An interesting thing that happens when we remember the stories that influenced us as we figure ourselves out: we tend to remember the style of them instead of the substance. Style is simpler – it’s the razzle-dazzle, the special effects, the stuff that sticks with you, but it’s the substance that gives the style meaning, and the reason the style sticks with you is the substance that made the style matter.
This is an argument we’ve made before, but bear with us. We’re going somewhere with this, and we tend to focus more on substance than style. Simply how we work.
Many comic writers grew up in the silver or bronze age of comics, and they talk about the hey-day of the silver age. They look at the stories of that time as somehow being better, purer, than the tales we get today. We’re going to use Spider-Man as the example in the case of this article because no one has suffered more from this than that character.
See, back in the mid-aughts, the Marvel editorial board decided that Spider-Man was no longer relatable and decided they wanted to go back to Silver Age Spidey. What they meant by this was single Spidey, so they had him sell his marriage to Satan. To make it easier for people to relate to him. They moved him back in his social relationships so that we could go back and live through all the things that character had already moved past.
It was not the smartest move in the world.
Trick of it was, the editorial board mistook style for substance. Spider-Man living his aunt, being single, being unlucky – these are elements of his style, but not the core of the character’s substance. Spidey is easy to relate to because he’s an outlier who chooses to do good. He was someone we could aspire to be, the friend we all want to have and the person we all want to be. There was a sense of pure creative joy that was relevant to the time and still fed into the idea that anything could happen in his stories, and that those stories were going somewhere.
Moving him back meant losing all of that. Especially the bit where he sold his marriage to Satan; I’m not sure what that says about the Marvel editorial board of that time and what they thought people could relate to. He got all the style of things the character had moved past, and we were left with a depressed misanthrope that was not fun to read.
There’s been a few other Spider-comics that have come out since. Spider-Gwen, Silk, Spider-Woman. They’re all fun, yes, but the best Spider-Man comic being published today is Ms. Marvel.
What do I mean by this? Ms. Marvel isn’t a Spider-Man character, she has no spider powers, has no connection to Peter Parker! There’s no style connection at… wait. Wait a minute.
Peter Parker was a high school outcast who lived at home with a family that loved him but didn’t understand him. He got super powers by accident and, after some thinking, decided to be a hero to make up for his sense of guilt. He bungled some of his early attempts, but his willingness to press on earned him the respect of his peers, but he never lost the sense of wide-eyed wonder when looking at his own life.
Kamala Khan is a high school outcast who lives at home with a family that loves her but doesn’t understand her. She got super powers by chance and, after some thinking, decided to be a hero because she couldn’t imagine being anything else. She bungled some of her early attempts, but her willingness to press on earned her the respect of her peers, but she never lost the sense of wide-eyed wonder when looking at her own life.
Okay, that’s the style of the thing. What about the substance?
Kamala is an outlier at home, at school, and in society. At home she’s a geek, one of those milliennials the older generations live in such fascinated dread of. She spends as much of her life online as off, has friends she’s never met. She’s intelligent and passionate about her interests, some of which are not socially popular. She’s awkward and figuring herself out. She’s a kid like any other, someone who is uncertain of her place in the world but us eager to figure out what it might be.
She’s also a societal outlier – not just because she’s a milliennial, but because she’s a Muslim. Islam has become a cultural bogeyman in America for reasons of propaganda, but she’s a young woman of quiet faith and doesn’t let that get her down. Her family is proud of their heritage and healthy in how they interact with one another, even if Kamala is still figuring that out.
Her interactions with her family and her faith are a large part of what makes this comic so endearing, and so relatable. We all grow up thinking our families are a little strange, and part of becoming an adult is making sense of our family and our faith and figuring out what it all means. Kamala is open-minded, willing to listen but not willing to back down when she knows she’s right – which isn’t to say she’s convinced she’s always right.
Kamala is willing to listen to other people, accept their viewpoints and whatever information they have, and then make her own decisions, and all of her decisions are based upon being the greatest possible good.
She listens to her villains. She tries to understand who they are, where they’re coming from, and she considers their point of view. She acts only when she’s certain that they’re in the wrong, and she tries to help them whenever possible. That’s very Silver Age, the idea that we can make the world a better place without any hint of irony or cynicism.
Kamala is someone downtrodden who, when given power, chooses to help her community and the world. This used to be a common theme in superhero books, but there’s now an underlying thought that those with powers would lord it over ordinary people. Ms. Marvel is a direct challenge to that way of thinking, a callback to the rampant and unabashed idealism of that fabled age.
And speaking of the Silver Age comparisons don’t stop there. One of the hallmarks of that era was the quick introduction of villains, new foes that represented a host of different ideas. From J. Jonah Jameson’s unreasoning hatred of a new hero representing the establishment keeping the man down to the Green Goblin’s exceptional greed and ambition to Doctor Octopus’ anger over how he’d been treated, all of Spider-Man’s foes reflected either the real world or the character himself or, in the best cases, both.
Ms. Marvel has a similar capacity of creative villains, from a Thomas Edison clone who literally wants to denigrate milliennials before using them as a free source of power for the old to Kamran, a bitter youth who lords power over people the moment he has it and is a dark reflection of Kamala herself, much as Doc Ock is with the wall-crawler.
The parallel runs deeper, though, as Kamran comes across as the type of person most of our heroes have become, the self-involved arrogant jerk who thinks his power gives him the right to do anything he wants. He is utterly mystified that Kamala would choose to help other people: he has the style of a hero but none of the substance, his selfishness driving him to hurt everyone around him while leaving him at the mercy of those more powerful than him.
And they think even less of him than Kamala does.
The largest proof I can point to when it comes to this story’s excellence is the latest arc, where Ms. Marvel is trying to help people deal with the oncoming end of the Marvel Universe. The mistakes made by other writers have led the Marvel editorial board to hit the cosmic rest button, which has worked out poorly every single time it has been tried. I’m not sure why people still think it’s a good idea, but…
Kamala has been out on the streets, helping keep her community safe. She gets to meet her hero – Captain Marvel, the superbeing she aspires to be – and protects her society, her school, her family. She makes the best choices she can and is confident in her ability to make a difference, and it’s that confidence that allows her to grow and mean as much as she does.
And then she tells her mom, who has been endlessly hard on her, that she is Ms. Marvel, and this happens:
Eighteen issues to get to this moment. Eighteen issues where Kamala Khan has fought and grown and thought, eighteen issues where she’s done the best she can to make the world a better place. Eighteen issues of hiding who she is, believing her family would never approve. Eighteen issues to get to this one perfect moment of familial acceptance and pride.
If this was it – if this truly was the end of the Marvel universe and not some stupid marketing trick – this character could not have asked for a better ending.
And this is the heart of things. Ms. Marvel works because there is a constant state of progression and movement, stumbling though it might be. Even that sense of stumbling works with the over all sense of things, as Kamala learns to claim her agency and her life. She never loses sight of herself and never loses hope. The world she’s inherited is not the one she would have asked for, but given the chance to make it better she rises to occasion.
This is everything that Spider-Man was and should have grown past, because his stories should be of a different sort now. This is what people mean when they talk about the greatness of the Silver Age, creativity and progression. Ms. Marvel is all substance, with style happening to serve that substance and make the whole of stronger.
G. Willow Wilson’s pacing and dialogue and throwaway lines all serve the characters and their stories, and makes this engaging and youthful. Adrian Alphona’s art capture both the sense of wonder and the clumsy meandering that comes with moving into one’s self. Ian Herring’s colors are vibrant, bright, a perfect frame from which to see the direction of these tales.
Ms. Marvel is the best Marvel comic being published today, on par with the mythic trinity (Thor, Loki, and Angela). It’s a rallying cry of how awesome the medium can be and how much a character can mean, a throwback to a bygone era with respect to the complexities of modern days.
Give it time.
We will all look back on Ms. Marvel with the same respect and affection we give Spider-Man now.