I don’t like to address politics very often when I write about comics. I feel that my writing gives me a chance to get over the petty political world that our society is steeped in throughout the day as a side-effect of incessant media immersion. I notice that every time we learn something new about other people we run it through our little ego filters to decide whether or not we like it and whether or not it is compatible with our own world view. Then we feel compelled to fight with each other about it, probably out of fear that if we don’t we will no longer be relevant as an individual. To me, this is a losing battle. We’re doing the politicians’ work for them, I tell my politically argumentative friends whenever they try to tack an -ism to me and use me for a straw man. It sucks. I hate it. But just because I don’t like talking about something doesn’t mean I can pretend it doesn’t happen.
As I look down at my computer screen, I can see that one of the top news stories in my Twitter feed is the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy who was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, on Feb. 26 by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman. Regardless of what transpired between Martin and Zimmerman to lead to the boy’s death, the event was shocking enough and newsworthy enough to be discussed and debated at the national level. There were many who couldn’t help but feel that Martin’s death had something to do with his being an African American. The flipside to that argument emerged as well among extreme conservatives who live in fear of the criminal element in this country as it is represented for them on the TV. That is to say, as a black teenager.
Meanwhile, as I wait for Mad Men to come on, I switch to Episode 3 of the Star Wars film series on Spike and watch the final 30 minutes. The film is commonly regarded as awful, with cheesy cartoon special effects and almost aggressively bad performances. Most people are pretty offended when they think of how much Lucas has ruined the mystique of Darth Vader and the Emperor for them by releasing this obvious cash cow of a prequel trilogy. But then I stay with Spike through the commercial break and see something that should be offending us infinitely more. A group of (I suppose) repo men asking a black woman to name a founding father of our country and she responds with, “What was that little white boy’s name?”
I can guarantee that people I know, or people connected to people I know, will see this clip of “reality” television programming and interpret it as further journalistic evidence that (a) black people are willfully ignorant of things that all educated people should know, and (b) black people do not like white people. I’m not saying this to be presumptuous or pessimistic or pretentious. I am saying it because I live in the Florida panhandle, and I have spoken with numerous people in this area who use tidbits from the media like this to justify their continued mistrust of the black community. Shame on Spike for airing such a program. This stuff isn’t OK.
So why is it OK? Why are we talking about this if we’re an enlightened, 21st-century civilization that can stare down the apocalypse and grin as we Internet our species against fascism and ignorance? We’re supposed to be super-heroes by now. What’s holding us back?
It seems to me that the debate over Trayvon Martin’s murder is simply the latest example of a push toward prejudice and hostility that strongly conservative Americans seem to have implemented after the election of the 44th President. They were taught for 8 years that republicans would provide them shelter and solace from the scary outside world, and here was this half-black (Kenyan for all they knew) liberal with a scary sounding name replacing the dude from their party. Clearly he was a threat sent from that scary extra-American world where everyone wants to kill us.
It wasn’t long before racism became accepted again. In America, you’re allowed to think the minorities are trying to steal your country as long as you’re a registered Republican. This could be why it made a lot of people very unhappy when the Peter Parker of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was killed and a young kid from Brooklyn named Miles Morales took up the mantle of Spider-Man. Aside from comic fans, who are already very conservative people in terms of their fear of change, politically conservative people in this country could not wait to say that they were vehemently against a black kid being Spider-Man. Which is the perfect time for us to have a black kid as Spider-Man.
Fifty years ago, a new wave of comic book super-heroes emerged to defend society against fear and hatred. A new generation coming up, one whose values had little in common with the generation that came before it. At the same time, the tension between blacks and whites was boiling over, with rioting in the streets and public figures being assassinated. The super-heroes of old were too slow to respond to these new challenges, and a new super-powered guard emerged. These super-heroes were diverse, forward-thinking, and open-minded. Their comic books told the stories of people who were different, people who were outsiders and misfits. They were people who had the deck stacked against them but were then given the chance to show us that anyone from any walk of life could be a hero if given the chance. These super-heroes lived in a shared world of super-science and social progress called the Marvel Universe.
So if I say that stories about super-heroes are meant to teach us to be more progressive, isn’t that like calling them liberal propaganda? Well, yes, if you take the phrase literally. Comic books can be like a form of propaganda because they teach kids to be good to people in a way that makes it cool and exciting. Is Miles Morales propaganda? No, Miles Morales is a little boy, a fictional one at that. Spider-Man, on the other hand, is propaganda for doing the right thing and helping other people. It’s just that Marvel usually tries to tell their stories from the perspective of a minority group because it feels more believable to do so, and from that you get a character like Miles Morales. Young people, black people, disabled people, gay people; all have been made heroes under the Marvel banner. For years, the public has had a chance to sympathize with these different groups of people through these characters. The message here is that you don’t have to worry or be frightened of people who are different from you, ever, because deep down everyone is a super-hero.
Then, when Barack Obama was elected as President of the United States, the country began to see a new wave of bigotry come out of the woodwork. People on the neoconservative end of the political spectrum went to great lengths to repel this new face, the face of a black man with a Middle Eastern-sounding name and left-leaning values. “Is he really one of us?” they seemed to ask. Can he be trusted, or is he secretly some kind of muslim / liberal spy sent from the future to rape the constitution? They were sure he was after their guns, their churches, their children, and their money. As soon as Barack Obama was elected, racial tolerance in America took one step forward and two steps back.
In May of 2010, the racial unease made its way to Marvel’s doorstep. Actor Donald Glover, inspired by a post on the website io9 about why the next Spider-Man film, The Amazing Spider-Man, should feature a non-white actor in lead role, began a Twitter campaign for the chance to audition for the role. The campaign quickly gained a lot of attention, with Slashfilm.com reporting soon after io9’s inital post that the #donald4spiderman hashtag was being used in 100 tweets every 60 seconds. A Facebook page started by a fan had also gained more than 3,500 supporters by 1 June of that year, according to The Washington Post.
Unfortunately, while Glover’s campaign had many proponents, it had its fair share of enemies as well. Many racial purists couldn’t wait to pounce on Marvel should they select the young, black actor/rapper for the role. The negative reactions on the Internet varied, with some people disliking the idea simply because it went against what was established in the comics and some people seemingly scared that if Spider-Man was no longer white, he would no longer be theirs. Some argued that it wouldn’t make sense for the character to be black, as though there are no black kids living in Queens and attending high school. Other detractors just seemed to flat-out hate the idea of the two cultures sharing anything at all. “The next person to play [Martin Luther King Jr.] should be a short fat white guy… just to be fair,” read one of the comments on the Post’s article.
Eventually the filmmakers would opt to cast British actor Andrew Garfield in the lead role, but Glover, who had gained popularity working as a cast member on NBC’s sitcom Community, still had one more trick up his sleeve. In the opening of the show’s second season, Glover’s character, Troy Barnes, hops out of bed wearing Spider-Man pajamas in an obvious nod to his web-slinging aspirations. The image left a very definite impact on the writer of Ultimate Spider-Man, Brian Michael Bendis.
“He looked fantastic,” Bendis later told USA Today. “I saw him in the costume and thought, ‘I would like to read that book.’ So I was glad I was writing that book.”
Later, when it was decided by Marvel’s editorial staff that the Peter Parker of the Ultimate Universe (also known as Earth-1610) would be killed off, they knew that the time was right to introduce a non-white Spider-Man into the mythos. (The idea of a black Spider-Man was also batted around during the conception of the Ultimatum event, shortly before Obama’s election, but was abandoned.)
The result was Miles Morales, a bright, 13-year-old kid from Brooklyn with an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother. For Bendis, the father of an adopted African-American daughter as well as an adopted daughter from Ethiopia, the idea of a non-white Spider-Man didn’t seem that odd. Marvel’s CEO, Axel Alonso, said that he was excited at the idea of his son having a Spider-Man with a Hispanic last name to look up to. Unfortunately, the House of Ideas would soon find out that the public didn’t share their open-mindedness and optimism for a half-black, half-Latino Spider-Man.
Angry fans and insecure white people immediately took to their computers to scream foul at Marvel for making their beloved character belong to a different race. Or, more precisely, replacing him with another character who is of mixed ethnicity. They blamed political correctness and First Lady Michelle Obama for why Marvel made the change, ignoring the fact that many New Yorkers, including many of Marvel’s staff, are of non-white or mixed ethnic backgrounds. British tabloid The Daily Mail even sparked the fear that the new Spider-Man might even be gay (gasp!), simply because artist Sara Pichelli said that the new hero could one day lead to a gay solo character existing in mainstream super-hero comics.
The fear of integrating with the unknown, the not-us, once again spewed forth from the hardcore conservatives of America. But Marvel stood up to the backlash and stayed true to what they set out to do, and in doing so, upheld the proud tradition of tolerance that has made the company what it is today. They reminded society that heroes come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. It might be hard, at the present time, to see the benefit of this struggle, but the fact of the matter is that there is now a generation of kids who will grow up with a half African American, half Puerto Rican Spider-Man. That’s huge. Maybe those kids won’t get freaked out when they see a black kid walk down the street at night. Maybe those kids won’t take it so lightly when they see the black community misrepresented on television.
It reminds me of a great story Todd McFarlane once told (in the bonus features of some long-misplaced DVD of mine) about an idea he had for a Spider-Man comic wherein Spidey saves a well-dressed Wall Street type from an African-American mugger in Harlem. After the incident, the victim looks at Spidey and makes a racist remark about the mugger, thinking the hero would concur with what he said. Spider-Man, in a flash of anger, pushes the man up against the wall, points to his face, and asks the man, “What color do you think I am under this mask?”
A similar tale was told in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #35, written by Paul Jenkins, penciled by Mark Buckingham, and edited by Alonso. In the story, Spider-Man befriends a young African-American boy named Lafronce during a particularly traumatic time in the boy’s life. Lafronce has an active imagination and likes to draw but happens to have grown up in a terribly oppressive environment. One day, as his aunt and her boyfriend are bringing him home, they find that Lafronce’s mother was the victim of a homicide. Months later, Spider-Man reappears in Lafronce’s room, and Lafronce tells the hero that he can’t serve as his sidekick anymore, as he’ll be moving in with his aunt. The two part ways with a handshake, at which time Spidey removes his glove and mask and, to our surprise, we find that the man under the mask is a strong, confident black man.
Bendis himself has admitted to being inspired by such a story based on the ambiguity of Spider-Man’s true ethnic heritage.
“Someone had once said to me, ‘When I was a kid, I could only play Spider-Man, I couldn’t play Batman or Superman because my friends would say you’re not the same color, but I could play Spider-Man because when I fantasized about Spider-Man, he looked like me under the mask,’” Bendis told the New York Daily News in an April 2012 interview. “That was a big inspiration.”
Similar stories have been told around the world by Spider-Man fans for as long as there has been a Spider-Man. The moral of these stories is as plain as day: Spider-Man is a hero that everyone can take turns being. Therefore, not only does it make no sense to become enraged and jealous over the skin color of a character who never shows his skin when he’s doing his heroic deeds, it actually goes against why Spider-Man has such a universal appeal. The character doesn’t have to be white to work. He doesn’t have to consistently be of any one particular race to work. Therefore, Miles Morales is not another non-white character that has been introduced with the admirable and sensible intention to further diversify a massively white super-heroic gene pool. He is not the “black Spider-Man” or the “half-black and half-Latino Spider-Man.” He is Spider-Man.
“Miles is a different ethnicity than Spider-Man has ever been before, but he’s not going to represent all that is race in this country,” Bendis told Comic Book Resources in an August 2011 interview. “That is not what this story is about. It’s about a little boy; where he comes from and what happens when power is put in his hands.”