Kamala's First Origin Story
by Antonio Nelson Ruiz
I’m late to the party; I’m completely and utterly aware of this embarrassing fact. It’s not like I hadn’t heard of the Ms. Marvel relaunch by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, writer and artist respectively, with Ian Herring doing the colors and Sana Amanat editing, ‘cause I certainly had. It’s just that I’d planned to buy the trade paperbacks until I saw they were taking pre-orders for the hardcover collecting the first eleven issues (and material from All-New Marvel Now! Point One #1). So I pre-ordered and I waited. While others were already talking about Kamala Khan’s ongoing adventures as Jersey City’s first – and only – defender of the innocent, I patiently waited month after month for Amazon to ship my order. And recently it did. The book then spent a few days sitting on my nightstand despite my previous excitement. I was totally gonna get to it soon.
Well, my grandmother finally went into hospice earlier today after a long struggle with hypokinetic rigid syndrome, or Parkinson’s Disease as it’s more popularly known. I needed a distraction. That part of my family lives in New York, I’m in Texas. There’s nothing I could do but dwell on the news. So I ripped the plastic off and cracked the book open, hearing its spine bend for the first time.
It’s pretty easy to immediately fall in love with Kamala. The sixteen-year-old Muslim girl grew up in Jersey City with her Pakistani family, so some things about her may seem a little weird, like mainly why they stayed in New Jersey this long. Gluttons for punishment, perhaps? Whatever the case, Kamala is a hometown nerd. She hangs at the local Circle Q with her friends, Bruno and Nakia, while lusting after one of the store’s famous – but tragically unclean -- BLTs. She spends her Friday nights writing Avengers fan-fiction for upvotes on freakingcool.com. And she wants to go to cool parties thrown by cool kids but her parents are worried more for her safety than her social status. We’ve all been there. It’s not that she’s just like us; it’s that she is one of us.
For all the youthful awkwardness and teenage angst Kamala exudes, there remains a certain positivity about her that extends to the supporting cast. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Jusuf and Disha Khan are Kamala’s humble parents, plain-faced immigrants just trying to live the American Dream for the sake of their two children while never forgetting where they came from. They’re not perfect, nor do they profess to be. They’re just trying to do right by their kids. Yet it’s clear they each have their favorite when we’re first introduced to them at the dinner table. Jusuf clearly favors Kamala, while Disha has a soft spot for Aamir, Kamala’s older brother who wishes to find his own identity through his family’s cultural heritage. It all reads so familiar because it is, the same kind of family politics and identity issues we all wade through on the way (and sometimes beyond) to adulthood, no matter our background.
And what’s youth without that first rebellious act? When Kamala defies her parents and sneaks out to the cool party being thrown by the cool kids down by the waterfront, it smells like that first whiff of freedom…and Jersey water. It’s strange and exciting and Kamala totally shouldn’t be there, but she is and that’s what makes it so exhilarating. Until it stops being all of those things. The cool kids aren’t cool and the cool party is just an excuse to get drunk and be jerks. Kamala had to find that out for herself, with her own two eyes. It’s not until she ditches the party that the real excitement begins. A larger recent development in the Marvel Universe is the detonation of a Terrigen Bomb by the Inhumans, releasing a cloud that’s slowly creeping its way across the globe and activating powers in anyone who happens to have a little Inhuman somewhere in their bloodline. They’re kinda-sorta like Mutants, but descended from a warrior-race called the Kree instead. Kamala is now one of them.
After a very odd dream sequence involving Captain America, Iron Man and Kamala’s favorite super-hero, Captain Marvel, she bursts out of a smoky cocoon and immediately realizes she’s not herself. Almost literally so! She’s tall and leggy and white and has long blonde hair that gets in her face, nearly the spitting image of Captain Marvel down to her old less politically correct costume. Yeah, sure, perhaps it’s a little heavy-handed a metaphor for our teenage struggles, but it works. Kamala has always wanted to be someone else, someone who fit in better, and now she is and it kinda sucks.
It takes a little bit of not freaking the heck out on her part, but soon Kamala gets some semblance of control and reverts back to how she normally looks. She’s not in the clear yet, though. Two of the jerky cool kids get themselves in a fix and Kamala steps up to save one of them from drowning with her newfound shape-shifting powers. She didn’t have to; she wanted to. That kind of sanctity for life isn’t always abundant, not on a reflex anyway, so it’s good to see it as Kamala’s first instinct.
For all her apparent bravery, though, Kamala still has to sneak back into her family’s home because it’s after her curfew. You’re reminded she’s just a kid who has to answer to someone, namely her parents, at the end of the day after Bruno rats her out – at least, that’s what he did as far as she’s concerned. It’s also a reminder that she’s a weird geek when she tries to explain her powers to her brother and he doesn’t understand, instead assuming someone hurt her and vowing to kick their butt. Classic older brother. It’s what they do, what they look forward to doing. Her parents don’t understand, either. If she can’t fully grasp what she’s become, how could they? Which is probably giving them less credit than they deserve, but humans are well-known for feeling alone in a sea of their own kind.
Kamala’s had a busy night and there’s a lot to mull over. That’s fine, she’s grounded for the foreseeable future anyway.
“What does it mean to have powers? To be able to look like someone I’m not?
What if I don’t fit into my old life anymore? Like it’s a pair of pants I’ve just outgrown?
Would I still be Kamala?”
Everyone’s talking about the strange mist and how Captain Marvel saved a girl from drowning the night before. It’s on the news and in the papers. Kamala’s aware of this, but she’s too preoccupied with trawling the internet for an explanation as to her new abilities while simultaneously running late for Sheikh Abdullah’s Saturday youth lecture down at their local mosque. The latter is an interesting peek into the more traditional, non-geek part of Kamala’s life, not the kind of situation you’d expect to find her in but of course you still had to attend church just the same as a kid because you were expected to by your parents and maybe you’d learn something in the process. Not that it’s a quiet process. Kamala and Sheikh Abdullah don’t always see eye-to-eye, clearly their conflicting opinions born of a generational gap, but they seem to do their best to regard one another with more mutual respect rather than mutual frustration.
Nakia’s there, also. While the other girls are slouching or napping or perusing their smartphone, Nakia sits up straight, proudly listening to Sheikh Abdullah’s every word. Kamala made it seem like this is a new development in Nakia who until recently went by ‘Kiki’. Identity and our search for it continues to be a big running theme threaded throughout the overall story.
Soon, though, Kamala and Nakia are back out there in the big, diverse world again. The Sheikh’s lecturing on propriety in this era of scandal and temptation is replaced by the far less scandalous affairs of strained teenage friendships and bonehead schemes. Kamala’s supporting cast is also further explored. Bruno has a brother, Vick the architect of said bonehead scheme that’s distracting Bruno from repairing the rift between him and Kamala. Bruno, Circle Q clerk and loyal friend, turns out to be something of a scientific genius who’s created a goo capable of making something stretchy even stretchier. I bet that’ll come in handy at some point.
Now, there’s many good reasons to run out of a classroom in a panic. A few biological, a few emotional, but few are rarely ever superhuman. In Kamala’s case it is. She ends up hiding out in the girls’ locker room, desperate to get her powers under control and indeed doing just that. She also ends up getting sent to detention, so I suppose you could say it was a wash. At least until her parents find out she got into trouble at school. And when a text from Bruno promises to fix their friendship later in the day, Kamala gets caught up in the middle of a bonehead scheme that results in a gun going off and one’s limits being discovered. Growing pains, I suppose you can call it.
I’ll stop here, for now. Before I go, I just want to say how much of a delight it’s been to finally read this title. By the time I reached the third issue in the collection, I knew I’d be writing about the experience. The creative forces behind Ms. Marvel, and more importantly Kamala Khan, have cemented what I already knew: I’m a fan.