Walking the Walk, Instead of Just Talking
So there’s a new Spider-Man in town. His name’s Miles Morales, he’s got a new costume, and he’s biracial, half-black and half-Hispanic. This is a good thing, and one that’s long overdue.
Before I go any further, here’s two important pieces of background information, to provide some context. The new Spider-Man is appearing in the Ultimate Spider-Man series, part of a smaller shared universe Marvel set up about ten years ago to provide more contemporary takes on classic characters (incidentally, it’s also where the idea to use Samuel L. Jackson came from). Earlier this summer, the Ultimate universe’s Peter Parker died in a climactic battle against Norman Osborn (don’t worry, he won). This doesn’t affect mainstream Marvel continuity (termed “Earth-616”), where the Peter Parker most people are familiar with is still having the same webslinging adventures he’s been in since 1962.
The other background deals with an ongoing discussion involving the esteemed competition, DC Comics. Earlier this year, DC announced that they’re relaunching all of their ongoing series at number one, with significant revamps to the costumes and histories of the characters. A big part of this relaunch was the promise of diversity, and “making stories more accessible” to “today’s audience,” which is an admirable goal. But then solicits and covers started being revealed for the 52 new titles, and more and more this “new universe” started looking the same as the old universe. Of the seven members of the Justice League, only one (Wonder Woman) is female. Cyborg has been added, with hints of tokenism, but he’s conveniently been left out of the first wave of Justice League action figures and the variant cover to Justice League #1. A lot of the lack of growth has been attributed to DC’s not-hugely-diverse talent pool which dropped to just 1% women on the new titles. This caused kind of a stir at SDCC, which DC has addressed in a blog post.
The thing about the relaunch is that they could’ve done anything. DCnU Clark Kent has a different outfit and modified S-shield and isn’t married to Lois Lane. The Justice Society of America has vanished entirely. A bunch of elements I think of as being pretty integral to these characters have been altered or removed. But having a black Flash, or a gay Aquaman, or a Justice League with five superheroines on it is just too much, or too different. I don’t think it’s active racism or misogyny, and I wouldn’t accuse Dan DiDio or Jim Lee or Geoff Johns of something like that. They just have a blind devotion to the Silver Age stories they grew up with, and they fail to see that if you kill of minorities and replace them with white guys, it comes off a little bit poorly.
Meanwhile, Marvel announced the identity of the new Ultimate Spider-Man the other day. They’d teased the costume before, as well as the fact that there’s a new face behind the mask, but Ultimate Fallout #4 was the first time we got to see Miles Morales in action, albeit briefly. While the diversity angle was played up in the USA Today piece and elsewhere, this wasn’t pushed ahead of time as a “new, more diverse Spider-Man for today’s audience” or anything. Brian Michael Bendis just wrote a character he wanted to write (partially inspired by Donald Glover’s vocal interest in the role of Spider-Man in the upcoming film). The creative team on USM put a new guy in a Spider-Man suit, and in the words of artist Sara Pichelli, “”Maybe sooner or later a black or gay — or both — hero will be considered something absolutely normal.”
So where does all this leave the new Spider-Man? Honestly, I don’t really know yet. Glenn Beck hates him, so that’s probably a good sign. (As a side note, I have absolutely no qualms about calling Glenn Beck a racist. Glenn Beck is a racist.) I don’t know if I like Miles Morales yet, because we haven’t had a chance to see him in action or really get to know him yet. I don’t like characters based on race alone; that’s also racism. I love Luke Cage and Cyborg, but I find Black Panther insufferable most of the time. I like the new costume design, and an even younger Spider-Man (he’s only 13 years old!) presents even more storyline possibilities. But overall, like everyone else, I’ll have to wait until the new USM #1 to find who exactly Miles Morales is.
What I can say is that I’m impressed with Marvel’s dedication to progressive storytelling. Diversity has never been as much of a problem for them, both in terms of their characters and their staff. This step is bolder than it should be, in this day and age, and I’m glad Bendis, Axel Alonso and everyone else was willing to take it.
And DC, this is how you do it. Don’t take the pants off of Wonder Woman’s costume because of knee-jerk fan reaction. Don’t get mad and combative when someone asks about your commitment to diverse hiring practices. Just keep an open mind to changes. Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, and the Silver Age itself were reinventions of old ideas.