms-marvel-vol-1-reviewMOAR COMICS. That is the theme of today (I have one more after this to read, and then I’m done on my reasonably sized ones until I buy WicDiv vol. 5, I think – I still have Lucifer vol. 2 to read, but that will require me having more time to sit down and get through it). It is an excellent theme.

So I said when I read Squirrel Girl that I’ve not really done much reading in the super hero sort of comics, and I think here, more than in that, is where I felt the absence. It’s not huge, and it didn’t spoil the enjoyment for me, but it was lurking in the back of my mind that, for instance… I don’t really know who Captain Marvel is. Which is kinda… I mean, the necessity of that understanding is kind of obvious, when this is a comic about a girl who looks up to and in many ways wants to be Captain Marvel. Obviously I can get that (look, I just did) and you can infer plenty from context… but Ms. Marvel doesn’t exist in a vacuum of continuity, and I feel like maybe I’d have got more from it if I had a bit of knowledge of that. Which I guess I’m fixing by reading more superhero comics… until I get to the point where this doesn’t happen anymore.

Anyway.

I really, really enjoyed this. In contrast to Monstress, I mainly didn’t pay much attention to the art, but the story? Yes, I am there. Which feels mean of me, because there’s nothing wrong with the art. It’s not bad or unsuited or clunky. It’s just not particularly notable either. It’s like… it’s like the prose in a lot of SFF. It just gets out of the way and lets the story happen, rather than trying to be clever or interesting or… well, notable in any way. Which is fine. It’s not holding me back from enjoying what’s going on, but it feels like a missed opportunity (both here and in SFF books). There’s this whole other axis of coolness you could be exploring, alongside what you’re already doing, and as we saw in Monstress (and in Ody-C) you can definitely do both without either of them suffering for the presence of the other. But, for all that it feels like there could have been more there, it never spoiled my enjoyment while I was reading, it was just something I thought about afterwards and went “huh”.

The story however is great. I mean, we all know the “young person discovers they have superpowers and deals with what this means” story (and the whole “is this a metaphor for puberty/growing up?” thing). On its own, it’s nothing new. It can be done well or less well, but it has no novelty. What’s great about this is taking that trope and making it new by adding that extra angle. I mean, fundamentally, the huge draw of Ms. Marvel is that it’s a superhero who is female and non-white, not culturally Christian, and coming to the existing tropes of superhero-dom with a whole other set of cultural assumptions (even if they’re ones she may want to reject, or is herself learning to navigate). So we get the bit where the new superhero has to make/find a costume… and we get one who acknowledges that the skin-tight suit might give you a wedgie and be uncomfortably immodest. We get to see her walking along a street being ogled, and I really appreciate a comic that acknowledges that that would totally happen. Because it would. Most people who are read by passersby as female have experienced some sort of crap (whether leers and ogles or jeers and insults) while walking down a street and… well… sometimes it’s nice to see that reality made visible. Because for all that superhero women are not necessarily going to be treated the same as everyone else… I would put serious money on them getting the ugly comments the same as everyone else. And her navigating that while being suddenly hypervisible and hyper-aware of her own self… I don’t know, I just found it very emotive.

And the whole book feels like that. For all that Kamala’s cultural experiences are not my cultural experiences (be that because of the religious background or because I didn’t grow up in the US), the fact that her superhero discovery arc acknowledges them, and makes them part of the story is really cool.

As for the substance of the story, yes, it’s very much your usual coming-of-age, but it’s very well done, balancing well the usual twins of “teenage difficulties” and “I have new responsibilities now”, while accurately portraying a character who feels like a teenager. A thoughtful teenager, and one now burdened with new purpose, but one who reads like she might actually be sixteen, with the unpredictability and quixotic emotions that come with that. And I hope that pushes through, I hope we continue to get someone who doesn’t always know what to do, and doesn’t always make the right decisions, but is struggling with this whole thing because it’s difficult, and because she doesn’t feel like it quite fits her.

Also Kamala, so much of her as I have seen in one volume, seems to be a really charming character to follow. I like her. I want her to succeed… and that’s really important to me in my books too.

My only concern (and it’s one to do with my ignorance rather than anything else) is I don’t know how rooted the authors are in the culture they set the world in. I’m going to assume they know what they’re on about (and the people I know who’ve read this and would know better than me seem to think it’s handled well), but it would be something I would be cagey about if I knew it had been done by randos with no idea what they were handling. I’m not in much of a position to spot anything bad (unless it’s super obvious), but I can definitely see that as a trap that might very easily be fallen into. There’s a tiny hint of simplicity to Kamala’s parents, and I don’t know if that’s a product of limited page time, the fact that we’re viewing this all from Kamala’s (teenage, slightly rebellious) perspective, or if it is down to not knowing your source material. Something I’ll have to look up, I think.

Overall though, it’s not a totally unusual story in its main body – the young superhero comes of age and learns how to deal with their powers – but it’s the context and twists on that that make it brilliant, and something really worth reading. I will definitely continue reading the series, and I think I’d even consider buying this in single issues rather than trades, because I really do just want to know what happens next (though I might not do that, just because I wouldn’t want to log single comic issues on Goodreads… it would feel like cheating). If not for Monstress, this might be up there for best comic I’ve read this year.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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