Note: This is a first-person editorial.
So the new Ultimate Spider-Man is Black. Don’t let anyone tell you anything about how he’s not “merely” Black, but a multi-racial, multi-ethnic half-Hispanic representation of the greater ethnic diversity in New York City (if he were stepping into Norman Osborn’s shoes, people would be calling him “The Black Goblin” or something like that); the Spider-Man of the Ultimate Marvel Universe is now, secretly, a mild-mannered Black kid named Miles Morales.
According to Marvel, the decision to put a Black person beneath the wall-crawler’s togs had been made way back in 2008, before Barack Obama’s election to the presidency; however, creator Brian Michael Bendis admitted to have taken cues from actor Donald Glover's campaign to be cast as Peter Parker in the forthcoming Amazing Spider-Man cinematic reboot. Through Morales, Bendis (and, by extension, Marvel) is clearly trying to address the disparity between the amount of white and non-white superheroes in a positive way. "Even though there's some amazing African-American and minority characters bouncing around in all the superhero universes,” Bendis says, “it's still crazy lopsided." The decision to make Spider-Man a minority, in many ways, makes the most sense; Spider-man has always been a “real” hero, a person who, unlike super-privileged fantasy males Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, consistently has to deal with rent problems, girl problems, job and school problems, and comes from a social standing closer to that of most minority comic readers.
I’m glad that Marvel has taken steps to address the conspicuous absence of high-profile minority superheroes, and even more glad that they’ve decided to introduce a new hero whose origins aren’t bound in some of the misrepresentative archetypes we’ve seen Black heroes stem from in the past (sorry, Luke Cage). I’m especially glad that Bendis, a white writer with two Black adopted children, has made a point to create characters they can look at and feel the same sense of identification that a white child does when they look at Superman or He-Man; moreover, while I thoroughly disagree with his methods and specific intentions, I applauded Glover’s efforts to get Americans to acknowledge that charisma, heroism, and nobility are truly colorless attributes.
There's just one problem. There’s already been a super hero in the world of comics, whose influence has reached beyond merely the printed page and actually entered into the pop zeitgeist, whose social standing and experience clearly reflects the type of experience characters like Miles Morales has: Virgil Ovid Hawkins, better known to the world-at-large as Static.
I've been a comic book nerd for as long as I can remember—I read The Uncanny X-Men before I was even able to read words—and I’ve been Black for even longer than that. I had the dubious good fortune of growing up in the 1980s; the one thing I knew I lacked, even as a kid, was the opportunity to read about a high-profile super-hero whose experience directly reflected my own. I regularly followed Luke Cage’s exploits in Power Man & Iron Fist and Storm’s in X-Men, but most other Black characters were either background-dwelling also-rans (Falcon, Rocket Racer) or woefully underused (Black Panther—Blade didn't enter my line-of-vision until Nightstalkers). I certainly appreciated the aspects of other heroes that spoke to every person—I loved seeing Spider-Man struggle with school, job, and marriage, and the various human problems everyone dealt with—but even those "everyman" super-heroes weren’t really representative of every man, instead reflecting the average comic consumer and reader who, of course, belonged to a demographic different from the one in which I fell. All of that changed in the early 90s, when Dwayne McDuffie and his group of minority creators unveiled Milestone Comics.
Immediately, I latched onto the character of Static like the electricity for which he's named. A Black, lower-middle-class kid, skinny and somewhat socially awkward, whose method of dealing with problems usually involved his wit rather than his fists, capable of using such terms as “Pythagorean renown” for no real reason other than they sound pretty and prone to breaking into a capella renderings of the theme to The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly at the drop of a hat? It was as if McDuffie and co-creator John Paul Leon had based the character on me. I faithfully bought every issue each month until the series ended in the late 90s. When I was in college, I was pleased to see the character brought into the mainstream with the Static Shock animated series on the WB, happy to see Milestone’s highest-profile character get the respect and appreciation he deserved in mass-market media. It proved something I'd always maintained about the character: that Static, more so than Black Panther, Icon, or Hardware, was actually capable of appealing to all comic book readers, not just Black ones. Like Spider-Man, he was a bright young man who dealt with the problems middle-class youth have to face; like Spider-Man, he grew up in an urban environment, part of a faceless anonymous class of people in an enormous city. Like Spider-Man, he wanted to work his way up from his circumstances; like Spider-Man, he had to do it with his brains, not his body. The difference—and this was a difference large enough to ensure the character was far from derivative—was that Virgil Hawkins was Black, and lived a life according to this social experience.
In essence, Virgil Hawkins lived the kind of life Spider-Man would have lived, had he been Black.
So, when Glover embarked upon his campaign to be cast as Spider-Man, I was, admittedly, a bit disappointed. Again, I appreciated the sentiment—the world, even the fictional one, definitely needs more Black super heroes—but Glover being cast as Peter Parker wouldn't have changed that. Peter Parker, for all of his everyman appeal, is an established character with an established face—a white one, one that everyone immediately develops in their brain when they think of the character. I was immediately reminded of when producers of the James Bond series flirted with the notion of casting a Black actor in the role; my reaction then, as it was toward Glover (a talented comedian whose work I appreciate), was one of befuddled amusement, peppered with a little defiance.
Because, when it gets down to it, why should we Black men strive to be Peter Parker? Why should we strive to be James Bond? Why should we strive to have a Black man portray Batman or Superman? Why can't we want to be Static, or Black Panther (the king of the most technologically-advanced nation on the planet, not the American Panther), or Blade, or Icon, or Hardware, or Battalion, or even Quantum or Luke Cage? Yes, Batwing and Miles Morales are interesting characters, and they represent a refreshingly new ideological paradigm within existing superhero franchises, but they're still people occupying space defined—and, by extension, controlled—by the ideas of white people. This is not to say the white people writing these characters—and Static, for that matter—aren't both aware of and sensitive to the issues and experiences minority characters face; having read the first issue of the new Static Shock, I'm pleased to note that it both recalls the style and tone of the original and holds promise for the future, and it certainly takes care to present characters with an authentically Black social experience.
But the fact of the matter is that, while Miles Morales, Batwing, and the like do indicate progress, they nonetheless represent incremental advances.
A. Darryl Moton is a writer/Iowan/neurotic curmudgeon currently living in Portland, Oregon.