Reading “No Normal (1 of 5)”

So after putting up a Twitter poll to try an experiment in internet democracy, I’ve settled on trying out looking in depth at the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel series.  This review series poses a few challenges that I’ve not had to deal with in the past.  Aside from my series on All-Star Superman, I’ve been drawn towards looking at books aimed at more mature readers; Ms. Marvel is squarely an all ages to teen book.  This doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of good material to parse in these pages; it’s one of my favorite series for good reason.  Still, I’m curious to see how the difference in target audience will affect how points of interest bubble up in the course of the narrative.  I’ve grappled with this a little bit in my previous posts looking at the macro features of each arc that I’ve read, so we’ll see how things work out when I’m going issue by issue.  Ms. Marvel is also the first Marvel series that I’ve tried to give the detailed treatment; my experience with Marvel books is that they’re highly entertaining, but they tend to feel kind of breezy in comparison to what I’ve read from DC; I’m sure there’s some skewing here since I’ve never been a big DC fan, and the series I do like that DC published tend to be those landmark titles that everyone in comics appreciates.  My hope is that with Ms. Marvel, which has been penned by G. Willow Wilson since its start (she’s notable for trying to work contemporary issues into her superhero stories) the breeziness won’t overshadow the substance.  Perhaps the biggest challenge I’m anxious about is one of baseline knowledge.  Wilson and the Ms. Marvel editor Sana Amanat do a lot to make the Muslim and Pakistani-American cultural elements accessible, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t go into this series with more than a little trepidation.  White people tend to be bad at cultural sensitivity, and that’s always going to be a fear of mine regardless of how much practice I put into it.

Cover of Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #1. (Image credit: Comic Vine. Artwork by Sarah Pichelli & Justin Ponsor)

Anyway.

Other basics for this series go like this: I’m only going as far as I have read myself, and I currently only have the first five volumes of the series (for anyone keeping count, that’s the four arcs of Kamala’s first volume before Marvel’s Secret Wars mandated relaunch and the first arc of the second volume; I tend to get new trades late in the summer around my birthday or around Christmastime, so maybe I’ll get volume 6 before I reach the end of my current collection).  Because this is a series that’s also currently ongoing, it’s entirely possible that I might reach a point where I just want to take a break and look at something different.  No promises and all that, y’know?  Beyond that, I’ll be following my usual titling convention for these posts of listing the issue’s title in the blog post title.  Because Marvel tends to group parts of longer arcs under a single title (and because they often remove credit and title boxes in trades), I’ll use the arc title and the part number indicated by the trade paperback volume to refer to each issue (for example, the first arc is titled “Meta Morphosis” in the floppies, but I’ll be labeling it “No Normal”).

Okay, now that I’ve covered all the stuff that may or may not have needed to be said, let’s get down to the comic itself.

Since it’s the first issue of a new series with a new character, Ms. Marvel #1 has a lot of set up to accomplish in its twenty pages (what’s the deal with newer comics being so much shorter, by the way?).  The superheroics are minimal and imagined here, as we have to do rapid fire introductions of Kamala and all of her supporting cast.  You have the high school friends, Bruno and Nakia; the mean girl and her jock boyfriend, Zoe and Josh; and Kamala’s family including her older brother Aamir and her parents.  Wilson establishes right away that Kamala is not nearly as streetwise as Bruno (who inexplicably is working before school at the Circle Q; how long is his shift?  Was he there all night and now he’s going to class?  Why is he not more tired?) or as wary of microaggressions as Nakia, who wears hijab and presumably is accustomed to getting flak for appearing culturally different.  We also see right away that Kamala is someone who isn’t quite comfortable with the tension between the worlds she inhabits; the very first scene opens with her salivating over a bacon sandwich while reminding herself of her religious dietary restrictions.  It’s a nice juxtaposition of Kamala’s sense of obligation to her family’s culture with her desire to fit in as a typical American teenager.  We’ll see this motif repeated regularly throughout the issue in various ways as the issue’s primary plot revolves around Kamala’s decision to go to a block party without her parents’ permission.

Our hero, everybody. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

In a nice twist on expectations, Bruno and Nakia provide counter intuitive perspectives on Kamala’s dilemma.  Nakia owns her religious convictions, but emphasizes to Kamala that she should only embrace her religious tradition if it’s what she really wants to do.  Bruno, who is white and an outsider to the Muslim culture that Kamala and Nakia share, tends to be the more conservative voice, encouraging Kamala to avoid getting in trouble and cautioning her to stay away from the party.  These character beats are nice because they flesh out Bruno as someone who doesn’t fully understand the culture of his friend, but who wants to be respectful, and they show that Nakia, who reads as particularly devout, isn’t also guilty of having fundamentalist tendencies.

The context of this scene has Kamala being clueless about Zoe’s microaggressions, but I swear her face here says to me, “You are so full of crap.” (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

For this first issue we have in place of a typical villain the characters of Zoe and Josh.  Zoe and Josh are typically WASPy white kids from Kamala’s school who come across not so much evil as incredibly insensitive.  Josh’s role is minor; he gives Kamala a spiked drink as a prank when she shows up at the party, and then gets drunk along with the other jocks.  Zoe’s part in the story is a little more complex.  In the first scene she makes a series of comments that Nakia and Bruno immediately recognize as not friendly (Zoe apparently has a reputation for being passive aggressively mean to other kids).  She’s your typical white person engaging in some low-level Islamophobia with comments about “honor killing” and insinuations that Nakia’s wearing hijab is something she’s being forced to do.  Later at the party, she drops the fake nice act fully and bashes Kamala’s culture to her face when she believes that Kamala’s appearance at the party indicates that Kamala is totally rejecting her family.

Speaking of Kamala’s family, the Khans are portrayed here as delightfully content.  Kamala’s mother and father are relatively conservative but in the way that parents who care about their children tend to be.  Kamala’s father chides her brother Aamir for using his devotion to Islam as an excuse to avoid getting a job (Aamir shoots back that at least he’s not doing anything usurious like working in a bank; it’s a wonderful exchange that underscores the family’s affection for one another despite their disagreements).  Kamala is the young, geeky child whose hobbies no one else in her family fully relates to, but they all take her quirks in stride.  Honestly, the Khans are one of the absolute best parts of Ms. Marvel, and that dynamic is present from the very beginning.

Other fun bits that pop up in this issue include the minor character of Chatty Bob, who only appears in one panel and doesn’t say much; Kamala’s stuffed, winged sloth that appears in her room and during her hallucination after being exposed to the Terrigen mist; and Kamala’s fascination with wedge heels (there’s a delightful panel where Kamala eyes a girl’s shoes from across the park at the party).  Much of this stuff is attributable to Adrian Alphona’s artwork, which does a lot of the heavy lifting on characterization.  He’s almost virtuosic in the way he packs panels full of little background details to tell you stuff about the characters and the world they inhabit.

Kamala experiences her first party. It is both amazing and disgusting. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

Alphona Background Coolness (ABCs)

  • Easy Greasy BLT
  • Hot Sammiches
  • Vusa & BlasterCard
  • “Cashiers are not interested in your stories”
  • Coco Bread
  • Kid pulling “Ooh La La” magazine off the newsrack
  • Badgerade
  • “You Read 4 Words You Buy!”
  • Coffee Son!
  • Smushees
  • Die Fire Die
  • Sizes: This That
  • Coffee Soda
  • Cold As Ice Drinks
  • Birdy Nom Noms
  • Asian River Water
  • Roundhouse Cola
  • Bruce Lee Wataaa
  • Dylan’s Hot Fiya
  • Orphan Farms O.J.
  • “Business Hours: All of Them”
  • Books an Ting, Ting an Books
  • Jersey Akhbar
  • GM’Os cereal
  • “Eat Now!  Radoslav’s Chicken Salan”
  • “Shock!  Cricket Doping Scandal”
  • Brand X Tea
  • “Tax on Color Orange Approved”
  • “Sportz Scandal”
  • “Cricket: Toads Lose Again! Team Blames Fans”
  • World’s Grooviest Dad
  • The overhead view of the party complete with dancing frog, guy on fire, person being chased by an axe murderer
  • “Give a Hoot!  Recycle!”
  • “Missing Child: 555-Blah”
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