Kamala Khan or Ms. Marvel? Identity in “Ms. Marvel: No Normal”
Ever since I first read G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel, I knew that I wanted to teach it in one of my courses. This semester, I finally had the chance to teach volume 1, “No Normal,” in my Multicultural American Literature class. Today, I want to write some about Ms. Marvel, specifically looking at the ways that Kamala Khan grapples with her identity over the first five issues of the series.
The first five issues of Ms. Marvel collected in “No Normal” chronicle Pakistani-American Kamala Khan’s coming to terms with her new identity as a superhero. However, this is not the only conflict with identity that Kamala encounters. From the very beginning of the series, questions and discussions of identity take center stage.
Issue #1 begins with Kamala and her Turkish-American friend Nakia looking at the food in the Circle Q. The opening panel shows two Easy Greasy B.L.T. sandwiches and the word bubble, “I just want to smell it.” The next panel pans out to show Kamala, Nakia, and Bruno as Kamala drools over the sandwiches. We learn, in this panel, about her Muslim heritage and faith when she says, “Delicious, delicious infidel meat.”
After Nakia suggests that Kamala try Facon, Kamala calls her friend “Kiki,” a name that she does not like. Kamala then states, “Sorry. Nakia. Proud Turkish Nakia doesn’t need ‘Amreeki’ nickname. I get it.” These first four panels foreground Kamala’s struggles with identity. She wants to indulge in the “infidel meat” in the B.L.T., but if she did, she would go against her faith and her family. Nakia, on the other hand, holds strong to her identity, knowing who she is, and we see this when Zoe comes into the store and comments on Nakia’s hijab.
Zoe tells Nakia, “Your headscarf is so pretty, Kiki. I love that color.” In this panel, Nakia looks towards Zoe in disgust, with her hand underneath her chin. Zoe faces Nakia, smiling wildly as she makes the comment. Nakia responds to Zoe simply with her name, “Nakia.” To this, Zoe continues, “But I mean . . . nobody, pressured you to start wearing it, right? Your father or somebody? Nobody’s going to honor kill you? I’m just concerned.” Nakia corrects Zoe for calling her “Kiki,” and Zoe ignores her, choosing instead to show the stereotypes that she has imbibed by asking Nakia if her father made her wear the hijab.
The next panel shows Nakia in profile, defiantly staring down Zoe and telling her, “Actually, my dad wants me to take it off. He thinks it’s a phase.” With this, Nakia highlights her identity, and she counters Zoe’s, and the readers’, preconceived beliefs that someone forced Nakia to wear a hijab. Through her comments that she chose to do it herself and that her father disapproves, she highlights that she constructs her own identity. She does not allow her family or Zoe to construct it for her.
To this, Zoe asks, “Really? Wow, cultures are so interesting.” Again, Zoe pushes Nakia’s agency to the side through her comments. She shows her lack of knowledge about her classmates, and she shows that her beliefs come not from any interaction with Nakia and Kamala but from stereotypes that she has taken in through various outlets, most likely the media. From the outset, Nakia knows who she is, but Kamala must come to her own identity, and the opening pages showcase this.
The first time we see Kamala at her home, she is writing Avengers’ fan fiction. A full page shows the story she pens, a story where Captain America, Iron Man, and Captain Marvel fight an extraterrestrial monster attacking Planet Unicorn. Her mother calls her down to dinner, and at the table, we meet her mother, her father, and her brother. Here, we continue to get discussions of identity.
At the table, her brother Aamir prays before the meal, and his father tells him to stop and eat. He tells his son, “Prayer is noble, but when you spend all day praying, it starts to look like you’re avoiding something. Like finding a job, for example.” The father’s comments echoes Nakia’s from earlier. Zoe would believe that Aamir’s actions would be “normal,” based on stereotypes; however, this is not the truth. Rather, Aamir’s Abu is not strictly religious. Instead, we see him as partly Americanized. He drinks from a cup that says, “World’s Grooviest Dad” and works at a bank.
Later, Kamala asks her father if she can go to the party that Zoe and Josh mentioned at the Circle Q. Her father tells her no, she pushes back, and he tells her to go to her room. Kamala storms up stairs. In her room, she sits in front of the mirror and thinks, “Why am I the only one who gets signed out of health class? Why do I have to bring Pakoras to school for lunch? Why am I stuck with the weird holidays? Everybody else gets to be normal.”
The panel shows Kamala’s back and her reflection in the mirror. She sits with her hand on her chin. This positioning, along with Kamala’s thoughts, highlight how Kamala views herself through the eyes of others. The reflection becomes what Zoe and others see, and she sees the same thing. She does not view herself as “normal,” but the question really is, “What is normal?” At this moment, Kamala views what Zoe and Josh do as normal. She views their parties and their dietary habits as normal. However, who determined that that is normal?
Kamala sneaks out of the house, and the next panel shows her climbing down the tree outside her window. She thinks, “Why can’t I [be normal]?” Kamala thinks about this question again and again throughout the first five issues of Ms. Marvel. When thinking about these questions, she bases her beliefs not on her own perceptions of normal but on the perceptions of others. Nakia, in juxtaposition to Kamala, knows who she is, and she does not let Zoe or others define her. Eventually, Kamala gets to this point, but it takes her transformation into Ms. Marvel to bring her to it.
Immediately after Kamala breaks out of the egg like object that encases her after she passes out from the terrigen gas, Kamala perceives herself as Carol Danvers, not as Kamala Khan. This sequence, in and of itself, is worth noting because she emerges from the structure, breaking out of it through her own agency. When she steps out of it, we see that she has become what she wanted to become, Ms. Marvel with “the classic, politically incorrect costume and kick butt . . . giant wedge heels.”
The second issue begins with Kamala, looking like Danvers, sitting on the street disoriented. She feels like she is going to throw up, and the penultimate panel shows her vomiting. The panel is an interesting juxtaposition that carries over into the following panels. No words are in the panel except for the muffled, “MMMFF!” Instead, Alphona’s images carries the message.
What makes this panel important for our discussion is what Alphona shows. We see Carol Danvers’ body and hair, out of her hair, we see a switch to Kamala’s and we see Kamala’s face, with two different colored eyes. Danvers’ hand is over Kamala’s mouth, eliminating her ability to speak or scream. Kamala has no agency here.
Kamala wants to be like her fellow students, “normal,” and she wants to be like the politically incorrect version of Ms. Marvel. The construction of this panel highlights how those aspirations hinder Kamala from being herself and coming into her own identity. Rather, she feels like she must conform to the images that other create. The panel of her throwing up herself works within this because it highlights the tensions gaining on within Kamala’s own psyche over her identity.
When she encounters Josh and Zoe in the fog, she turns, momentarily into Carol Danvers, but when she becomes afraid that they might see her, she becomes Kamala, shrinking to the size of a bug so they won’t discover her presence. However, when Zoe falls into the lake, Kamala thinks about her father quoting the Quran: “Whoever kills one person, it is as if he killed all of mankind. And whoever saves one person, it is as if he has saved all of mankind.” At this, she grows bigger and turns into Carol Danvers, saving Zoe.
Here, she feels more powerful and assertive as Danvers. She feels as if she can approach the situation and save Zoe. As Kamala, she feels smaller, unsure. Again, this movement back and forth highlights the struggle within Kamala, not just because of her new found abilities but because of her feeling that she is not “normal.”
As she walks away from the scene, Kamala begins to think about her new identity. She still looks like Carol Danvers, and she thinks, “Being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting.” She begins to realize that putting on the mask of whiteness (Danvers in the case) to feel normal isn’t right. She begins to understand that striving to be someone that others think you should be is more exhausting than rewarding.
She looks at her hair and continues, “I always thought that if I had amazing hair. If I could pull off great boots. If I could fly — that would make me feel string. That would make me happy.” These things, though, only cause her pain. She does not feel happy; instead, hair gets in her face and she has “an epic wedgie.”
Looking at Jersey City, she ponders, “What made me happy. What made me happy was seeing Zoe take a breath of air, even though she makes everybody feel like crap. I’m glad I was there. I’m glad she lived.” Here, Kamala realizes that her identity and happiness reside in her actions, doing what is right by saving Zoe. She realizes that Zoe’s opinion doesn’t matter, and unlike earlier where she tells Nakia that Zoe is nice, she thinks about the way Zoe makes others feel.
Along with her thoughts, the framing of the panel presents her as a superhero, one that will look over the city and its inhabitants. Back towards us, she stands, looking like Danvers, and gazes over the city as the terrigen gas swirls around her. While it present her as a superhero, it also plays into our preconceived notions of whiteness with superheroes: Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, etc.
The cover of issue #5, though, counters this initial image. In earlier issues, which I will discuss later, Kamala comes into her self, but I want to point out this image first because it directly plays against the previous panel. Here, we see Kamala, in her new costume which she made from her burkini and her head scarf, sitting on a lamppost, at night, and looking at the skyline of the city. It is similar, in many ways, to the previous panel. The main difference, though, is that we see Kamala as Ms. Marvel, not Kamala as the Carol Danvers version of Ms. Marvel. In this way, she challenges the image we have of superheroes.
Chris Reyns-Chikuma and Désirée Lorenz’s comments about Ms. Marvel’s reception in France are worth noting here. Reyns-Chikuma and Lorenz write about the cover of “No Normal” where we see Kamala, from the nose down, with the lighting bolt on her shit, the scarf around her neck, the bracelets on her wrists, and her school books. They point out that “[I]n contrast to most representations of Carol Danvers and other superheroines, first, Kamala is not represented right away as a superhero, and, second, she is not sexualized; conversely, she is intellectualized.”
Reyns-Chikuma and Lorenz’s latter point is worth noting because Kamala wanted to be the sexualized, non-PC, Carol Danvers’ Ms. Marvel, but once she tried it on, she discovered that that version was not her. It did not correlate to her beliefs and her ideals. Rather, it only made her exhausted and gave her wardrobe problems. As well, she does not appear as a superhero, save for the lightning bolt on her shirt. On the cover for issue #5, though, she appears as a superhero. Kamala’s progression throughout the volume challenges, again, the whiteness of superheroes.
The back cover asks, “But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman?” Before we even read the book, from the front cover and the back, we’re asked to go along with Kamala on her journey to discover her identity. The paratextual material does not tell us how to think about Kamala. It gives us options. Ultimately, Kamala tells us how to think about her. Instead of bringing our own presuppositions and placing them onto her, we learn who Kamala is from Kamala.
During class in issue #3, Kamala’s hand starts to grow, so she runs to the locker room to keep anyone from seeing. She grows, bumping her head on the ceiling, and her size increases her strength, breaking a bench. She stops, concentrates, and asks, “Now, can I look like anybody? Or just Carol Danvers redux?” To this point, Kamala has morphed into Danvers, placing her own perceptions of beauty and what a superhero looks like onto herself.
She struggles to change, and she asks, “Like, for example, could I look like . . . “ The next panel finishes her question, and she states, “Ammi?!” Kamala did not mean to morph into her mother; instead, she “was totally going for Taylor Swift.” The fact that Kamala morphs into her mother is important, and the panel highlights this with the framing.
Instead of having Kamala look at her hands, clothes, and appearance from her own perspective, she sits in front of a mirror. Thus, she has a reflection staring back at her. This framing echoes the earlier scene in issue #1 where she sits in front of the mirror and contemplates why she is not “normal” like her classmates. The mirror serves as a projection of herself, and a projection of how others view her. In this case, Kamala sees herself through her mother’s eyes. The transformation doesn’t last long, only about three panels, but the positioning drives home the point that Kamala, throughout the volume, is dealing with finding her own identity amidst the various ways that people perceive her and project onto her.
At the end of issue #3, Kamala heads to the Circle Q and sees Bruno’s brother, Vick, attempting to rob the store. She does not realize it is Vick. Here, again, she morphs into Carol Danvers, enters into the store, and Vick ends up shooting her. In the next issue, Bruno discovers that Ms. Marvel is in fact Kamala because she morphs into her own image on the floor.
Bruno tells her that he doesn’t understand, and Kamala replies, “The police, they can’t know it’s me. My parents will freak, the NSA will wiretap our mosque or something, and then they’ll sell me to science.” Within this panel, Kamala brings another dimension into her search for identity. Is her appearance as Carol Danvers safer for the community than her appearance as Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager? This goes in to the discussion I had earlier about the whiteness of superheroes, and it comes up again when the police arrive.
Immediately before they arrive, Bruno asks Kamala why she hides behind Danvers’ façade. She tells him, “[E]verybody’s expecting Ms. Marvel. A real super hero. With perfect hair and big boots. Not Kamala Khan from Jersey City.” To Kamala, they expect a white super hero. Bruno responds by telling her, “Who cares what people expect? Maybe they expect some perfect blonde. What I need, I mean, what we need, is you.” Bruno’s assertion undercuts the whiteness of super heroes. He knows that Jersey City needs someone like Kamala.
Jersey City’s diversity appears in various ways throughout the volume, and this is why Bruno makes the statement he does. We see the community’s diversity in the people gathered outside the Circle Q after Kamala saves Zoe. We see it when Nakia and Kamala leave the mosque. They walk in front of a Vietnamese grocer as the owner sweeps the front steps. We see it in the food Kamala grabs from the refrigerator in issue #5. Kamala represents the diversity of Jersey City, Carol Danvers does not.
As the police pull up, Kamala tries to morph back into Carol Danvers, but when she does, the gunshot wound still hurts her. When she is Kamala, it doesn’t affect her. To hide her identity, Bruno finds a sleep mask that Kamala uses to cover her eyes. When the police enter, she stands, arms at her side, in her street clothes, and proclaims, “I’m Ms. Marvel.”
One of the officers asks if this is prank “[c]ause,” as he tells Kamala, “you don’t look like Ms. Marvel to me.” The framing of this panel shows the officer and Kamala both in profile with a solid yellow background. His face is close to hers. She touches her mask and asks, “What’s Ms. Marvel supposed to look like?” Here, Kamala flips the script. She has been the one viewing Ms. Marvel as Carol Danvers; now, though, her perceptions have changed. She sees herself as Ms. Marvel.
The next panel continues this shift, showing the officers head on, as if from Kamala’s point of view. We look over Kamala’s hat as the officer replies, “You know. Tall, blonde, with the big powers.” Kamala listens then tells them, “I’ve got big powers,” as she grows and smashes her head into the ceiling. It is this moment, the robbery, where Kamala comes into her own self. She does not base her identity on how others view her.
Over the next couple of issues, she transforms into Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel. She repurposes her burkini as part of costume, uses her headscarf as a cape, and fashions the rest of her outfit. After battling with the Inventor’s crew, people gather outside the Circle Q to look at an effigy of Ms. Marvel, and effigy meant to send a message.
Kamala arrives, in full costume, hands on her hips, scarf flowing in the wind, with a bright light shining on her back. The image invokes super hero iconography. She tells the crowd, “This guy thinks he can threaten us where we live? Ms. Marvel has a message for him. This is Jersey City. We talk loud, we walk fast, and we don’t take any disrespect. Don’t mess.”
Kamala becomes the super hero for the community, not the super hero that pops in every now and then when nothing happens across the water in New York. She becomes the super hero that Bruno mentions. She represents the diversity of Jersey City. She represents the struggles of the community. She represents herself, and her own identity.