To Be Young, Gifted With Spider Powers and Black

I know I’m a little late on this, but I have cause to write this now (whereas I didn’t when the events detailed below actually happened), but it’s not the first time a white guy has been late to weigh in on this sort of thing, so it’s nothing out of the ordinary, and I think the topic needs a bit of serious re-visitation.

So, you may have remembered a little internet campaign that happened in 2010 preceding the production of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man which comes out this summer sometime between the transfor-uh-I mean-aliens attacking the battleships and Batman goes to Pittsburgh.  The idea was to get this guy:

(<–That is Donald Glover crack 30 Rock writer and fan-fave character in NBC’s terrible though somehow successful The Office/Family Guy mashup Community)

into those iconic webbed tights in the new Spider-Man reboot.  It went roughly the same way these sorts of things always do.  The actor in question is nonchalant about it (he’d love to be Spidey, but he’s also pretty successful already) E-Racists (or is it iRacists now?) come out of the e-woodwork, and eager messageboarders hop on the crusade to, you know, point out how all those people are racists.  There are some middling letters from ‘concerned fans’ who don’t understand that it doesn’t matter how nicely you put it, you will always be a total idiot for actually writing a letter against the idea of a black main character in a big tent-pole movie, and of course it ends without a Black Spider-Man.

Even though I am a die-hard Spidey fan, I had no opinion on the matter, partially because I had already guessed how the aforementioned sequence of events was going to go down, and partially because I was just kind of jazzed for a new Spider-Man movie at all.  But then this happened:

Yup, that’s black Spider-Man.  That intrigued me, though I still thought it was a case of too little too late.  Here’s why:

What the news blurbs didn’t tell you is that this new half-black half-latino Spidey, Miles Morales is set in the Ultimate Universe.  For all you non-comic bookers out there, the Ultimate Universe is basically a series of alternate takes of Marvel’s mainline heroes, launched in 2000 by the then-good writer Brian Michael Bendis.  Iron Man, the X-Men, Fantastic Four, the Avengers, they’re all there, except different.  The imprint was created to  give these classic characters an edgier feel, and to let writers really run with them without ruining the lives of the thousands of 40+ year old fans who couldn’t handle it (them being the only ones who actually buy paper comic books anymore).  It’s a world in which Thor is a hippie, Captain America is a Republican and The Blob ate the Wasp.  There was a big event back in ’09 called Ultimatum in which, I think Jeph Loeb descends on Manhattan and takes a giant dump over all of the characters and get this, Peter Parker dies (and in this whacko alternate universe, it actually means he stays dead)!  That’s when Bendis brought in the new kid.

That’s where this all comes full-circle.  Turns out, Bendis’ new half-Black half-Latino Spidey Miles Morales was inspired by Glover himself via a sight gag involving Glover’s character clad in webbed PJs in an episode of Community.  So #donald4spiderman did have some impact after all.  Just not the kind in which the Black guy comes out on top (par for the course).

So, my first thoughts on this were:  Ultimate Spider Man, when it first launched in 2000 was a pretty solid book, but it still was just the one where Peter Parker is a teenager again and he wears a South Park shirt and has a cell phone, and Uncle Ben has a pony tail.  But of course, making an entire alternate ‘edgy’ version of your characters only serves to make it that less edgy, and Morales confined to the Ultimate universe is tantamount, in my mind, to a comic book version of a Jim Crow law.   Bring me a real revolution:  Spider-Man, the real Spider-Man is now Black.  Sign me up for my 35% off discounted long-term subscription Mr. Comic Man, I’m in it for the long haul.  But I wasn’t particularly interested in a B-squad ‘alternate version’ story shoved into the Ultimate back-alley of the Marvel U, particularly not one written by Brian Michael Bendis.

Until I read it.

In brief:  This is what Ultimate Spider-Man should’ve been in 2000.  Hell, this is what Spider-Man himself should have been in 2000.

Bendis also took the opportunity to put a few much needed spins on the Peter Parker formula beyond a change of race.  First of all, Morales is a pre-teen, not a teenager, he’s more like 11 than 17 which further adds to the feeling of vulnerability.  He has new powers, a shocking touch and a camouflage ability, and he has to get by without webs for a good while.   He has a strong father figure who loves his son but isn’t a fan of superheroes (instead of the usual dead dad situation our heroes tend to suffer from).  And as you can see from the above, the costume is dope.

As I’ve said before, I’m the deepest kind of Spider-Man fan.  The kind that actually read through both The Secret Empire and the Clone Saga (shudder).  Bottom line, I know me some Spider-Man and I know him and his world well enough to say this with all fanboy confidence:  Miles Morales cures the dramatic problems that Peter Parker has been suffering from since about 1999.  

What problems you ask?  Simply this:  you can’t seriously expect me to believe that a lithe, brainy, Caucasian hipster who works as a photographer in NYC can’t get a date.  Spider-Man was an innovative character in his day.  He was a sweater-vest wearing geek whose weaknesses and vulnerabilities were quite convincing, that is when geeks were actually picked on.  These days he looks like anyone you’d see in Brooklyn.  Horn-rimmed glasses, sleeves-rolled-up button down, outrageous sweater vest, toothpick-thin physique.  They tried everything with the guy.  He got married, he found out he was a clone, sent him to space a few times, revealed his secret identity on national television, but fans wanted good old friendly neighborhood Spidey back, so Marvel recently rebooted his entire life (ironically pissing off everybody) and made him into a 22-year-0ld photographer hipster who for some reason still cannot hold down a girlfriend…you know because he’s late for stuff.  It didn’t work.

People want the good old Spider-Man:  a down-on-his-luck outsider kid with a heart of gold who develops special powers and learns about responsibility and that he can be more than he ever thought he could be.  What Bendis and Glover proved is that there is a very simple way to do that in the 21st Century (and it may very well be the only way):  make him Black.

For a third time I shall invoke my platinum-level Spidey-Fanboy status as I say, Ultimate Spider Man volume 2 is awesome.  It feels more like classic Spider-Man than any of his established continuity since 1985.  What Bendis lacks in nuance he makes up for in a really cracker jack story full of pathos, emotion and real care for the new cast of characters.  I can’t find the exact quote, but I remember reading Glover saying something like this about the idea of a Black Spider-Man:  “I dunno, a poor down-on-his luck kid who likes science and lives with his aunt and is always worried he might get jumped?  It just sounds like a black kid to me.”  Gosh, it’s just so logical.  Making Spider-Man Black is a beautiful case in which changing the ethnicity of an established tent-pole character actually preserves what everyone loved about him in the first place.  

White people can’t be underdogs.  I say this, not out of some misplaced sense of white guilt or hero complex.  I’m simply stating an obvious fact that most superhero comics haven’t really gotten around to digesting yet.  There is something quintessentially American about the underdog character.  It’s built into our DNA.  The unlikely one with the cards stacked against him (or her) who overcomes a corrupt world through determination and ethical rectitude.  But middle-class whites do not, for the most part, face these sorts of challenges regularly, at least not enough to make the kind of immediate dramatic sense out of them that comics demand.  Thing is, the people whose stories typically take the underdog role these days are not Whites.  Of course I’m generalizing here.  I realize there are plenty of white people who are born into hard lives and plenty of minorities born into privilege, but comics don’t deal in specifics, they deal in recognizable generalities informed by the whole of society and culture, and those generalities create a sensible, dramatically rich landscape from which to realize this character as an easily recognizable, meaningful symbol.  Miles Morales is the new recognizable underdog, not the sweater-vested photographer.

Consider this:  we meet Miles Morales as his parents take him to a charter school lottery.  We get more palpable drama from this situation than anything coming out of the mainline Amazing Spider-Man series.  I’ll let the panels speak for themselves:

Don’t get me wrong.  Miles Morales isn’t a stereotype, but his life reflects what is more or less likely for an urban minority youth.  As I’ve said before, he’s not even 100% African American.  He’s half Latino (though drawn as recognizably African-American), an added wrinkle that at first felt excessive, but I’ve come to accept as a necessary specificity of his character.  This is not Season 4 of The Wire with spider powers, his life is not a checklist of black stereotypes nor is it a diversity day-esque parade of stereotype-breaking statements.  He’s a living, breathing minority who got bit by a radioactive spider.

But there’s also something inescapably symbolic about seeing a black youth swinging triumphantly through midtown, and I’m not sure we should try to escape it.  Miles Morales is a symbol and, whether you like it or not, a better one than Peter Parker.  Ah, to heck with it, I’m probably not going to come out of this article without sounding racially naive, but I feel that I must say it plainly:  Miles Morales just feels a lot more like Spider-Man than Peter Parker has in twenty-some-odd years, and I cannot help but believe that it has a great deal to do with his ethnicity.  

There it is.  This is why I think the producers of the new Spider-Man film, rather than simply missing an opportunity to simply promote diversity among tent-pole protagonists, they missed out on a golden opportunity to properly contextualize the Spider-Man character for the 21st Century.  Whatever.  In my universe, Peter Parker is dead.  The Brand New Day belongs to Miles Morales.

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About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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9 Responses to To Be Young, Gifted With Spider Powers and Black

  1. this is an awesome article alex.

  2. LOVE IT! Reposting as I type (ok, technically right after). This is spot on and fantastic!

  3. Cole Gerthoffer says:

    I love this! I haven’t read the new series yet, but I’m glad to know its not awful. I think I’d be more interested to know, though, why you think Community is terrible. I’ve always met people who hate it, but they’ve never given me a good reason why. I happen to love the show, and I’ve always known how well you voice your opinions, so I’m curious. What’s your beef with it?

    • alexwilgus says:

      Hmmm, I think it’s tough to communicate reasoning when comedy isn’t effective. To some degree, it’s all about what strikes you as funny, and that’s rarely a rational thing. If I had to articulate it, it probably has something to do with my problems with Scrubs: A show filmed in the annoying camera style of Malcolm in the Middle, that hired a broad cast of comedians, then failed to produce memorable characters in the first season, so then it devolved into simply throwing jokes and references at the wall, some of which are bound to be funny, but none of which are really all that novel. I think my main problem with the show is that everyone is goofy. There is no straight man, and all the characters seem to all know that they’re in a comedy and are loving it just a bit too much. Parks & Rec has Ron Swanson. The Office had Oscar and Kevin, someone to bounce silliness off of. In Community, everyone is always bugging out and goofing so much that there’s no context in which anything is funny. It’s all bugged eyes and loud voices. It feels like a bad improv show where all the actors are overly zany, too loud and everyone oversells their lines as if their character is the funniest person in the show. The result is that the spotlight shifts too quickly from character to character and not only do I get bad jokes, I get them delivered so forcefully at me that they’re annoying.

      Wow, that was long. But in all, I have to admit, I’m a tough sell on comedy in general. I can digest a medium-grade TV series (like Buffy, Alias) and enjoy it reasonably enough, but comedy has to be pretty specific to get me to laugh most of the time. I cry every time I watch ATHF or Space Ghost: Coast to Coast reruns. It’s just a matter of taste.

      • Cole Gerthoffer says:

        Wow that was actually just what I was looking for, and you bring up a really good point. For me, Abed has almost assumed the role of straight man on the show, and I guess that’s how I tolerate it. I find that kind of batcrap craziness funny, but too much lunacy does become tiresome. Comedy is so subjective, but I do love me some P&R, and I do love me some Swanson. And, like you, Adult Swim has the propensity to make me cry from time to time.

      • alexwilgus says:

        Comedy is so subjective. Bottom line. i.e. I somehow loved Stella which was the most over-the-top show ever.

    • alex, may i also just say that i completely agree with you on Scrubs and Community! you’re the first person i’ve met who dislikes those shows for essentially the same reasons as i do. glad to hear you enjoy Parks and Rec too. do you by any chance watch Grimm? are you planning on watching Blood & Chrome (and i guess i’m also asking if you watched BSG)? finally, how pumped are you for Ender’s Game the movie? actually i’d really love to read an article by you dissecting the cast, crew, and production team of the upcoming Ender’s Game movie.

      • alexwilgus says:

        I watched a bit of Grimm. It was all right. I’d’ve kept going on it but I think my attention wandered. I thought Blood & Chrome was cancelled!!! It’s alive again? Also, Ender’s Game is looking very promising. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the book ever, but it’s a good story that has the potential to be excellent onscreen. Did you hear Harrison Ford (who plays the general in it) say it was the most emotional sci-fi movie he’s ever done? High praise.

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