Heritage, Identity, and Idols in 'Ms. Marvel #12'

by Jack Fisher

1 November 2016

Kamala Khan does some soul searching and reminds us why we love her.
 
cover art

Ms. Marvel

Mirka Andolfo

(Marvel)
US: 26 Oct 2016

What happens when our idols fail us? That’s a question we have to answer more and more these days when all it takes is an embarrassing tweet to undermine a reputation. Our idols may elevate themselves to levels most ordinary people can only dream of, but at the end of the day, they’re still human. Sometimes, that humanity can make reality feel like a gut punch from the Hulk.

Over the course of Civil War II, Kamala Khan endured multiple gut punches from multiple proverbial Hulks. Her best friends pushed her away. Her idol, not to mention the inspiration for her life as a hero, betrayed her ideals. On top of all this, she’s still a Muslim-American teenage girl in Jersey City, dealing with all the messy complications that entails. Most teenagers have to make up excuses to be miserable and angsty. Kamala Khan needs none.

While the conflict in Civil War II is still unresolved, Ms. Marvel #12 skips a few steps to deal with the impact this conflict had on Kamala. It’s an impact that affects every aspect of her life, from her role as a superhero to her role as a teenage girl trying to live her life in a world where Hulks die and famous Avengers are Hydra agents. There are all sorts of dynamics in play for this narrative, but it comes back to a central theme that further highlights all the things that make Kamala Khan so lovable.

That theme is true whether someone is Pakistani, American, Wakandan, Bolivan, Swiss, Russian, or Chinese. As teenagers, the biggest challenge after surviving high school and puberty is finding a place in the world where they fit in. Not fitting in is to a teenager what an arc reactor is to an Iron Man suit. It’s a key component that powers someone’s identity. Throughout Ms. Marvel #12, it’s clear that Kamala’s identity is in a state of uncertainty.

It’s not enough for Kamala to just sulk in her room, as many teenagers are prone to do after a few very bad days. This isn’t just failing a test, being dumped by a boyfriend, or getting on Maria Hill’s bad side. This involves ditching the Avengers, watching her best friend abandon, and losing her faith in her idol. For this reason, she decides to get away. She decides to visit her family in Pakistan, if only to get away from SHIELD Helicarriers and Iron Man sightings.

It makes for some strong personal moments that explore Kamala’s Pakistani heritage. For much of Ms. Marvel’s brief history, a big part of her struggles involve being a Pakistani-American girl in Jersey City. The Pakistani part of that heritage easily gets lost when that struggle ties in with Avengers, Jersey City traffic, and American high schools. Ms. Marvel #12 goes out of its way to highlight the importance of this heritage to Kamala Khan’s identity.

Her family, her culture, and her home country all contribute to giving Kamala Khan a break from secret identities, proactive justice, and superhero civil wars. Kamala literally has everything she needs to clear her head. She has her family’s love, the hospitality of her home country, and no Hellicarriers in sight. She should be as relaxed as Captain America at a 4th of July parade.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough. All this love, support, and hospitality is still not enough to make Kamala feel less broken. It’s somewhat fitting in that it’s symbolic of how many teenagers struggle. They can have all the right support from their home, their family, and their culture, but they’ll still find a way to feel miserable and broken. In terms of the things that make being a teenager so terrible, it exceeds acne and standardized tests.

Much of Ms. Marvel #12 is spent establishing Kamala’s life and heritage in Pakistan, but in the end she still goes back to being Ms. Marvel. She still sees injustice in the world and feels inclined to become a hero. It’s a testament to the kind of character Kamala Khan is at heart. She can be broken, upset, and lost as any angst-ridden teenager in any part of the world. She’ll still feel inclined to be a hero when a hero is needed.

Her heroics, in this case, are fairly basic. She gets to fight a kind of injustice that isn’t typical in the streets of Jersey City. In the process, she meets another Pakistani hero named The Red Dagger who has the luxury of not being so torn. His presence lowers the stakes somewhat in that it lessens the need for Ms. Marvel’s heroics. She still helps, but there’s never a sense that her contributions are needed.

As such, there isn’t much depth to this fight or any of the action in Ms. Marvel #12. G. Willow Wilson doesn’t attempt to make it more epic than it needs to be. This issue is about Kamala Khan more than it is about Ms. Marvel. It succeeds in developing other, unexplored aspects of Kamala’s character. It doesn’t succeed quite as much in developing Ms. Marvel as a hero in the post-Civil War II world. However, developing both may be asking a bit too much of a teenage character.

The primary theme of the issue still works. The underlying message is both clear and relevant. Kamala Khan is in a state of transition. Like many struggling teenagers who don’t understand or even want to understand the complexities of the real world, she struggles to find her place in it. She’s still torn and conflicted, but Ms. Marvel #12 establishes that she’s still a hero. More than anything else, she’ll continue to strive to be a hero. With her idol having failed her, she’s going to be that hero on her terms, and it’s hard not to cheer her on.

Ms. Marvel

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