Heroes Never Rust #71 by Sean Ironman
Ms. Marvel vs. Possibly Offensive Imagery
In the first issue of Ms. Marvel, the Terrigen Mists were released and when Kamala Khan came into contact with the mists, she gained superpowers and transformed into Ms. Marvel, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed member of the Avengers. Kamala looked up to Ms. Marvel and wanted to be an Avenger, so when she gained the power to transform herself, she understandably went with Ms. Marvel, not having control over her new ability. This could be problematic if not handled carefully. Acquiring superpowers, especially for the lead in a superhero comic book, usually allows the person to become great. Even if the hero isn’t liked by many people (Spider-Man, for example), the reader relates to the character. And, let’s face it, kids want to be that superhero. Having a Muslim, brown-skinned girl turn into a character who is basically a model for the Aryan race is not the message the writer, or Marvel (now owned by Disney), wants to send. Telling girls that in order to be a superhero, they have to become light-skinned, tall, and blonde is probably the most offensive thing the comic could do.
Willow Wilson, the writer, uses the idea of having to become someone else to be a superhero to provide conflict for Kamala. First, the idea that Kamala turns into Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel) works to make Kamala relatable to readers. Even if a reader doesn’t like Carol Danvers (which is insane. How could someone not like her?), someone reading a superhero comic likes a superhero. The reader might like Captain America, or Iron Man, or Maggot. It doesn’t matter. Everyone reading Ms. Marvel can relate to Kamala because readers of superhero comics like at least one superhero, if not many. Even if the reader can’t relate to Kamala’s other life experiences, her idolizing of Carol Danvers gives the reader a way in to the character.
What saves the comic from being offensive is that Kamala is not comfortable with being Carol Danvers and rejects her new body. “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 strong. That would make me happy. But the hair gets in my face, the boots pinch, and this leotard is giving me an epic wedgie.” If the comic didn’t comment on Kamala’s new body, it would be offensive. But, it uses the new body as a source of conflict for Kamala. The character grew up like many of us. We can’t be superheroes because we’re not strong enough, not fast enough, not tall enough. Everyone at some point in their life has talked themselves out of doing something because of who they are. Kamala never thought she could be a superhero because she never saw one that was like her. In the dream sequence from the first issue, she imagines herself as Carol Danvers. Even in her dreams, she can’t be herself and save the day.
Though she hates the new body, and can’t really figure out how to return to normal at first, she realizes that what made her happy was that she saved another human being. “Maybe putting on a costume doesn’t make you brave. Maybe it’s something else.” The comic doesn’t ignore the fact that most superheroes are white and look like models. Not understanding that something could be offensive and ignoring it makes it worse. And, quite honestly, makes the writer look bad, like he or she didn’t really analyze the story being told. Wilson avoids falling into those traps because she has taken a hard look at comics today and understands where Kamala Khan fits in. She’s able to use Kamala’s specific characteristics to both make the character unique and seemingly universal. The second issue ends with Kamala looking at the Ms. Marvel poster she has in her bedroom and making the same pose. This time, however she stays in her own body.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.