Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review - Ms. Marvel: Crushed by G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Elmo Bondoc

Short review: Kamala Khan has gained some mastery over her super powers, but she's still a teenager, and just as susceptible to a crush as any other high school kid.

A case from S.H.I.E.L.D.
Plus a visit from Loki
And bittersweet love

Full review: The third volume in the Ms. Marvel series, Crushed is an even more personal story for Kamala Khan than the first two were, thrusting her into the middle of problems, some of which are typical of an American teenager, some of which are probably typical of a Muslim-American teenager, and some of which are unique to a super powered teenager. With a cameo by Loki, agent of Asgard, and a plot involving some very intimate choices, this is both a larger story and a smaller story than that contained in previous volumes, but it is still an excellent portrayal of the problems faced by and the worries of an immigrant child thrust into being a super-hero.

This volume opens far from Ms. Marvel's Jersey City home, in the halls of Asgard as Loki attempts to explain why his efforts to stop a frost giant invasion resulted in copious amounts of horse manure being spread about the realm. This misstep earns him a brief reassignment to Jersey City to hunt for traces of the Ms. Marvel's foe the Inventor, which puts Loki right in Kamala Khan's path. Or rather, right in Kamala's friend Bruno's path. Once Loki discovers Bruno's secret crush on Kamala, he steps in to try to help out, but being Loki, his well-intentioned assistance is just about as close to the opposite of helpful as one can get. Through some twists and turns, Kamala, Bruno, and Loki all end up at a high school dance, and then things come together, with Loki spiking the punch with some truth serum, and Kamala taking exception to that sort of thing. Everything sorts out reasonably well by the end in this mostly humorous interlude in the story, but it does serve to highlight some aspects of the world in which Kamala lives. While she clearly loves her parents, she chafes at the restrictions they place upon her, both the ones imposed because she is a teenager, and the ones imposed upon her because she is a Muslim woman.

The portion of the story does prime Kamala for romance by suggesting to her the heretofore unthought of possibility that someone might be smitten with her. But for Kamala, the path to a relationship is full of hazards, not the least of which are the expectations of her culture and her parents. Almost on cue, Kamala's parents introduce her to Kamran, the son of a family friend. Her parents favor him because he is both a promising student applying for early admission to M.IT. and a Muslim. After some initial resistance, Kamal falls for him when she discovers he is also a fan of online games. While out on something of a date (under the watchful eye of Kamala's brother), Kamala has to shift into her alter ego to deal with an unexpected threat, and Kamran ends up revealing a secret of his own. The romance between the two rushes along, with Kamala feeling the heady rush of falling in love for the first time.

This being a super-hero story, Medusa's fears expressed early in the volume are all too prescient, and the true dangers Kamala faces are not physical at all. The story line following Kamala and Kamran's budding relationship exemplifies what elevates Ms. Marvel above the ordinary graphic story: Despite her considerable super-powers, Kamala is still a teenager, and Wilson never forgets this salient fact. Wilson also doesn't ever forget that having super-powers doesn't actually help very much with the struggles that a teenaged girl is likely to find important. On the other hand, having super-powers is likely to make Kamala a target for those who would attempt to manipulate her, which means that rather than ameliorating the confusion and emotional vulnerability that comes from being a high school aged girl, the ability to embiggen one's limbs serves to exacerbate them.

Though the emotional story of this volume is excellent, the book does fall down in some areas, mostly due to the shared nature of the Marvel universe. When Loki passes through in the early pages, his introduction feels somewhat arbitrary, and his departure is incredibly abrupt. His presence feels almost artificial in nature. In addition, there is a story line in which some agents from S.H.I.E.L.D. blow through Jersey City's Coles Academic High School that seems quite forced, and doesn't really seem to go much of anywhere or add much to the story other than to further establish that Kamala is a big fan of her universe's super-heroes and heroic organizations. These intrusions side track the story, although they add some chaos and action. The main story, on the other hand, feel maddeningly incomplete. A villain is introduced more or less from nowhere, and the politics of New Attilan seem to have been turned upside down without warning or explanation. I don't think these issues are really Wilson's fault, they are simply the almost inevitable result of a fictional universe comprised of dozens of intertwined titles, but they do detract from the book and make it less accessible than a self-contained story would be.

Even with these quibbles, Ms. Marvel: Crushed is still an excellent book and a superior example of how to develop an interesting character in a graphic story. While the action and adventure are well-done, the real key to the title is the character of Kamala Khan and her cadre of friends, all of whom feel like very real teenagers dealing with the very real problems of growing up. Kamala's Muslim family, with all of the baggage that comes from being immigrants in a country they are still struggling to fit into just adds an additional, deeper layer of complexity to the story. While the super-heroes and super-villains who interact with Khan in the story help drive it forward, they are less important in some ways than the mundane inhabitants of her world: Kamala Khan is, quite simply, more interesting than Ms. Marvel, and it really is her story, and that is what makes Ms. Marvel such a brilliant piece of work.

Previous book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Generation Why
Subsequent book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Last Days

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

G. Willow Wilson     Takeshi Miyazawa     Elmo Bondoc     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. Sounds like quite a bit of fun to read this series.

    1. @fredamans: It is a lot of fun. This is one of the best ongoing graphic novel series I have ever read.