The opening page of Champions #5 shows a mosque in flames. As this angry, ignorant, intolerant hate crime burns, the Champions arrive in Daly County to help. Sure, they’ve had traditional superhero skirmished before. But their focus is on something larger. They honestly believe they can make the world a better place. Guided by that belief, the Champions are working to honor the vow they made in issue #1. Ms. Marvel told Spider-Man and Nova, ” All the ‘grown-up’ heroes broke the world with this dumb war…and they don’t seem interested in putting it back together! Somebody has to!” That’s the Champions.
With each issue I read, I’m reminded of a tweet Andrew sent me months ago. When Champions #1 landed on comic shelves in October he asked, “Most relevant new comic in ages?” Based on his recommendation, I immediately picked it up. I loved it and completely agreed with him. However I had no idea just how right he would end up being. Each month, in light of the news, Champions seems more and more relevant. Our world is a scary place and we are all partially to blame – whether because we share the hateful worldviews that are corrupting things or (if we’re being honest with ourselves) because we haven’t done enough to point out and battle the systemic evil always growing in the world around us. If we’re looking for a reminder of what right looks like, the Champions provide an excellent example.
The series begins with Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) quitting what’s left of the Avengers (Thor, Cap, and Vision) after a fight with the Wrecking Crew in Queens. They were victorious…but without Tony Stark they lacked the ability/funds to repair the damage they caused. Disillusioned with their seemingly endless destruction and lack of responsibility, she walks away. After a few weeks hunkered down at home doing nothing, she turns to Miles Morales (Spider-Man) and Sam Alexander (Nova) to try and get back out there and make a difference. Looking to repair the world, they recruit Amadeus Cho (the Hulk). Their first act together is saving some miners trapped in a collapsed coal shaft in Bartlesburg, Kentucky. Then they pick up Viv Vision to help them stay aware of the most pressing problems occuring. She lets them know of a human trafficking situation developing in Baltimore, Maryland. After rescuing the girls, the crowd is calling for Hulk to kill the man who was looking to sell them into sexual slavery but Ms. Marvel stops him.
She tells the crowd, “What happened here today was sickening. And stuff as bad – worse – happens every day in this world. The strong abuse the weak – who have to worry more all the time about who they can trust and who they can’t. You want that to change? Us, too. We’re in a war for a better tomorrow. Join us. Help us to not take the easy road, and I promise we’ll fight every fight they can throw at us. Help us win the hard way – the right way – not with hate, not with retribution, but with wisdom and hope. Help us become champions.”
And people respond. Of course they do! Who doesn’t want that? Of course we want that! It’s beautiful! It’s inspiring! But the real question becomes are we inspired enough to do something ourselves? The end of Champions #1 sees the team ask who will join them. Well…do we have the courage to follow their lead?
Look at the brilliant model they present. In each issue they are saving real people, working together, and repairing the damage they leave in their wake. The message is clear. What do heroes do? They listen. They work together. They utilize their individual strengths. They are aware of the fallout from their actions and they work to counter it.
Champions #2 sees a group camping trip (where the young version of Scott Summers (Cyclops) joins the team!) that makes this foundational premise of the team clear. They all bond, get to know one another, learn about each other’s powers, and work on ways they can be an effective team. It’s a really cute/fun issue but it also shows the way the Champions will work. They are a team. They respect and trust each other. Together they are to be greater than the sum of their parts and that can only happen with work and the willingness to listen to each other. This is what it means to be a hero.
This issue also highlights another important facet of the book. Yes, it couldn’t be more topical/relevant. Yes, they confront real world issues. Yes (thank God!) they openly challenge all of us to join their struggle against injustice. But the book is still a lot of fun. Nothing about it feels heavy or depressing. Coupling the serious subject matter with six sassy, complex, independent, intelligent, and witty teenage characters is a brilliant idea! The comic always feels bright, both from its message of hope as well as its humor and heart. And awkwardness :). As a comic staring a team of teenagers there’s a lot of awkwardness…
From awkward introductions…
To awkward first kisses…
To awkward fights over who gets to be team leader…
Even to awkward moments in literal fights for survival…
There is just so much awkwardness and I love it! Also, working with high schoolers all day, I can attest to the banter, hilarity, and wonderful teenage awkwardness being spot on.
The pivot back and forth between the serious battles against injustice and the genuine fun of watching the team interact is handled masterfully. Their camping trip comes to an end when Viv tells them terrorists are gunning down children in a town in Southeast Asia where women and girls are defending their rights as human beings.
As soon as they get there Kamala asks a group of girls being harassed by the terrorists what’s going on. Amal tells them, “Gender apartheid. Six months ago, militant fundamentalists entered our nation, creating a climate of havoc and fear. They believe that women are to be shamed, to be hidden away, given no access to medical care or education. To be stripped of their human rights. Recently, it’s been getting worse. Young girls have been murdered in the streets for the ‘crime’ of carrying a schoolbook or being seen without a burqa. The citizens of Lasibad do their best to fight back, but we are drastically overmatched. There are simply too many oppressors embedded to drive them out.”
This is another topical problem they are confronting. However, perhaps it’s necessary to take a minor digression to say something about Islam. While the oppression of women happens in certain areas – and it is absolutely something we sadly associate with the faith – Islam is in no way naturally oppressive towards women. In brief, Muhammad was a major champion (no pun intended) of women’s rights. In pre-Islamic Arabia, women were nothing more than property with no right to divorce who, after their husband died, was either taken be her husband’s kin or (of she was too old or undesirable) she and her dowry reverted to the tribe. Muhammad changed a great deal of that beginning with the fact that the Qur’an forbids a man–even a sultan–to marry a woman without her express consent. A woman’s sexual enjoyment is a right of hers in marriage too. He allowed women to divorce if they were being neglected or abused and he forced men to try and reconcile their relationship with their wives for three months before he’d let them divorce. The Qur’an teaches men and women were created simultaneously from a single cell (4:1; 7:189). The Quran also clearly establishes equality of the sexes in the eyes of God. It does affirm that men and women have distinct and separate roles in society but expecting anything else would be anachronistic in seventh-century Arabia. The roles however, while different, are complimentary. The Qur’an also directly states men must protect, honor, and provide for women (4:34).
Anyway, digression aside, the Champions offer their help. The girls refuse to flee themselves and they join forces.
Amal makes a profoundly important point to the terrorist leader once his forces are vanquished. She says, “You are the heretics. We are the ones made strong by our God. You think we are whimpering little girls? We are warriors.” The world over, oppression is done in the name of God but nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, or the Qur’an does God support this. Rather, God always stands with the oppressed against the oppressor. If you want to be with God – across all traditions – you need to stand with those seeking justice. God is always on the side of liberation.
Again, the lesson to be taken here is direct and important. Oppressors are everywhere. We are overmatched…on our own. But together we can become superheroes. Together we can turn the tide of oppression. Together we can begin to transform the world. Together we can do God’s work.
Transformation is a process though. It’s a long fight and it’s not an easy one. Returning to where we began, we see this in issue #5. After the Champions evacuate the mosque and quell the flames, they have a run in with the recently elected Sheriff Studdard.
Hmm…so we have a recently elected official who, with his own racist attitude, is fanning the flames (literally and figuratively) of hatred through the community where he was elected. He’s active on social media, dismissing the reality of the situation while simultaneously invalidating any “outsider” opinions. And all groups that don’t fit a very specific mold of white, heterosexual Christian are being demonized, marginalized, harassed, and endangered. Why does this seem familiar…?
It’s a heavy issue dealing with heavy issues so they brilliantly add Gwenpool to keep things light and prevent the tone from becoming oppressive. Gwenpool is certain a super villain must be behind it all while Ms. Marvel tries to educate her. “Gwenpool,” she says, “I don’t know where you think you’re from. Or what you think you’ve read, but corruption and injustice and racism can infiltrate authority structures all by themselves without a super villain’s help.” Uh, yep.
They try to talk to Deputy Sims to help them shine a light on Sheriff Studdard’s corruption but Sims lets them know Studdard is hugely popular with a vocal segment of the community and half the local news channels only sing his praises. People watch what they already believe and see their opinion validated. It’s impossible to make an effective move against him now. And, superheroes or not, you can’t punch your way to an effective solution with a corrupt government despite how dangerous he may be.
Again, relevant. The Champions aren’t tackling easy issues. So the comic certainly doesn’t offer easy answers. Life is complex. If we have any hope of honestly fixing things we need to be ready to wade into the complexity ourselves. And who better to lead us than teenagers? In Hinduism there is the belief that your teenage years have the greatest potential for dramatic spiritual growth. The reason for this is simple. An adult will believe when they are told of practicality, limits, and “being realistic” about goals. A teenager sees no limits and, often, will willingly try to do the impossible just to prove those who say it can’t be done wrong. If we have any hope of making things better, we need to embrace this mentality. That first afternoon when Andrew and I were tweeting about this title he told me, “This is why comics are important…because the world does still need heroes and it’s definitely up to next generation to lead #Champions.”
Champions is an important book, simultaneously a fun/entertaining superhero story and a powerful model of how to honestly make the world a better place. As a general rule, I’m wary of team books. Basically I see them as crossover hubs. (To be fair, I already love (and regularly read) Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man, and Hulk’s solo adventures (plus I loved The Vision) so how bad could potential crossovers be?) But I loved Mark Waid and Adam Kubert’s All New, All Different Avengers so – with Andrew’s urging – I was willing to try Mark Waid and Hamburto Ramos’ Champions. By the end of Champions #1 I knew I’d found a title I couldn’t live without. It’s joined my list of indispensible comic books. Champions is a title that makes me both excited and proud to be reading comics again.
The grown-ups have broken the world, yes…and somebody has to fix it. Amen! In issue #4 Kamala says, “We’ve already said that anyone who wants change in this world can call themselves a Champion. I bet there’s someone out there who’s taking that to heart right now!” It’s an inspiring line, perfectly fitting the tone of the book and Ms. Marvel’s character. However, the question remains…will you or I have the courage to be that person? Will we choose to be Champions?