Mise (Marvel) en abyme

by Jesús Costantino

[Figure 1. Ms. Marvel #13 (November 2016), Marvel Comics: 20.]
On November 30, 2016, three weeks after the US election on November 8, 2016, Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, rallied all eligible Americans to head to the polls and vote.

Never mind that the ballots had already been counted (and recounted) and the results known, that thousands of navel-gazing analyses had already been generated, critiqued, and re-generated, that multiple generations of conspiracy theories had been born and died and reborn again, or that much of the country was well into the fourth stage of grief and preparing for what many felt must surely be the end of American democracy. Kamala ingenuously and anachronistically preached optimism, patriotism, and progressive confidence in the anticipated outcome of an election whose fallout was already being mourned.

On December 3, 1851, Frederich Engels sent a letter to Karl Marx: “[I]t really seems as though old Hegel, in the guise of the World Spirit, were directing history from the grave and, with the greatest conscientiousness, causing everything to be re-enacted twice over, once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce.” Ms. Marvel, the unwitting agent of Hegel’s World Spirit, resurrected the 2016 election with dramatic irony and hapless farce. Her poor and brilliantly painful timing was a grotesque accident of the exigencies of the comic book industry and its rapid, and therefore regularly delayed, production schedule. What was supposed to have been Ms. Marvel’s jingoistic warm-up for Hilary Clinton’s easy victory on Election Day was instead the belabored (and belated) zombification of Barack Obama’s hope.

[Figure 2. Brains, Humerus. 2010. Web. 20 Feb 2017.]

But what if Ms. Marvel’s message had instead been stuck in the Dead Letter Office for the entire month of November? What if all copies of Ms. Marvel #13 were sitting with other dead letters and parcels in a room in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Jacques Derrida had first seen “an inscription barely erased on a wall” marking the place where dead letters are “kept for a period, after which dead letters are destroyed”? This might explain why, in the wake of the election, Kamala’s image and her various messages have proliferated and been adopted by feminist and pro-immigrant activists.

The dead letters have multiplied and are now running amok:





Modern revolutions, as Engels reminds us in his letter to Marx, depend upon a tragic-cum-farcical series of resurrections. Marx himself would bring Engels’ words back to life in his, in turn, endlessly recycled opening to “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Kamala Khan is herself, in fact, the fifth iteration of Ms. Marvel, following Carol Danvers in the 1970s, Sharon Ventura in the 1980s, Karla Sofen for a few issues in 2009, and a returned Carol Danvers in 2010. Kamala came into the title in 2014 as part of Marvel Comics’ highly publicized rebranding of the character as the child of Pakistani immigrants living in New Jersey. The character has become, during writer G. Willow Wilson’s tenure, an icon of—and lightning rod for—social justice and intersectional identity politics. Kamala is the younger sister of a likable religious conservative who is married to an African-American Muslim convert; she is a champion of those fighting urban gentrification; she is best friend to an Italian convenience store clerk who is dating the plus-size, tomboyish daughter of a same-sex couple; she even spends a few issues in Pakistan wrestling with her own liberal guilt over what it means to “assist” another country in the neoliberal era; and so on. If the book didn’t seem so consistently true and fair and honest, it would be a caricature of progressive values.

[Figure 3. femmenerdy. Tumblr post. January 29, 2017. Web. 20 Feb 2017.]
This protest image was adapted from the splash panel in the November 2016 issue with which I began. What is lovely, or perhaps doubly ironic, about this refashioned image is that not only was the original a belated resurrection of pre-election progressive optimism, but the original image was already itself adapted from Eugène Delacroix’s iconic painting Liberty Leading the People, commemorating the Second French Revolution—an iconic rendering of a modern revolution’s ideals, tragic failures, and necessary persistence that was the precursor to Marx’s-via-Engels’ vision of an undead Hegel orchestrating history, first as tragedy, then as farce.

[Figure 4. Eugène Delacroix. July 28. Liberty Leading the People (1830). Louvre. Wikipedia. Web. 20 Feb 2017.]
If the original US revolution was supported by and founded in the economics and violence of white supremacy, then, so might the hapless and optimistic Ms. Marvel tell us, we now living in the US need to revisit the very foundations of our collective identity and revise the ideals of our “original” revolution. It is not the American flag or its implied patriotism that is powerful or moving in the image of Ms. Marvel belatedly rallying a group of (undead?) voters. It is the persistent echoes of revolutions past, present, and future.

Like the cosmology of turtles, it’s revolutions all the way down. Revolutions resurrected. Revolutions delayed. Missives calling for revolution held perpetually in abeyance in a dead letter office in Charlottesville, Virginia.

[Thumbnail and featured image cropped from the cover of Ms. Marvel #5 (March 2016), Marvel Comics.]

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