Ever since I first read G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel, I knew that I wanted to teach it in one of my courses. This semester, I finally had the chance to teach volume 1, “No Normal,” in my Multicultural American Literature class. Today, I want to write some about Ms. Marvel, specifically looking at the ways that Kamala Khan grapples with her identity over the first five issues of the series.
The first five issues of Ms. Marvel collected in “No Normal” chronicle Pakistani-American Kamala Khan’s coming to terms with her new identity as a superhero. However, this is not the only conflict with identity that Kamala encounters. From the very beginning of the series, questions and discussions of identity take center stage.
Issue #1 begins with Kamala and her Turkish-American friend Nakia looking at the food in the Circle Q. The opening panel shows two Easy Greasy B.L.T. sandwiches and the word bubble, “I just want to smell it.” The next panel pans out to show Kamala, Nakia, and Bruo as Kamala drools over the sandwiches. We learn, in this panel, about her Muslim heritage and faith when she says, “Delicious, delicious infidel meat.”
After Nakia suggests that Kamala try Facon, Kamala calls her friend “Kiki,” a name that she does not like. Kamala then states, “Sorry. Nakia. Proud Turkish Nakia doesn’t need ‘Amreeki’ nickname. I get it.” These first four panels foreground Kamala’s struggles with identity. She wants to indulge in the “infidel meat” in the B.L.T., but if she did, she would go against her faith and her family. Nakia, on the other hand, holds strong to her identity, knowing who she is, and we see this when Zoe comes into the store and comments on Nakia’s hijab.
Zoe tells Nakia, “Your headscarf is so pretty, Kiki. I love that color.” In this panel, Nakia looks towards Zoe in disgust, with her hand underneath her chin. Zoe faces Nakia, smiling wildly as she makes the comment. Nakia responds to Zoe simply with her name, “Nakia.” To this, Zoe continues, “But I mean . . . nobody, pressured you to start wearing it, right? Your father or somebody? Nobody’s going to honor kill you? I’m just concerned.” Nakia corrects Zoe for calling her “Kiki,” and Zoe ignores her, choosing instead to show the stereotypes that she has imbibed by asking Nakia if her father made her wear the hijab.
The next panel shows Nakia in profile, defiantly staring down Zoe and telling her, “Actually, my dad wants me to take it off. He thinks it’s a phase.” With this, Nakia highlights her identity, and she counters Zoe’s, and the readers’, preconceived beliefs that someone forced Nakia to wear a hijab. Through her comments that she chose to do it herself and that her father disapproves, she highlights that she constructs her own identity. She does not allow her family or Zoe to construct it for her.
To this, Zoe asks, “Really? Wow, cultures are so interesting.” Again, Zoe pushes Nakia’s agency to the side through her comments. She shows her lack of knowledge about her classmates, and she shows that her beliefs come not from any interaction with Nakia and Kamala but from stereotypes that she has taken in through various outlets, most likely the media. From the outset, Nakia knows who she is, but Kamala must come to her own identity, and the opening pages showcase this.
The first time we see Kamala at her home, she is writing Avengers’ fan fiction. A full page shows the story she pens, a story where Captain America, Iron Man, and Captain Marvel fight an extraterrestrial monster attacking Planet Unicorn. Her mother calls her down to dinner, and at the table, we meet her mother, her father, and her brother. Here, we continue to get discussions of identity.
At the table, her brother Aamir prays before the meal, and his father tells him to stop and eat. He tells his son, “Prayer is noble, but when you spend all day praying, it starts to look like you’re avoiding something. Like finding a job, for example.” The father’s comments echoes Nakia’s from earlier. Zoe would believe that Aamir’s actions would be “normal,” based on stereotypes; however, this is not the truth. Rather, Aamir’s Abu is not strictly religious. Instead, we see him as partly Americanized. He drinks from a cup that says, “World’s Grooviest Dad” and works at a bank.
Later, Kamala asks her father if she can go to the party that Zoe and Josh mentioned at the Circle Q. Her father tells her no, she pushes back, and he tells her to go to her room. Kamala storms up stairs. In her room, she sits in front of the mirror and thinks, “Why am I the only one who gets signed out of health class? Why do I have to bring Pakoras to school for lunch? Why am I stuck with the weird holidays? Everybody else gets to be normal.”
The panel shows Kamala’s back and her reflection in the mirror. She sits with her hand on her chin. This positioning, along with Kamala’s thoughts, highlight how Kamala views herself through the eyes of others. The reflection becomes what Zoe and others see, and she sees the same thing. She does not view herself as “normal,” but the question really is, “What is normal?” At this moment, Kamala views what Zoe and Josh do as normal. She views their parties and their dietary habits as normal. However, who determined that that is normal?
Kamala sneaks out of the house, and the next panel shows her climbing down the tree outside her window. She thinks, “Why can’t I [be normal]?” Kamala thinks about this question again and again throughout the first five issues of Ms. Marvel. When thinking about these questions, she bases her beliefs not on her own perceptions of normal but on the perceptions of others. Nakia, in juxtaposition to Kamala, knows who she is, and she does not let Zoe or others define her. Eventually, Kamala gets to this point, but it takes her transformation into Ms. Marvel to bring her to that point.
In the next post, I will look at the ways that Kamala continues to wrestle with these questions as she becomes a superhero. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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