By G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa & Ian Herring
“We all have secret identities, but no secrets.”
Recently there has been much discussion about the merits of superhero secret identities. Once a core element of the genre, it has been increasingly falling out of favor with creators. Much of the Marvel Universe presently seems to ignore the concept; meanwhile CW series such The Flash give lip service to it in theory while pretty much discarding it in practice. In Valiant’s Faith, writer Jody Houser has been affectionately poking fun at the device (the heroine’s alter ego works as a “journalist” at a celebrity news blog and wears glasses as part of her disguise). A recent issue (#9), however, dug a little deeper exploring how Faith’s secret identity was a bridge to not only a superhero support group, but sincere friendships which keep her grounded in either identity. G. Willow Wilson plays with some similar ideas in the latest issue of Ms. Marvel, while also highlighting the importance of empathy.
Over the past few issues, Ms. Marvel has been battling a sentient computer virus, Doc.X. The virus feeds off the emotions of the internet, which, unsurprisingly, quickly led to its mind being warped by malice and delusions of grandeur. It threatened not only to expose Ms. Marvel’s secret identity, but the fact that Zoe had an unrequited crush on their classmate Nakia. Zoe, who Wilson has been skillfully deepening as a character of late, refused to bow to such tactics. Such courage of conviction is noble, yet, it does not make the aftermath any easier to manage.
#17 opens with the beginning of a new school day, the first after Doc.X has made Zoe’s private longings public. Artist Takeshi Miyazawa expertly conveys Zoe’s sense of isolation, as she stands still in the school entrance, several other teens filing past. Light streams through the open doors, casting shadow on Zoe. (The effective coloring is by Ian Herring). The image bristles with Zoe’s apprehension. This sensation strengthens as she walks through the school hallways. Probing stares shift into knowing giggles. Soon other students are walking by while loudly reciting passages from Zoe’s unsent love messages. Miyazawa strikes the right balance in this sequence, effectively rendering Zoe’s tears without tripping into bathos.
This opening segment is narrated by Kamala as she muses on the nature of secrets. Everyone has secret identities, not simply the superheroes like herself. We all have aspects of ourselves we keep hidden away, preferring to present a persona we believe our peers would like the best. Zoe has been doing this for a long time now, playing the role of popular semi-mean girl, never hinting that she was queer, let alone crushing on Nakia. Just as many a superhero has thought that someone close to them would “freak out” if they learned the truth, Zoe assumes the same about herself. And so she has gone on pretending. Only slowly there are cracks, “Something real always slips through, sometimes it’s good, sometimes is bad . . . but all the time it’s personal.” Once the personal becomes public, which is increasingly frequent in this age of social media, we have no control over it any longer. “[We all have] Secret identities, but no secrets.”
Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of this phenomenon, however, Wilson flips it. If such dilemmas are universal, why then is empathy so difficult? If everyone has hidden aspects of themselves, can they not relate to the fear of exposure? It should be easy to place ourselves in another’s shoes, pondering “what if it had been me?” While Wilson portrays the harsh ridicule of teenagers, she also depicts their potential for understanding. One by one, starting with Nakia, Zoe is embraced by her peers in a show of solidarity. The feels flow, drying those tears from Zoe’s face. It is a moving scene which also provides Kamala with the inspiration she needs to tackle Doc.X.
Friendship takes on many forms, including the virtual sort. For years Kamala has participated in an internet roleplaying game Battlecraft. Out of the blue, she calls her three fellow gaming guild members to an emergency meeting in New Jersey, and despite the lengths some need travel, they all do so. They may never have met in real life, or even known each other’s non-guild names, but they have formed a bond all the same. They are a community which represents the internet at its best, which is exactly what Ms. Marvel needs in order to defeat Doc.X. Her plan is to spread compassion through the networks. She is not naive enough to think that she can permanently alter the tone of the web, but, she believes she and her friends may do so long enough to defang Doc.X and neutralize it. The execution of this plan is full of Wilson’s usual wit.
“Are you nerds seriously having a LAN party in a convenience store . . . Man, this is some peak Jersey right here . . .”
As usual, Miyazawa does an excellent job translating the whimsical qualities of Wilson’s script into art. His depiction of the guild at work, spread out on the floor of the convenience store, surrounded by laptops, cords and chip bags is one of the most charming images of the week. This same eye for scenic detail pays off in the climatic struggle with Doc.X during Jersey City’s Founder’s Day Parade, an event which includes a marching band, guy on stilts, mime, someone in scuba gear and, naturally, a cat and bulldog leading the way. At the same time, Miyazawa brings a dynamic energy to the action sequences, particularly the ones within the virtual landscape of Battlecraft. As with his scenes of the real world, these moments are a delightful balance of the absurd and the heroic.
Being a hero is never easy; a near exhaustible supply of inner strength is more important than any superpower. Such reserves are near impossible to maintain without friends to help along the way. As she has since the beginning, Wilson does a fantastic job of portraying Kamala’s struggles while also being able to relate them to her readers’ everyday experiences. We might not know what it is like to fight in a superhero civil war, but who has not tried tucking away their most fragile emotions from prying eyes?