Review of Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal
Jessica Baldanzi and Hussein Rashid, editors. Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal. UP of Mississippi, 2020. Paperback. 280 pg. $30.00. ISBN 9781496827012.
In the late 1970s, American comic book company Marvel introduced the Ms. Marvel character: the alter-ego of Carol Danvers, who was first a United States Air Force officer and then an editor at Women Magazine. Although seen as a progressive and feminist character at the time, Danvers had the form of a traditional female superhero caught in the male gaze. She was tall, blonde, and possessed of a Barbie doll figure shrink-wrapped in a revealing costume.
Danvers would go on to be treated shamefully in storylines in the 1980s and 1990s. Her rape and addiction were treated as throwaway plot points. However, by 2012, the character’s treatment had improved with her assumption of the mantle of Captain Marvel. Meanwhile, in 2013, the title of Ms. Marvel passed on to Kamala Khan, a second-generation immigrant born to Pakistani-American parents. Khan is a young, female, Muslim superhero who fits into the Peter Parker/Spider-Man trope of a teenaged hero struggling to balance the pulls of responsibility and youth. While Muslim superheroes existed before Kamala Khan, Khan is the first Muslim superhero to headline her own title and, notably, the first hero created and written by two Muslim-American women. Ms. Marvel would go on to win Eisner and Hugo awards in 2015.
Ms. Marvel’s America: No Normal, edited by Jessica Baldanzi and Hussein Rashid, is the first collection of criticism to take on, in an interdisciplinary way, the success and impact of Ms. Marvel. The book effectively makes the point that Kamala Khan and Ms. Marvel provide a rich ground for interpretation of America’s relationship with Islam, gender, race, and diversity in mainstream comics.
While including dense literary theory, the book also includes approachable articles for a general audience (especially Aaron Kashtan’s “Wow, Many Hero, Much Super, Such Girl: Kamala Khan and Female Comics Fandom,” which addresses the fan community and its interaction with Khan and her status as a fan-fic writing superfan of other heroes within the world of her comic). The interdisciplinary nature of the collection is one of its strengths. The collection has an encompassing breadth including chapters from literature, religious studies, pedagogy, and communications scholars including José Alaniz, Jessica Baldanzi, Eric Berlatsky, Peter E. Carlson, Sika A. Dagbovie-Mullins, Antero Garcia, Aaron Kashtan, Winona Landis, A. David Lewis, Martin Lund, Shabana Mir, Kristin M. Peterson, Nicholaus Pumphrey, Hussein Rashid, and J. Richard Stevens.
The book is divided into an introduction and five sections. The introduction focuses on Ms. Marvel’s challenging of character tropes. The introduction also raises a point to which other authors in the collection will return: Khan’s place and symbolism (limited to the first 19 issues of Ms. Marvel) within the continued anti-Muslim American rhetoric especially evident during the Trump administration. The first section focuses on precursors to Khan’s Ms. Marvel character including Dust, another notable Marvel Muslim character. Whereas Khan is seen as a step towards a more realistic attempt at depicting an Islamic superhero, Dust’s presentation is much more problematic and tends to fulfill more Orientalist tropes. The second section, “Nation and Religion, Identity and Community,” is the longest section in the text and deals extensively with the iconography of the Khan character and the friction against stereotypes both religious, gender-based, and fan-based. The third section is called “Pedagogy and Resistance” and asks how Khan fits into classrooms and conventions. The fourth section, “Fangirls, Fanboys and the Culture of Fandom,” deals with Ms. Marvel’s disruption of the traditional fan and creator communities.
The collection concludes with a wide-ranging interview between gender studies scholar Shabana Mir and Ms. Marvel author and cocreator G. Willow Wilson. This choice of including an interview with the creator is a strong one. Wilson, from her insider’s perspective, makes points such as that the suppositions of what will sell (white cisgender male heroes) and what won’t sell (solo comics with women or minority characters) have more to do with the economics of comics and their antiquated exclusionary distribution system rather than with what people want to read. A point such as this one (and the idea that there is a limit to what can be done progressively with a character owned by a mega-corporation such as Disney and written by a revolving cadre of artists and writers) is more likely to be made by someone involved in the business and is an idea which, by itself, is worth the inclusion of the interview. Mir also encourages Wilson to comment directly on some of the theses of the included critical chapters which leads to a valuable dialogue between subject and critic.
Additional standout essays include “Mentoring Ms. Marvel: Marvel’s Kamala Khan and the Reconstitution of Carol Danvers” wherein J. Richard Stevens, while analyzing the poor treatment of the Danvers character over the years, stresses the point that while the presentation of Khan’s religion is new in the comics, she is an old type of Marvel Character: “The People With Problems” that Stan Lee popularized in the 1960s. These are heroes who struggle with personal problems to make the character seem to be relatable. Stevens leaves room for further thinking about this point, especially as part of Khan’s “problem” is presented as her religion and her struggle with it.
Several of the essays address that the locus of Khan’s character is symbolized by her superhero power. Khan is a polymorph: “Her very body represents her conception of being American”, writes Hussein Rashid (also one of the editors of the collection) in his “Ms. Marvel Is An Immigrant” (47).While she can control the size and shape of her appearance while fighting evil, she also struggles with comparing herself to her peers like blonde popular schoolmate Zoe (like Carol Danvers, another tall, willowy blonde in Khan’s life with whom she has a difficult relationship). Khan’s ability to morph, combined with her wish to adapt to be the “right” person, Rashid suggests, reflects a desire of many immigrants who feel left out or conflicted in their identity and its place in the older culture.
Sika A. Dagbovie-Mullins and Eric Berlatsky continue to delve into the symbolism between Khan’s polymorphism and the fluidity of the immigrant existence in “The Only Nerdy Pakistani-American Slash Inhuman in the Entire Universe – Post Racialism and Politics in the New Ms. Marvel.” These authors continue to make the argument that Ms. Marvel doesn’t acknowledge the discrimination and surveillance of both federal forces and “concerned citizens” that colored the American Muslim experience post 9/11 (occurring when Khan would have been three years old). American drone strikes in Pakistan, for instance, are never mentioned. Police are seen as uniformly helpful. All of these ideas make the argument that the comic, overall, is “politically deracialized” while Ms. Marvel is racialized through familiar and comfortable tropes (75). To read Khan as a Muslim superhero instead of a superhero who is Muslim, Rashid reminds us, “flattens her character and misunderstands the way that she does important work” (61).
That important work of understanding Khan’s place in the mediation of self and culture is typified in “Hope and the Sa’a of Ms. Marvel,” by A. David Lewis. As a female teen Muslim superhero, she is a marginalized person who, in the comic event Secret Wars, is on the margins of the apocalypse. Lewis shows how Islamic eschatology (Lewis defines sa’a as “the appointed hour of the eschaton leading to resurrection”) is explained through Kahn’s decision to spend the possible last moments of Earth 616 in Jersey City rather than heading off with other heroes to defend the world against an encroaching alternate universe (128). In doing so, Khan occupies a familiar space with the readers. Her important work becomes protecting her friends and families and providing them with a symbol of hope even as the world comes to end.
Although the collection casts a wide net, historical grounding of Muslim comic characters and Khan’s place in that pantheon starting with someone like Elliot Publishing’s Golden Age hero, Kismet, Man of Fate, to show the stereotypical and sometimes buffoonish way that Muslims characters have been (and in many cases continue to be) portrayed would help to ground the discussion of Khan’s evolutionary portrayal even more. This desire may be nit-picking, however. This collection is an opening, not a final word. Since the book covers only the first 19 issues of Ms. Marvel, it plows the ground for a fertile new field of scholarship and opens up lanes of discourse for the continued discussion of the character and the reader’s response to her. After all, comics, Rashid writes in the collection, can act as an agent of social change by participating in the parasocial contrary hypothesis and creating a dialogic dissonance between what the comic reader expects and what the comic reader finds. This interaction can create an environment wherein the reader and the critic are more accepting of exploring new visions of American immigration in old mediums.
Michael Dittman is a Professor of English at Butler County Community College (PA). A former small press comix creator, his books include Jack Kerouac: A Biography and Masterpieces of the Beat Generation.