Last post, I wrote about the opening pages of G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel: No Normal. Over the next couple of posts, I want to continue that discussion. Specifically, I want to focus on three sections/panels in the volume. These panels appear at different stages as Kamala struggles with her identity, but each, in its own way, highlights this struggle.
The first panel occurs at the beginning of issue #2, immediately after Kamala breaks out of the egg like object that encases her after she passes out from the terrigen gas. This sequence, in and of itself, is worth noting because she emerges from the structure, breaking out of it through her own agency. When she steps out of it, we see that she has become what she wanted to become, Ms. Marvel with “the classic, politically incorrect costume and kick butt . . . giant wedge heels.”
The second issue begins with Kamala, looking like Carol Danvers, sitting on the street disoriented. She feels like she is going to throw up, and the penultimate panel shows her vomiting. The panel is an interesting juxtaposition that carries over into the following panels. No words are in the panel except for the muffled, “MMMFF!” Instead, Alphona’s images carries the message.
What makes this panel important for our discussion is what Alphona shows. We see Carol Danvers’ body and hair, out of her hair, we see a switch to Kamala’s and we see Kamala’s face, with two different colored eyes. Danvers’ hand is over Kamala’s mouth, eliminating her ability to speak or scream. Kamala has no agency here.
Kamala wants to be like her fellow students, “normal,” and she wants to be like the politically incorrect version of Ms. Marvel. The construction of this panel highlights how those aspirations hinder Kamala from being herself and coming into her own identity. Rather, she feels like she must conform to the images that other create. The panel of her throwing up herself works within this because it highlights the tensions gaining on within Kamala’s own psyche over her identity.
When she encounters Josh and Zoe in the fog, she turns, momentarily into Carol Danvers, but when she becomes afraid that they might see her, she becomes Kamala, shrinking to the size of a bug so they won’t discover her presence. However, when Zoe falls into the lake, Kamala thinks about her father quoting the Quran: “Whoever kills one person, it is as if he killed all of mankind. And whoever saves one person, it is as if he has saved all of mankind.” At this, she grows bigger and turns into Carol Danvers, saving Zoe.
Here, she feels more powerful and assertive as Danvers. She feels as if she can approach the situation and save Zoe. As Kamala, she feels smaller, unsure. Again, this movement back and forth highlights the struggle within Kamala, not just because of her new found abilities but because of her feeling that she is not “normal.”
As she walks away from the scene, Kamala begins to think about her new identity. She still looks like Carol Danvers, and she thinks, “Being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting.” She begins to realize that putting on the mask of whiteness (Danvers in the case) to feel normal isn’t right. She begins to understand that striving to be someone that others think you should be is more exhausting than rewarding.
She looks at her hair and continues, “I always thought that if I had amazing hair. If I could pull off great boots. If I could fly–that would make me feel string. That would make me happy.” These things, though, only cause her pain. She does not feel happy; instead, hair gets in her face and she has “an epic wedgie.”
Looking at Jersey City, she ponders, “What made me happy. What made me happy was seeing Zoe take a breath of air, even though she makes everybody feel like crap. I’m glad I was there. I’m glad she lived.” Here, Kamala realizes that her identity and happiness reside in her actions, doing what is right by saving Zoe. She realizes that Zoe’s opinion doesn’t matter, and unlike earlier where she tells Nakia that Zoe is nice, she thinks about the way Zoe makes others feel.
Along with her thoughts, the framing of the panel presents her as a superhero, one that will look over the city and its inhabitants. Back towards us, she stands, looking like Danvers, and gazes over the city as the terrigen gas swirls around her. While it present her as a superhero, it also plays into our preconceived notions of whiteness with superheroes: Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, etc.
The cover of issue #5, though, counters this initial image. In earlier issues, which I will discuss later, Kamala comes into her self, but I want to point out this image first because it directly plays against the previous panel. Here, we see Kamala, in her new costume which she made from her burkini and her head scarf, sitting on a lamppost, at night, and looking at the skyline of the city. It is similar, in many ways, to the previous panel. The main difference, though, is that we see Kamala as Ms. Marvel, not Kamala as the Carol Danvers version of Ms. Marvel. In this way, she challenges the image we have of superheroes.
Chris Reyns-Chikuma and Désirée Lorenz’s comments about Ms. Marvel’s reception in France are worth noting here. Reyns-Chikuma and Lorenz write about the cover of “No Norma” where we see Kamala, from the nose down, with the lighting bolt on her shit, the scarf around her neck, the bracelets on her wrists, and her school books. They point out that “[I]n contrast to most representations of Carol Danvers and other superheroines, first, Kamla is not represented right away as a superhero, and, second, she is not sexualized; conversely, she is intellectualized.”
Reyns-Chikuma and Lorenz ‘s latter point is worth noting because Kamala wanted to be the sexualized, non-PC, Carol Danvers’ Ms. Marvel, but once she tried it on, she discovered that that version was not her. It did not correlate to her beliefs and her ideals. Rather, it only made her exhausted and gave her wardrobe problems. As well, she does not appear as a superhero, save for the lightning bolt on her shirt. On the cover for issue #5, though, she appears as a superhero. Kamala’s progression throughout the volume challenges, again, the whiteness of superheroes.
The back cover asks, “But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman?” Before we even read the book, from the front cover and the back, we’re asked to go along with Kamala on her journey to discover her identity. The paratextual material does not tell us how to think about Kamala. It gives us options. Ultimately, Kamala tells us how to think about her. Instead of bringing our own presuppositions and placing them onto her, we learn who Kamala is from Kamala.
In the next post, I’ll wrap up this discussion by looking at a few more panels in the volume. 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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