Miles Morales, the multi-ethnic Afro-Latino-American Ultimate Spider-Man, is incredibly awesome. I haven’t written about him before, even though I fall more and more in love with Brian Michael Bendis’s writing on this title with each issue, because most of what I had to say up until this point was, “LEAVE MILES ALONE! HE IS ADORABLE AND YOU ALL ARE HATERS,” etc. etc. This is the mild end, of course, because most of what I have to say about minority representation in American superhero comics has already been said, and been said very eloquently. Non-White comics readers are allowed to– and ought to– have heroes, too, and not just “their own” token, second-tier, back-up heroes, heroes that are for everybody, and at the forefront of major series. It is telling about Western culture that Black media is viewed as a niche genre of its own, solely concerned with either tragedy and anguish, noble perseverance, or buffoonish comedy in African-American culture, whereas other media genres, like fantasy, sci-fi, romantic comedy, horror, and period dramas, are “unmarked,” meaning they are largely-to-exclusively White.
Another part of the reason I haven’t written about Miles Morales is because the first three issues were establishing comics. So while I find it amazing and fascinating and super-impressive that Miles has mixed feelings about the ethics of the charter school lottery that sends him to Brooklyn Visions Academy, struggles with the relationships he has with his father (an ex-con who’s gone straight) and his uncle, who he’s forbidden to visit (a felon on the run who, after a robbery at Oscorp, accidentally brings home the spider that bites his nephew), and panics over anti-mutant sentiment when his “symptoms” start to manifest after said spider bite, I can understand why other people would be bored by the lack of punching so far. Also worth noting is Miles’ best friend and confidant, Ganke, an Asian-American fellow nerd and classmate with Fin Fang Foom as his online avatar, who puts together Miles’s abilities and the genetically modified spider, is the only one who knows the secret of his powers, and motivates his friend to take action when lives are at stake.
This is all awesome, and my stance (and apparently Marvel CEO Axel Alonso’s official one as well) has been that haters can take it to the left. And the reward for sticking around with the new Ultimate Spider-Man up until this point, if you needed one– I mean, really, when Ultimate first came out, Peter Parker’s origin was stretched into seven issues, so four is nothing to complain about– was that we’re “finally” getting to the meat and potatoes of Miles’s run. In the most recent issue of the comic (January 2012), after the students at his school have been gathered following the news that Spider-Man was shot, Miles sneaks out to take action. He arrives at the scene in time to see Spider-Man defeat a bad guy with what looks like a truck, only to be thrown by an explosion and then die in the arms of Mary-Jane Watson, surrounded by his Aunt May and Gwen Stacy, the women he had succeeded in protecting one last time. Miles asks Gwen his name: Peter Parker, a high school kid from Queens. It’s a somber moment, and clearly strikes Miles a particularly hard blow– he’d rejected the idea of super-vigilantism before then out of fear, wanting to live as regular a life as possible and rise above the circumstances of his family’s past and their present struggle. He feels guilty about not having stepped up earlier, to potentially prevent Peter Parker’s death.
I’m not familiar with the Ultimate-verse Spider-Man dynamic– obviously he is a well-loved figure among the NYC citizenry, but apparently the Daily Bugle also seems to have warmed up to Peter’s Spidey, which is interesting– but after reassurance from Ganke, reminding Miles that he still has his powers for a reason, and that can be to step up and be the new Spider-Man that the world needs, if he chooses, the two of them sneak out again to the highly-attended public funeral of Peter Parker. Miles talks to Gwen Stacy again, on her way in to the church where the service is being held, and asks why Peter became Spider-Man, and why he wore a mask. Gwen answers that Peter’s Uncle Ben died because Peter had power, and did nothing with it– and ever since then, Peter had lived by his uncle’s adage that great power comes with great responsibility to do what’s right. Peter wore the mask, she said, “Because he didn’t need anyone to know who he was to be a hero. And it looked @#$@ cool.”
The next thing Miles does when he gets home is start sketching up a rough of Sara Pichelli’s costume redesign in its first in-comic appearance (I suspect more for internal continuity than for the lulz, but it has been several months of the new costume already appearing on comic covers, toys, and as an unlockable extra in video games, so it’s about time). Just as Miles is realizing he’ll never get a Project Rooftop approval with his Mad Drawing Skillz, Ganke saves the day with a store-bought, $80 (!), used-only-one-Halloween Spider-Man costume (Miles went as Frodo that year, which made me so happy, you have no idea). Miles suspects it might be in bad taste, and the Bugle agrees after his first costumed venture into the streets, but it’s just one in a list of things Miles has to stress over, including his increased internal monologuing (ha!), having to problem-solve hiding his new superhero uniform, and worrying that his new “Spider-Sense” is some kind of brain cancer.
Which is when Spider-Woman arrives on the scene like a literal kick to the head (in flats, no less), demanding answers from the would-be Spider-Man. Namely, “Who the @#$@ do you think you are??” I am highly optimistic that Spider-Woman, in this continuity a clone of Peter Parker, is going to be functioning as a “Spider-Mentor,” even (especially) if Jessica and Miles don’t take to each other right away and have a Tough Guy/Woobie dynamic; and fan speculation seems to be that her response is going to be a sort of metatextual nod to fandom outcry both for and against the dramatic shifts Ultimate has made in contrast to the “main” 616-verse’s established canon expectations. And the thing is, while Miles’s home life has heretofore been dominated by his father and uncle’s strained dynamic (his mother is alive! and present! and his parents are married! but most of Miles’s story takes place out of the home so far), and he is, of course, rooming in a non-coed dormitory and isn’t dating, Spider-Man‘s life has, and always traditionally has had, a large female presence and influence. This has been variable in quality, of course, which is to be expected from a nearly 50-year-old continuing series (with spin-offs) featuring the same core cast of characters, but I’m willing to give Ultimate the benefit of the doubt based on what I’ve seen so far.
Miles Morales captures the heart of what Spider-Man, and so many other Marvel superheroes, is/are about: the underdog who tries his (or her) damnedest to make the world a better place, who might not have money, or a fancy car, and whose costume is probably lumpy and looks as homemade as it is, but who has a support network and people to care about and protect and be protected by– male and female– while fighting the good fight. Miles is different than Peter Parker– but not really that different at all. Bendis is following a tried-and-true hero formula that he’s also deliberately writing to represent a wider, more realistic array of diversity in Marvel’s comics universe, New York City, and the real-world, including his audience, as a whole. And I can get behind that.