Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review - Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, and Jake Wyatt

Short review: Kamala Khan is a normal, socially awkward Muslim-American teenager who wishes to be special. So she gets super powers and becomes a normal, socially awkward Muslim-American teenager who can beat up bad guys on the side.

Normal teen-ager
But then she can embiggen
Even more problems

Full review:Avengers, and wants to go to parties with her friends. Khan is also a Muslim, whose parents made the decision to emigrate from Pakistan to the U.S. in search of a better life for their family, and whose older brother has taken refuge in being the most Muslim her can be. The manner in which these elements are melded together is what makes Ms. Marvel a superior story, as Wilson refuses to make this process simple or cliched. Yes, Kamala's parents are Muslim and, by most standards a bit overprotective, but they are not stereotypes raging about the immorality of the modern American world. Kamala's father is a banker, who looks and acts pretty much like any other middle-aged banker would look an act. Normally, this sort of observation would be a meaningless trivial detail, but in a story centered on a Muslim family, their almost relentless normality in so many ways is a clear statement, and a powerful one.

At the opening of the story Kamala desperately wants to be "normal", but soon it becomes apparent that she doesn't actually want to be normal - she wants to feel confident and self-assured. She sneaks out of her house to go to a party and hang out with the "cool" kids, but soon discovers that when they aren't performing for an audience, they hold some fairly bigoted views, and are kind of stupidly rude as well. As a writer of Avengers fan fic, Kamala idolizes Carol Danvers, because, it seems, she sees the blond super-hero as the ultimate expression of the kind of perfect American she wants to be - in Kamala's words Danvers is beautiful, awesome, and in possession of a less complicated more "normal" life. And given that this is a super-hero origin story, it is inevitable that Kamala gets the opportunity to become Carol Danvers. Or at least someone who looks like Carol Danvers, and who wears a ten-year out of date Ms. Marvel costume, and who has completely different powers from Ms. Marvel.

Predictably, Kamala's new powers and new appearance don't make her life simpler, and actually makes things a lot more complicated. With her new power, she gets in trouble with her parents, she gets in trouble at school, she gets shot, she makes powerful enemies. In short, having powers doesn't make everything better, although it does make her life more interesting. But this serves to highlight one of the paradoxically interesting things about Kalama (especially given that the subtitle of this volume is No Normal): Just how incredibly normal her life is outside of her acquisition of super-powers. Unlike many other heroes, she has no tragic backstory. She did not see her parents die in an alleyway. Her uncle was not tragically murdered by a person she let run past her. She didn't acquire her powers in a freak nuclear lab accident, or because she was splashed by chemicals falling off the back of a truck, or because lightning hit a shelf of equipment in her laboratory, or as a result of cosmic rays hitting her while on a space voyage. She hasn't made a vow of revenge, or had to pass a test to prove her worthiness. She's just a normal Jersey City teenager who got powers and decided to use them to help people because it was the right thing to do. This normality in a super-hero is downright refreshing.

Ms. Marvel: No Normal does have a few flaws. It is a super-hero origin story with a fairly bland origin to tell. Much of the graphic novel is spent establishing the various characters and positioning them for what seem to be fairly obvious future story lines, but there is relatively little payoff in this volume. Kamala's teen-aged conflict with her parents is more or less at the same place at the end of the book as it was at the beginning. Kamala's extremely observant Muslim brother seems to be a plot hook waiting to happen, but as yet stories involving him are unexplored. The somewhat strained relationship between Kamala as an Americanized teen and the conservative teachings of her community's religious leaders is noted, but not pursued. And so on. Even the putative super-villain known as "the Inventor" is notable mostly for his long absences from the story, and seems to have little character other than having some unknown nefarious scheme and a dislike for Kamala's Ms. Marvel alter ego. In short, beyond the development of Kamala's character and the character of the friends and family who surround her, there is little to this graphic novel other than the origin of a new super-hero.

That said, the character development alone is enough to make this a superior graphic novel. Following along as Kamala turns from feeling the need to be someone other than herself to be someone special, to accepting her own uniqueness is a journey worth taking. The completely mundane nature of her struggles to deal with her family and her high school friends is oddly enjoyable, and is made made all the more so by seeing Kamala's self-confidence grows as the story progresses. Despite the super-hero overlay, this story is, at its heart, about a girl who feels out of place in society finding her place, and feeling comfortable being who she is, not who she thinks she should be - slowly discarding her Carol Danvers charade and choosing to be a brown-haired, brown-skinned Muslim super-hero from Jersey City. Put in simple terms: No Normal is a strong start to what looks to be an exceptional story.

Subsequent book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Generation Why

What are the Hugo Awards?

2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Graphic Story: Time by Randall Munroe
2016 Hugo Award Winner for Best Graphic Story: The Sandman: Overture written by Neil Gaiman, art by J.H. Williams, III

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Graphic Story

2015 Hugo Award Nominees

2015 Hugo Voting - Best Graphic Story

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  1. Great review! I may have to check this one out because I've been hearing lots of good things.
    Krystianna @ Downright Dystopian

    1. @Krystianna Straley: Ms. Marvel: No Normal is very good. I am going to get the next volume in the series soon and when I do I'll post a review of that too.