Sunday, April 14, 2024

Ms Marvel Fights a Heavy Political Climate

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A while ago, I finally got my hands on Marvel’s award-winning series Ms. Marvel. I’ve heard several friends praising Kamala Khan and her adventures before, and I quickly understood why. The Muslim 16-year-old shapeshifter is funny and heartwarming, deeply relatable in her teenage struggles and her unabashed fangirling. Kamala is a delightful superhero to follow, with the added bonus of bringing in the perspective of a teenage Muslim female superhero. What’s not to love about her?

All that to say, I’m pretty excited to be covering this title for The Fandomentals, starting today with Ms. Marvel #20. So let’s get down to business.

A quick recap first, since we’re picking Ms. Marvel mid-arc. In Ms. Marvel #19, first part of the story arc Mecca, Kamala is celebrating Eid al-Adha with her family when they’re surprised by hateful street signs that seem to be directed at Ms. Marvel. Kamala thinks something is not right and catches two agents of K.I.N.D. (the Keepers of Integration, Normalization and Deference agency) lurking around her house.

Turns out Jersey City’s mayor was replaced by Chuck Worthy, an old Ms. Marvel foe with Hydra connections that is now persecuting superpowered people. Kamala correctly deduces Becky St. Jude must be involved and finds her on the waterfront. Becky, now called Lockdown, brings in the new villain Discord, who knocks out Kamala using electricity. Meanwhile, agents of K.I.N.D. take her brother Aamir into custody…

Make Jersey City Great Again

In Ms. Marvel #20, we see the aftermath of that arrest. During interrogation, Aamir questions the reasons he was profiled. His words are very… relevant to current events.

Aamir Khan being interrogated in Ms Marvel #20
There’s more where that came from

The agent of K.I.N.D. tells Aamir he’s not being accused of terrorist activity, but of hiding his superpower status illegally. Aamir insists he has no superpowers and what happened last year was an isolated incident, but the agent says he could have his American citizenship revoked because of that.

Backstage, the agent confesses to Lockdown and Discord that he thinks Aamir is a small fish and has nothing on record but that one incident. Discord sows discord (har har), wanting to use Aamir to set an example in order to make Jersey City great again.

Discord and Lockdown in Ms Marvel #20
I mean, he actually said that.

Kamala finally wakes up, hallucinating with Bruno. She admits to herself that Discord and Lockdown got into her head with their talk of silent crowds hating Ms. Marvel. Even if several past incidents may have contributed to that feeling, overall she is making the city a safer place.

Yet, she finds the new mayor Chuck Worthy surrounded by a cheering crowd. He’s giving the usual fear mongering speech against superheroes, and Ms. Marvel in particular. When the crowd sees her, Ms. Marvel replies that she’s gotten used to superpowering her problems away. Maybe she has lost touch with the regular citizens, but she saved Jersey City multiple times and wants the best for it, unlike Chuck and his Hydra buddies. Chuck doesn’t like being called a nazi Hydra, sending Lockdown and Discord after Ms. Marvel again.

Action ensues and Kamala is doing better this time, but the bad guys are also adapting to smarter fights and brought bigger guns. Discord points out Ms. Marvel probably shrank down to get away from the gun and fled; Lockdown says they promised Mayor Worthy they would deliver him Ms. Marvel in a week. Discord isn’t worried; apparently he has a plan.

Cut to Stella Marchesi, former mayor of Jersey City. She’s not very happy with Chuck’s questionable appointment and wants to fight back. A recovering Ms. Marvel shows up, and Marchesi says Worthy is tapping into people’s fears and greed. Kamala doesn’t know what to do, since Jersey City is her home, and she risked a lot to keep it safe. Marchesi points out that maybe she’ll have to chose between her city and her freedom.

Their conversation is interrupted by Discord, who is locking up innocent people to get Ms Marvel’s attention. Kamala confronts him, and he says he doesn’t want to keep anyone locked up forever, just long enough to make life in New Jersey so inconvenient they’ll leave on their own. And if Ms. Marvel doesn’t turn herself in, who knows what papers might get lost and who may find themselves unprotected by the law.

Discord holding Aamir captive in Ms. Marvel #20

Overall thoughts

I’m glad I didn’t approach Ms Marvel as green as I approached Hulk (har har), because the current arc is best enjoyed with some previous knowledge on Kamala’s adventures. Nothing you can’t compensate with a quick glance at Comic Vine or a wiki, though.

Everything points to Discord as someone we’ve met in previous Ms. Marvel adventures, and Kamala herself notices he seems to know a lot about her. Lockdown is there, cover and all, but the central antagonist here is Discord. He’s the one to exploit seemingly personal knowledge about Kamala, both in a fight and outside it, and he seems more personally invested in arresting her. So yeah, it will be disappointing if he turns out to be a random guy. I just hope he’s not Bruno. I like Bruno.

While still a mostly light and fun story, Ms. Marvel is not afraid to explore relevant connections to our cultural landscape. So of course I’ve seen fans complaining that Aamir’s opening speech was too heavy-handed or too Political™. I’m not American and I’m not Muslim so my analysis here is limited, but when you have a Muslim young man arrested by the government under questionable accusations in a fear mongering campaign to pin the blame for economical and social problems on a group that clearly isn’t causing them… the commentary kinda writes itself.

Ms Marvel is not a political agenda, it’s just the fun and occasionally wacky adventures of a teenage fangirl becoming a superhero and trying to figure out her place in the world. Yet, to quote Emmie Mears, while lawmakers seek to restrict people’s rights based on their identities, the portrayal of those identities will always be political in some way.

The whole idea of a misunderstood superhero seen as a threat by the very people they’re trying to protect isn’t new, but it does get a new meaning when that super hero is a Muslim girl. I’m glad Kamala exists and does great things and fights with all her heart, and I’m glad at least one writer at Marvel understands that what you write in your comics has a real world impact.

You can’t even say Aamir’s speech is not grounded in the story itself, as it doubles as a commentary on the arc’s antagonists, Lockdown and Discord. The art choices neatly reflect that, with the focus going from Aamir to his captors while he speaks:

Lockdown and Discord during Aamir's interrogation in Ms. Marvel #20
And come on, it’s a great speech.

As Kamala herself says, former good guys make the most awful antagonists. It’s perhaps the central question this issue poses: what leads people to give in to fear and adopt a radical posture? And how do you fight this when you’re putting yourself and those you love at risk? The book tries to explore those points, while also questioning Ms. Marvel’s responsibility as a superhero.

It’s a great story that develops organically from Ms. Marvel’s growth as a character and a hero, supported by a beautiful art, Kamala Khan’s charisma, and G. Willow Wilson’s solid writing skills. I’m looking forward to see what comes next.

Final score: 8/10

All images courtesy of Marvel Comics

Ms. Marvel (2016) #20 Credits

Writer: G. Willow Wilson

Artist: Marco Failla

Colors: Ian Herring

Letters: VC’s Travis Lanham

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