Friday, September 16, 2011

Why the new Spider-Man is awesome

Around the time of the first X-Men movie, more than 10 years ago, Marvel Comics realized that, while the movie might do well enough to get people to go into a comic book shop and pick up an X-Men comic, they really had no comic that would be readily accessible to such a person.  This isn't a problem for movies based on novels, since if you watch the Lord of the Rings movies you can walk into a bookstore and hey, there are the books.  Easy.  Comics, given their serial nature, are a different beast; even if no one has a Batman or Spider-Man or X-Men story to tell that month, there's still going to tell it to get that book on the shelves, leading to the accretion of impenetrable story chunks that have built up like coral.  In the year 2000, if someone saw that movie, there was no equivalent comic they could really sell that person; I don't have any idea off the top of my head what the X-Men were doing in the year 2000, but it was probably unreadable to a layman.

Marvel solved this problem with the creation of the Ultimate Universe, which was billed as a universe where writers could tell stories that weren't related to the main Marvel universe in anything but name.  The flagship title was Ultimate Spider-Man, written by Brian Michael Bendis; the Ultimate X-Men book followed soon after, and these books carved out a little niche for themselves despite fan skepticism.  I loved the X-Men book when I first read it, but now I find it to be nearly unreadable, and the rotating team of writers means the book never really established a core vision; it was either too closely aping the main universe stuff, or it was being out-there and edgy for the sake of being edgy.  Ultimate Spider-Man, however, is a quality title, and has been in the hands of Bendis from the beginning, although the art duties have changed hands a few times.

When I refer to the 'new' Spider-Man, I'm referring to the Ultimate Universe Spider-Man.  Peter Parker is no longer Spider-Man in this universe and a new half-black, half-Latino boy named Miles Morales has taken up the mantle.  This has, of course, drawn the usual level of hateful Internet racism from the usual basement-dwelling troglodytes, and I say this as someone who's lived in a few basements in my time.  I'm sure that, had this happened 10 years ago, I would have had a similar reaction.  In fact, I know I would have, and here's why.

Around 6-8 years ago (the exact time frame is hazy, but it was between the time I dropped out of college and the time I went back) I was in a Barnes and Noble with a little disposable income or a gift card, looking for something to read.  My usual author staples didn't have anything new to pick up and so I was aimlessly wandering through the sci-fi/fantasy section, picking up books and putting them back.  I had worked my way through to the Ws and had picked up City of Golden Light, the first novel in Tad Williams' Otherland tetralogy.  I think I was still reading the Wheel of Time books at that point and big intricate 1000-page-per-installment fantasy series were, to me, the pinnacle of human endeavor, so I was naturally interested.

I read the back cover and discovered that one of the main characters was a young black woman named Irene Sulaweyo.  Upon discovering this, I put the book back on the shelf and looked for something else.

I don't want to sugar-coat this.  The thought process was 'What is this? This looks interesting' -> 'The main character is a black woman.' -> 'No thanks.'  Probably not in those exact words (although I do largely think in text) but that was the general shape.

It's not as obviously ugly as some of the stuff being said about Miles Morales, or about Idris Elba when he was cast as a Norse god in Thor, or about our first black president, but it's from the same root.  There was a story yesterday on NPR from a commentator in one of the East Coast New Englandy states, a black woman who is somewhat comfortable in her own community, since everyone there, though pale, are pretty open-minded, but who has faced some pretty awful things when venturing out of that community and has wondered if it wouldn't be better to move away to a place where there are more, in her words, "brown faces."  And given that she was talking about stuff like having lit cigarettes flicked in her face while she was pregnant, I don't know if I can say that impulse is wrong.  And I know that the thought process I went through, the thought process that led me to put the book back on the shelf, is one that easily could lead down the road towards being the kind of man who did the flicking.

I didn't become that man.  I went the other way, or tried to.  It wasn't instantaneous, but I did examine that impulse that led me to put the book back and realized that it was obviously fucked up and racist.  And obviously I'm still swimming in white straight cismale privilege and have a long way to go, and I'm not king of minority understanding, but I don't go dead-eyed when Sonia Sohn appears on The Wire.  I eventually picked up that book, as well, although ironically enough I ended up not liking it for different reasons.

Miles Morales is awesome, for a variety of different reasons.  For me, one of those reasons is that he's going to be for some self-centered guy or gal what Irene Sulaweyo was for me; the shock out of the privileged attitude that every book should be about people who look like me.  Haters gonna hate, but one by one that hatred will stop.  It might take longer than we might all wish it, and there may be those insidious prejudices that lurk inside even if we think of ourselves as open-minded, but step by step we'll get there.


  1. I realize you probably went out with a little disposable income or a gift card semi-frequently 6 to 8 years ago, but I honestly feel like you came home from that adventure and told me about how you had not been able to find anything good. This increases the sense of gravitas from this post. That is a fascinating and intense point that you make. I may have done the same thing, though I have the comparatively blessed fortune of being almost solely a non-fiction consumer in the world of books, and of course in games I tend to play those where you can create whatever sort of character you prefer, so the fact that they were never black was not much of a surprise given that I generally tried actively to make them look like me and play myself.

    There is probably a whole new world of messed-up beliefs at work in that.

  2. I feel like self-selecting an avatar that resembles you in a video game experience is different than self-selecting a media experience that mirrors your own particular gestalt (whatever that might happen to be) rather than something that doesn't. I obviously think the latter is problematic, or I wouldn't have written a blog post about it (and the insidious thing about the narcissism of the whole thing is that the post seems to be about racism when really it's about both that the character was black and a woman; the cocktail of racism and sexism was ultimately what led to the 'that's really fucked up' self examination) but I feel a little more forgiving towards the former.

    I mean, for one thing, what kind of experience you're going to have as a result of that customization is ultimately determined not by you but by the developer, and the fact of the matter is that a lot of the time the difference in experience in selecting, for example, a Wood Elf instead of a Redguard or a Khajit in Morrowind is going to be a) cosmetic and b) mechanical. You're still going to be called an n'wah no matter what, you're still going to get a lot of, "I've never seen a(n) dressed as well as you, how can I help you," but you're not necessarily going to get an insightful exploration of race or gender issues. Deus Ex is another one; JC is going to largely be a white guy even if he's black, if you will, because it's a game largely made by white guys from a certain perspective. I'm not trying to be down on that, just pointing it out as a thing. And so I don't know how culpable one is in that because you're operating in parameters that are largely set out for you by someone else.

    I don't know how much sense that makes.

  3. This is a very brave post. Knowing your heart, I'm inclined to say that you're being too hard on yourself- but I think that's your point, maybe- that these things are too easily overlooked. This sort of does my brain in.