Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Secret Identities Make it Personal for Ms. Marvel

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As we approach the end of the current story, Mecca, Ms. Marvel (2015) #21 brings plot twists, secret identities, and musings on what makes one become a hero or a villain.

The many and the few

Following the events of Ms. Marvel (2015) #20, our titular hero finds herself in a difficult position. Discord and his agents are holding a group of superpowered hostages that includes Kamala’s brother Aamir, threatening them unless Ms. Marvel surrenders.

Kamala realizes that for all the talk about putting the needs of the many before the needs of the few, she’s not ready to do that. In fact, she’s willing to give up just to see Aamir safe. Except Aamir disagrees, distracting Discord and encouraging her to fight back.

Kamala holds off the agents of K.I.N.D. so the captured group can escape. Seeing herself in another fight against Discord, she understands that being a superhero usually means protecting the many from the evil of the few, but sometimes it can be protecting the few from the collective evil of the many. That is, of course, much harder.

Meanwhile, the recently released group is looking for a place to hide, and Aamir knows where they can go. The choice is touching and fitting for a Ms. Marvel comic:

Aamir and the other fugitives arrive at Sheik Abdullah's mosque

Sheik Abdullah welcomes them at the mosque. While this whole arc works as a metaphor for real-life political and social issues, the comic doesn’t shy away from also exploring those real-life issues themselves. Honestly, why should it? We see it in the little details, like the group’s surprise in finding shelter in a mosque, or Aamir’s frustration for not feeling accepted by the government and the people running it.

Their bonding moment doesn’t last long. Soon Lockdown invades the place with her agents. Ms. Marvel and Discord transfer their fight to the mosque as well, but Kamala is injured and in danger of losing again. She knows her healing factor can’t keep up forever and escapes to the women’s wudu room.

Discord finds her, and in the heat of the battle, Kamala pulls his mask off. She realizes she wasn’t ready to see who was underneath…

Discord is revealed to be Josh

Discord is actually Josh, Zoe’s ex-boyfriend. He has always been kind of a jerk, but not supervillain levels of jerk. Kamala is understandably shaken by the revelation that a guy she’s known since elementary school is willing to put the city through chaos and risk other people’s lives and freedom. She wants to understand why, so Josh tells her his story.

Josh says Ms. Marvel was a hero for everybody except for him, failing him when he needed her the most. When he found himself in Lockdown’s fake jail, with the life he knew seemingly destroyed, he thought he had nowhere to go and wasn’t sure if any of his friends would take him in. After he had escaped, Lockdown found him and offered him the opportunity to become Discord. Can’t say he didn’t know what he was signing up for.

Kamala feels sorry for him, but she doesn’t know what to do, and they’re running out of time. She realizes that he didn’t just show her the real Discord, he showed her the real Josh. So she decides to do the same:

Kamala reveals herself as Ms Marvel for Discord

Color and shape

Last time I didn’t comment much on the art, so let me just say I really like Failla and Herring’s job with artwork and colors respectively. They complement each other well, creating a delicate style for the book. I particularly love the soft palette and textured colors, it’s very pleasing to the eye.

I also like how the characters are visually distinct from each other, in an amusing and slightly cartoonish style that becomes more apparent whenever Kamala uses her powers.

Ms Marvel in action against Discord

Kamala always looks very young, even in her superhero costume, and that’s an important part of the character too. Can we also appreciate that she’s never sexualized? I know sexualizing a teenager character is gross, but it’s not exactly new for comic books, so I’m happy everybody here treats Kamala and the other characters with the respect they deserve.

Overall thoughts

Last month I said that everything pointed to Discord being someone we already knew. We’ve had two and a half issues building the tension around his identity, so it feels appropriate to have this reveal here. At this point, the narrative possibilities are much more interesting with a friend-turned-foe than with a mysterious enemy.

The impact of this reveal depends on your previous knowledge of Ms. Marvel lore. Josh has been around since the very first issue of Kamala’s adventures, but I’m paying the price for avoiding Civil War II-related stories. That crossover event has a strong influence in Ms. Marvel‘s current arc and is central to Josh’s development in particular.

I’m not criticizing this decision, quite the contrary. Comic book impermanence is a huge turn off for me, and one of the perks of a title like Ms. Marvel is that everything is connected. There’s this sense of a bigger character mythology. The more you know about it, the more rewarded you feel. It’s not just some random dude attacking the city; it’s that bastard again. It’s one of the many benefits of Ms. Marvel being a recent character and consistently written by the same person.

And it’s not like you can’t follow the story without all that previous knowledge. The truth behind Discord’s identity has more impact if you have it, but everything you really need to know is told or implied in this issue. The emotional punch is Kamala and her reaction, and that much the issue delivers well.

Part of the reason why I wasn’t that invested in the revelation of Discord’s identity is that it seemed a long stretch from the jerk Josh that we knew to the outright villainous Discord. I understand that the past events had a significant impact on him and how he perceives the superhero system, but he teamed up with Becky quite easily when she was the one responsible for what he had to endure.

Josh reveals to Kamala his origin story as Discord

Humanizing villains is a tricky business; as a wise man once said, “cool motive, still murder.” Go too far in your attempts to humanize them, and you may give the impression that you’re excusing the villain’s actions or shifting sympathies from the victim to their oppressor. Josh may not be as evil as the usual comic book villain, but his actions are too close to real-life everyday antagonists to be simply brushed aside. I’m curious to see how the book will continue to address this in upcoming issues.

Part of the reason why the revelation of his identity wasn’t as powerful as it could have been for me is that I wasn’t sure how much he knew about Ms. Marvel. Targeting Aamir seems far too coincidental if he didn’t know she was Kamala. But judging by his reaction on the last panel it was indeed news for him.

Regardless, I love Kamala’s decision to reveal her own identity. It caught me by surprise, and at the same time, it was a very Kamala thing to do.

This issue works so well because we stay focused on Kamala and how she reacts to the events of the plot. There’s an honesty and heart in her actions that remind me why I’m so fond of superhero stories. She’s not always right, but damn she’s trying her best. Kamala’s willing to risk herself and do the right thing, even when she’s having “imposter syndrome and crippling existential dread.” Superheroes like her inspire us to be better people or to at least try. And isn’t that the most important thing a hero can do?

Final score: 8/10

All images courtesy of Marvel Comics

Ms. Marvel (2015) #21 Credits

Writer: G. Willow Wilson

Artist: Marco Failla

Colors: Ian Herring

Letters: VC’s Joe Caramagna

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