Thursday, July 17, 2014

Editorial Critique: Ms. Marvel #1 by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Overall Rating: 9/10 
I'll admit I approached this book with some skepticism, concerned that Marvel's inclination to push a politically correct character would result in a politically correct story, and generally poor story-telling.  I was wrong.  The book carefully dances around blaming anyone for the feelings of alienation experienced by the story's lead character, a Muslim-American teenage girl.  Instead, so far the story is all about her inner struggle and the dramas created by clearly introduced themes.

The story-telling and character building are superb, with some minor missteps I'll discuss below in scene analysis.  There is subtlety without guesswork, which is well taken in a series' first issue.  In other words, a reader knows exactly what this book is about and can make an informed decision as to whether to stay on board or pass.  

Writing Technique: 9/10 
Wilson may have captured the teenage voice even better than Bendis did in Ultimate Spiderman.  Dialogue is economical, realistic, compelling.  Nothing extraneous, well edited.

Story Telling: 8/10 
We don't have a serious plot thread yet, but we know a ton about our main character and quite a bit about the supporting cast.  That's fine for issue #1.    

Characters: 7/10 
Kamala is brilliantly set up.  I'm a little concerned that some of the supporting cast might emerge as caricatures, but let's see where it goes.

Art: 9/10
Rich coloring, judicious balance between detail and abstract, and zany snipes in the backgrounds.  The style of art, for whatever reason, reminds me of Miller's Dark Knight Returns only brighter and more vibrant.  A careful eye exploring the background will notice all manner of mockingly humorous product labels and signage--good for a chuckle but not necessarily affecting the mood of the book, a sort of story within the story.

Scene Analysis:
Scene 1
Two Muslim-American teen girls socialize with the white teen cashier at a neighborhood convenience store before school.  Fellow white students enter, a boy in a varsity sports jacket and a bubbly girl.  The five socialize briefly, and the "jock" invites the other three to a party.  The conversation touches on Islamic cultural issues.  All leave for school.

This opening scene is fantastic.  In three pages of compact, natural dialogue, we are well along towards familiarization with our characters' personalities.  Likewise we are overtly introduced to ideas/themes the authors want to explore:  
1.  The notion of there being a spectrum of Islamic religious and cultural observance within the American-Muslim community and the tension among American-Muslims that spectrum creates (at least for now among teens although I suspect the scope will broaden as the book progresses).  Great fuel for conflict and drama!  
2.  The awkwardness or alienation between people of different cultures, even when both are well meaning.  This one is a bit cliche and tired by now, I hope they focus on #1.

Scene 2
Kamala's mother interrupts Kamala while she reviews social media commentary on a piece of Avenger's fan-fiction she wrote.  At her mother's request, Kamala joins the family dinner.  Kamala's father and brother bicker over brother's devotion to religious studies instead of getting a job.  Kamala asks for permission to attend the party that evening, but her father refuses and Kamala returns to her room.

Here we see the definite broadening of the theme presented in the previous scene.  The conflict of religious observance is now between Kamala's brother and father, which manifests itself visually with the son's religious dress and the father's secular American business attire.  Indeed, readers already familiar with some interpretations of Islam would notice that the father's working at an American bank (an interest based lender) would be frowned on.  

The dispute between Kamala and her father slightly misses a beat, in the sense that I am left wondering if the authors were aiming at portraying Kamala's father as overprotective (perhaps because of his culture) or instead just like any other American father of a teenage daughter.  After all, he did not immediately say no, and only refused permission after learning it was an unsupervised party, at a waterfront, with drinking around teenage boys.  (I think a father's reluctance under the circumstances is pretty universal, and nothing particular to Islamic culture.)  So were we watching a typical "American" father-daughter dispute, or a "Pakistani" father-daughter dispute?  Or was it intentionally ambiguous so the reader can decide for themselves?  Personally I think clearer intent was in order, but not a serious misstep.  

As for Kamala's authorship of fan fiction, I'm not clear if it signals that in her world super heroes exist only as comic book characters, in real life, or both.  Not important?

Scene 3
Kamala stews over her father's refusal to allow her to go to the party, and generally the alienation from her peers caused by certain aspects of her culture.  The scene closes with her sneaking out her bedroom window.

As I mentioned in the prior scene, I was left unsure whether the father's refusal to allow Kamala to attend the party was culturally driven, or simple universal paternal instinct of a teenage father.  Now we see how the reader's uncertainty (well, at least mine) about the father's motives,cultural vs. universal, matter because we don't know what to make of Kamala's rebellion otherwise.

If we're supposed to think the father is "un-American" in his protectiveness, then we view Kamala as embracing American feminism.  We see her rebelling against a culture that oppresses women.  We see her taking her fate into her own hands. 

BUT, if we understand the father's refusal as more universal (or at least within the range of behavior for a "normal" American father), then we would see Kamala differently.  She's the one who misunderstands American culture by assuming all American fathers let their teenage daughters go to unsupervised parties, and misunderstands her father's motives.  Or, we might see her as so full of teenage angst and cultural confusion that despite the universality of her father's protectiveness, she blames their culture unjustly (as all teens are wont to do).

So there is a bit of confusion here about Kamala's character.  For now this is no big deal, because at the core of it is dramatic tension between Kamala and her family's culture.  The nuances will likely work themselves out as we go.  My point is just that a little more care with the dinner table dispute in the previous scene could have avoided the confusion altogether.

Scene 4
Kamala finds her way to the party, a typical scene of dozens of teenagers hanging around, chatting, drinking from cups.  Kamala is offered a drink, but spits it out upon learning it contains alcohol.  The American girl from the first scene, obviously drunk, takes issue with Kamala's curry smell.  Bruno, the cashier from the convenience store, intervenes but advises her to leave.  Kamala argues with Bruno, but storms off.

The authors brilliantly use en vino veritas as a device to allow some ugly (but accurate?) stereotypes to surface without rising to the level of damning critique.  For example, we have no way of knowing if Kamala really smells like curry (it's fair to say that some middle eastern diets can cause this), but maybe she does, and the booze causes Zoe to let slip a comment she'd otherwise keep to herself.  Thus, the authors avoid  portraying the white American girl as a xenophobe stereotype--she was just tipsy!  In the end we get where the authors want to go, i.e. amplifying Kamala's cultural self-consciousness and feelings of alienation.

Arguably the en vino veritas device wasn't necessary, as Bruno is presumably Caucasian and his more upstanding and tolerant behavior foils the ugly stereotypes we could read into Zoe and the Jocks.  And speaking of Bruno, the foreshadowing technique of his love interest in Kamala is cliche, but this is issue #1 and the authors felt the need to put that out there quickly.  We'll see if perhaps it wouldn't have been wiser to hold that thread in reserve and introduce it in a more interesting way.

Scene 5
A misty cloud rolls over the city.  Having left the party and alone on the street, Kamala is overwhelmed by the vapors and passes out.  In a dream or vision, she encounters several of the Avengers, who identify themselves as avatars for "faith."  They briefly discuss Kamala's motivations for sneaking out of her house to the party, and Kamala's identity crisis.   She's told she's about to be "rebooted," her dreams of being a super hero are about to come true, but vaguely warned of unexpected consequences.  She awakens in a cocoon of sorts, and hatches herself out as a tall, blonde, fair-skinned Ms. Marvel in costume.

The scene economically summarizes, and perhaps clarifies, Kamala's motivations, stakes and wants.  She doesn't outright reject her parent's culture, but feels very lost in trying to find balance with her American upbringing.  She's aware that her own lack of balance has given false impressions to others, blurring others' ability to understand and relate to her, which leads to social awkwardness and heightened sense of alienation.   I like the fact that neither Kamala nor the authors are exclusively blaming white Americans for Kamala's dilemma.  Rather, she's owning her share of the cause and finding her way through it. Clear, concise, we're ready for issue #2.

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