Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review - Ms. Marvel: Super Famous by G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona, and Nico Leon

Short review: Kamala Khan has gotten everything she ever dreamed of, so her life should be perfect. The only trouble is that being a super famous Avenger is a lot harder than she ever expected.

She's super famous
But that isn't super great
For a teenager

Full review: In the fifth installment of the Ms. Marvel series, Kamala Khan has gotten pretty much everything she ever dreamed of. Not only did the world not end as threatened in Last Days, but she has mastered her powers, become the defender of Jersey City, and even joined the Avengers. The opening pages of this volume show Khan reveling in this fantasy come true as she fights alongside Captain America and Iron Man. Unfortunately, as is made clear in this volume, sometimes getting everything you want only leads to more problems and more heartache than you had before. Kamala is, as the title says, Super Famous, but the price of that fame is high, especially for a teenager still struggling to find her place in the world.

The volume contains two major "heroic" story arcs, as well as a collection of complementary story lines that deal with Kamala's personal life. The first story arc revolves around the Hope Yards Development/Relocation Association, and their use of Ms. Marvel's image in their advertising. Now, this plot line does raise questions about the legalities of using a super-hero's image for promotional purposes without their consent, but those concerns can be set aside due to the fact that Kamala is a teenager who may not really know what her legal rights are, and even if she did know them, enforcing her rights while remaining anonymous might be problematic. This story line does highlight the down side of being "Super Famous", which is that others will try to use that fame for their own ends. This story proceeds in a fairly typical super-hero story manner, with Kamala uncovering progressively sinister secrets concerning Hope Yards, which eventually culminates in the need to foil a villainous plot involving mind-controlling nanobots, but that is not really the point of this plot. The meat of the story is the headaches that come from sudden fame: Kamala is good at punching villains into submission, and she is even good at coming up with ways to defeat mind-controlling chemicals, but she is not so good at managing her public persona. Even when she defeats the villains, Ms. Marvel's reputation is tarnished because people assume that she was in cahoots with them until it became convenient to disavow their perfidy. This is brilliant, because this is exactly the sort of thing that a teenage super-hero would be terrible at handling, and the story retains its authenticity by showing that Kamala deals with the problem like an inexperience sleep-deprived teenager.

The second "heroic" arc involves a mostly self-inflicted disaster stemming from Kamala's efforts to keep up with her hectic schedule. As a member of the Avengers, the defender of Jersey City, a full-time high school student, and a Muslim girl with obligations to her family and community, Kamala has a more than full plate of commitments. In an effort to create some space in her hectic schedule, Kamala jumps into some experiments her friend Bruno has been conducting on the lightning golems Loki left behind at their high school after the events in Last Days and has him create simulacra that look like her. Kamala's idea is to send these replicated versions of herself to school and family events so that she will get credit for being there, but free up time for pursuing her other obligations such as Avenging. This almost immediately turns out to be a misstep, as the inherent limitations of the lightning golem material results in Kamala-golems that are similarly limited - with results that prove dismaying to her friends and family. Before too long, the situation gets entirely out of hand due to unforeseen complications that more or less drive home the fact that one should not mess with technology that has Loki as its progenitor. This is quickly followed by the corollary, "Never turn to Loki in an effort to try to fix a disaster", and the further note that calling on Captain Marvel is pretty much never a bad option. This story highlights that trying to always please people is its own trap, and Kamala has fallen into it through her own inexperience and inability to say "no". Once again, this story turns upon the fact that Kamala is a believable teenager, subject to all of the pressures teenagers face, and as inept at handling them as most teenagers are.

These two "heroic" arcs make up the super-hero portion of the story, but what makes the Ms. Marvel series truly special is everything that surrounds her heroic persona and highlights Kamala's travails as a Muslim daughter of Pakastani immigrants trying to navigate her way through her teenage years in the United States. On this front, there are two critical "personal life" story lines presented in this volume. The first revolves around Kamala's best friend Bruno, who had professed her love for Kamala in the previous volume, and who had been gently turned down, with Kamala protesting that her life was simply too unsettled to even consider romance coupled with a suggestion that Bruno should probably move on with his own life. Within the first few pages of this book, an oblivious Kamala learns that Bruno has indeed taken her advice and has struck up a relationship with a girl named Michaela, called "Mike" for short. Despite the fact that she had turned Bruno down, Kamala finds herself combating feelings of jealousy that both surprise and disturb her. This internal battle is presented amazingly well, with Kamala behaving pretty much like one would expect an awkward and confused teenager to behave, and at the same time berating herself for not being a better person. Eventually everything works out between the two women as Kamala comes to terms with the situation, but that is really only half of what makes this story line so good: Mike herself is an interesting character who brings a lot to the story. She is not brilliant like Bruno, but she is still smart and brave, and willing to put herself at risk in order to help others. In a twist, Mike has a very different look than Kamala, or really from most characters in comics. She is a little pudgy, with big thighs and a figure that can only be adequately described as a bit round. Despite this, everyone in the story appears to regard her as being attractive - and no one even comments upon her size or shape. She is a cute girl, and everyone in the story simply treats her that way, with no added commentary.

The other personal story line, and the one that probably causes Kamala more stress, revolves around her ultra-religious brother Aamir courting and then marrying Tyesha, a black American Muslim. From Kamala's perspective, this means more family obligations as she is expected to attend the various pre-wedding events dictated by traditional Islamic practices, but in exchange she gets a sister-in-law who makes references involving the science fiction novel Dune, so she is reasonably happy with the arrangement. What the story really shows, however, is the diversity and tensions within the Islamic community. The Khan's are immigrants from Pakistan, who brought their faith and customs with them from their home country. As what could be best described as secular Muslims, neither of Kamala's parents are as devout as Kamala's brother, but they have expectations that their lives will be organized along certain lines, and that certain things will be done in a certain way. Tyesha, on the other hand, is an American convert, whose parents are church-going Christians. Through the relationships between Aamir and Tyesha, and the elder Kamalas and Hillmans, one can see the undercurrent of cultural chauvinism and even racism that everyone tries to combat within themselves, reaching for their better natures despite their internalized prejudices. What this highlights is the fact that the Muslim community is not a monolithic entity, and even a minority group is prone to prejudices against others who they have something, but not everything, in common. As with most other story lines that touch upon culture and religion in Ms. Marvel, this thread is handled with grace and skill, and never once rings false even as it winds its way to an ultimately happy conclusion.

Ms. Marvel: Super Famous is, quite simply, the best installment in the series since the first volume No Normal. This is not to say that the intervening books have been weak, but rather that this one is so very good that it shines even when compared to the excellence of Generation Why, Crushed, and Last Days. Both of the super-heroic arcs are well done and help to develop both Kamala and her world while being full of action and humor. The personal story lines serve to both buttress the super-heroic arcs and make Kamala and those around her more fully realized characters. This is, in short, one of the best graphic novels of the past year, and well worth any fan's time.

Previous book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Last Days
Subsequent book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Civil War II

2017 Hugo Finalists

G. Willow Wilson     Takeshi Miyazawa     Adrian Alphona     Nico Leon

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