Consider the ways you could misstep in updating a classic comic-book superhero. Now imagine that your protagonist is A) female, B) 16, C) a Pakistani-American and, oh yeah, D) Muslim.
Could there be a tougher assignment? If you avoid gross errors in depicting halal meat or headscarves, you might lurch in the other direction and fail to endow the heroine with any meaningful cultural signifiers at all. And then there's the matter of her struggle to define herself as she approaches adulthood. How can the timeworn superhero format possibly express the complexity of a modern teenage girl's experience — all without objectifying her bod?
You can put it in the hands of G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, that's how. Faced with one of the trickiest problems a creator could imagine — rebooting Marvel Comics' decades-old heroine Ms. Marvel — Wilson and Alphona rise to it and burst through.
Several different characters have used the Ms. Marvel name over the years, but Wilson and Alphona's re-imagining is the most dramatic yet. Their Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is an utterly believable teenager, and the art is pure grown-up. Everything from Kamala's postmodern mindset (she's a superheroine who reads superhero fan fiction) to Alphona's elegant line work make this a comic for the discerning reader. Wilson, herself a Muslim, distills the enormity of culture shock into a few potent incidents. "Your headscarf is so pretty, Kiki," a blonde princess tells Kamala's best friend. "But, I mean ... nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right? ... I'm just concerned."
Alphona triumphs too, giving Kamala an expressive face and a normal girl's physique. Kamala has no use for the typical heroine outfit either, finding that the original Ms. Marvel costume gives her "an epic wedgie."
Actually, though, even the key perpetrators of superheroine objectification have been catering to women lately. Marvel now has nine solo titles with female leads to DC Comics' eight, according to Comics Alliance. A new rendering of Batgirl gives her a leather motocross jacket and bright yellow Doc Martin boots. And, of course, who could forget the 2010 fracas when DC ventured to update Wonder Woman's outfit ... by adding pants? (Die-hard fans were outraged by the new look, but Project Runway's Tim Gunn loved it.)
Ms. Marvel has a particularly volatile heritage. Introduced in 1967, she was a feminist who edited a magazine called simply WOMAN. But then she was kidnapped by evil Colonel Yon-Rogg and caught in the explosion of a Kree Psyche-Magnitron device ...
Yeah, that's the kind of thing only superhero fans find interesting.
It's good, then, that Wilson has plenty to offer other readers. She cleverly folds Kamala's Muslim heritage and teen angst into her emerging hero identity. When three Marvel heroes confer her powers upon her, they address her in mellifluous Urdu (which Wilson translates):
"The yellow mustard is blooming in every field, the yellow mustard is blooming, mango buds click open, other flowers too; the koyal twitters from branch to branch and the maiden tries on her adornments."
Kamala crafts her "adornments" out of a conservative Muslim swimming outfit called a burkini. First, though, she has to get control of her powers, which tend to morph her without her volition into a blond clone of the original character. Kamala has to embrace her true self to banish blondness — and that's no easy task. "Everybody's expecting Ms. Marvel. A real superhero," she says. "With perfect hair and big boots. Not Kamala Khan from Jersey City."
She handles the challenge beautifully, though, thanks in part to the lovely artwork by Alphona and color artist Ian Herring. With its delicate color washes and wildly varying realism, the art bears far more resemblance to "alternative" comics than to typical superhero books. To say Alphona has a gift for natural physicality might downplay the hilarity of Kamala's highly unnatural transformations; his depictions of Kamala with superlong legs or one huge, wrecking-ball-sized fist are all that could be desired.
This collection is largely dedicated to establishing Kamala, sketching out her life and family and documenting her transformation. Aside from a few intimations, the "Big Bad" doesn't make an appearance until the very end. This individual, dubbed The Inventor, is suitably horrid. That said, most readers won't find Kamala's struggles with his minions to be particularly scary or exciting. Her personal struggles — with her parents, her friends and her own body — are simply more compelling than the archenemy.
That might not sit well with mainstream superhero fans. Wilson and Alphona have written a comic for people who appreciate superheroes as icons, but don't necessarily feel an ongoing emotional investment in their battles with the forces of evil. As such, the authors risk alienating the traditional fan base to zero in on a narrower demographic. Is it inevitable that an innovative female hero will have to draw her fans from this razor-thin cohort? To find out, stay tuned for our next installment.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.