It’s not the first time someone other than Peter Parker has donned the mantle of Spider-Man, but in this week’s Ultimate Fallout #4 fans of Marvel’s Ultimate Comics universe will be introduced to a brand new web-head. His name is Miles Morales, and he’s bi-racial: half-black and half-Hispanic. At a time when diversity in comics is a hot-button issue — DC Comics is making a conscious effort to shake up the ethnic monotony of its line-up as they relaunch their entire line — Marvel has managed to pull off a splashy PR coup by recasting their most famous character.
To be clear, Marvel’s Ultimate Comics line is an alternate universe that the publisher began at the turn of the century as an effort to streamline the backstories of their characters. Much of the architecture of the current crop of Marvel movies have derived from the Ultimate line. Earlier this year, Peter Parker died after a climatic final battle with his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the fanboys began speculating — and complaining — about a possible successor to Peter’s race before the ink was dry on the issue.
In some cases, the cynicism got downright ugly and racist. Earlier this week, comic book store owner Larry Doherty, who had been a respected member of the Twitter comics community, elicited a firestorm by posting tasteless, racially charged quips about a possible black Spidey to his Twitter. Doherty claimed he wasn’t being racist, but actions speak louder than intent. Being an insensitive lout is no excuse.
Doherty doesn’t really matter in the final analysis. What does is the symbolism of a minority stepping into the shoes of one of the great fictional heroes of the past half-century. As noted above, this isn’t the first time there’s been a biracial Spider-Man. In the 1990’s Marvel introduced Miguel O’Hara, half-Latino and half-Irish, Miguel was the Spider-Man of the year 2099. He remains a popular enough character that he’s still featured in video games, like the upcoming Spiderman: Edge of Time.
The fine parsing of the difference between the Ultimate and “regular” Marvel Universes means that Miles Morales could be around for the long haul, as Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis has stated in interviews and on his Facebook page. Yet, there is a real anxiety underlying the cynicism of the comic fans. Publishers — particularly Marvel — are known for their stunts. How many comic book characters have been killed off for the sake of headlines only to be brought back after a few years?
If putting a biracial character under the Spider-Man mask is a great thing for young African-Americans and Hispanics (and I think it is), then how much will it hurt if in a few years Peter Parker comes back in Ultimate Spider-Man, and gets his old job back?
Buried on a sidebar of the USA Today story announcing the debut — amidst talk of how Community star Donald Glover’s campaign to get cast as Peter Parker in the movie reboot was an inspiration for the new look — was the first real insight into the personal motivations of the creative team:
The creation of Miles Morales, a teenager with an African-American father and Hispanic mother, has been personal for his creators. Axel Alonso, Marvel’s editor in chief, is of mixed cultures (his father is Mexican, his mother is British), and Bendis has two adopted daughters, a 3½-year-old from Ethiopia and a 4½-month-old African American.
So while there is no controlling the ravenous demands for spectacle and sales bumps from the mega-corporations that own the characters, there is evidence that the flesh and blood men behind the stories have the best of intentions. For now, true believers, that will have to do.
Ultimate Comics Fallout #4, the debut of the all new Spider-Man hits stores this Wednesday, August 3rd.