Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Some thoughts on the new Ultimate Spider-Man

Marvel recently revealed that the new kid under the Ultimate Spider-Man mask will be a half-black, half-hispanic teenager named Miles Morales.  It’s a great move, and definitely something that I will support with both my praise and my money, but it’s also got me wondering if this is even really that big of a move on the part of diversity in comics.

I mean, yes, of course, it’s a huge deal having a multi-racial character as the star of one of Marvel’s biggest selling comics, but is it a huge deal on its own merit, or is it a huge deal because comics have been starved for diversity since forever?  There have been historically very few non-white characters in lead roles in their own titles, and it’s my understanding that they don’t last very long.  The two most prominent in recent memory were Jaime Reyes in The Blue Beetle and Ryan Choi in The All-New Atom.  Jaime Reyes’s title got cancelled, forcing him into supporting roles in The Teen Titans.  Ryan Choi’s book also got cancelled, except instead of showing up as a member of someone’s supporting cast, he got relegated to the role of cannon-fodder, another notch in the belt for Deathstroke the Terminator, a character who hasn’t really done anything that noteworthy since menacing the Wolfman/Perez-era Teen Titans.  It seems, however, that fandom is pretty much incapable of letting this character go, so every now and then DC lets him kill or maim a batch of heroes to boost his aging ego, sort of like an aging lion being fed in the zoo.  But once again, my distaste for Deathstroke the Terminator has made me digress.  As good as The Blue Beetle and The All-New Atom were, sales just weren’t strong enough for them to maintain a spot on the comicbook shelves.

The market for comics has always been pretty harsh on new series.  Make it a new series featuring a new character and it’s even harsher.  Make this a new series featuring a new character who is not a white male and one begins to wonder if you’re stupid or just crazy.  It’s sad that the comicbook marketplace is so dead set against most new things, but that’s the world we’re living in, which is why whenever a title like The Blue Beetle or The All-New Atom is being received so well it’s so refreshing and welcome.  My problem with holding up Jaime Reyes and Ryan Choi (and now, Miles Morales) as the great, non-white hopes of superhero comics is that the mantles they’ve taken over belonged to white men.  I think there are inherently upsetting implications in the fact that these recent non-white, non-male characters starring in their own superhero comics titles took over the titles from white men.  It says that these heroes wouldn’t be heroes without those white men taking those first, brave steps.  It says that these heroes can’t be their own original heroes -- if they want to be taken seriously, or even just plain acknowledged by fandom they have to be a derivative of a white male superhero or they have to be the next in line after the original white male hero; and even then you’ll have a legion of fans up in arms, whining about how this version isn’t their superhero, that this version is somehow something less because it’s not the same character they’ve been reading about for the last thirty years.

It’s definitely admirable that Marvel and DC have been trying to give the spotlight to new, non-white, non-male characters, but one has to wonder if they are really risking all that much when the character that they are featuring is a derivative of a white male hero.  In the case of Ryan Choi, DC still had the previous Atom, Ray Palmer, floating around in character limbo.  They could return to him whenever they pleased, and they did, but did they really need to kill off Ryan Choi?  If they can have 3600 Green Lantern Corpsmen couldn’t they have had two Atoms?  (And for that matter, can’t we just give it a rest with Deathstroke the Terminator?)  With this new Miles Morales character, Marvel gets to have it both ways.  They get to utilize a multi-racial character as the lead in one of their most popular books, and since it’s set in an alternate universe they can still have their every(white)-man Peter Parker in the universe that “counts.”  There’s not a lot of risk involved for Marvel when they don’t have to tell their audiences which version is the “definitive” version.  The definitive version is entirely up to you, the reader, and your own personal preferences and how they relate to your personal experiences.  Perhaps this is why a company like DC that is so focused on fandom’s idea of continuity and what “really” happened couldn’t work with two Atoms.  It’s a silly reason, and I mean no offense to DC, of course, but that’s just an observation I’ve made about how they choose to present their stories in their shared universe.  It just seems that Marvel tends to allow more leeway in terms of their continuity if it helps them tell a better story.

All of that being said, I really am very excited for the introduction of Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man.  One of the great things about the original Spider-Man is that he was an everyman with relatable problems.  He was a regular person like you or me, and under that mask and that costume that hid his entire face and body, he could be anyone.  Having Miles Morales under that mask is a wonderful way to put a new face on that Peter Parker everyman sensibility and present it to a twenty-first century audience of new comicbook readers.


  1. Every time anything has to do with race I feel like I have to address my ethnicity/race: Hispanic.

    I would of been completely fine if Bendis & co didn't make this such a big deal like being born a minority is some weird handicap. The sad thing is there's no arguing about stuff like this without coming off as a complete racist, you either agree or your racist. This whole racial quota filling need from comic book companies doesn't tell me "race doesn't matter" it tells "race matters as long as you're not white". I like my fictional characters because of their character not because I share some primitive racial bond with them. I didn't like Jaime because he was Hispanic like me I liked him because he was empathetic and his suit kicked-ass.
    Even now I sound like a racist prick, Miles Morales is just going to be biracial Spider-Man, a simple character racial switch and nothing more.

  2. I agree that race shouldn't matter, and it shouldn't even be a big deal that Miles Morales is a biracial character, but when superhero comics have been dominated by white faces for the past eighty-something years, having a biracial character or a female character or any non-white, non-male character becomes a big deal.

    You should like your characters not because of what race they are, but because they are great characters being featured in great stories, and it's a shame that comics has taken this long to prominently feature any sort of diversity, but when comics from Marvel and DC try to present their versions of the earth that their characters exist in as a fairly close representation of our own world, you have to wonder where all the non-white people are.

    I'm with you in that it would have been better if Marvel didn't go off to loudly announce to USA today that Miles Morales is the new Ultimate Spider-Man, patting themselves on the back for doing something they should have done a long time ago, but in the end it's a sales game more than anything, and putting that story out there gets the conversation started, generates curiosity, and sells books. I would have much rather Marvel just went about their business, not making a big fuss about Miles Morales being a biracial character, but then how many people would be talking about Ultimate Spider-Man right now?

    It's a flawed marketing ploy to make such a big deal about this, and it shouldn't even be that big a deal to begin with, but I think this is a big step in the right direction, and I intend to support it by buying these comics because I hope that one day soon Marvel and DC won't need to make a big, senses-shattering announcement about how diverse they're being and instead just go about their business telling stories featuring a diverse group of heroes and villains of all races, genders, creeds, orientations, etc.

    Also, thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comments!

  3. Hasn't Marvel already sort of set this precedent (or at least the rumblings of it)? Storm is African, Jubilee is Asian, and of course Wolverine is Canadian (aka mentally handicapped).

  4. Of course but when has Storm or Jubilee ever been the main character in one of the biggest selling books that Marvel has ever published? They've been supporting characters or the centerpieces of forgettable mini-series at best. This is the first time in quite a while that a non-white character has been the headlining character of a major series for marvel backed by one of their top tier creators so I think there's some significance in that.