Thursday, January 12, 2017

Comics 1-3, Ms Marvel volumes 4 and 5, Giant Days vol 2.

Read Harder orders a super-hero comic with a female lead, and also an all-ages comic. I was all too happy to oblige and knock a couple of the challenges out of the way early.

It broke through to the mainstream a few years back, but the current iteration of Ms Marvel is a Muslim Pakistani-immigrant teenage girl named Kamala Khan. Just typing all of that made me feel like Marvel was checking off a bunch of "let's get credit for making a bold choice" boxes, but I can say that the creative team does a fantastic job actually making Kamala all of those adjectives in their fullest sense. I read Volume 1 last year, and found it overall delightful, novel, and very interesting. It didn't do anything earth-shaking to the superhero genre, but it was obviously much, much more than a publicity stunt.

Volumes 2 and 3 weren't on the shelves of my local library, so I for no real reason picked up Volume 4, "Last Days." Some mysterious world-ending event is nigh. If you've seen a Marvel movie in the past four years, you are no doubt expecting a strange vortex forming in the sky above New York City. Marvel throws you a curve in this case; the danger is instead a strange planet approaching Earth in the sky above New York City. From that very unpromising start comes just a brilliant adventure. The world is ending, on a scale that Kamala simply cannot handle. Kamala Khan lives in Jersey City, and the town rallies to provide safe shelter for its residents as the end draws near. Kamala tries to save her her family and her friends, and is completely overwhelmed by the demands on her great powers, in the best Spider-man tradition.

In order to save her town, Kamala teams up with Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, who is (understandably) her hero. I have not regularly read comics since the mid-90s, so I have no idea if Carol Danvers is a heavy hitter in the Marvel universe, but her presence gives Kamala the mentor figure she needs, facing her first world-ending threat as a superhero. Their interactions are well done and reminiscent of a college senior coming home from study abroad to discover that her annoying ten-year old sister has suddenly become capable and autonomous, and only needs a little direction.

The real pay-off of the book, however, comes in the last single issue collected in the volume, in which Kamala is out of costume for the entire issue. She bonds with her family, friends, and frenemies in a beautiful, all-hope-is-lost sequence. There is a sequence in which her mother tells her she knows her secret identity and "thank[s] God for having raised a righteous child." It is a lovely moment and a fantastic example of what comics can do right when they're firing on all cylinders. 

How excellent Ms Marvel is becomes even more clear when one reads the random Spider-man issues included in the collection after the main Ms Marvel story. I guess Dr. Ocotopus body-switched with Peter Parker? And there's a sexy Spider-lady? Besides being convoluted beyond all saving, the add-on story was just so tonally inconsistent with Kamala's adventures that it seems unfair to the Spider-man creative team to include it.

As excellent as Volume 4 is, Volume 5 is a mixed bag. There is a massive time skip that was very jarring. (The world-ending event was apparently part of a massive Marvel crossover, so Kamala's role was entirely in managing the Jersey City side of things. Also, evidently Kamala Khan has been invited to join the Avengers. I guess this is a really big deal.) There are some really good touches in this volume, such as Kamala's very religious brother marrying an African-American Muslim girl; an evil plot involving gentrification; Kamala's best friend and kind-of love interest dating a girl who purposefully does not embody the typical physique of a female in comics; and Kamala being stretched thin between super-heroing, helping with the wedding, and fulfilling the basic obligations of being in high school. That said, the gentrification plot veers into the overly cartoony (HYDRA has weaponized aerosol nanobots in order to reshape and take over... Jersey City?), and the answer to keeping up with the stresses of having to be in two places at once is to.. use the school's 3D printer and her best friend's physics genius to create an army of Kamala clones. Yeah  There are still some fantastic human touches in the story, but it's a definite downgrade from Volume 4. The change in artistic team doesn't help; in Volumes 1 and 4, the pencils were done by Adrian Alphona, who had a fairly realistic style and made sure to give Kamala Pakistani features. There's a rotating cast of artists in Volume 5 (including, I see, Alphona for some pages), but Kamala is much more of a manga-looking character for a lot of the book, which is not helpful.

For my all-ages comic, I read John Allison's Giant Days 2. I've been a huge fan of Allison's since his original run of Scary-go-round in 2002, which was a huge inspiration for an online comic I used to draw. I've mostly gotten away from reading daily onlines, but I pick up some collected volumes from time to time. Giant Days features Esther, a character from Scary-go-round, now off at college! Or, rather, university, since this takes place in the UK. I don't have nearly as much to say about Giant Days as Ms Marvel - it's spritely, energetic, manic, and funny, but it's not capital I important like Ms Marvel is at its best. There is drama, misunderstanding, an evil city that's not really evil, and the interesting idea of one of Esther's roommates (or friends? I'm not really sure of the living situation) binging Friday Night Lights and bouncing between Coach and Tami Taylor personas to give various other characters pep talks. It's nice to know that even the Brits see the value in having clear eyes and full hearts!


Brent Waggoner said...

I haven't read anything past End Times (yet) but I love Ms. Marvel so much. Best new hero since Spider-Man, as far as I'm concerned.

Brent Waggoner said...

Also, regarding box-checking, G. Willow WIlson is actually a Muslim, so if she pitched it, maybe it was a little more organic than it sounds.