A couple weeks ago, Marvel released their 75th Anniversary Celebration book. A collection of interviews and shorts and goofy one-off images, it went by with little to no fanfare, perhaps because giving the book a cursory glance will leave the average reader with enough information to “get it.” However, upon picking it up and giving it a read, I found myself treated to a story that, while ostensibly quite simple at its onset, presents quite a solid and encouraging story of how looking into the past can inform us for the future.
Entitled “Anniversary,” the story is written by “Fantastic Four” writer James Robinson and illustrated by “Daredevil” artist Chris Samnee with colors by Jordie Bellaire, and is told through the eyes of Ben Urich, a popular journalist character that’s a go-to for whenever Marvel is telling one of those “man on the street” type stories (like the recent “Daredevil: End of Days” or, perhaps more relevantly, Busiek and Ross’ “Marvels”). We go through all the hits: how Avengers got their powers, how the X-Men formed, Captain America in ice — all of course leading towards the creation of the Fantastic Four, the First Family of Marvel and the book that gave birth to the Marvel Universe as we know it. The story itself is full of all the nostalgia and schmaltz and romanticism of the past that you’d expect to find in a comic book anthology that celebrates 75 years of publishing via a tried and true storytelling mechanism (let alone a pretty standard Marvel trope), and it’s a well-written and well-illustrated piece to kick off the celebration party.
The thing is, though, despite otherwise ”just” being a comic that is going through Marvel’s Greatest Hits, as a piece to help us focus on something larger it totally works — and the reason it stands out and is worth discussing at all is because this, for perhaps the first time, finds Marvel not just obsessing over their own past but also staring optimistically towards the future of their comics.
I’m going to go ahead and spoil this little short, so if you haven’t read it already I apologize. The gist of it is what I said, in that over nine pages we’re given mostly four widescreen panels per page, each focusing on a specific moment of Marvel history that we need to stop and think about the impact of. The story eventually reveals itself to be more forward thinking than you’d imagine; despite six pages of formulaic structure and a nice splash, we end by visiting a very young Kamala Khan looking up at the stars, hoping and wishing and dreaming of what her own bright future could hold. It’s just two-panels followed by a cliche star shining in the night sky (potentially another thing Marvel is borrowing from Disney’s Pinocchio), but in a comic specifically designed to show us the importance of the past, this specific character used to exemplify the future is two pictures saying two thousand-some-odd words to me.
The set of panels showing Kamala is done in such a way that it really exemplifies the future of inclusiveness that Kamala represents. There’s plenty of characters showcasing both sexes throughout the piece (though less people of color than Marvel would probably like, which I imagine is just unfortunately emblematic of their early days as a publisher and the general cultural climate of popular fiction for the past 75 years), but the young and bright-eyed Kamala that Samnee illustrates is almost iconic in the way she stares off behind us; we stare right at her as she looks at something just over our shoulder, something we can’t yet see. It’s easy to fill in the blank for her as she smiles; it’s easy for us to think of all the possibility that the future holds for her and for others like her, for the other young new heroes to come and to hopefully take the mantle from the current generation.
Not only that, but what strikes me as additionally noteworthy is that we’re shown that she plays not just with a tea set and a stuffed animal, toys traditionally associated to young girls, but also a toy robot and a Captain America-themed ball, toys generally associated with young boys. What Samnee does in this one panel embodies what I like about Kamala so much: she breaks all of our systemic traditions and rules about lead characters in superhero comics, especially female ones. She’s not just playing with one “type” of toy because she’s not one “type” of character; instead, she is given the opportunity to define the roles of the toys on her own outside of gender stereotypes, and in a story like this where we’re meant to really meditate on each panel and the moment that it captures, the story being told here is one of inclusivity, of inspiration and of hope — hope that from the heroes of tomorrow we can expect greatness, something far beyond what the heroes of the past give us and something more empowering.Continued below
And, conversely, keep in mind that the last image we’re given of what came out of the introduction of the Fantastic Four — the first image of this article — is just a bunch of disorganized paperwork. Everything just amounts to piles and stacks of papers, unorganized and shuffled together; this isn’t meant to denigrate their impact or how much they matter, but it’s hard not to see this panel as a metaphor for what Marvel currently has, for better or for worse. The imagery used here is very specific, and very powerful.
There’s no doubt that Kamala is one of the biggest success stories of Marvel’s recent history. A teenage Muslim girl who starts her book uncomfortable in her own body before gaining the ability to literally transform her body in any way she chooses, Kamala is one of the most positive and forward-thinking characters in Marvel’s current line-up of characters. She’s representative not just of Muslims and not just of young girls but of youth in general, and her importance is even more comprehensive than that; Kamala offers a bridge for both young and old specifically due to the fact that she’s inherited someone else’s more famous mantle, and can now use that to her own effect. She’s the modern day Peter Parker in many ways, and just as Parker is important as one of the strongest beating hearts at the center of the established Marvel U, Kamala is someone that can safely occupy the same space for a more modern audience.
But as an icon, as a symbol, the new Ms. Marvel is rather potent, and her inclusion in this story speaks volumes to that. That we have a character like Kamala and that her book can be as otherwise successful as it is speaks volumes both to the types of readership that Marvel currently has and towards the way our world has changed in the 75 years since Marvel Comics began in 1939 and “Fantastic Four” gave birth to their shared universe in 1961 — and while this is an anniversary celebration, that aspect also feels very much like the point of the story. Here are all these moments in Marvel history, both ones that are immortalized in blockbuster films and ones that will probably never be seen again (sorry, Millie the Model), but they’re all events of the past; ones that we reflect on now in the future in hindsight with more experience and knowledge, and they all lead to Kamala.
That’s the question this comic asks. Its initial premise is around the idea of asking us where we were when history is made, which is something both fiction and nonfiction does a lot of the time. “Where were you when you heard about Kennedy?” Urich asks. “When Armstrong took his giant leap or when the Twin Towers fell?” Can you remember these moments? Do you know where you were? More importantly, what has the passage of time taught you? How does that influence you and your understanding of those events? Urich and this comic remembers the birth of the Fantastic Four and the Marvel Universe that sprung out of it, but that’s not where the story ends; that’s simply where the story began, and now time has passed, leaving us stacks of papers and photos on a desk waiting to be sorted. For Kamala and characters like her, both those that exist and are yet to come, their desk is uncluttered — their time is now.
That’s so important, and something that I hope isn’t lost. Honestly, I really can’t understate the symbolic effect of a comic celebrating specific historical moments for an anniversary revolving around the characters and book that gave birth to the Marvel Universe leading to the introduction of a modern legacy character literally called Ms. Marvel as a notable and important inclusion of the timeline. A more simple read of this comic is certainly available and it’s one that you can subscribe to if you choose, but for me, seeing a comic about the past that shows us Kamala as the future shines of optimism and faith. “Ms. Marvel” #1’s seventh printing, the prominence of Carol Danvers and the Carol Corps (and the upcoming Captain Marvel film!), Miles Morales the Ultimate Spider-Man, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the popularity of Spider-Gwen and the bourgeoning and vocal young fanbase prevalent on things like tumblr… Marvel has often touted themselves as being “Your Universe”, of trying to match in comics the world outside our windows, and it feels like we’re getting there slowly but surely.Continued below
This, to me, is the most important part of this little story and the reason why it feels necessary to bring it up and introduce it as a key element in discussing Marvel, comics and the future. I understand that people generally like to draw lines in the sand as to what is or isn’t acceptable in comics anymore, especially superhero ones. I get that for some, there are lots of reasons for us to be cynical about Marvel; it’s not perfect and I have problems with some of Marvel’s other titles (“Superior Iron Man” rubs me the wrong way, personally, let alone what’s happening in “AXIS”), but there is a future here, one more open to change and embracing something different, and it’s one I tend to lean towards optimistically. This short 9-page story exemplifies why there’s still a lot for us to get and enjoy in superhero comics just as much as there are to indie comics and award favorites and books adapted into TV shows, and it’s thanks to characters like Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Khan.
Generally speaking, looking only backwards isn’t helpful. It’s fun to occasionally get nostalgic, sure, but otherwise living in the past — whether in actual life or in comic stories — is a fruitless endeavor. However, there’s a lot of optimism in the future that comes out of the existence of legacy that I think gets lost a lot of the time, and that’s something that is incredibly prevalent in the last page of this short story where we see a young Kamala looking to the future with no idea of what is to come. Legacy matters. What is given to the next generation is entirely important, and we see that Kamala is someone who embraces this. Her ball is left outside for us to pick up and play with now, and it in turn it becomes our responsibility.
Right now, as happens, there’s a rumor that Marvel is planning a reboot thanks to a cryptic teaser and a bunch of dodgy answers to questions about “Secret Wars,” an upcoming series that seems practically mired in old or otherwise dated story lines. The move would seemingly echo DC, who rebooted in 2011 for the New 52, a continuity-free zone where all the legacy of their older stories was lost (well, “lost”) in favor of new entrance points and a nice boost in comic sales, though that died down and critically was rather hit and miss. And while Marvel has established their idea of a new normal in terms of less ongoings and more reboots, it doesn’t seem off the table for them to decide a clean slate is necessary, especially in the wake of their films and their incredible success.
However, if you ask me — and lets pretend you are since you’re reading this piece — the answer is not in removing the past completely but rather to accept it and utilize it to push us into the future. Marvel has never been a big legacy-based company, certainly not in comparison to DC. There are characters like the Young Avengers (themselves just a riff on Teen Titans), but they or the Runaways or the latest iteration of the New Warriors never take hold or grab mainstream success like their more popular counterparts. Yet, despite that, just consider for a moment the importance of Carol Danvers becoming Captain Marvel and allowing for her name to be passed on to Kamala; ruminate on the implication of this event as a very specific and important moment that is given a nod in a story celebrating some (if not all) of the most important moments of Marvel’s 75 years.
I’m aware I’m assigning responsibility to a corporation out of a short story created by a few talented creators, but if Marvel is not asking themselves what they can and should learn from this themselves, then that’s a big mistake. Yes, “Everything Ends,” but as the cliche goes, every ending leads to a new beginning — and in stories, that’s a powerful and robust sentiment. The Fantastic Four is ending (again, but the End is Fourever), but even as that dynasty veers towards some kind of ending, there’s still a bright future ahead.
Ms. Marvel? She is the future. We don’t necessarily need to completely remove the old guard, but it’s definitely time to help usher in the new — and I would hope that somewhere in putting together the Marvel 75th Anniversary Celebration book, the folks up top have this comic framed in a highly visible place within the Marvel offices, because it’s time.
For another perspective, read David’s piece about comics and the burgeoning value of what’s new from yesterday.