One of my friends is a fairly big comic and film geek. He also works with a number of minority students as part of his job and is thus involved in many diversity based programs. And on top of that he’s Mexican-American. So the other day, after reading about Miles Morales – aka the new Ultimate Spider-Man who, if you haven’t heard, happens to be half African American and half Latino American, I decided to ask him his thoughts. I figured with his background in both diversity rich programs and general geekdom, he’d have a pretty interesting opinion on the matter.
Something along the lines of, “I’m fine with it I guess. As long as it’s not too gimmicky and they’re not doing it just to sell more books. Like every time Jean Grey dies. Or when Superman died. Or Batman. Or anybody really. If it’s part of a greater story it’s cool. And if they keep him out long enough to matter it’s cool.”
I was slightly taken aback at the simplicity of his response. To his credit, he did answer the question I had just asked: “How do you feel about Peter Parker dying and being replaced by a half black/half Latino new guy?” But of course I was fishing around for a critique of the latter half of that question.
Across the interweb, everyone has pretty much chimed in since the Miles announcement. I’ve read reactions to the multi-ethnic new character on various websites ranging from USA Today to CNN to our very own AngryWeb. The response has typically fallen into two distinct camps of thought: praise and criticism.
On the one hand, many are giving props to Marvel for introducing a new ethnically diverse character in a universe that is primarily made up of white heroes – particularly the mainstream heroes. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those saying that Miles is nothing more than a poorly placed PR and PC move. Even Miles throws out a similar thought as he questions whether or not his appearance is in poor taste when he first unmasks.
Yet despite all of the articles and forum posts I read, I didn’t really take into consideration a third opinion: the introduction of Miles Morales is as big as you want to make it. This more or less what my friend felt.
The creation of Miles Morales was very intentional. Marvel’s editor in chief, Axel Alonso, explained “What you have is a Spider-Man for the 21st century who’s reflective of our culture and diversity…When the opportunity arose to create a new Spider-Man, we knew it had to be a character that represents the diversity — in background and experience — of the twenty-first century.” So kudos to Marvel. The replacement of Spider-Man is a pretty big deal. It’s not like Marvel is doing this with Iron Fist or Ghost Rider or some other B teamer. Spider-Man is as big as it gets for Marvel and is probably the most recognizable figure in comics behind maybe only Superman and Batman. Point being, while popular non-white characters such as Luke Cage or John Stewart have existed for decades, Marvel is trying to make a big statement with one of their big hitters. Sure it’s the Ultimate version and not the 616, but most of the millions of people who happened to read one of various articles online probably won’t know the difference.
In terms of reaction, everyone seems to recognize what Marvel is doing, but no one seems to agree on why. After all, Marvel is a business trying to sell a product and such wide publicity from Miles will help them do just that. In order for Marvel to get the audience on their side – to get their intended purpose to match up with the audience’s interpretation – Marvel needs to follow up their bold introduction with bold stories.
Miles cannot simply be Peter Parker with a different skin color. If he exists just to deliver the same quips and go through the same awkward teenage moments, then his introduction does not really have that greater impact my friend was hoping for. But if he is developed into a fully realized character, however, full of his own complexities and quirks (something Bendis can do well), Miles may be here to stay for a while. In terms of his ethnicity, should it be a focus of some stories? Definitely. Should it be THE focus of his entire character? Definitely not.
Going off of this approach, Bendis should take note of Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men and more specifically the Ultimate version of Colossus. While his 616 counterpart has been in a long standing relationship with Kitty Pryde, Ultimate Colossus is gay. Millar and subsequent writers on the book have successfully created some solid story arcs as well as tackled a major “21st century issue.” Coming out to a homophobic best friend the way Colossus came out to Nightcrawler, for example, is a real world experience that many readers can relate to. (The turning into metal thing and teleporting with a loud BAMF maybe not so much).
At the end of the day, good storytelling will always win out. Yet Marvel has a responsibility to follow up their introduction with stories that recognize this opportunity. Sara Pichelli, who was integral in designing the new Spider-Man’s look, said, “Maybe sooner or later a black or gay — or both — hero will be considered something absolutely normal.” To me, it seems my friend has already reached that point. For the rest of us, however, it appears that we have some work to do to get there. Hopefully Miles Morales will play a significant role in bridging that gap.