Yesterday was a big day, both for comic-book nerds and for media-justice geeks. Marvel Comics’ “Ultimate Fallout #4” hit the stands yesterday, and in it, we got our first glimpse at the “Ultimate” storyline’s new Spidey, a half-African American half-Latino kid named Miles Morales. The Spider-Man alter-ego belonged solely to fictional working-class white dude Peter Parker (and to the white actors who’ve portrayed him) for five solid decades. So this is a big move for Marvel—and, of course, one that’s already being met with a racist backlash.
Peter Parker’s not really gone, of course; Morales is taking on the Spider-mantle only in the offshoot in which Parker got killed back in June, so storylines featuring each Spidey will sit side-by-side on shelves. That’s not to say this editorial decision shouldn’t be applauded. Every time the comics industry has attempted to fix its politics, it’s gotten pushback, whether it’s casually racist anger at an Angolan Muslim as the Batman of Paris, or real-deal white supremacists protesting Idris Elba’s role in the Thor movie.
In many ways, Marvel’s been the most admirably progressive of the major comics imprints, and spokespeople like Tom Brevoort have spoken eloquently and publicly about the impact that a superhero of color can have on a young reader’s self-image. But Marvel, like the rest of the comics industry, often finds itself trapped under the weight of its own legacy; its first-stringers and main moneymakers were created decades ago, in a less enlightened time. Imagine trying to write a story based on 2011 headlines with a social-justice bent—except it has to star your white racist great-grandfather as the good guy, and your entire family is watching over your shoulder, waiting for you to write something they find unrealistic. (If you don’t have a white racist great-grandfather… you probably don’t need this metaphor anyway.)
So how’s Marvel’s constituency handling Morales’ debut? Some, like Adam Serwer, love it and point out that Spidey’s essential nature has always been working-class urban-ness, not whiteness. On the other hand, at the politics-and-comics blog Graphic Policy, Brett Schenker introduces us to New England retailer Larry’s Comics, who decided to mark the new Spidey with racist jokes about fried chicken and big lips.
But the check signers are getting braver as they realize that casual bigots don’t have comics-buying on lock. As Gene Demby pointed out at the American Prospect, critics and fans were won over by a powerful, grim-as-hell retconned one-off in which the Captain America tests were first tested on black soldiers. And Marvel’s Brian Michael Bendis, who’s helming the Morales storyline, says he was encouraged by Donald Glover’s half-joking Twitter campaign to be allowed to try out for the new Spider-Man role, a move which got plenty of casually racist pushback.
Back in 2005, Sukhdev Sandhu wrote for New York Magazine about a Marvel-released Indian Spider-Man miniseries, aimed at South Asian audiences. Some fans complained of their quintessentially American hero being diluted; Sandhu uses this to illustrate how working-class urban lives—re: Peter Parker’s origins—are a recent thing in India. Miles Morales isn’t from another country—but he is from 2011 New York City, a place where radioactive-spider roulette is, demographically speaking, likelier than not to result in a black or Latino protagonist-to-be.
And really, there’s nothing new about people of color receiving disproportionately exposure to environmental radiation and medical experiments. A few good superpowers is the least they deserve.