Graphic Novels, Tough Chicks celebrates the amazing female characters that abound in graphic novels. While many people still associate this particular form with a male readership, certain graphic novels empower women and combat feminine stereotypes through illustration and text. Tough chicks resist injustice, fight for their beliefs, and they don’t take flak from nobody. These women are capable of fighting their own battles, both literally and figuratively.

In this edition of Graphic Novels, Tough Chicks I’m breaking down the much lauded relaunch of Ms. Marvel and the introduction of Kamala Kahn, the first Muslim woman superhero (that I know of, anyway).

Ms. Marvel: No NormalMs Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal (Ms. Marvel (Marvel NOW!) #1)

Author/Artist: G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Genre: YA, Science Fiction

Publisher: Marvel on October 15, 2014

Source: Library

Marvel Comics presents the new Ms. Marvel, the groundbreaking heroine that has become an international sensation!View Spoiler »

MS. MARVEL, VOL. 1: NO NORMAL was one of the most highly anticipated graphic novels of 2014, and for once the hype was actually deserved. Kamala Khan is a typical Jersey City teenager, a 16 year-old who avoids homework and spends most of her time hanging out with her best friends Nakia and Bruno. She struggles to reconcile her Muslim principles with the pressures of fitting in and “being cool,” and butts heads with her parents who only want what’s best for their daughter – although their idea of what’s best is, as Kamala herself states, quite narrow.

After sneaking out of the house to attend a party, Kamala’s problems become considerably larger. She is exposed to a bizarre chemical fog that somehow…changes her. We have very little information about how or why this happened and what the extent of Kamala’s abilities may be, mostly because Kamala herself hasn’t got a clue. This may frustrate some readers, but I’m fine with it since I expect that we’ll get more information about her superhero status in the next volume. For now we know that Kamala can transform and take on the image of other people, she can grow larger or smaller, and if she’s injured in the form of another person she remains unaffected once she transforms back to herself.

Image: G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona
Image: G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona

We first see her powers when Kamala’s desire to fit into mainstream American society manifests in her ability to take the form of a blonde haired, pale skinned (and scantily clad) traditional Ms. Marvel. As she begins to gain control of her abilities, Kamala realizes that she doesn’t need to look like the Ms. Marvel everyone expects: Jersey City doesn’t need some outdated superhero, it needs Kamala Khan. And Kamala Khan is awesome. Watching her try to figure out her abilities is hilarious and heartwarming, especially when she coins the phrases “embiggen” and “disembiggen” to trigger her ability to become larger or smaller.

MS. MARVEL, VOL. 1: NO NORMALis an important comic because it does more than just empower young Muslim women (and all women!), it also critiques the systemic issues that have led to a culture of non-belonging that many people of colour face. Kamala’s classmate Zoe is the embodiment of the prejudice that Muslim Americans and other people of colour must contend with: the popular girl uses backhand compliments and thinly veiled insults to undermine Kamala’s confidence and belittle her heritage. At one point she even asks Kamala’s BFF Nakia if she wears a hijab because her father would “honour kill” her otherwise. I mean…what do you even say to that kind of ignorance?! Nakia handles it really well and just tells Zoe that she wears it despite her father’s belief that it’s just a phase, and that he couldn’t care less. Obviously Zoe is more of a stereotype than an actual character, which is unfortunate because G. Willow Wilson has clearly tried to avoid stereotyping her Muslim characters. Personally I think it would be more valuable if Zoe were a nuanced character, since many of the people who are prejudiced and ignorant do not fit the “mean popular people” stereotype at all: they are often average people with a very messed-up world view. The people who exhibit racist behaviours and cultural prejudice aren’t always who you’d expect.

That said, I think you can still enjoy this graphic novel even if you aren’t interested in the political aspect. Kamala is a lovable heroine who has more to offer than just her skin colour and her religion; when No Normal was first released, many people were concerned that Kamala’s personality would be eclipsed by her unique position in the superhero canon, but that fear has proven to be unfounded. Like many teenagers, she’s struggling to reconcile her heritage with her lived experience as a North American citizen. She’s a huge nerd (ONE OF US) who loves video games, writing fanfiction of The Avengers, and chilling with her friends at the local convenience store. Kamala Khan may be a superhero with incredible abilities, but underneath it all she’s just a normal teenager, body image issues, family drama, and all.

Image: G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona
Image: G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona

I’ll admit that I wasn’t blown away by the art style, but I did appreciate the subtlety and variety that Alphona used to depict the various people in Kamala’s life, especially her Muslim friends and family. While Kamala doesn’t wear a hijab, her friend Nakia does; but Nakia is considerably more fashion-conscious than Kamala, whose personal style is more grunge than runway. I look forward to more panels about Kamala’s family members as well, who are all unique and layered characters.

Since this is a relaunch of the Ms. Marvel franchise introducing a brand-new character, MS. MARVEL, VOL. 1: NO NORMAL is a perfect place to start if you are new to superheroes. I was able to follow along just fine and I’d never even heard of Ms. Marvel before buzz started circulating about this graphic novel! Highly recommended for both teens and adults.