Marvel Overcomes Its Fear of a Black Spider-Man. Will White Fans Follow?

Today’s a big day, both for comic-book nerds and for media-justice geeks. Marvel Comics’ “Ultimate Fallout #4” hits the stands today, and in it, we get our first glimpse at the “Ultimate” storyline’s new Spidey, a half-African American half-Latino kid named Miles Morales. The Spider-Man alter-ego belonged solely to fictional working-class white dude Peter Parker (and to the white actors who’ve portrayed him) for five solid decades. So this is a big move for Marvel—and, of course, one that’s already being met with a racist backlash.


Peter Parker’s not really gone, of course; Morales is taking on the Spider-mantle only in the offshoot in which Parker got killed back in June, so storylines featuring each Spidey will sit side-by-side on shelves. That’s not to say this editorial decision shouldn’t be applauded. Every time the comics industry has attempted to fix its politics, it’s gotten pushback, whether it’s casually racist anger at an Angolan Muslim as the Batman of Paris, or real-deal white supremacists protesting Idris Elba’s role in the Thor movie.

In many ways, Marvel’s been the most admirably progressive of the major comics imprints, and spokespeople like Tom Brevoort have spoken eloquently and publicly about the impact that a superhero of color can have on a young reader’s self-image. But Marvel, like the rest of the comics industry, often finds itself trapped under the weight of its own legacy; its first-stringers and main moneymakers were created decades ago, in a less enlightened time. Imagine trying to write a story based on 2011 headlines with a social-justice bent—except it has to star your white racist great-grandfather as the good guy, and your entire family is watching over your shoulder, waiting for you to write something they find unrealistic. (If you don’t have a white racist great-grandfather… you probably don’t need this metaphor anyway.)

So how’s Marvel’s constituency handling Morales’ debut? Some, like Adam Serwer, love it and point out that Spidey’s essential nature has always been working-class urbanness, not whiteness. On the other hand, at the politics-and-comics blog Graphic Policy, Brett Schenker introduces us to New England retailer Larry’s Comics, who decided to mark the new Spidey with racist jokes about fried chicken and big lips.

But the check signers are getting braver as they realize that casual bigots don’t have comics-buying on lock. As Gene Demby pointed out at the American Prospect, critics and fans were won over by a powerful, grim-as-hell retconned one-off in which the Captain America tests were first tested on black soldiers. And Marvel’s Brian Michael Bendis, who’s helming the Morales storyline, says he was encouraged by Donald Glover’s half-joking Twitter campaign to be allowed to try out for the new Spider-Man role, a move which got plenty of casually racist pushback.

Back in 2005, Sukhdev Sandhu wrote for New York Magazine about a Marvel-released Indian Spider-Man miniseries, aimed at South Asian audiences. Some fans complained of their quintessentially American hero being diluted; Sandhu uses this to illustrate how working-class urban lives—re: Peter Parker’s origins—are a recent thing in India. Miles Morales isn’t from another country—but he is from 2011 New York City, a place where radioactive-spider roulette is, demographically speaking, likelier than not to result in a black or Latino protagonist-to-be.

And really, there’s nothing new about people of color receiving disproportionately exposure to environmental radiation and medical experiments. A few good superpowers is the least they deserve. 

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card

Close

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.