Excited to see how comics fans across the world were reacting to the new Ms. Marvel's introduction, I took to the Internet, discovering mostly positive buzz about its YA leanings, its goofy humor, and its incisive character beats. But I found another common bit of praise, too. Something puzzling. In multiple reviews, I noticed that the emphasis was less on what makes Kamala a stand-out comics character -- being a Muslim woman of color and second-generation member of an immigrant family, for starters -- and more on what makes her universal, i.e., her writing of fan-fiction, her emulation of Captain Marvel, and her desire to be accepted by other teenagers. True, her character-DNA more easily links her to the dweeby Spider-man than some unknowable supreme being, and that's a good thing. Reinforcing the mysterious Other is the last thing Wilson and company intend to do with this book; as I see it, their mission is to tell stories about a teenager who happens to be Pakistani and Muslim, while examining how her cultural and spiritual traditions might conflict with her superheroing, even as her background is written off or stereotyped by the dominant (read: white) culture.
However, reviews continually reassuring me that Kamala's tale is relatable to readers who are not exactly like her? That's a troubling trend. Comics culture struggles with many, many things, from to racism to sexism to ableism to harassment (to name just a few syndromes). It seems to me that couching one's response to a book in relief that specifics can be transcended in favor of only the universal might create more problems than are solved. Perhaps relatability is how minds are most often changed. Perhaps in showing one person's struggles with identity, without getting into the nitty-gritty of unique experiences, somebody hesitant might pick up Ms. Marvel #2. But without championing the specifics, I wonder what that journey is worth. If you don't note Kamala's struggle to resist bacon in the book's opening pages, how can you understand her growing frustration with the obedience expected of her as a Muslim woman? If you don't recognize Kamala's rebellious streak in the dinner table scene with her father, mother, and spiritually-focused brother, how can you believe she'd wish to be part of a different, BAM-POW! culture in the book's closing pages? If you don't see how politically charged and excitingly problematic it is that she's shape-shifted into Captain Marvel (a blonde, busty white woman) by book's end, then I'm not sure this book will ever thrill or entice you.
A wise writer once told me that specifics make a story universal. Artists should resist the urge to write all things for all people, and what makes Kamala's story interesting to me is what makes her different from me. I am not a woman of color, I am not a follower of Islam, I am not a second-generation American. But I connected with Kamala's desire to be accepted for what she loves and what she believes she can achieve, if given the opportunity. Of course, getting to be Captain Marvel at the issue's cliffhanger will pose new challenges to Kamala, and I hope, lead her to reassess and appreciate her singular heritage. That seems to be where the creators are heading, as Kamala immediately regrets wishing herself in the good Captain's shoes, after a creepy unexplained fog engulfs her and gives her superpowers (comics, everybody!).
When did it become passe to want to read about someone else's experiences, and identify with those who are different because of the differences we all share? No two people are alike, and I'd never want drama or my comics to state otherwise. Between DC's recent white-washing of previously POC characters, and the engrossing discussion of race and theatre production on Howlround, I know that I, as an arts consumer and artist, must resist the urge to rely on some community-enforced code of universality in order to champion creative work. I don't have to control or caveat a narrative in order to enjoy it. No one should have to do that.
It's good to acknowledge that Ms. Marvel is smart, funny, exciting, and relatable. It's also good to acknowledge that the series' creators are giving us something we've never or rarely seen before. By celebrating the specific, we celebrate the universal. But only if we make the effort to understand the specific first.
POST-SCRIPT: I unfortunately wrote this without delving into how cool it is to see a community of people represented in superhero comics that rarely get the spotlight. Kamala, her family, and her friends Bruno and Nakia all arrive fully fleshed out, and I hope their stories soon become essential reading for some.
POST-POST-SCRIPT: All my rambling aside, track down Ms. Marvel. It is a wonderful book, a perfect example of a comic that's meant to inspire young women to examine and appreciate what makes them special. Seriously, it looks to be a great, important story, meant to appeal to non-comics readers and aficionados alike. Check it out.
Ms. Marvel sketchbook art: Adrian Alphona, artwork.