Ms. Marvel, or When Comics Meet Religion

Injecting serious religious discourse into a comic is a task fraught with potential disaster offering up little more than A Thankless Shrug of Indifference at best, and a steady stream of bilious resentment at worst.  So, when Marvel announced that its new Ms. Marvel book was going to feature a Pakistani Muslim as the hero, the thoughtful reactions skewed fretful while the thoughtless ones hardly bear repeating.  After months of worry, the first issue has finally arrived, fulfilling many of the comic community’s best hopes while at the same time trembling with tensions that might be the title’s undoing.

Kamala, our soon to be hero, is thoroughly endearing.  She is an observing Muslim, but at the same time a rabid Avengers nerd, a good girl who wants to belong but doesn’t quite know how to break meaningfully from the boundaries she’s been set.  It will be quite interesting to see how writer G. Willow Wilson develops Kamala’s belief system as she becomes more integrated with a world (and universe, for that matter) which must challenge many of the assumptions she has taken for granted from within the reduced perspective of American teenagerdom.

There are, however, some portents already that personal growth through wider exposure might not yield particularly tremendous shudders of personal reflection.  To wit, the preponderance of straw men among the secondary characters.  There’s a posh white girl who complains that Kamala smells like curry.  There’s a jock who has some fun at the expense of her refusal to drink alcohol, and then launches into a Flash Thompson-esque chest thump with the nearest Caucasian male at hand.  While these types of vapid people do in fact exist, to have them be the primary examples of characters questioning the underpinnings of Muslim belief doesn’t bode well.

That said, the members of Kamala’s own family are rich and well drawn and should, in coming issues, provide a thoughtful counterpoint to Kamala’s expanding career as Ms. Marvel.  They are perfectly set up as the home base to which she can return to receive several perspectives on how to reconcile her new role with her traditional beliefs, and I think we can look forward to those discussions as being the real meat of this book, even when the representatives of Western secularism turn unreasonably cartoonish.

The great danger of comic religion is ponderousness.  I can’t think of Nightcrawler’s outbreaks of Christian reflection without remembering viscerally the slow shuffle of word balloons sinking steadily under the weight of their refrigerator magnet sentiment.  Surrounded by exciting ideas about what the future might hold, and what identity consists of, extended faith-based speechifying in comics comes off as interminable when done well and insufferable when not.

But between Wilson’s Quirky Classic mixture of true-ringing introspection with Silver Age sensibilities and Adrian Alphona’s perfectly matched art, Ms. Marvel is poised to do wonderful things that have not yet seen in comic format, if only it will let itself.

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