Not quite a game changer

© Marvel

Marvel Comics recently unveiled the heir to the (Ultimate) Spider-man mantle.   His name is Miles Morales, and his racial background is black and Hispanic.  Much has been made of this in the media, from your requisite xenophobic rant to the simple relaying of the facts with a picture of Miles taking off that iconic mask.  Since iconic masks rarely have someone like Miles under them, his juxtaposed features read: “This is new.”  And it is . . . kind of

The writer who’s going to be crafting Miles’ story is Brian Michael Bendis.  Bendis is one of the top-selling writer’s in the comic business.  He’s likely responsible for Luke Cage’s present-day prominence in the Marvel universe.  Created in the early seventies, Luke Cage was one of the first black superheroes to headline his own comic book.  Part-good attempt by Marvel to diversify their titles—and part-blaxpoitation character (sort of a cheesy, super-powered Shaft)—Cage was, contrary to this NPR piece by John Ridley, not quite a ‘comic book legend of color.’  He was a second-stringer, but as one of the few black superheroes, he’s always had a special place in the hearts of minority comic fans, even if most of them partook of his adventures a lot more sporadically than they did Peter Parker’s.

Partly in response to the new Spider-man, Ridley’s essay poses this question: “So if Hollywood can crank out fantasy pictures with blue Smurfs, why is it so reticent to do the same with African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians?”  Because, of course, Smurfs are fictional creatures with none of the baggage race brings in the real world . . . To be fair to Ridley, he’s probably trying to use a light touch, but, as well meaning as the article is, it demonstrates an issue I have with venues like NPR and Salon, who often provide opinion about disenfranchised people with a depth that can be lacking.

Ridley’s assertion that Hollywood doesn’t give the average audience enough credit is a fair one.  But when the people who produce the vast majority of anything with minority characters live in separate communities and a key demographic of moviegoer lives in similar circumstances, most heroes (or the people who write them) are always going to stay on that side.

Miles Morales as written by a writer like Bendis may be rare, but it’s not new.  What’s new is that the alter ego is already an iconic one, and it’s going to mean something to a lot of people that someone that looks like Miles is wearing Spidey’s mask, no matter who’s writing it.  In the books Bendis has written, he’s taken Luke Cage and made him a mainstay of the Avengers, Marvel’s premiere team of heroes.  I think Bendis is a talented writer, but at least one of his storyline choices over his long haul with Cage has been stereotypically gritty.  The thing about stereotypes is that you can always find someone in real life that mirrors them.  But that makes for tricky territory for people who are generally defined in terms of stereotypes.  I hope that Bendis will make the new Ultimate Spider-man as interesting an everyman as Peter Parker was/is, with weight given to the different touchstones of a life like his beyond stereotypes.

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Some more supplemental reading by Daniel Denvir over at Salon.

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