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‘Embiggen!’: Ms Marvel takes up Space

6th Oct 2015

kamala khan
Since her debut, Kamala Khan has had obstacles to face. The announcement that Marvel’s next superheroine would be a young Muslim woman resulted in a lot of Islamophobic commentary, most infamously Conan O’Brien’s tweet suggesting that she would have ‘so many more special powers than her husband’s other wives’. In spite of remarks like this, though, the new Ms Marvel has become one of the most widely acclaimed new Marvel series.

And no wonder. Kamala is a sparky heroine with a nerdy streak a mile wide, and a thoroughly believable teenage girl – awkward, impulsive, friendly, funny, and searching for her place in a world where nothing seems certain. Her new shapeshifting superpowers are a clever reflection of the tensions she experiences as a girl, a teenager, and a Muslim from a Pakistani family, in a society with strong preconceptions about those four facets of her identity.

Kamala’s story opens with an exploration of these tensions – against the wishes of her parents, she sneaks out to a party hosted by Zoe, one of the popular girls at her school, only to be greeted with a particularly nasty example of casual racism and Islamophobia: “I thought you were, like, locked up!…Ugh, Kamala, no offence, but you smell like curry.” Distraught, Kamala starts for home, resigned to the fact that she’ll ‘always be poor Kamala with the weird food rules and the crazy family’, when she encounters a strange mist and a vision of her favourite superheroine, Captain Marvel. A pivotal conversation follows, where Kamala admits to her idol “I don’t know who I’m supposed to be…I want to be you.”

Her wish is granted. Kamala gains the power to change the size, shape and appearance of her body, and promptly shapeshifts into a blonde, white, Carol Danvers-esque figure to save Zoe from drowning. This may seem an ominous start – a young woman of colour having to become white before she can see herself as a hero. However, as Kamala rescues her antagonistic classmate, she recalls an ayah from the Qu’ran, often recited by her father – ‘Whoever kills one person, it is as if he has killed all of mankind, and whoever saves one person, it is as if he has saved all of mankind’.

This link between her heroism and her faith (with its link to her cultural background through her family) sets the tone for Kamala’s subsequent superheroic adventures, and her establishment of herself as the new Ms Marvel. She fashions herself a costume out of a burkini swimsuit, and fights off super-villains while wearing her own face, albeit under a mask.

Both literally and figuratively, the new Ms Marvel isn’t afraid to take up space.Kamala’s religion and culture form a crucial part of the foundation for her heroic deeds – as do her love for her home town, Jersey City, and her adoration of the other superpowered heroes that make up the Marvel canon. As the series continues, it becomes clear that Kamala is finding out exactly who she’s supposed to be, and continues being herself despite everything that the unpredictable human and superhuman worlds throw at her.

It’s this honesty and realness that makes Kamala such a compelling heroine. She’s the good kind of strong female character – well-written, with flaws, quirks, and a vibrant personality that makes you want to step into the pages and hang out with her and her friends at the Circle Q. One of the things I love most about Kamala is her unapologetic enthusiasm; whether she’s fangirling at a weary Wolverine or discussing ‘World of Battlecraft’ with her crush, she never plays her interests down in order to fit in. Both literally and figuratively, the new Ms Marvel isn’t afraid to take up space.

Besides Kamala, there are plenty of other well-rounded characters to love. Special note goes to her ‘second-best friend’ Bruno, who, despite his long-standing unrequited crush on Kamala, never drifts into ‘Nice Guy’ territory – he even tells off an acquaintance who teases him about being ‘friend-zoned’, telling him “Friendship is not a zone, you idiot! Friendship is something real and good and anybody who doesn’t understand that needs a dictionary.”

There are also many appearances from Marvel favourites, including SHIELD’s Phil Coulson and a delightfully irreverent Loki. The series’ storylines are bubbling with energy, but also deep; as rogue Inhumans begin to attack the people of Jersey City, Kamala draws a parallel with Islamophobia following 9/11, thinking “It’s always the same. There’s always that one group of people who think they have special permission to terrorize anybody who disagrees with them. And then everybody else who looks like them suffers. Not again. Never again.”

In her role as Ms Marvel, Kamala smashes the lazy assumption that a focus on diversity somehow leads to a lack of quality. Her series is a joy to read, and I can’t wait to see how her story unfolds throughout the Marvel universe.