Thursday Comics Hangover: The end of Ms. Marvel

(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the books I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)

The world ends in superhero comics all the time. DC Comics published a company-wide crossover called Final Night almost twenty years ago in which superheroes and their supporting casts believed their worlds were about to end for real (no, for really real this time). This summer, Marvel Comics did basically the same thing as part of their big crossover, Secret Wars. They published “last issues” of their comics under the banner “Last Days Of…” with the premise that the world is about to end for real (no, for really real this time) and so their characters are forced to come to peace with the idea that they are powerless to stop the destruction of the universe. Like most of the Secret Wars crossover, the idea started strong but has gone on for way too long.

But this week, Marvel published the final issue of Last Days of Ms. Marvel, written by local author G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona, and it’s maybe the best single comic that Wilson has written yet. This is really saying something, considering that Ms. Marvel has been thoroughly delightful for every single one of its 19 issues. From the very first issue, Wilson and Alphona managed to capture that early Marvel superhero formula — the story of a quirky, flawed hero, as told by a writer with a strong voice and an artist with a fun, poppy style — and transplant it, seemingly effortlessly, into the 21st century.

Ms. Marvel has always been a dance between outrageous superhero adventure and the soap-operatic story of Kamala Khan, a teenage Pakistani-American Muslim growing up in Jersey City. The standard superhero tropes are all at play — can Khan keep her superhero life a secret from her hyper-conservative parents? — but Wilson’s low-key script and Alphona’s cartoony art kept the stakes at a happily human scale. Marvel Comics hasn’t debuted a superhero this promising in decades.

But that’s all old news. Yesterday, Marvel “ended” the series, and Wilson and Alphona took the opportunity to write a real, honest-to-goodness last issue for Ms. Marvel. As good as the series has been, this last issue is even better. Though she knows the world is ending, Khan doesn’t turn into Ms.Marvel,or use her shape-shifting powers even once in the issue. Instead, she has heartfelt conversations with her mother, with a friends, with other members of her supporting cast. These conversations, all of which take place in or around a high school in which residents of Khan’s Jersey City neighborhood are taking shelter from the apocalypse, are alternately touching, awkward, and earnest.

Relying as it does on dialogue crammed into a series of tiny bubbles, it’s surprising that this issue works as well as it does. Wilson is gifted at the haiku of comics scripting — seriously, count the number of words in a given comics issue and you’ll have a better appreciation of how hard it is to write dialogue for the medium — and Alphona does the rest of the work with his characters’ emotive faces and expressive body language. They’ve grown as a team over the two years that they’ve worked on the book, and this issue is the payoff for all that hard work. Rather than going out with a silly fight or existential angst, Ms. Marvel instead faces the end of the world as a human being.

Look, we all know it’s comics, and that Ms. Marvel is a popular book, and that nobody’s going to disappear forever. But the trick that Wilson and Alphona pull off in this issue is they take an overplayed gimmick and they use it as an opportunity to allow the characters to speak their minds and open their hearts and demonstrate how they’ve changed since we’ve first met them. This is a hell of an accomplishment: it’s an ending that leaves you desperate to read the next chapter.