Ms. Marvel Volume One: No Normal

I have a complicated relationship with graphic novels and comic books. Short version: I don’t like them. I want to like them, I’ve tried to like them, I completely believe that they are a valid art form and that these artists and writers are on the forefront of innovations in storytelling. It’s just, whenever I try to read one, I get distracted and eventually give up. I end up annoyed that I have to skip around the page to look at things and find information, and inevitably wind up thinking that all those pictures take up SO MUCH SPACE and things move SO SLOWLY. Wouldn’t the plot move so much faster if they just wrote it out in words? I like TV and movies and paintings and other visual arts, but there’s something about sitting down with a book that makes my brain expect narrative text. I mean, I’ve read Maus and Fun Home like a responsible citizen and those were fine, but I couldn’t help thinking that I’d have rather just read traditional books about those stories. So at some point I just accepted that graphic novels and comic books weren’t for me.

But recently some things happened that made me decide to give graphic novels another shot:

  1. I mentioned in my last post that I was recently on vacation in France, where I visited approximately one thousand four hundred old churches. In one of them (the cathedral at Rouen, to be precise) we had an awesome young tour guide who spent a lot of time talking about how the stained glass windows would have been like comic books for medieval churchgoers. She said that while these peasants may not have been able to read, they understood how to approach the windows as a story, and how to interpret certain visual cues (like a woman in blue, or a man with a key) as concrete characters and plot points. I love stained glass (Jane Brocket is a longtime favorite blogger of mine who has been on a stained glass roll lately) and the idea of viewing comic books or graphic novels as modern-day church windows is very appealing to me.
  2. On that same vacation, I had a long conversation with a woman about audiobooks, another thing I long ago decided was just not for me. She talked about how she had initially hated audiobooks too, but that she spent time actively practicing listening to audio fiction and came to really love it. She said that it became clear to her that listening to a story was a different sort of attention, and that she had to get used to it, but she was so happy that she had. I figured this might be the same with graphic novels–in order to fully enjoy them, I would need to learn and practice a new way of reading.
  3. The folks on Pop Culture Happy Hour, who have been the source of so many things I love, spent an episode raving about Ms. Marvel, a series about Kamala Khan, a teenage Muslim girl living in Jersey City who develops superpowers.

A modern-day teenage girl’s coming of age story with supernatural elements? it’s everything I love! I decided to give it a shot, and got the first volume of collected issues from the library. And . . . I liked it! I found the characters surprisingly nuanced, especially Kamala’s family. As I started reading, it seemed pretty clear that her parents would be the conservative force she had to push against and her older brother was portrayed as a fairly radical Islamic scholar. But they all became more real and complicated as the story went along. The high school dynamics felt real, and there was even the early set up for a future love story. I also tried to really pay attention to the pictures. Instead of just reading through all the text, one panel after another (my first instinct), I stopped and tried to really look at the drawings and all the details. And I did like the style of illustration–I don’t have enough comic book vocabulary to accurately describe it, but it seemed more straightforward and less . . . floofy than some graphic novels I’ve tried to read in the past.

I’m not sure I’m 100% converted. Things still moved awfully slowly and it didn’t feel like all that much had happened by the end of Volume 1. I suspect that this is largely because I am thinking of the physical Volume 1 as a book and I have certain expectations of a book–I want some things to happen and some resolution of some sort. It’s probably more accurate to see a volume as a few episodes of TV, with an on-going storyline. But also, this volume consisted of five issues and it took me about an hour to read. As much as I enjoyed looking at the pictures, it doesn’t feel like something I would read over and over. I’m lucky that I live in an area with a great library system that has the three available volumes in its collection. But if I had to buy these, they would cost me around $10-$15 each. Which feels like a big outlay for limited reading material? Finally, I came into this story at a point where there already were three complete volumes out, so I imagine that I’ll be able to cover quite a bit of ground right away. But it looks like individual issues (one fifth of a volume) are released monthly, and I cannot imagine I would ever have the patience to read a story at that pace. Maybe you have to be raised on comic books to able to handle that?

I’m definitely going to get the next couple of volumes to find out how Kamala balances her new power and her high school life and her family. But I’m still not sure if I am enjoying reading this graphic novel, or if I’m enjoying this story despite the fact it’s a graphic novel. I will report back.

2 comments on “Ms. Marvel Volume One: No Normal

  1. You should feel free to howl at the moon. The last graphic novel I liked was a 1959ish? story of the Alamo and the glorious aftermath. And it was in normal comic book format, so…

  2. Anna says:

    Oh, man, I have so much to say about this! But first, I’m really glad that you enjoyed a graphic novel, and I love the church window comparison!

    I’m also a little embarrassed that I haven’t read Ms. Marvel yet myself, but I’m going to look for it at my library, too, especially know that it is collected in volumes. I found that I aged out of individual issues for the exact same reason you write about, that they would be so short that they were just frustrating to read and then have to wait a month. So, now I wait for collected trade paperbacks, but you are also right that both options – individual issues or trade paperbacks – get expensive really quick, so I’ve been so grateful that libraries are starting to carry them.

    And, Rebecca and I were totally having a conversation about the genres that we wished we could enjoy but that we just don’t. Rebecca was saying that when she hears me talking about pulp mysteries from the 40s and 50s, they sound so interesting, but when she actually tries to read one, she gets bogged down by the nondescriptive writing. For me, it is those French adventure novels, like the Count of Monte Cristo and Three Musketeers and such. The movies are so exciting, and when Rebecca describes the additional details from the books, they seems so entertaining, but they are just so long and have such flowery writing, I just can’t read them!

    Finally, I totally agree with you on audio books – they are not my thing, either, but I think podcasts are slowly training me to appreciate them more.

    (Also, I can’t quite believe that I was never exposed to an Alamo comic book in all my years of Texas public school! Multiple movies, for sure, but no comic books!)

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