It may be a new year but the second volume (or “season”) of “Ms. Marvel” is performing as if the last one never ended. Tasked with rebounding after an obligatory relaunch, G. Willow Wilson, artist Takeshi Miyazawa and colorist Ian Herring wrap up the first arc of this new era, “Super Famous”, which much aplomb and style. Despite having been promoted to an Avengers team and become a symbol of her hometown of Jersey City, Kamala Khan is still a down-to-earth heroine fighting threats closer to home than many of her peers. Unfortunately, as she learns in the finale to this issue, certain things take on a life of their own and not every victory comes without consequences.
As revealed in the previous issue, the sleazy corporation which is out to gentrify Kamala’s neighborhood and force out all the locals turns out to be a front for HYDRA (the evil terrorist organization which roots in WWII era fascism). Their leader for this project isn’t one of their usual costume clad fanatics, but Doctor Faustus – a Captain America villain from 1968 who wears power suits and uses psychology as his weapon. Figuring out that conquest via economics rarely attracts much attention, Faustus plans to literally brainwash everyone in town with his own mixture of nanobots – including Kamala’s best friend Bruno! Unable to overcome his henchmen without help, Kamala is forced to confront her emotions head on by turning to Bruno’s new girlfriend Micheala G. Miller (“Mike” to her friends) to concoct an antidote from some of Bruno’s science notes. It all results in a final showdown against Faustus and his hipster minions before the eyes of dozens of residents – many of whom are not so quick to believe Ms. Marvel’s vows of non-involvement in the scheme. Even in defeat, Faustus’ efforts to turn public sympathy away from Kamala’s alter ego may have worked all too well.
Much with previous story lines, Wilson appears to have tapped onto the pulse of what modern audiences consider threatening within their own lives, as well as using the rhetoric most adversarial conservatives use as “code words” against those they dislike (who tend to be either people of color or the poor, if not both). The use of the phrase, “pull up their bootstraps” and the accusation of laziness from the villains in the piece was not done by accident. While real life “gentrification agents” may not be literal Nazis with brainwashing schemes, many of their efforts to “clean up” neighborhoods from “those people” are often rooted in deep seeded racism and/or classism. As Faustus himself bragged, dressing up conquest efforts as economic policies tend to allow them to go under the radar. Yet Kamala and her friends – who are of different sizes, colors, and orientation – help represent the potential of a new generation more concerned with tolerance and equality then the benefits of only a very few. Kamala may have stumbled upon super powers based on a freak accident and unknown genetics, but she seeks to use those powers to aid others as best she can. Rather than exist merely as walking hostages, her supporting cast actually support her in more than dialogue, as Mike and Bruno showcase here. The dialogue is always rich, and the characters all seem establish themselves and what they’re about organically and elegantly (even the villains). And as always, Miyazawa and Herring provide a one-two punch on art which has all of the expression of a manga united with all of the detail and pace of the best in American comics.
In fact the only thing keeping this issue (and arc) from complete perfection is the fact that Kamala’s path towards reconciling with Mike and facing her feelings about Bruno moving on were built up fairly predictably. It was the natural path for the characters and the story, and it was well executed, but it was also something virtually every reader was waiting for since the end of (the second) issue one. One supposes that it is a bit of a stretch that Mike couldn’t recognize Kamala as Ms. Marvel despite her putting no effort (or at least stated effort) into concealing her voice, but such a thing has been a standard trope of superhero comics since Clark Kent fooled the world with a pair of glasses and a combed back curl. It is the sort of thing one either accepts about superhero comics, or one does not. Wilson is wise to not repeat the mistakes of Brian M. Bendis on “Ultimate Spider-Man” and have Kamala’s entire supporting cast know her secret identity almost immediately. Short term convenience is never worth the price of long term character drama, and that is something Wilson understands well.
Despite having fantastic powers and rubbing elbows with Iron Man and Captain America, Kamala remains down to earth and above all, connected to struggles that everyday people face every single day. She isn’t fantastically wealthy, facing impossible threats with a cast of fellow superheroes like too many franchise leads tend to. Ms. Marvel remains one of the best superhero comics to come out in years, with 2016 already looking to continue her seemingly effortless streak of success.
Below are a heap of honorable mentions. They’re all perfectly fine comics, but they can’t stretch as far as Kamala can.
Big Trouble in Little China #20: The series that John Carpenter built nears its second year in print in hilarious fashion. Fred Van Lente continues to deliver scripts which suggest he was all but born to write for this franchise while Dan McDaid and Gonzalo Duarte once again bring life to such a wacky tale. Jack Burton’s efforts to win back the souls of his friends by beating Koschei the Deathless in a poker tournament for the immortals turn pear shaped when he inexplicably knocks out one of his opponents with a sucker punch. Fortunately, Egg Shen knows its not a matter of if Jack will screw something up, but when, and designed a counter-plan. Unfortunately, that relies on Wang Chi’s impulsive daughter Winona, who finally realizes that she was the “evil twin” all along. The end result is a gut busting romp of a finale that involves were-bears, sudden death spells, time travel, and feminists who have been transformed into Russian dolls. The last page offers such potential for the next arc that one almost wishes this issue was double-sized! 2015 was a wonderful year for this series and it looks like that 2016 will prove to be just as hilariously awesome, if not more so.
Hercules #3: Some Centaurs get stomped and Gilgamesh proves to be rustier than he expected in another issue of Dan Abnett, Luke Ross and Guru FX’s enjoyable take on Marvel’s second most famous god. Herc is still trying to reestablish himself as a veteran hero and not a laughing stock by embracing change, which includes tactical rifles. He also is trying to figure out what threat is threatening all of the beings of the “old times” and prompting attacks by giants and demons alike. It turns out that the world is finally making way to create “new” gods, and those like him are obsolete. “Twilight of the gods” stories are well worn, but haven’t been presented as well as Abnett is doing here. Gilgamesh, unfortunately, seems to exist as an example of what Hercules is trying to get away from – a metaphor made more blunt by his wearing of one of Herc’s old costumes for the third act. Ross’ artwork is absolutely terrific and while a touch of humor always remains within some of the dialogue, this is a very different take on the character than has been seen previously. While it may be a bit too straightforward to separate itself from the pack compared to the version written by Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak, those who do stick with it are getting a very satisfying adventure series with a mystery that mingles the ancient with the modern.
New Avengers #5: If there is one thing which has remained consistent within the Marvel Universe, it is that any vision of the future is always horrible and tragic. Taking a cue from Capcom’s “Megaman” series, Al Ewing shows readers a glimpse of the year “20XX” (which avoids being horribly outdated in a few years time) in which the Avengers of the future have been betrayed by one of their own – Billy Kaplan, who has taken to calling himself Demiurge. Having been infested by a space demon in the previous issue, his reality warping powers are now at risk of destroying everything. After spanking a squad of tech-thieves in Tokyo, the current “New Avengers” meet their descendants thanks to an experimental time machine and the hot wiring skills of a squirrel. Most of this issue is set up, whether it is showcasing the future Avengers or showing the current ones stomping some heads, or even reminding readers that the Maker is still lurking somewhere in the shadows. The art by Gerardo Sandoval and Dono Sanchez Almara remains every bit inspired by some of the exaggerated styles of the 90’s as it ever was, for good or ill. Considering how many future versions of teams, including the Avengers, have been met by contemporary heroes, one would think that it’s become so routine that a pamphlet offering standard protocol would be standard issue. A squad from the future telling everyone that a traitor is among them and all will be nil should really be just about average for a Tuesday. Ewing’s sister series, “The Ultimates”, are currently making an effort to fix the time stream from rampant time travel such as this, and some of these figures are from some previous material written by Ewing last year for “Battleworld”. Behind the cross promotion and standard tropes, Ewing is always skilled at juggling a large cast well.
Patsy Walker a.k.a. Hellcat #2: This quirky new super-heroine series by Kate Leth, Brittney Williams and Megan Wilson offers another madcap romp through a day in the often hectic life of its titular protagonist. Marvel Comics has steadily built up a roster of heroes who seem well above the trivial pursuits of common people, from a dozen teams of Avengers to even a globe-trotting Spider-Man. Hellcat is the exact opposite, as she struggles to keep a low wage retail job at a clothing store and spends the end of the issue chasing after a petty shoplifter. In fact the only “fantastic” element to Patsy’s life (besides her semi-magical powers) is the fact that her rich “frenemy” has re-released comics based on her childhood which are causing her to be a walking internet meme (without her permission). Her attempts to save up cash to start a superhuman temp agency scuttled, it all ends in a superhero burger party where Kate Leth reveals just how deep into the well of continuity she is willing to delve. Casiolena – a sorceress from Asgard whose exploits against Patsy’s old Defenders team during the 1970’s helped forge Valkyrie’s association with them – is quite an obscure name to attach to a last page reveal. Much like the previous issue, there is a manic energy within this series as well as a flair for adorable cuteness mingled in with the comedic art – even if it also seems to be trying very hard to capture the magic that “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” seems to pull off so effortlessly. Hellcat’s been all over, from superhero teams to Hell to even Alaska, and this remains her best attempt at an ongoing series in decades. Considering how old a character she is, it would be nice if some incarnation of her managed to breach past obscurity and into the mainstream.
Silver Surfer #1: Dan Slott, Michael Allred and Laura Allred pick things up where they left off in November, with Norrin Radd and Dawn Greenwood deciding to give the cosmos a break so she can reconnect with her family at their little inn in Anchor Bay. As usual for the wayward adventurers, no visit ever goes as simply as it is supposed to be. Aliens called the Hordax are out to steal the earth’s most precious resource, and it turns out to be neither material or energy, but something far more precious to life itself than it seems on the surface. As with every issue, there is plenty of comedy and visual metaphors, as well as a cameo by another hero Slott used to write, the Thing. Much as with the previous issue, every installment of this series under these collaborators is a feat for the eyes and remains the best take on Marvel’s premiere cosmic hero that has been produced in decades. Those who missed the previous volume shouldn’t make the same mistake twice.