Monday, August 15, 2011

The problem with the new biracial Spider-Man

This month, Marvel is introducing a new, half black, half-Hispanic version of Spider-Man as part of its "Ultimate" universe. Which is to say, as part of its "not really part of the actual (616) Marvel universe continuity." To borrow a term from the olden days of DC, this new biracial Spider-Man is "The Earth-2" Spider-Man. Or, to borrow a term from the even older olden days of DC, this is the Spider-Man from an extended (160 issues and counting!) "Imaginary Story."
[T]he new Spider-Man in the Ultimate universe is a half-black, half-Hispanic teen named Miles Morales. He takes over the gig held by Peter Parker, who was killed in Ultimate Spider-Man Issue 160 in June.
In the regular Marvel Universe, Peter Parker will still be the same web-swinging Spidey as he has been since his first appearance in 1962. But in the Ultimate line, launched in 2000 to tell contemporary stories, he received a new origin and a reimagined supporting cast that paralleled the Spidey in regular Marvel continuity.

Morales' journey will be a similar vehicle for today's fans, says Marvel's editor in chief, Axel Alonso.

"What you have is a Spider-Man for the 21st century who's reflective of our culture and diversity. We think that readers will fall in love with Miles Morales the same way they fell in love with Peter Parker."
And if they don't, well, Peter Parker is still appearing as Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The New Avengers, and the Future Foundation. He's also appearing on Broadway in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. And in next summer's re-boot of the movie franchise (and in the just-announced sequel to that yet-to-be-released reboot of the movie franchise).

And, yes, Peter Parker is still white.

In other words, this is all just a bunch of bulls hit orchestrated by Marvel to get some headlines.

Marvel is generally credited with publishing the first mainstream representation of a black superhero in a character called Black Panther. He was the absurdly noble ruler of a fictional African nation called Wakanda. He was intellectually and physically strong. He had unimpeachable moral character.

If you can get your hands on Black Panther's Jungle Action issues, do so, and read them. They are some of the best graphic fiction of the Bronze age. Seriously.

Marvel also published a comic book featuring another black character, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. His origin was corporate and cynical -- essentially Marvel's attempt to cash in on the "blaxploitation" films of the early 1970s (Luke Cage was an ex-con who fought crooked cops and slumlords, and for awhile sold his services) -- but he rose above that, thanks largely to the work of the fantastically talented artist and writer Billy Graham.

About half of Marvel's Essential Luke Cage Volume 1 is well worth your time, thanks mainly to Billy Graham's work on the title.

The most powerful and physically attractive member of the rebooted X-Men, Storm, was a young African woman with the power to control the weather.

These characters were created as an acknowledgment of the fact that it wasn't just young white boys who were reading comics, and that new characters from different backgrounds could, at least theoretically, provide new inspiration to writers and artists. With some exceptions, however (the aforementioned Jungle Action issues, about fifteen or so issues of Hero for Hire, and a few dozen or so X-Men issues) most of these comics were just the same old stories, with characters who just happened to have a different skin color.

But Marvel also did something vaguely unsavory with some of its black characters. For instance, they featured a character called Bill Foster, who was a laboratory assistant to a white character called Henry Pym. Depending on his size, Henry Pym has variously been active as a superhero known as Ant-Man, or Giant-Man, or Yellowjacket. He was also occasionally known as Goliath. Bill Foster, his assistant, used something called "Pym particles," discovered by Henry Pym, to become a superhero himself.

And he called himself... Black Goliath. Really -- he took Henry Pym's "Goliath" codename, and appended the word "black" to it. Because, well, he was black himself.

A big mistake?

This is pure condescension. The brilliant scientist Bill Foster became a reflection of, a tribute to, his white employer. It's a serious comedown from Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Storm. About eight years later, Marvel did something else that was vaguely unsavory: they took the name of a white character, and bestowed it upon a black character. In 1983, Marvel introduced a new "Captain Marvel," Monica Rambeau.

The motivation for Marvel's creation of its own original "Captain Marvel" is among the most cynical in all of comics history. (A history that is full of cynical motivations, by the way.) Specifically:
[A]t one point in the 60s, Marvel decided that they should trademark well, anything with Marvel in the title.

That was all fine and good, you can trademark something, but for the trademark to be ENFORCABLE, you have to actually PUBLISH something.

Marvel did not do that until they heard rumblings that DC was considering bringing back Fawcett’s Captain Marvel character.

So, in the late 60s, Marvel released their Captain Marvel character, therefore protecting their Captain Marvel trademark.

This is why, when DC got around to publishing Fawcett’s Captain Marvel characters in the 1970s, they had to call the book “Shazam!,” as the name Captain Marvel was a trademark owned by Marvel (note the difference between trademark and copyright. Fawcett still owned the copyright on Captain Marvel, so when they licensed the character to DC, DC was able to use the name Captain Marvel IN the comic book, just not when promoting or advertising the comic book. That is where trademarks come into play).
So, Marvel created a "Captain Marvel" for the sole purpose of preventing DC from publishing its own "Captain Marvel" comic book, and then gave this Trademark-protecting character's moniker to a black character for awhile.

It could have been worse. They could have called her... "Black Captain Marvel!" ("Blacktain Marvel"?)

That is a cheap and tawdry way for a company to show its "diversity." It didn't help that in the case of Captain Marvel, the new black version was a dull cypher, thanks to some uninspired writing. Not even making her the alleged leader of the Avengers could help them make her interesting.

This cheap stunt has happened a lot, and not just at Marvel. Fairly recently, DC did it with Blue Beetle, the Atom, and the Question, and Firestorm. None of those characters have exactly taken off. DC had a lot more success in recruiting a black character to wear the leotards of its lamest character, Green Lantern.

Conceptually, hiring a black character to play Green Lantern at least makes some sense -- theoretically, new Green Lanterns can get hired all the time (although it was Hal Jordan who was featured in the recent movie version, and the licensed merchandise). But for those other characters, there's no real way to rationalize what amounts to a lack of creativity and initiative in comics. As I have already written, time and again, the audience for comics keeps dwindling. The publishers are doing almost nothing to try to widen the audience -- and those things they are trying are the sad attempts of perspectiveless people who have been living inside a bubble for too long. They keep publishing the same concepts, rebooting the same characters, re-writing the same stories over and over again.

Hey, we need to get more diversity in our books! 
I know -- let's take Firestorm and make him black!

And then when those nonwhite characters fail, the corporate artisans in charge of publishing the monthly pamphlets can point and say, "See, we tried to give them nonwhite characters... but the little racists apparently didn't want them."

And now, here comes biracial Spider-Man.

I realize I'm a bit out of touch on this. As far as I'm concerned, Spider-Man died when Steve Ditko stopped plotting and drawing it. Yes, I have read hundreds of Spider-Man issues since Ditko's classic stories, but with a few exceptions they don't really mean anything to me (although I am somewhat morbidly fascinated by the whole "Clone Saga" debacle). But far from seeming like an interesting idea, making an alternative universe Spider-Man half-black, half-Hispanic feels like the half-assed scheme of a few white liberal men trying to congratulate themselves for their enlightenment, and to impress smug, half-witted writers at publications like The Washington Post.

The writer of the new Spider-Man character, Brian Michael Bendis, seems to betray this when he tells USA Today:
"The theme is the same: With great power comes great responsibility... He's going to learn that. Then he has to figure out what that means."
So... you're just rebooting the same character again, the way characters get rebooted all the time? (Spider-Man has to "figure out what that means" every few years. That's comics for you!)

Also from USA Today's article:
Supporting characters such as Peter's Aunt May and Gwen Stacy also will give Miles nuggets of wisdom to help his transition from young kid to New York City superhero.
So in addition to getting the white version's worn-out name and derivative superpowers, he also has to contend with the white version's supporting characters? In the world of mainstream comics, this is what passes for a bold development.

Mr. Bendis also says:
"Even though there's some amazing African American and minority characters bouncing around in all the superhero universes, it's still crazy lopsided."
And yet, giving the "Spider-Man" title to a kid who happens to be not white isn't going to do anything to change the "crazy lopsidedness" of the disparity in representation of minority characters in comics. All it does is magnify the fact that the creators of mainstream comics are built to re-write, and nothing more.

(Aside: Mr. Bendis is the author of the infamous scene from New Avengers #27, in which Luke Cage, the man with skin that's as hard as steel, kicked Elektra, the sometime superhero and sometime supervillain who is the former girlfriend of Daredevil, in the crotch. That's not a joke:

That is some inspired dialogue, and sound effects.
...[T]he sound Bendis decided best represents the sound of a super-strong man kicking a woman in the vagina is “FOOM?”

And are we to believe Matt Murdock really told Cage, “Oh, hey, you guys are going to Japan to fight The Hand ninjas? Cool. Hey, if you see Elektra there, can you kick her in the vagina for me?”
So, the guy who wrote that particularly nasty, random, hate-filled little scene is the man who has now charged himself with doing something to address the "crazy lopsidedness" of nonwhite characters in comics. Just so we're clear.)

Why not create some new* minority superhero concepts? It's been done before, and done quite well. DC's and Milestone Media's project, for instance featured a completely new universe of characters created primarily by artists and writers of color (1993 seems like ages ago, doesn't it?). Those characters have since become part of the larger DC universe, and actually spawned at least one successful animated series.

Here is a challenge: Can someone out there create a Wire for superhero comics?

Marvel: Instead of making an alternate universe version of Spider-Man a member of a racial minority, why not just create a new superhero based on the greatest television character of all time, Omar Little from "The Wire"? How about something like a young black kid who lives in a crime-ridden area of Los Angeles, who teaches himself a superhero version of parkour so he can fight both the police and the gangs that plague his neighborhood? That's just off the top of my head.

Making the alternative-universe version of Spider-Man a minority character might feel good to some people, but it's only a superficial change that throws a spotlight on the industry's larger problems.  These problems are terminal, unless the creators, editors, and marketing people start getting their acts together.

*By which I of course mean "new" in the mainstream comic book sense.


Unknown said...

Bravo Sprague for an editorial that highlights the death throes of a legitimate form of storytelling.

As a kid Spider-Man inspired me. Like you I loved the old stories of the Jackal, the Burglar, th Green Goblin et cetera.

"With great power comes great responsibility."

It was worthy then - it is now. Alas the exploitative nature of conglomorates have muddied the waters. I doubt anyone is going to be fooled by a sleight of hand drawings to snare anew demographic of readers. If comic sales are dwindling it's because of lack of story. It is the industry itself that needs to be rebooted.

I love the idea of new heroes of colour but it seems as cynical as the origins of Luke Cage. My suggestion to the industry is late night TV animation - with these new characters - aimed at an adult audience. Said TV shows would run a year after the stories told in the comics. They would deal with contemporary issues like drug dealers and corrupt cops. In LA.

Miles Morales; Spider Man. Half black half Latino superhero. Why not Miles Morales all black all Latino superhero? Just a thought.

Ricky Sprague said...

"With great power comes great responsibility" is the best line Stan Lee ever wrote (if in fact he wrote it), and is probably the best single line ever to appear in a comic book. It's a timeless sentiment that perfectly encapsulates the motivations of superheroes.

I was also wondering about why Mr. Morales was to be "half-black, half-Hispanic" and I think it might have something to do with Mr. Bendis's "crazy lopsided" comment. Now, with one character, they can say they've added both a black and Latino character. Suddenly, it's not quite so "lopsided."

diego78 said...

Woah! I had no idea about this. Anyways, it was great coming across this. I can share this with my brother because he is a big spider man fan and has watched all the parts. This week my cousins are coming over and I have added shows by Andy Yeatman to my watch list.