by Adam Benay
Ms. Marvel, words by G. Willow Wilson, art by Takeshi Miyazawa and Adrian Alphona, Hip Hop variant by Jenny Frison (Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill)
A 16 year old Muslim girl named Kamala Kahn writes fan fiction about the Avengers and her favorite hero, Captain Marvel (formerly Ms. Marvel). She struggles with a torn identity: how can she live a normal teenage life when her parents would have a heart-attack if she held hands with a boy? These problems are made larger- literally- when she is exposed to the mist that activates her “Inhuman gene.” She gains the power to grow, shrink or stretch any part of her body.
In “Ms. Hill,” Talib Kweli speaks directly to his friend Lauryn, telling her that what her “album did for black girls’ self-esteem was so important.” Many of the letters-to-the-editor in Ms. Marvel (as well as The Avengers, once Kamala starts hanging with the big kids) are from Muslim girls around the world who express a similar sentiment.
It is hard to read them and not get chills of inspiration. Kamala’s struggles echo so many of the themes of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: faith, family, putting those you care about before your career, living on the Sirat al-Mustaqim, an Arabic term meaning “straight path,” which Lauryn mentions on “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Loving someone is defined as being “willing to do everything for that person” by one of the students in the recurring classroom skits on Miseducation. This is the core of Kamala, and though she is often at odds with her friends, family and community, she stops at nothing to protect them.
That love is part of what makes Ms. Marvel so comforting and relatable, regardless of the reader’s age, race, gender or religion. Writer G. Willow Wilson makes us long for the days of book-bags and binders just like Lauryn does in “Every Ghetto, Every City.” Second that for Kamala’s artists (who include Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Nico Leon), whose depiction of kid-life I always describe to people as “sort of Nicktoonsy.”
Lauryn and Kamala both come from New Jersey– Hill from South Orange and Kahn from Jersey City– and one can imagine Kamala receiving wisdom from Lauryn in all avenues of life, such as when her dreamy, parent-approved crush Kamran tries to get her to join a super-villain cadre (“some guys are only about that thing, that thing, that thing”), or when a gentrifying building company uses her Ms. Marvel visage to promote their developments (“it’s funny how money change a situation”).
Despite dealing with these larger than life dangers (the gentrifiers turn out to be brainwashing Jersey City’s citizens with nanotechnology), Kamala likely won’t have to face the demons that have plagued Lauryn throughout the years. This is mostly because Ms. Marvel is an all-ages, upbeat and fun publication, but it is also because Kamala has a secret identity.
Following the meteoric success of Miseducation, Hill suffered somewhat of a mental breakdown caused by the pressures of fame and identity. In a 2006 interview with Essence, she said that she struggled to “master every demonic thought about inferiority, about insecurity or the fear of being black, young and gifted in this western culture.” Balancing her family and spirituality with superstardom proved too much for her.
Today, Hill rarely performs or records music, and she was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to jail time in 2013. While Kamala struggles to maintain her double life, wearing a mask gives her a separation of identity that provides her with protection and freedom. Kamala Kahn does not have to worry about super-villains attacking her family and friends, and Ms. Marvel does not have to worry about the public’s prejudices towards young Muslim women affecting her work as a super-hero. Who knows how much heartache and strife having such a distinct anonymity between personal and professional lives could have benefited Lauryn Hill?
In the interview with Essence, Hill says that she hopes young artists “don’t get trapped in images that don’t really reflect who they are. Everybody is sort of bound to this supercool, supermature, superperfect, superconsistent image. It looks great on the shelf but it can also hurt people, and stunt their growth, because their image is growing, but their persons are not.” Kamala uses her image quite differently. Even before she got her powers, she anchored her spirit of love and kindness in the selflessness of superheroes. Now, she learns to be a better person in regular life by following the example she sets as Ms. Marvel. Her greatest heroic feat, however, doesn’t happen in the pages of Marvel Comics, but rather in the hearts of her fans. If you need a reminder of the spirit of hope and love that makes humanity great, do yourself a favor and go read some Kamala.
NEXT WEEK: Our thrilling conclusion! It’s Yeezy vs. Kree-zy as Carol Danvers unleashes her ultra-light beam on Kanye! ‘Nuff Said!