Written by Charlotte Johanne Fabricius, PhD candidate, University of Southern Denmark
Superheroes are everywhere. Not only are they dominating the Box Office and streaming-platform tv, the genre is also experiencing a revival in its native form of comics. In particular, a number of girl-led superhero comics have taken print and digital markets by storm. These super-girls explore intersections of gender, race, ability, and class through the fantastic framing of superhero multiverses and larger-than-life representations.
One of these titles, Ms. Marvel (published by Marvel Comics as an ongoing series since 2014 under various creative teams) has attracted wide-spread attention in the last couple of years, particular since the announcement of a live-action tv adaptation due to debut on Disney+. Originally spearheaded by editor Sana Amanat, writer G. Willow Wilson, and artist Adrian Alphona, the comics series features Kamala Khan as the titular superhero Ms. Marvel – a name which was previously attached to a white woman. Kamala, on the other hand, is Pakistani-American, lives in New Jersey and is trying to fit in as a geeky Muslim teenager in a majority-white US high school. On the way home from a party, she is enveloped in a mysterious ‘Terrigen mist,’ which causes her to hallucinate an encounter with the previous Ms Marvel and wakes up to a body which can shapeshift, change size, and heal itself from wounds. After being suitably freaked out, Kamala starts exploring her powers and new identity as a superhero, taking on the name of her idol, Ms. Marvel.
Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal, p.36
As a Pakistani-American and Muslim young woman, who is a self-declared nerd and committed to solving crime by means other than violence, Kamala breaks with almost every conceivable notion of what a superhero traditionally is. The character was lauded for her relatability amongst a historically underserved group of comics readers, as well as for her potential to draw in more new readers of the genre who saw themselves reflected. Readers who do not share Kamala’s experience of being brown-skinned and/or South Asian and/or Muslim in contemporary US society (such as myself, a white woman living in Scandinavia) still found her to be a non-normative and inspiring take on the superhero. Kamala’s status as an outsider who became a hero has proven aspirational to a multitude of readers. Early on in the series, however, the creative team added another dimension to Kamala’s otherwise ‘real-world’ identity: She has Inhuman genes, meaning that her superpowers are the result of her having alien DNA.
The fluxable body
Inhumanity, as it appears in Ms. Marvel, is linked to a cultural imaginary of female puberty and the way menarche is viewed as a fundamentally life-and-personality-altering occurrence. Kamala makes this link explicit in the scene where her status as Inhuman is revealed, exclaiming that she doesn’t want to have “the talk” one more time.
Ms. Marvel Vol. 2: Generation Why, p.77
This discussion makes explicit what has previously been subtextual; that Kamala’s hard-to-control morphing body serves as a powerful visual metaphor for the unruly teenaged body, coded female. Kamala’s powers frame her body in a fantastic mode; it morphs and changes in impossible ways, both in response to Kamala’s intention and seemingly of its own accord. To use a term coined by Ramzi Fawaz, Kamala’s body is not just fantastically flexible, it is fluxable:
“Rather than performing flexibility, I argue, the monstrous powers and bodies of postwar superheroes exhibited a form of fluxability, a state of material and psychic becoming characterized by constant transition or change that consequently orients one toward cultivating skills for negotiating (rather than exploiting) multiple, contradictory identities and affiliations.”
Kamala has to negotiate her hybrid identity in her everyday life as a brown-skinned Muslim girl in the contemporary US, and the comic adds to this negotiation by having her superpowers manifest as shapeshifting. And while such fluxable powers are fantastic in a positive sense and give Kamala actual power to do good in the world, they also cause her a lot of additional struggle. Her extraordinary physical capacity becomes a downright hassle because it manifests in a girl-identified body marked as racially other. And the revelation that Kamala is indeed Inhuman pushes the othering to the limit. This strange, unruly, brown girl body behaves so abnormally that it can’t be human.
Inhumanity, despite being a seemingly fantastical concept, provides an explanatory model for non-compliant girlhood that relies on the idea of genetic destiny. Kamala becomes an unruly girl because of her DNA. The Terrigen mist – first posited as the source of her powers, not merely the catalyst – simply activates something that was almost inevitable. Mapping this idea of genetic destiny onto a brown girl’s body seems troubling, given that the series is published in a society where white-supremacist ideas of racial identity still hold political power. When discussing fantastic modes of representation, and the inclusion of real-life political identities in genre fiction, we must remain critical of how embodied experiences of oppression and difference are either nuanced or glossed over through the use of fantastic metaphors. Inhumanity can be a powerful metaphor for being othered and for being empowered as a result of your othering. Kamala already struggled with being othered due to her identity as a racialized young girl, however, and the fantastic metaphor risks erasing the very real political issues which serve as its base.
Happily, Wilson and Alphona’s Ms. Marvel comics largely avoided this trap and continued to engage with political questions of identity and oppression in nuanced ways. Indeed, Kamala is able to find herself and retain a sense of who she is. It is telling that the word ‘Inhuman’ first appears linked to Kamala in a caption box imposed upon a close-up image of Kamala having a decidedly ‘human moment’ – hair tangled and in her mouth, as she confusedly wakes up from a medically induced post-fight coma. Just a page later, she muses that “This is all so weird. I thought I was finally starting to figure things out. It seems like anytime you want to learn something, you have to unlearn something else. / I thought I was a mutant – now it turns out I’m part alien. I’m a Pak[istani]-American, part-alien, morphogenic nerd."
Ms Marvel Vol. 2: Generation Why, p.78
These caption boxes, which appear on the same spread as the reveal of Kamala’s Inhumanity, show the work required in consolidating a hybrid identity, which is a general theme of the series. The visuals and words compound and layer, as Kamala strives to integrate this new knowledge. She comes to an understanding of herself, not as something radically different to what she thought, but something additional, which can co-exist with her previous sense of who she is. Readers learn along with Kamala that setting her apart from humanity creates space for empowerment.
Making a new world
Being (partly) Inhuman in the Marvel universe doesn’t only mean being an outcast. It also means joining a community of other Inhumans, and this is where the Ms. Marvel series really takes off into the fantastic genre. Up until the reveal (in issue #9), there have been plenty of fantastic elements in the series, but introducing the community of Inhumans ramps up the cosmic multiverse-aspect of the series. Amongst many other things, it provides Kamala with an alien-animal familiar, the giant teleporting bulldog Lockjaw. It also requires her to reorient her sense of self and belonging, offering a new understanding of her identity and place in the world.
Reading with Fawaz allows us to see the superhero genre’s potential for engaging with the real world through a fantastic mode. As Fawaz points out, fluxability is not just a property of particular superhero bodies. It is a mode of world-making which is tied to the comics form and the representational strategies of comics which extend beyond simply including extraordinary bodies. The fantastic mode of the superhero genre moves into a space of radical possibility, leaving more room for both potentially transformative representations and problematic implications.
And although missteps have occurred in its run, Ms. Marvel has remained one of the more progressive titles in the contemporary superhero landscape. I am excited to see how the promises and pitfalls of Inhumanity are translated beyond the comics form. The promise of a super-girl like Kamala stretches the superhero genre even further beyond its limits.
/Charlotte Johanne Fabricius
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Fawaz, Ramzi. 2016. The New Mutants - Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. Postmillennial Pop. New York; London: New York University Press.
Wilson, G. Willow, and Adrian Alphona. 2014. Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal. Ms. Marvel 1. New York: Marvel.
Wilson, G. Willow, and Adrian Alphona. 2014. Ms. Marvel Vol. 2: Generation Why. New York: Marvel Comics.
Suggestions for further reading:
Gibbons, Sarah. 2017. “‘I Don’t Exactly Have Quiet, Pretty Powers’: Flexibility and Alterity in Ms. Marvel.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 8 (5): 450–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/21504857.2017.1355834.
Kent, Miriam. 2015. “Unveiling Marvels: Ms. Marvel and the Reception of the New Muslim Superheroine.” Feminist Media Studies 15 (3): 522–27. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2015.1031964.
Landis, Winona. 2019. “Ms Marvel, Qahera, and Superheroism in the Muslim Diaspora.” Continuum 33 (2): 185–200. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2019.1569385.
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