by Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS! If you haven’t read the issue, proceed at your own risk.
The song I’d like to do for you is a song that I had the pleasure of doing when I was 15 years old…it’s a song that will last, unfortunately, for a long, long time. And when I say “unfortunately,” I’m talking about the fact that it will always be relevant to something that is going on in this world of ours.
Stevie Wonder, introducing “Blowin’ in the Wind”
Love, loss, betrayal, greed. There are a number of timeless themes we might trace back to the earliest stories we can find. But there are other themes, just as timeless, that have not always been featured in our stories in this same way — themes kept so out-of-sight that some people refuse to acknowledge that they exist at all. Of course, for the people actually affected by those timeless truth of oppression, it is simply a part of life. If we are any more aware of those themes in this day and age, it is only through listening to the people who actually experience them. As ever, G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel presents a frank account of what life is like for a young muslim woman in America, bringing hard truths to those of us who might not see them, otherwise.
There I go, centering this story around my own experience of it — one largely based on ignorance of these issues. But I can’t speak for the power seeing this story might have for a muslim reader. Fortunately, the take-away for a white, western reader is profound. For those readers, the realization that anyone might betray them because of their race or religion isn’t even a going concern, let alone a regrettably essential part of a coming of age story.
It’s the kind of lesson that can only come when a person you grew up with suddenly decides your very identity is criminal — not the kind of thing white people ever experience in this country.
But that heartbreak at the betrayal, the sense of utter hopelessness at the state of the country, that’s definitely something a lot of people experienced in the wake of the election — many for the first time. But for others, that feeling is simply a part of life, a bitter truth learned in childhood. The timelessness of that lesson may make it a banal (if sad) matter of course for those readers, but seeing Kamala learn it here stopped me cold. Moreover, while Kamala wins the day, Wilson doesn’t let her forget the sting of this lesson:
“Bittersweet” doesn’t do it justice, both because there’s relatively little “sweet” and because “bitter” isn’t exactly the right word — she’s simply been confronted with a truth she hadn’t had to consider before. It’s unsettled her deeply, and she’s brought us along with her. It’s a beautiful that will last, unfortunately, for a long, long time.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
I don’t think I’ve ever had an opinion about use of lower case lettering in comics before, but I’ve always found it just a bit harder to read this series than most, and I’m realizing it’s because of the simple fact that lower case characters are just smaller (at least, when the upper case characters are sized to match an all UC font). I tend to read comics on my laptop, and while the screen isn’t huge, I can usually read everything in full page view (or double page spread view), but just barely. The slightly smaller characters in a LC font are just that much smaller that I struggle to make them out clearly. I’m sure this reads just fine at actual size (my computer screen definitely isn’t the size of an unfolded comic book), but digitally, the font choice makes the text just small enough that I have to zoom in, use guided view, or just squint really hard, all of which pulls me out of the experience a bit. Since this is really the first time I’ve been able to articulate this problem, I’m wondering if anyone can say anything in defense of LC fonts?
I read my comics on a tablet, which means I’ve never had a problem reading lower case lettering like you have. My page is probably the same size of yours, but by reading it on a tablet instead of a monitor, I’m close enough to never have a problem. But it is an interesting problem that has cropped up with the rise of digital distribution.
I do like lower case fonts, but it is something I’ve struggled to express the way they actually work. In some ways, it comes down to the context they exist in with respect to more traditional lettering. Like how the Ultimate Universe distinguished itself in part through being lettered differently.
For books like Ms Marvel and Runaways, I think the way it works is a little different. There is a suggestion of modernity and youth that comes from the lettering that builds a real identity to books like these, one that truly fits the comic. I’m not sure if that comes from the lettering itself, but the intertextual way the lower case lettering engaging with the rest of the Marvel’s products.
Part of this is because it isn’t the lettering you expect from the Avengers, or any adult superhero book. The generational split is represented by the very difference in the way they are lettered. The fact that they aren’t doing what the oldies do helps show how youthful and modern the book is. I mean, isn’t Ms Marvel’s mission statement as a bok to find new, modern ways to tell the same old story?
But I think a big part of it comes from the original Runaways. There was a period in the early 2000s where Marvel was experimenting with Lower Case Letters and, for some reason, it didn’t work out. But while they were doing that, Lower Case Letters became an established part of the aesthetic of two of Marvel’s modern products. So when everyone else gave up on them, the Ultimate Universe and Runaways kept them. Because that’s how they’ve always been (well, early issues of Ultimate Spiderman were lettered normally. But by the time that the Ultimates really set up the aesthetic of the universe, it was lower case). Lower Case Letters became part of the very DNA of the franchise. Like night time scenes in Batman, or the unique, personalised speech bubbles in Sandman. Quite simply, you can’t have Runaways without Lower Case Letters.
Which is a big reason why Lower Case Letters is used. Because the original Runaways is an all time classic, and one of the most important runs ever. But it is also an important forerunner, a groundbreaking comic that heralded an entirely new type of superhero comic. And books like Ms Marvel are built on top of the revolution that Runaways created. Hell, with Alphona’s art, Ms Marvel barely hides the amount it owes to Runaways. Is it any surprise it also borrows its lettering?
So lower case lettering in a book like Ms Marvel works, because of the intertextual meaning that Lower Case Lettering has. Quite simply, Lower Case Lettering invokes a very specific style of story. This is what a Runaways style story is lettered like, I think the fact that it is lettered so differently to traditional superhero comics is to the strength of the subgenre.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if in ten or fifteen years, someone asks a similar question about whether Squirrel Girl and similar books require hover text/alt text (I don’t know if anyone has given a proper name for what North has done, but considering how it is essentially the physical equivalent of webcomic hover text/alt text, I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes the ultimate name). I wouldn’t be surprised is such text becomes intrinsic to that subgenre, just as Lower Case Lettering has become intrinsic to this one
Last issue, I was really nervous about this comic trying to redeem Josh, without acknowledging the specificity of the circumstances. There is no version of this story where Ms Marvel could save Josh, only Kamala. WHich creates a complex problem, as there is no satisfying way to address this problem that begins ‘assume the racist has a preexisting relationship with a PoC to leverage’. Not because this is false. Paradoxically, it is possible for that very situation to occur. But that doesn’t mean it is a common enough circumstance to be actionable.
Instead, Wilson goes for something complex, something that doesn’t tie things up in a little bow but instead creates a a beginning. I don’t know if that means she succeeded in addressing the difficulty of deprogramming someone like Josh from white supremacy, but she’s certainly not failing. Instead, Josh is wonderfully paradoxical in the way he tries to believe he can have things both ways. His worldview lacks internal consistency, and he chooses to hide away from it. He is presented with evidence that deconstructs his worldview, and so he double down on it, trying to pretend he can both be Discord and Kamala’s friend. An action that leaves both Josh and Kamala feeling broken by the end of the issue, because all he has done is retreated into the house of cards ideaology he has constructed around himself.
Instead of telling a story about how we can save the lost, WIlson has instead told a story about the fundamentally unsatisfying and broken nature of racist beliefs. Ultimately, Wilson vision of white supremacy is something that destroys everyone. I’m going to be very interested to see where it goes from here.
Oh, and there is one scene I really want to highlight. Nakia and Tyesha’s discussion on the hijab. A key part of this arc is about extremism and terrorism, and Wilson has never shied away from the fact that the threat of radicalisation can occur in any community. Wilson has never pretended that a Muslim faces a similar threat to be radicalised to join terrorist groups like ISIS as a white man faces of being radicalised to join Neo-Nazis/KKK/alt-right.
But Wilson also reveals the way of addressing this issue. And that’s by having discussions on the important topics. It is easy for us to accuse communites of not having these discussions, simply because we choose not to listen, but conversations like Nakia and Tyesha’s is exactly the weapon to fight radicalisation. An actual discussion rooted in empathy to try and find the moral truth. A difficult, complex conversation for no easy answer. But by having this conversation, Nakia and Tyesha help pull their community forward and push them away from the evils of radicalisation. Because while every community is threatened by radicalisation, the more a community develops through discussions like this, the harder it is for a member of the community to be radicalised.
If white people could have discussions about the aftermath of colonialism, the slave trade and our relationship with race, like Nakia and Tyesha are shown doing here, white supremacy wouldn’t be as large of a threat as it actually is.