Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review - Ms. Marvel: Last Days by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Short review: In one half of the book, Ms. Marvel helps her fellow Jersey City residents deal with the end of the world. In the other half, she helps Spider-Man rescue a baby from a maniacal Kree geneticist.

The end of the world
Khan takes care of her loved ones
Spider-Man team up!

Full review: The fourth installment in the Ms. Marvel series featuring precocious teenaged super-hero Kamala Khan, this volume is split into two parts: In the first, Kamala must face the impending end of the world alongside her friends, family, and a guest appearance by her super-heroic idol, while in the second, Kamala finds herself in Manhattan fighting alongside spider-man. Both parts of this book are well-written, but they are completely disconnected, making this more like two works of shorter fiction rather than a single narrative. In addition, this volume suffers from the problem common to many works set in the Marvel universe, as elements of the plot intersect with other stories which means that certain things happen in this volume that are neither explained or resolved within its pages. Even so, this is an excellent book that shows what it means to be a true hero.

The first half of this volume is dedicated to the title theme of the book, as Kamala Khan and Jersey City face what could be the end of the world. That all seems far away on the opening pages as Khan is still trying to deal with the heartbreak of over the end of her brief fling with Kamran, the perfect Muslim boy who turned out to be an Inhuman just like her, but who also turned out to be a deceptive scoundrel intent on recruiting Kamala into the employ of a supervillain. That is all forgotten in fairly short order, as it turns out that a small planet seems to be hurtling towards Manhattan, and everyone is panicking. The important part of this section is that Khan and Jersey City face this impending disaster together, or at least Khan, as Ms. Marvel, attempts to help her fellow Jersey City residents deal with the oncoming doom.

For much of this story line, Ms. Marvel isn't duking it out with powerful villains. Instead, she spends her time helping her friends to safety, ensuring her family is taken care of , and helping organize her community into a shelter that will take care of their needs in this unsettled time. This section also has a guest appearance by Carol Danvers, better known as the original Ms. Marvel, now operating under the name Captain Marvel, who has come to check up on the teenager who has taken her former heroic name. Together, the pair turn some looters from exacerbating the problem to helping ameliorate it, come across an apartment full of kittens, and track down and save Kamala's missing brother Aamir. Along the way they deal with both of the villainous Inhuman teenagers who first appeared in the previous volume Crushed, and discover that Kamran's plans for Aamir have taken an unexpected turn.

After bonding with Carol Danvers, it is time to part, but not without some affirmation from Kamala's role model, and also some rather sobering words: Kamala desperately wants to save everyone who needs help, but there's only one of her, and she simply cannot. In a rather ominous bit of conversation, Danvers  tells Kamala that she will one day have to choose who to save and who to leave to their own devices. This entire volume highlights how super-heroes, if they existed, could change the world for the better, at least as long as they were as idealistic and empathetic as Kamala Khan is. In the midst of chaos, rather than rushing off to punch a villain in the head, Khan spends her time and uses her powers to help those around her in relatively mundane ways, and becomes the glue that holds together her community.

Even when Khan is dealing with the world ending and a visit from the original Ms. Marvel, the core of the story remains her relationships with her friends and family. Most of the volume is taken up with Kamala rushing about Jersey City to put out metaphorical fires caused by the mysterious oncoming apocalypse, but she also has to deal with more intimate, personal issues. Driven by the urgency engendered by the crisis, Kamala opens up to her mother, and receives unexpected support. In other parts of the story, Kamala discovers that her brother is a more complex and loving individual than she thought, and also that he does not share her desire to be a super-hero, but is rather content with who he is. The story also delves deeper into Kamala's relationships with her peers, moving away from the action and adventure of many super-hero stories to focus on the emotional support system around her - and spending some time illustrating how her costumed activities have caused her to neglect some of these friendships.

As with many other stories set in the Marvel universe, one might expect Last Days to suffer a bit from its obligatory intersections with other titles put out by the publisher, but in this volume the confusion resulting from the unexplained events intruding upon the story serves to enhance the experience. Kamala doesn't understand what is going on, what kind of mission Captain Marvel has to run off to complete, or even what the nature of the threat is, so the reader's disorientation stemming from these unexplained elements parallels the that of the protagonist. In some cases, keeping the reader in the dark is a mistake, but this is not one of them. This particular story line does end quite abruptly, which is a little jarring, but considering the subject matter, this is probably to be expected.

The other story line contained in this volume is a cross-over adventure that pairs Ms. Marvel up with Spider-Man, and also includes an appearance by Silk. When a group of masked criminals kidnap some patients from a hospital while being led by a blue woman in the original Ms. Marvel's old costume, Kamala leaps into action, saying the Ms. Marvels need to stick up for one another. At the same time, Peter Parker, in the middle of trying to run his start-up company with the distraction of having Cindy Moon in the same room. When an attempt by Anna Marconi to convince Peter that he doesn't have to rush off to save everyone as Spider-Man backfires, the web slinger finds himself teamed up with Khan as they fight the kidnappers, who turn out to be led by the rogue Kree geneticist Doctor Minerva. A fracas ensues, highlighted by Kamala's fangirlish excitement over being teamed up with Spider-Man, and Parker's usual dry wit and gallows humor.

This story is much more typically "super-heroic" than the apocalyptic story line it is paired with in this volume, involving a super-villain and her henchmen in the midst of committing a crime being confronted by some super-heroes trying to stop her. Much of this section is simply a knock down fight between the super-heroes and the villain, punctuated by pithy quips and dastardly monologuing. Despite the high drama and danger posed by the deadly Kree villainess this portion of the book feels almost frivolous after the weight of the Last Days material, making it an almost necessary counterbalance to the darker tones of the earlier story line. That is not to say that this segment is entirely given over to punches and laser blasts: As always Kamala's primary concern is with saving the innocent rather than defeating the villain, and that focus turns one of her foes into a friend. There is also a minor but meaningful redemption arc contained in these pages, as Parker shows that he believes in second chances. Also included is the unveiling of Silk's new costume, an event that is almost entirely unrelated to anything else in this book.

While the two halves of this book are very different, and pretty much completely disconnected from one another, this is an enjoyable and important installment in the Ms. Marvel series. The two parts are connected mostly by Ms. Marvel herself, but they are also connected thematically by Kamala's interactions with the older, more established super-heroes Captain Marvel and Spider-Man, both of whom take the time to tell the young teenager that she's doing the right thing. More important to Kamala is the moment when she receives the same reassurance from her Ammi, reinforcing the dominant theme of this series that it isn't the super-powers that are critical, but rather how one relates to those around them. In both of the story lines contained in Last Days, Kamala shows that she is a kinder and gentler super-hero whose most important characteristic is that she cares about others, which is her greatest strength, and may be, as hinted at in this volume, her Achilles heel. What makes the Ms. Marvel series truly special is not merely Kamala herself, but also her cast of supporting characters, and they are at the core of this volume, and it is their relationships that make it an excellent book.

Previous book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Crushed
Subsequent book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Super Famous

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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  1. "... more like two works of shorter fiction rather than a single narrative."

    For the record, this is literally true. The volume includes 3 issues of the *Ms. Marvel* series and two issues of the *Spider-Man* series.

    Volumes 3 and 4 of Ms. Marvel's TPBs both include material from outside Kamala's series (in Volume 3, it's an issue of the SHIELD series). For one of two reasons, or probably both. Since her series (and, literally, the world) was ending with #14, Marvel needed to "pad out" the TPBs with additional material if they wanted a page count of 120. But also, I think Marvel wanted to "strike while the iron's hot" and get material out to Kamala's TPB-reading fans faster than monthly schedule for her series would ordinarily allow.

    1. @David: I suspected as much, but it is still somewhat disorienting when one leaps from the literal end of the world to a punch-fest in Manhattan.

  2. Sounds like a fun and adventurous read. Might not be for me though but I am sure it's great!

    1. @Fredamans: If you like graphic novels, this is a good one to read. If you don't, then you are probably not a good audience for the book.