Given my overall nerd cred (Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.), the fact that I was nearly 30 before I really began to get into comic books might be surprising to those who know me. I would say that my first brush with Marvel came with a computer game my brother and I had called “Spider-Man and Captain America in Doctor Doom’s Revenge.” It came with a comic book, which I’m pretty sure is still at our mom’s house (along with a decomposing pile of 5 ¼” floppies). Regarding DC, Christopher Reeve’s Superman was on regular rotation in our VCR, and to this day if someone in our family says “I’ve got you!” the only response is “You’ve got me… Who’s got you??” X-Men: The Animated Series was a huge part of my formative years, and my roommate in college had copies of Wolverine: Origin that I sometimes skimmed, but nothing ever sucked me in.
Nevertheless, comics are something I’ve always dabbled in cursorily. I know myself. Huge, overarching storylines, alternate universes for certain characters, intricate plots? Sign me up! So I avoided them. Harry Potter kind of burned me for Works in Progress (let us not forget the Three-Year Summer), so comics just seemed too… open-ended.
When Iron Man came out, I wasn’t terribly interested. Eric Bana’s Hulk had been less than stellar, so when The Incredible Hulk came out, I responded much in the same way as I did when they announced the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies: Really? Again?? Right after Iron Man came out on DVD (blu-ray?), my cousin E. and her husband C. had me over to their house to show off an awesome new home theater system, and we watched it.
My interest was peaked. However, that might have been RDJ blindness more than anything else.
I really didn’t bust my butt to watch anymore MCU movies, though. On the DC, side, beyond the original Superman movies, I had seen Batman Begins and of course saw The Dark Knight (though to this day I still haven’t sat down and watched The Dark Knight Rises). Other encounters with Batman (go Keaton!) as a kid came edited for TV with commercial interruptions on TNT. My only brush with the Fantastic Four prior to last summer’s mishigas was season 4 of Arrested Development. I hadn’t even seen the X-Men movies until early 2015 (the rampant livetweeting of which led to several unfollows on Twitter and Facebook).
Mystery Men and The Incredibles, however, are still on my list of favorite movies of all time.
So why this lengthy confession? Well, things began to change in 2014. I barreled through the MCU in preparation for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which I knew I’d be seeing that summer. And I started watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and then Agent Carter (if I start something, I watch it all. Completionist/Perfectionist Syndrome). And then… Yeah, it became my go-to distraction when I needed a break from work.
But jumping into actual comic books from the movies and television shows was terrifying and daunting. It’s like jumping into Doctor Who: where do you start? From the beginning? From the most recent major event? And with which character? And what publisher? And will people judge you if you pick the wrong place to start?
The answer came in the form of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel. Word had gotten around to me that the new Ms. Marvel was going to be a young Pakistani-American Muslim woman, and I was intrigued. I began to talk to others about Kamala Khan, and intrigue became genuine interest. It was a new series, and really all that it required was someone to basically tell me who Carol Danvers was and why this was a Big Deal. So this summer, armed with my debit card and my super supportive partner, I began buying comic books.
The summer of the Secret Wars seemed to be a pretty good place to jump in. I picked up the first trade paperback of Ms. Marvel… and then several back issues… and then some Captain Marvel… and then Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps…
It got out of hand. Not in a “I spent all my rent money on comic books” kind of way. More of an “I bought a box and dividers and bags and boards and now it’s all organized” situation.
Students at Roanoke College after our discussion of Ms. Marvel, December 4, 2015.
The idea then came up to use Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal in the classroom. During Fall 2015, I taught a general education special topics course at Roanoke College entitled “Who or What is God?” In it, we focus primarily on the history of God in Western religion. I try to incorporate media in the course each time (this year, the syllabus included An American Tail, Saved!, Doctor Who, and Ms. Marvel).
The first time you use a new resource in a course, you never know how it’s going to go. You, of course, bring your expertise to the table and pick what you hope are well-informed resources, but at the end of the day, you just never know how students will react. I used The Frisco Kid in a Judaism course once… it didn’t go well. Conversely, I’ve used Doctor Who several times at this point, which has been so successful I was able to publish an article.
A few days before the assigned day for Ms. Marvel, I reminded my students of the upcoming book assignment and asked how many of them had ever before read comic books. Of the fifteen students in the course, only one raised their hand. This got me even more excited—sharing a new medium and an awesome story is the kind of stuff of which teacher-dreams are made.
On a whim, I tweeted G. Willow Wilson to see what might come of it. Her kind words inspired me to share them with my students, who in turn were about as excited as you might imagine (read: super-super-excited).
Not gonna lie. I got a little Kermit-the-Frog-Flaily.
The class discussion went wonderfully. We were able to tie in Kamala Khan’s story as a Pakistani-American woman to the inflammatory comments being made by Donald Trump regarding the Muslims of Jersey City after the 9/11 attacks. Most of my students are barely older than Kamala Khan herself and they, to, grew up in a primarily post-9/11 world. Overwhelmingly, they stated that they appreciated reading the story of a young woman from their world, representing Islam in a positive way. The last few years of teaching Islam have been some of my most rewarding—my students come in just wanting to know what they often call “the truth” about Islam, which generally refers to separating away radical Islamism from Islam. I think in some ways, this is influenced by the fact that every semester brings more Muslim students in my classes, so students are dealing with having Muslim peers more often than in years past. I was proud of my students this semester, especially for being so willing to check their biases at the door and consider the experiences of Muslims their own age.
In other comments, first-generation students in the class were able to tie in their experiences with those of Kamala Khan–being stuck between two worlds and not being quite sure of their identity. As a whole, the students appreciated the different representations of Muslims they saw in the comics, from Ms. Marvel’s concerns over the modesty of her clothing to Kamala’s brother Aamir’s more pious observance as compared to her parents’ traditional values. Many students were able to compare Kamala’s experiences to religious affiliation in their own families, religion and denominational differences notwithstanding. The title of the trade paperback might be “No Normal,” but much of the conversation revolved around how Kamala was “just like them”: from secretly writing fanfiction to being tempted to eat bacon to getting caught having snuck out after curfew. This is why I love using fiction to apply course concepts—students find themselves and their own experiences in a text, and their empathy with “the other” kicks into overdrive.
I absolutely will put Ms. Marvel on my syllabi in the future (in fact, I already have–I’m using it in my course on Islam this semester). My only regret with the assignment was that I did not assign a written component to our discussion. I would have loved to hear even more of what they thought. I definitely will be assigning a journal or some sort of responsorial writing assignment in the future.
The students brought many questions to the table. But by far the best question that I got at the end of class?
“Are there more comics, Ms. Jordan? About Kamala?”
Yes, dear student, absolutely.
 PS: To my dear buddy MW, I still blame you for getting me to start Game of Thrones without telling me that only four (at that time) of the books were out…
For forays into using sci-fi in teaching, see my post The Impossible Pit: Satan, Hell, and Teaching With Doctor Who.