Ms. Marvel #3 and Islamic Art

23 May

I should say up front that I am really enjoying the new Ms. Marvel series, primarily created by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona. It’s a witty take on teen superheroes and, though most of the writing about the series deals with the Islamic angle (and I’m adding to this), I think it’s got a lot of other things going for it, too. For example, Kamala’s shapeshifting powers are visually really weird, in a way that shapeshifting hasn’t been since the earliest adventures of the Fantastic Four (I remember reading an issue of that book as a kid and being sure that Reed Richards must be the bad guy because of the way he looked squeezing through a hole where a screw had been). I didn’t read Flight, Wilson’s earlier book, but I really really like what she’s doing with this book. And I remember Alphona as the artist on Runaways, but I can’t remember ever being as impressed with his work as I am here. It’s really stand-out stuff and I hope he starts getting some recognition for the work. That said, I thought the third issue was the weakest one so far, and it also provided us with the page I want to look at in this post, which is, well, weird. Here it is, from protagonist Kamala’s trip to the Islamic Masjid of New Jersey (aka the mosque her family attends):

ms marvel mosque

 

To me, at least, this page is kind of a mess of crossed lines. The first panel, of Kamala and her friend sitting on prayer mats, should be setting us up for what’s to follow: notice the way the sides of the rugs align with the sight lines of the characters, leading directly to us, inviting is to view them straight on.

But see what happens in the next panel? The rugs have pivoted, so that now the rugs point right to left (an awkward movement, given that traditionally panels run from left to right, so our characters are blocking the forward action of the panel). Also, note how the dialogue (and characters) are aligned, so that we read Kamala’s dialogue first, though that means we read from bottom to top, again a break with convention. Finally, note the screen on the left third of the page. The screen divides the women from the men in the Masjid, though it kind of gets lost in all the other horizontal and vertical lines on the page– the edges of the rugs, essentially, swallow the screen’s form.

Skip down a panel, and what was, in the first two panels, a relatively up and down, left and right series of lines becomes diagonal. I think it might be clever that the Imam is talking to the girls who are physically behind him (and behind the screen), making the panel border between the second and third tier the screen, if it weren’t for the break from left-right to the diagonal lines of carpet. It’s a nice idea, but it’s too much for my eyes to handle.

(The last tier works fine, I think:)

So what’s happening here? Alphona is a very solid storyteller, in general, but this page is, to me, kind of a mess. But I think it’s a mess in an interesting way. No doubt Alphona is aware of the way that Islamic art, while not always condemning it, eschews representational art. In the place of portraits, Islamic (and especially Arabic expressions of it) art focus on patterns and calligraphy. And I think that’s what Alphona is trying to do here: while the eye is confused reading this panel sequentially, I do think the patterns in the panels are great, or are at least something different for a comics page. Notice the work he puts into the carpet borders, the way he stacks them in and spreads them around. It’s really nice work, and what I take as its conscious intention to honor Islamic traditions really goes a long way toward making this comic seem special, to earn its bona fides.

Even though I found this page hard to read, it really impressed me– it feels like Alphona is really trying to honor the culture he is depicting, in a sophisticated way. I’m not sure it totally works yet, but I definitely want to see him work more in this direction in the future.

 

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