What is this black Spider-Man?

Four years ago this summer, a new Spider-Man appeared in Marvel Comics. His name is Miles Morales and he is a half-black, half-Puerto Rican 13-year old from Brooklyn. This new Spider-Man was immediately met with vitriol from reactionary idealogues (here’s a clip from Glenn Beck’s radio show), and more than a few complained about Marvel’s left-wing turn. A lot of irritated fans complained on message boards that this was a publicity stunt or just another way for Marvel to go politically correct. The publicity stunt charges are fair – comics all too often announce big changes in classic characters and then reverse them a  year or two later after the surge in sales dries up. Unlike the momentary changes to the status quo from the temporary deaths of other superheroes or their short-term replacements, this new Spider-Man has remained, and now he is going completely mainstream.

A little background first…(if you don’t have it in you to read 3 paragraphs on the history of comics and Spider-Man, then just skip to the last paragraph)

Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for Marvel Comics in 1962. He’s the most recognizable of all the Marvel characters, and his alter-ego Peter Parker is one of the most developed in all of comics. By the time I picked up comics in the mid-80’s, Marvel’s heroes had been around for over 20 years. In order to deeply follow the stories, I had to read and learn the histories of all of them. The stories build on each other, year after year, decade after decade. This is called “continuity” by the devout (on the flipside, critics have stated that continuity makes it difficult for the new or casual reader to pick up comics). DC Comics handles the problem of continuity by blowing up its universe every 25 years and rebooting (1986 was the biggest one). Marvel has remained adamant that everything that has been published since 1962 is (more or less) canon.

In 2000, amidst sagging sales and claims that comics were a dying form of entertainment, Marvel hired Rutgers alumnus (and history major) Bill Jemas as its new president. He argued that the medium was fine and that the stories were either bad or hard to follow (a great exchange from the history of Marvel: “I have a law degree from Harvard. If I can’t follow a story, it’s not my problem”). He hired a bunch of new writers who had made their bones in independent comics and he helped usher in the Ultimate Universe, where the biggest Marvel icons were rebooted with their origins taking place in the year 2000: X-Men, Fantastic Four, Avengers and Spider-Man. Brian Michael Bendis was tasked with writing Ultimate Spider-Man.

Mr. Bendis has written Ultimate Spider-Man for 15 years (if you want to get a smart young person into comics, go with the first volume of this series). In 2011, he wrote the gut-wrenching death of Peter Parker. A few months later, Miles Morales arrived. He became Spider-Man after being bit by a radioactive spider that escaped from a reverse-engineering experiment in Norman Osborn’s lab. Miles, like Peter before him, is a great kid. He wants to do the right thing. He’s confused, and only has a few people that he can talk to and rely on. His father hates superheroes, his mother just wants him to make it, and his best friend is a Ganke, chubby Asian kid (who, at the age of 13, still plays with legos). Ganke is a friend worthy of Horatio.

Miles is a wonderful human-being and a fabulous character. We get to watch him struggle and grow. I don’t think of him as a bi-racial superhero, but rather a superhero who happens to be bi-racial. More significantly, all of those aforementioned critics and fans were wrong about the motivations behind the creation of Miles Morales. This recent interview on NPR with Brian Michale Bendis sums it up:

Bendis tells NPR’s Arun Rath that being a part of this shift in the comics universe has been a personal journey as well; two of his four children are adopted, one African and one African-American.

“You realize from a first seat that your kids do not have the same representation and things available to them as I did,” Bendis says. “It’s not like I stood up and said ‘I’m going to be more diverse in my writing,’ you just become more diverse because you realize things are needed.”

Adhering to a famed Spider-Man adage — “With great power comes great responsibility” — Bendis says that with the stage he has at Marvel, it’s partly his responsibility to create work that represents what he thinks the world should look like.