The Face Behind the Mask
The Face Behind the Mask: Marvel’s Miles Morales
By: Terra Clarke Olsen
When you think of a superhero, who do you think of? I’m guess that one of these characters (if not all) came to your mind: Batman, Superman, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and Wolverine. These characters are some of the most popular and iconic characters in the comic book industry. They are also, with the exception of Wonder Woman, all white heterosexual men.
Today’s post is a bit strange. Full disclosure: I am straight up posting an article that I wrote for Seattle Weekly last week. Last week’s Geekly Report “What Will Marvel Do with Miles Morales?” discusses something that I think is important and hope you think is important too-race in comics. This is a difficult issue, and I know everyone has different opinions, but this is mine and I wanted to share it.
In 2011, Marvel Comics introduced a new character in its “Ultimate Comics” universe: Miles Morales. In a familiar origin story, Morales was bitten by a genetically engineered spider, giving him abilities similar to Peter Parker’s, who was at the time swinging around Morales’ world as Spider-Man. Morales hid his abilities at first, but after Parker’s death, his best friend encouraged him to pick up where Spider-Man left off. He did—and with that, the rarest type of Marvel superhero was born: a non-white one.
Race in comics is a hot-button issue. The lack of diversity is acknowledged, but the effort to change has been dismal. Some people dismiss the issue, justifying the lack of diversity as a mirror of the lack of interest from non-white, non-heterosexual, non-male readers. Others might acknowledge the problem, but shrug off the issue with a “That’s just the way it is” attitude (prevalent in convention forums).
Diversity does exist in the comics world, but these characters often play the sidekick or exist in the background (James Rhodes, Cyborg, Washington “Wash” James, etc.). Few have their own comic. Early efforts in the ’60s and ’70s to showcase a more diverse central character largely failed, resulting in characters with “Black” in their title or who played to stereotypes (e.g., Luke Cage—whose costume consisted of a chained belt, shackle-like wrist bands, and a deep V-neck shirt—was infamous for his “jive talk” crafted by white writers). Asian and Latino characters haven’t fared better (see Mandarin, a Chinese supervillain versed in martial arts who also happens to be a scientific genius).
Earlier this year at a press event for the current PBS docu-series Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle, the panel was probed about the lack of diversity in comic books. Comic-book writer Gerry Conway remarked, “I think the bigger question is why readers are not interested in those characters. Comics follow society. They don’t lead society; they reflect it.” That isn’t good enough. We cannot simply expect the marketplace to create comics that reflect society. To assure that comics echo our world, more people must voice their desire for more diversity.
One such voicer is Grace “Zimi” Gipson, a Ph.D. candidate focusing on race and gender in film and comics at UC Berkeley. “We’re not moving fast enough,” she told me recently. As a teenage comic reader, Gipson, an African-American woman, noticed that no one looked like her. Since then she’s been vocal about adding diversity to comics. Gipson encourages more independent writers and artists to “force the hand” of the industry by creating alternate avenues and publishing independent comics. And of course we can all root for Miles Morales.
The Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man series are seriously great books. I am wrapped up in the story of Morales, a teenager of African and Latino extraction who faces the struggles of being an average teen along with new-found powers and responsibilities. I’ve gotten to know Morales and like him more with each new comic. Which is why I am terrified to see what will happen to Morales after the Ultimate universe in canceled at the end of this month. Marvel has assured readers that Morales will be heading over to its main universe, “Earth 616.”
The Ultimate storyline has been so great, allowing Morales to take center stage as Spider-Man, but in the 616 world, Peter Parker is still alive and wearing the Spidey tights (though, it must be noted, his body is actually being controlled by Doctor Octopus—comics can be confusing). It remains to be seen what Marvel will do. I doubt they will have two Spider-Men, so I fear Morales will be pushed into a lesser role—a sidekick at best. Personally I would like to see Morales become the one and only Spider-Man.
As a character, Morales is essentially the essence of Peter Parker and the Spider-Man the public knows and loves—he just has a different backstory. Which is why Marvel is perfectly set up to legitimize the first popular non-white superhero. Marvel has to own this moment and push the boundaries to do it. If it doesn’t, then I don’t expect to see a non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual popular lead anytime soon. It’s most likely that Marvel, bowing to market dictates, won’t take this risk out of fear of alienating its readers. But I’d like to think that the industry could finally be as brave as the heroes on its pages. I realize these issues are complex, but I believe the solutions are easier than the industry is letting on: Hire more diverse teams, change a few races (and while they’re at it, some genders and sexual orientations too), and write new characters, but do it well.
As Gipson told me, the comic world is an “open door that allows us to think.” So how about making readers think a bit more about whether an African-American, Latino, or Asian character is any less heroic and inspiring?
So those are just a few of my thoughts on the matter. Please feel free to share your own feelings in the comments firstname.lastname@example.org