Yes, (An Alternate Reality) Spider-Man is (Half) Black: Deal With It
If you’re a fan of this podcast or even know someone who is, chances are you’ve already heard the news that, after having recently been killed in the line of duty, Peter Parker has been replaced as Spider-Man by Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Hispanic teen. If you live on the planet Earth, it probably comes as little surprise that some people are… upset.
It’s sad but true that, of the objectors, some percentage are just racists and their opinions aren’t worth discussing. On the other hand, a large percentage of those people are reacting based on a misguided notion that they’re protecting Spider-Man from bad writers or ill-intentioned executives. That’s potentially legitimate on paper, but if you’re among that category of people, you may want to rethink the stance because it’s based on faulty logic:
Some accuse Marvel of making this move as a publicity stunt. This tweet—from an NPR reporter whom I used to respect but will now leave nameless—sums up the common reaction from ill-informed cynics:
To begin with, even if Marvel chose to make Spider-Man black for no other reason than to draw attention, it’s nothing unusual. As a huge, multinational corporation, Marvel more or less does everything “to get mainstream attention for their superheroes” because that’s what a business does. Spider-Man is Marvel’s product in the same way that iPods and Big Macs are for Apple and McDonald’s, so it’s a bit naïve to think that they wouldn’t figure the publicity into their decision. Mainstream awareness is what separates Marvel from the hundreds of small press publishers that, despite often being artistically meritorious, make no money. That was the case long before this decision and will continue to be long after.
If your artistic sensibilities are bruised by that notion, take it up with capitalism—Miles Morales is just an innocent bystander. On the “1-to-10″ scale of things corporations do for profits or publicity, is making Spiderman black really so terrible? Hell, it’s not even the worst thing they’re done to Spider-Man specifically: Clone Saga, anyone? Maximum Carnage? Either way, Marvel isn’t hurting, manipulating or exploiting anyone by making Spider-Man (half) black, so what have they done that’s so sinister?
Like the above tweet, some have claimed that making a superhero black is recurring tactic that lacks creativity, but I’d ask how many times this has actually happened? While Superman, Batman and The Green Lantern have all “been black” for brief periods in their mainstream continuities, in none of those cases was the hero outright replaced, rather that the new guy was “deputized” while the original hero was briefly dead or otherwise preoccupied.
I suppose one could include Michael Clarke Duncan and Halle Berry being cast as The Kingpin and Catwoman in their respective horrible films, but even then, what percentage of the superhero population does this actually represent? Has this really happened enough times that it’s become hack? While we’re on the topic, who are all these mainstream characters that Marvel has made gay? Northstar, Shatterstar and Rictor were pretty much always gay (though it took awhile for that to be confirmed) and it isn’t as if any of those three are even remotely recognizable to anyone but the most dedicated X-men fans. Colossus turned out to be gay in the 1610 universe despite his heterosexuality on Earth 616, so even by the most generous standard, this brings the total to one major(ish) character who Marvel “made gay” after the fact.
Some say that it’s silly for Marvel to change the history of a longtime fan-favorite character and again, this is valid in theory but it doesn’t actually apply to this situation. As we’ve discussed, Marvel Comics runs two lines of titles: the main line that we’re all most familiar with and the newer Ultimate series that takes the basic idea of characters like Spiderman or The Avengers and re-imagines them in a modern context. The things that happen in this alternate universe (Earth 1610) don’t apply to the continuity of the traditional line—also known as Earth 616—where Peter Parker is still alive and well as a member of the Future Foundation in light of The Human Torch’s recent death.
The Ultimate line has existed for several years and, as a contrast to the typical consequence-free “comic book deaths” found in the traditional titles, major heroes often fall in battle and actually stay dead. Among the characters who’ve died on Earth 1610 are Cyclops, Professor X, Daredevil, Doctor Doom and, most amazingly of all, Wolverine. Anyone who follows the books closely enough to be legitimately attached to “tradition” should already know that Ultimate Marvel’s primary mission is to buck tradition and try new things. If you didn’t recognize the distinction between the regular and Ultimate Spider-Man when you first heard the story, my guess is that you haven’t been reading the titles either way and therefore have no need to complain.
If Wolverine can die on Earth 1610, anyone can. Spider-Man meeting his end is business as usual for the line, so once again, this story in no way violates anything that the Ultimate line hasn’t already “violated” over the last decade. You don’t have to like it, but Spider-Man 1610′s death is just a drop in the bucket for a much larger editorial direction, so why choose now to draw the line? Again, there may be a larger complaint to be made about “comic book death,” but there are far better story lines to hang that complaint on.
All that to say this: I get that there’s a natural reaction to be upset when you think something you enjoy is being tampered with, but that’s not really what’s happening here. If you love the original Spider-Man, he’s still right there for you week after week. Again, I don’t think that everyone carrying pitchforks to Marvel’s door is doing so out of racism, but they’re feeding the fire for those that are. Is that really the way you want to conduct yourself in 2011?
To paraphrase Adam Carolla, history will not be kind to those who complained when this whole thing dies down. As a result, I would encourage the members of the Black Spider-Man Defamation League to honestly reevaluate why the issue is so important to them and whether or not it’s really worth falling in with those with ill intent. I’m not saying you have to like it, but I would suggest giving it a chance or, at the very least, choosing a different battlefield to wage your war on modern comic books. There’s plenty to complain about in X-Men: First Class instead and no one will accuse you of being a racist for that.