Kamala Khan: Phil Coulson 2014

The two biggest publishing houses in comics, Marvel and DC, have been under a lot of scrutiny in the past few years for how their titles portray women, people of color, and LGBT characters, as well as how many creators they employ who are women, people of color, or LGBT. It started a sort of Race to Diversity in some readers’ eyes, and many thought that “good storytelling” was being compromised for the sake of “unnecessary” or “arbitrary” diversity.

It hasn’t been easy for either Marvel or DC to make and keep the changes that would bring their comics into the year 2014 as far as demographics are concerned – but Marvel seems to be doing a much better job. In many ways I think that’s because Marvel excels at telling stories about how super-heroes affect non-powered humans. The more your stories are about the “average person” the more you’re able to invest in discussing what “average” actually means.

Last month saw the release of Ms. Marvel #1. “Ms. Marvel” was the former super-hero name of Carol Danvers, a lesser-known Avenger known now as “Captain Marvel.” (Trivia: Captain Marvel was previously a DC title featuring the character now known as Shazam until Marvel recently re-acquired the rights.) But in the past year, Carol Danvers has been to deep-space and back with the rest of the extended Avengers team in the Infinity storyline (which is well worth the read, if you haven’t gotten around to it yet).

Anyway, part of including the stories of non-powered humans is telling the stories of fictional fans of the super-hero teams. The Avengers, being the most well-known group, naturally attract a lot of fans. The kind of fans that write fan-fics and blog about their favorite heroes. The kind of fans who act out pretend super-battles in their house while their family roles their eyes. The kind of fans who collect vintage trading cards of with their favorite heroes on them.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) was the film that pushed the super-hero movie genre fully into the mainstream of entertainment as the third highest grossing film of all time. One of the most memorable scenes in that entire film was the fanboyish fawning that Phil Coulson does over his hero, Captain America. He asks him to sign his vintage collectible cards. Fans took to Phil Coulson right away. Marvel’s newest sensation. He was one of us, a non-powered hero that was prone to hero-worship himself — awkwardly embarrassing himself on a quinjet full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and superhumans when he tried to explain to Steve Rogers that there were collectible cards with his face on them.

Back to 2014, a new face of comic super-fandom has arrived: Kamala Khan, the star of Ms. Marvel #1.

Kamala is a quirky, nerdy, teenage Avengers superfan. She wears a sweatshirt with Carol Danvers’ trademark lightning-strike logo, she writes fan-fiction comics, and she even talks to an imaginary Carol about how much she’d like to be her! She’s also Muslim, a very under-represented demographic in pop culture.

The dramatic conclusion to Kamala’s fan fiction…

Well, for anyone who loved Coulson before his debut in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show, you might have a new fictional best friend. What most of us loved about Coulson was that he was charming in his awkward hero worship, but he was also competent, dangerous, and loyal. Kamala, in this first issue of Ms. Marvel is shown to be awkward, charming, and loyal, and the teaser at the end of the issue indicates she’s going to be competent and dangerous – like any good hero should be. The difference between Coulson and Khan is that where Coulson is a middle-aged white man, Khan is a teenaged, brown-skinned, Muslim girl.

If we take a moment to look back into comics history, Peter Parker was so important  in his time because the original Spider-Man comics tackled not only with street crime and super-villainy, but what it meant to be a contemporary teenager. The X-Men were trying to live the dual life of young Americans whose identities would make them outcasts – a very real feeling for many people, even today.

It represents a lot that Marvel’s newest, most relatable character is a Muslim teenage girl. I hope that Kamala will be for comic fans of all identities what Peter Parker was for previous generations of awkward teens – escapism with a dose of what’s real to them. Nobody has to imagine what it’s like to be a teenager, or even what it’s like to feel like you don’t quite fit in. We’ve all been there. For Kamala Khan, her religious identity and nerdy fandom set her on the fringes of her social scene; for others it might be sexual orientation, gender, age, or skin color. But seeing heroes with whom we can identify coping with “real” problems at the same time as they’re saving the world is the kind of cathartic pop art that, historically, brought comics into their own.

Everybody knows that feel. Well… Except for the boot thing I guess.

Ms. Marvel is in the rising tide of new characters and ideas that will make comics (my favorite pop culture art medium), and all the greatness that’s a part of them, available to people that aren’t white dudes and want to occasionally read a story about someone like them.

Cloaks and Daggers – Catharsis Through Digital Storytelling

Catharsis: the act or process of releasing a strong emotion; especially by expressing it in an art form

 

Sometimes you just need to feel something…anything really.

Sorrow.

Joy.

Happiness.

Rage.

 

So, sometimes I just put in a game…

——————–

I didn’t know how long we had been traveling together.  We had met in the desert, and though we said very little to each other, we both agreed that the company was nice.  Most of the world had fallen into ruin, and rumor was that there weren’t many of us left.  I guess that is why we stuck together.

Maybe we just didn’t want to be lonely…

We had kept heading towards the mountain; remembering the legends of the hope that resided on its distant peak.  He never had to say he was going there too.  Of course he was going there, where else was there left for any of us to go?  That question seemed to haunt us both.  Neither of us had a good answer, and so we had chosen to continue traveling despite our reservations.

Fear hadn’t gotten the best of us yet…

The desert was only the beginning.  From there, an abandoned tower gave us a moment of respite and reflection, but that was short lived as best.  Our pilgrimage took us through a cavern of beasts such as the eye had never seen; both terrifying and awe inspiring all the same.  Yet, still we travelled on and still we watched over each other.  Many a moment came when one of us might have died and left this world were it not for the other.  Through the silence and the stoic looks, something had developed between us.

A bond, perhaps? Brotherhood, then?

It is a dangerous thing to allow yourself to have such thoughts; it breeds recklessness.

For many different reasons…

As we reached the snow line, we had stumbled upon the ruins of a fallen city.  It had seemed that the ancients had hoped to live in the light of the mountain, but the mountain had rejected them for their arrogance.  My fellow traveller decided to step ahead, to scout the area and determine our next move.

He disappeared into the snow, as I continued to search through the rubble; hoping to find some new piece of information about who we were and where we were going.  He was always the more adventurous type, but I was fine with that.  It was what made us work.

When I looked back up, I saw him coming back towards me, smiling as best one could being covered in snow.  I guess, for that same reason, he wasn’t able to see the look of horror on my face as I saw what was coming behind him.  One of the creatures that we had thought we had left behind in the caverns was rising overhead.

I screamed.

I screamed over and over again.  I called out his name.  Tried to warn him in any way I could, but through the harsh wind of the snow storm I knew nothing I could do would get through.  All I had to do was get him to turn around, to see what was coming up behind him, and I know we would make it.  We had made it through worse things, there was no way we weren’t going to get through this…So I kept screaming, trying to reach out to him.

Until, still with a smile on his face, the beast took him…

Tears filled my eyes.  I felt myself still screaming, but I no longer heard anything coming out.  Regardless of my own safety, I ran out, hoping that something was left, that he was left.  It was a stupid thing to do.  There were more creatures in waiting, and where I thought there was just one, there were now five.

I didn’t want to move, but I knew I had to.  I saw an opening in the ruins, a safe haven, and so I ran.  I heard the monsters behind me, heard their ominous howl and heard in it their desire to destroy all who came near.  Nonetheless, I made it to the entrance and I stopped…and allowed myself to weep.

There was no hope on this mountain…

—————-

What makes certain games magical are the stories that come out of them, and the emotions that it can draw out of the player. This is one of my stories that grew out of my experience with Journey on the PS3. What makes the game so intriguing is that though there is a small narrative thread that goes through the whole game; the majority of the story is pieced together and created by the player during one’s play through.  Everything that happened, the emotions I felt, were all because of my actions and how I responded to the world I was given.

Journey and games like it don’t have an atypical narrative; they have one that you help create along the way via the player’s interaction within the world.  It is in that creation that the story becomes all the more personal to the player and more memorable in the telling. This type of process is more commonly called “emergent gameplay,” or “player driven storytelling.”

Unlike other forms of entertainment, games don’t have to abide by a strict narrative construction.  Whereas films and novels have a set series of events that always play out the same way for the characters, many games give the player the ability to shape their own story and have it play out differently in each subsequent playthrough.  It is the experience and the player’s feelings that become the story in many of these cases. More simply put, the story/gameplay emerges out of the player’s actions, as well as the player’s emotional responses.

Note: The game is actually about survival + NSFW Language

Games like Rust and Day Z have no discernible story of their own outside of what the player base creates for them. The “story” of those games are the personal tales of the players and how they interacted with others while in that world. Of course, for every game of this nature there is a Last of Us or Bioshock: Infinite that has a very specific story to tell, and proceeds to follow a standard narrative path.  This is not a bad thing. It shows the depth and breadth of gaming as a medium for different styles of storytelling.

Even in a game with a more directed narrative, a genuine emotional catharsis can be achieved, if done well. The Last of Us is a fantastic example of this in the AAA space; and Thomas Was Alone shines in the indie arena. In one game it is the story of loss, redemption, and questionable morality; and the other is about small geometric cubes, friendship, and the nature of truth and sacrifice. Despite their differing styles and mechanics, by the end of both I had felt emotionally drained and had shed tears on multiple occasions.

To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, just because something isn’t “real” doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful.  Games can have the ability to reach into us and draw out emotions and responses that other mediums cannot; because we help craft the story.  By making the choices our own, by creating our stories within the world that has been handed to us or acting out or part in the greater narrative; we invest in the moment and engage in a way that no other form of entertainment can match.

To put it simpler; the more we put in, the more we get out.

So like I said…

…sometimes you just need to feel something.

To have a good cry.

To work out some anger.

To remember why we should care about others.

No matter what it is, try a game next time. You’d be surprised what you might get out of it.

As the kids say, “enjoy the feels,” everyone.

Suggested Play: Journey, The Unfinished Swan, Thomas was Alone, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Dear Esther, and Gone Home