New Ultimate Spider-Man Receives Surprisingly Bitter Backlash
News of Marvel's new bi-racial Ultimate Spider-Man hit mainstream news last week, and the response has been...disheartening.
Last week, Marvel announced to the world that, following the "Death of Spider-Man" arc in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, a new, previously unknown character would be suiting up as the wall-crawler. Miles Morales, a half Puerto Rican, half black fourteen year old boy, will be slinging webs in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, and, presumably, everywhere else in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. Although many had suspected for some time that something like this might occur, and I was prepared for some grumbling among some of the Professionally Dissatisfied who haunt the forums and comment threads of the internet, I was taken aback by the vitriol of some of the reaction.
As the vast majority of readers of this site are aware, the Ultimate Marvel Universe is a separate line of books which exist outside of the "regular" Marvel Universe continuity. The imprint was launched in 2000 with the idea of telling more contemporary stories of some of Marvel's most recognizable heroes, and, to almost everyone's surprise, was a massive hit. Writer Brian Michael Bendis, who got the whole train rolling with "Ultimate Spider-Man," and has written every single issue of that comic, began with retelling the origin of Spider-Man, updating some dated elements (the character first appeared in 1963, after all) and, having the benefit of looking at nearly forty years of Spider-Man stories, folding some of the important characters of the mythos into the tale. This allowed a seamless dovetailing of classic villains and stories into the new continuity. The resulting stories sold well. Really well. The freshness and vitality that Bendis, along with , at the time, up and coming writers Mark Millar and Brian K. Vaughn, injected into these stories caused Marvel editorial to bring these new creative minds into the regular Marvel Universe. The result was a Renaissance of new story ideas, new directions, and new readers.
With the revitalization of the regular line of books, the Ultimate line now seemed almost superfluous. If both lines were telling the same kinds of cutting edge stories with the same characters, what was the Ultimate Universe's raison d'etre? The Ultimate Universe, after all, was started as a place where writers could tell stories they could never tell in the regular Marvel Universe. The line began moving away from retelling classic stories with modern trappings, and started forging ahead with new stories all its own.
Flash forward to 2010. The country has elected its first black president, which, however you feel about his politics, is still something that, fifty years ago would have seemed inconceivable. The Justice League cartoon introduced the viewing audience to Green Lantern John Stewart, an African American who, for many young viewers, is the only Green Lantern they have ever known. Marvel has always had a pretty good track record of inclusion, with characters of all races, genders, religions and sexuality represented among both their heroes and villains. But, when it comes to their top-tier, a-list, man-on-the-street recognizable heroes, well, the ranks have been pretty WASPish. This is somewhat understandable when one considers that all of these characters were introduced at least three years before the Civil Rights Movement really kicked into high gear, but by the late sixties and early seventies, Marvel saw that the times, indeed, were a'changin' and began adding more minority characters to the roster. It could be argued, in fact, that the X-Men, though they debuted before Civil Rights became a cultural touchstone, and though each of the original members was as white as the cast of "Leave it to Beaver, was an attempt to raise awareness of issues of diversity and inclusion. But, the fact remained, the Big Guns were all white guys.
Changing the identity, much less the ethnicity, of your most well-known superhero is certainly not something to take lightly. Marvel had experimented with the character swap some time earlier following the infamous "Clone Saga," replacing Peter Parker, who had inhabited the character of Spider-Man since his inception, with Ben Reily. It is not within the scope of this article to recount the weirdness that caused all of this, but, suffice to say, Spidey's readership did not cotton to this idea AT ALL. Marvel later reversed gears and returned the red and blue suit to Peter Parker, and all was right with the world. Clearly, a change of that magnitude with that high level a character who had fifty years of back-story in which the readers were invested was not something that the readership would tolerate.
But in the Ultimate Universe, the rules were different. With only eleven years worth of continuity, and a readership which tends to be more open to experimental ideas, Ultimate Spider-Man seemed like the perfect place for this bold move. The world would have a minority character who was recognizably Spider-Man, while leaving Peter Parker's Spider-Man stories in the regular Marvel Universe intact. Everyone's happy, right?
Well...not so much. While there was certainly some positive reaction to this story when it broke in the main-stream press, there was a much louder negative reaction to the news than I would have anticipated. A large amount of this negativity I believe we can attribute to a misunderstanding among the general public about the nature of these coexisting comic book universes. The investment banker who read Spider-Man as a kid but hasn't really kept up with comic books since he was twelve years old might read this news and see that "they've killed Peter Parker and replaced him with a black kid." The soccer moms and Joe Six-packs of the country don't know the intricacies of alternate universes, multiverses or parallel universes; most of the time, they don't really make a distinction between the Marvel and DC comic universes (heresy, I understand, to all of us who are so entrenched in comic lore). When the character they grew up loving is suddenly, well, no longer the character they grew up loving, the reaction is likely to be a negative one. This reaction was about what I expected.
But among the fans of comics, the people who understand the separate imprints and lines of comics, the amount of negativity surprised me. A lot. The antipathetic reactions have generally fallen into four main categories, and I'll try to describe them and what I believe to be their general basis in the following paragraphs.
Those who hate the Ultimate line and or the works of writer Brian Michael Bendis. These comments generally take the form of "The Ultimate Universe sucks! Bendis sucks! This just proves it!" Now, these posters can usually be safely ignored. These guys seem to have forgotten that they are under no obligation to purchase ANY comic from any company or by any writer, but they seem incensed that these books even exist! Just to clarify, for those pinheads who may read this, Ultimate Marvel still exists because people, a LOT of people, buy them. You're entitled to your opinion, of course, just realize that it is clearly not shared by all, or even most, comic readers.
The second group of posts I see are people who are simply fans of Peter Parker. They've enjoyed the re-imagining of Peter that has been shown in Ultimate Spider-Man, and are grieving a bit for his loss. These guys, I can understand a little better. After all, Peter's (fictional) body isn't even cold yet, and there's somebody else filling his spot. To these guys I say, "It will be okay. Peter at least died a heroic death, plus, you can still get your Peter Fix in at least five titles in the regular Marvel line. Take a deep breath, and it will all turn out okay."
The third category of responses is the most disturbing one. These involve a great deal of racial politics, conspiracy theories and/or outright racism. Claims that this is all part of a conspiracy to subjugate white people, or some similar nonsense, would be laughable if it weren't obvious that the writers of these sentiments TRULY BELIEVE THIS IS THE CASE! Posts that begin "I'm no racist, but..." and then go on to make the most racist statements I've heard in thirty years are spine-chilling. Most of the best comics-centric web-sites do a great job of policing their message boards and forums for posts of this nature, so I'm sure what I've seen is only a fraction of what has been posted, and I shudder to think what kind of vile, invective-laden communications have entered the Marvel offices. I just hope they realize that the vast majority of their readership does not feel that way about...well, anything.
The fourth, and perhaps most puzzling group of posters, are the people who write in to say "It's not enough!" The general consensus of these statements is that minorities have been thrown a bone by letting them have a Spider-Man who isn't even the "real" Spider-Man. Leaving aside, for the moment, the idea that one fictional character is any more real than another, this argument makes no sense to me. There's no pleasing everyone, it seems, and that applies to both ends of the spectrum.
At a time when DC comics is being taken to task by its readership for a lack of strong female and minority characters, and given the number of questions I see submitted to Marvel Q and A threads regarding the number of minority characters in their publishing line, these reactions seem wrong-headed. Allegations that this is simply a bit of "stunt writing," meant to stir up publicity is equally ludicrous. Bendis' work on Ultimate Spider-Man has been consistently stellar, and I look forward to learning exactly who Miles Morales is. If the character isn't interesting or the stories don't hold up, THEN we can start complaining. Until then, have a little faith.