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Why Does It Matter That Spider-Man is Black?

It’s interesting the odd way that comic books occasionally overlap with the mainstream. Mainly, it appears to be when a death is involved, like the coverage that Ed Brubaker’s The Death of Captain America inspired, or the pop culture impact of Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. (or even Jonathan Hickman’s death of Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four). These week, we’ve had a minor media storm over something a bit different: a new character taking an established identity. Most mainstream media outlets weren’t interested in the resurrection of Bucky Barnes to replace Steve Rogers, nor Dick Grayson donning the cowl in Batman & Robin. However, there’s been a storm in a teacup brewing over the fact that the new lead in Ultimate Spider-Man is black.

Why on Earth is this such a big deal?

The only colours I associate with Spider-man are blue and red...

I do think part of the problem is Marvel themselves. Apparently their business strategy of killing one big-name character every quarter to ensure sales also means alerting the press before the publication of a major comic book. So far, a whole slew of big comic book reveals have been spoiled by major media outlets before the issue in question has been released, because the Marvel publicity outlets want to stir up a storm. I can understand the strategy, and maybe it does drive up sales, but it also means that a lot of people get very excited prematurely. Especially when there’s not much to talk about.

I suspect that part of the reason there’s been such a big deal made of the ethnicity (half-black, half-hispanic) of Miles Morales stems from the simple fact that – at this early stage of the game – all we know about him is the fact that he’s black. Oh, and he’s young – but that’s a given, as is the fact he’s honouring the legacy of Spider-Man. His comic book debut, in the pages of Ultimate Comics Fallout #4 consists of a confrontation with a D-list supervillain in which he acts exactly like Peter Parker, followed by a final-page reveal. We know nothing of Miles, right now, save his skintone. So just about any discussion of the character seems to draw on that.

Maybe the geek community has Miles to go...

It’s interesting that the roots of this decision apparently stem back to an internet meme around the initial stages of development of Sony’s upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man. Somebody at the wonderful io9 innocuously commented that there weren’t too many strong contenders for the role of Peter Parker who happened to be white, and so there was no reason that the producers couldn’t broaden the criteria a bit to find the best actor for the part:

So why couldn’t Peter Parker be played by a black or a Hispanic actor? How does that invalidate who Peter Parker is? I’m not saying that the producers need to force the issue; that they need to cast a minority just for the sake of it — but in the face of such underwhelming options like Billy Elliot and the kid who played young Voldemort, why not broaden the search?

I actually honestly agree with the sentiment. in fact, before I saw Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger, I was convinced that Will Smith was the perfect actor for the part. Not because he’s black, but because he was the best candidate.

The Glove(r)s are off when it comes to the internet community...

Anyway, in the comments section of the above article, somebody suggested Donald Glover for the part of Peter Parker. Being entirely honest, I’m not convinced, perhaps because I haven’t seen enough of Glover’s work. Still, it’s not an opinion I hold based on the colour of his skin. Anyway, Glover leapt on the opportunity and began a campaign for an audition for the role. Note that he didn’t want the role, he just wanted an audition for the role. And then the internet sort of exploded. It got ugly, with Community creator Dan Harmon commenting on the “curious eruption of a previously unknown demographic of racist comic-book readers.” It was not a moment that makes me proud to be a geek.

I don’t believe that all casting should be colour blind, and I admit that certain characters do rely on their ethnicity to inform their character. I’d be cautious, for example, of any take on Daredevil that wasn’t Irish Catholic, or a white Luke Cage, or a non-WASP Emma Frost. On the other hand, why does it matter what colour Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark might be? After all, isn’t Anthony Stark supposed to have a little bit of Italian blood in him, but is played by the decidedly non-Italian Robert Downey Jr? But enough of that.

It isn't a black-and-white issue...

Anyway, reportedly it was this ultimately doomed campaign that inspired Brian Michael Bendis to create a half-black Spider-Man:

A year ago, Community star Donald Glover embarked on a Twitter campaign to play an African-American version of Spider-Man in a new movie (a role that went to white actor Andrew Garfield for next summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man). As an inside joke, he appeared on the season premiere in Spider-Man pajamas.

“He looked fantastic!” Bendis recalls. “I saw him in the costume and thought, ‘I would like to read that book.’ So I was glad I was writing that book.”

There’s been a lot of concern raised over the fact that this is a “stunt” or a “gimmick” – a trick to earn political correctness brownie points or some nonsense. That’s absolute pants. Whatever you can say about Brian Bendis and his writing style, he doesn’t need something like this to sell the book. Ultimate Spider-Manhas been a critical and commercial success, and perhaps one of the most consistent books on the stands month-in and month-out.

What kind of kangaroo court excludes an actor based on his ethnicity?

On the other hand, while I don’t really believe that there should be an editorial policy (or, as somebody will inevitably sarcastically remark in a debate like this, “quotas”), I do think that diversity is a good thing, fundamentally. I like the idea of a kid looking at a superhero and thinking “he’s just like me”, and the simply fact is that – if you are white – your choices are pretty limited. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that a black kid couldn’t look to Peter Parker, or a white kid couldn’t look to Black Panther, but I do think there’s something very strange and alienating about looking at a universe that’s supposed to represent a fictional world, and seeing very little beyond white faces. It’s very easy to feel excluded and left out. I honestly don’t think that any child should look at the Marvel Universe and have to squint to find somebody who looks like them.

That said, it kinda defeats the purpose if the defining trait of the character that does look like them is their ethnicity. Isn’t the whole point of diversity that we’re supposed to see past skintone? This is why the discussion over Miles’ race frustrates me so much. We know little to nothing of who he is. Is he as bookish as Peter? Who is his supporting cast? Why Spider-Man? All of these are important questions, and they drive the character, and all are infinitelymore important that the colour of the character’s skin.

When will this racism start to Peter out?

On the subject of diversity, there’s been some criticism at the fact that the powers that be are taking a black character, one of the very few in comics (because comics, even today, disproportionately feature heterosexual white males), and saddling him with the legacy of an infinitely more popular white character. The logic being that Miles Morales will ever be anything other than “the replacement Spider-Man” or “the alternate Spider-Man.” I’m not a big fan of quoting John Byrne, but he articulates the argument relatively well:

Somewhere along the line — and, sadly, it’s not recent — Black characters at Marvel suddenly were only allowed if they adopted the names of existing characters. Iron Man. Captain Marvel. Giant-Man (who’d begun with the staggeringly original name “Black Goliath”). Nick Fury. Now, a Black Spider-Man.

I can understand the logic.

There were a host of opinions from around the Web...

However, it’s not just impossible to think of a minority original character who caught in the past decade – it’s hard to think of any new character who has managed to catch on in recent years without any sort of tie to a big established name. We see it all the time, with clever new concepts failing to find an audience and ending up cancelled because Batman never showed up in the book, or they didn’t get that planned crossover with Green Lantern. As a side note, you could argue that Luke Cage’s recent resurgence, in a large part due to Bendis, is about as close as we’ve come to seeing a “new” major black character at Marvel. He might not be new, but he’s never been as close to the core of the universe as he is now.

People can point fingers at the comic book companies all they want for not publishing a diverse line of books, but people simply don’t buy them. Not because comic book fans are – as a group – sexist or racist, but because their inherently conservative. They buy what they grew up on, and they eat it up. That nostalgia is what drives the “big two” comic book companies these days, and it makes it impossible for a genuinely original book to get published. So you tie your new idea to established brands. DC is publishing a new black superhero under the name Batwing in September, and it’s no different.

I wonder how fans would poll on this...

I can’t argue it isn’t sad, any more than I can say it isn’t necessary. If you want to launch any new character into the DC or Marvel Universes, you need to tie them to an established brand, because of the conservative nature of superhero comics. Hell, Geoff Johns had to rewrite the entire history of the DC Universe in order to get Cyborg into the Justice League of America – that’s how static these fictional universes happen to be. It doesn’t matter about the colour of the character’s skin, any sort of massive change to the established universe needs to be handled with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel, because fandom simply won’t yield.

So I don’t see why the ethnicity of the new lead in Ultimate Spider-Man is an issue, any more than seeing Marc Webb cast Donald Glover might have been. I think it’s great that we are seeing the introduction of more diversity, but I’m glad the change is organic, rather than forced. I honestly don’t think Bendis’ first instinct was that he wanted a “black Spider-Man”, and I don’t think it was a cynical move to reach a “quota” or to serve as a “PR stunt” or to take “affirmative action” or any of that nonsense. I think the writer will tell the stories he wants to tell, with the characters he wants to use.

The colour of their skin has nothing to do with it. Just as it should be.

3 Responses

  1. Great post, really detailed. Personally, I think a coloured hero in the new Spider-man film would’ve been a great move – if nothing else to make it more than just another familiar retread of the origin story that we’ve already seen not so long ago.

  2. I don’t think the press made a huge hub-bub about the Captain America or Batman switches, not so much because of the character’s races, but because those characters were conceivably “the next ones in line”. On the other hand, this is a brand new character, made to take over a role that’s never had a side-kick…so it raises attention if nothing else. Think about it this way, if James Rhodes became the new Iron Man on a regular basis, do you think much attention would be placed on his race?

  3. I have to state there is an interesting argument to be made that ethnicity defines a certain character. I myself, am comfortable with certain characters not being Caucasian and not so much with others:

    I don’t want to see a black Batman. It doesn’t make sense. I am not racist but I don’t see how any the Wayne family could be so rich and not be Caucasian. (Iron Man ironically enough can be any ethnicity, it’s hard to explain).

    Superman has to be Caucasian as well because he’s Kryptonian and I don’t think it’s really necessary to have multiple ethnicities on Krypton since their alien.

    Spider-Man gets the pass to be any ethnicity. Being a down on his luck kid loving in New York allows that.

    (Before you beright me on my Batman/Superman statement, let me reference that you were uncomfortable with Daredevil not being Irish Catholic).

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