Ms. Marvel (the first five issues of which are collected in trade paperback as Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal) is a delightful superhero origin story that introduces Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American girl who feels herself torn between Jersey City and Karachi, between her stern family and her liberating involvement in superhero fandom. Ms. Marvel is written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona.
After sneaking out for a late-night party, Kamala encounters a mysterious mist and a vision of The Avengers. She awakens from this vision with superpowers, and this devout fangirl knows exactly what to do with those powers – fight crime, protect her neighborhood, and in the process discover her true identity.
Since her debut in February 2014 Ms. Marvel has found tremendous popularity with readers and critics alike. Her infectiously vivacious personality makes her one of the most interesting new superheroes in a genre sometimes regarded as stale and uninviting, and her creation at the hands of two Muslim-American women (writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat) makes her an important aspect of the ongoing project of inclusivity in the realm of superhero comics. Ms. Marvel is also the first Muslim-American superhero to have her own monthly comic book series under her name, and rumors persist that she will be making her television and/or movie debut in the very near future as part of the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Instructors’ Teaching Experience
I taught this book as part of a “Heroes & Villains” elective course themed exclusively around superheroes. I chose Ms. Marvel sight unseen, having never read the book but recognizing the character’s frankly unprecedented explosion in popularity. Intensely relevant to the issue of inclusivity and a growing interest in a “new belonging” in superhero narratives, Ms. Marvel worked amazingly well with my students. While these students were already invested in the idea of superheroes, I suspect this book will work just as well in a standard GEL course. It broaches themes of diversity, acceptance, and identity in very engaging ways, and the myriad of paratexts surrounding this character opens up the larger discussion of representation in literature that many of us are already having. I also found that this text may be more accessible for instructors who are daunted by the notoriously intricate Watchmen but still want the fun of teaching a superhero comic. [Zachary King]
Kamala Khan is an avid fan of superheroes; she writes her own fanfiction and fantasizes about joining The Avengers. In particular, she idolizes Captain Marvel, a character who once went by the name Ms. Marvel. This video from IGN gives a good, succinct summary of Captain Marvel (aka Carol Danvers). Ask your students to watch this video and think about why Kamala singles out Captain Marvel and, by extension, why and how Wilson and Alphona draw on the contentious history of Carol Danvers. [Zachary King]
It’s easy to get swept up in the story of Kamala Khan, but take a few moments to study Adrian Alphona’s artwork. How does Alphona’s style differ from what you expect of a superhero comic book? How does the imagery control/guide your reaction to the narrative? Additionally, pay attention to the backgrounds of the panels; note the elaborate newspaper headlines, cereal boxes, and Q-Circle signage. (And keep an eye out for the girl with the butterfly net!) Why pack the images with so much detail? [Zachary King]
Kamala’s vision of Captain Marvel in Chapter 1 is a page that demands close reading. Linger over it with your students, and think about the competing religious iconographies in the image. How do you reconcile this moment, which collapses Christianity, Hinduism, superheroes, and stuffed animals? Listen to the song Captain Marvel is singing, and consider what mood Wilson is invoking. (You could provide students with the translation or ask them to research it in advance.) NOTE: I have collected a few possible reference images in the PowerPoint below, but the page is so rich that the PowerPoint is only intended as a start. [Zachary King]
Superhero comics have something of a dirty reputation as being inaccessible, often drawing on decades of backstory of which the reader is assumed to have already read. Usually, this isn’t the case, and Ms. Marvel is almost entirely self-contained. However, your students may wonder about the mysterious turquoise mist that gives Kamala her superpowers. (Or they may assume that the mist is as nebulous as the “solar radiation” and “heavy vapor” that gave Superman and The Flash their respective powers.) In the Marvel Universe, there exists a race of genetically altered humans known as Inhumans, who possess latent DNA which grants them superpowers. This Inhuman DNA is activated by the Terrigen Mist, which was released by Black Bolt (king of the Inhumans) in another comic book, Infinity, published roughly concurrently with Ms. Marvel. Here is a very succinct video description; your students may also be familiar with the Terrigen Mist from its recent appearances on the ABC television show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Eventually, Kamala learns of her Inhuman connection in the second trade collection, Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why.
Ms Marvel PPT – This PowerPoint includes a pop quiz over the first three chapters of the book, as well as images pertaining to the classroom strategies listed above. It also invites discussion on cosplay in superhero fandom, with a quotation from Captain Marvel scribe Kelly Sue DeConnick about the importance of inclusivity in fandom, specifically the “Carol Corps” fans who look up to Captain Marvel in much the same way as Kamala Khan.
Wired: “First Look” – This interview with G. Willow Wilson was the first announcement of the character, suggesting some of what Wilson intended to do with Kamala Khan. You might also think about Kamala in relation to marketing, why Wilson and Marvel Comics would have marketed her before introducing her in comics.
“Myths, misfits, & masks” – This TED Talk by co-creator and editor Sana Amanat is a useful entry point into the book, drawing out themes of stereotypes and inclusive representation. Amanat’s presence also allows you to discuss Kamala as a corporate co-creation of multiple voices.
“Islamophobic Bus Ads…” – True story! Activists in the San Francisco area used Kamala Khan’s imagery to cover up and rebrand anti-Muslim bus advertisements. Superheroes exist in the real world; they just behave a little differently.