Spider-Man is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. He's probably the most relatable super-hero ever created. Almost everyone knows what it's like to struggle and that is what Spider-Man is all about. He's dealt with everything from bullies and romantic trouble to major financial problems and the tragic deaths of loved ones. Despite being brave, true and honest, entirely selfless, funny and brilliant, he faces constant self doubt and guilt and he still manages to be inspiring. An understandable amount of angst aside, he is always optimistic and hopeful, never thinks twice about doing the right thing and never gives up in the face of the most dire adversity. These are just some of the qualities that make me, and millions of other people, love and root for this character. Nothing about any of those things is dictated by his race or sexuality. Hell, nothing about that even demands that he be male. Spider-Man could just as easily be female or transgendered and still represent the very same thing. When you boil it down to it's core this is just the story of a suburban American kid put into an extraordinary situation and there is no definition of what that looks like.
This week Marvel announced that there is a NEW Spider-Man coming, his name is Miles Morales. His father is African-American and his mother is "Hispanic." This, as would be expected, has been met with every kind of reaction imaginable from acclaim to demonization. Personally, I feel like people arguing on both sides are wrong and that this is nothing more than a shallow headline grab on Marvel's behalf.
In October of 2000 Marvel launched its Ultimate Comics imprint. The initial idea behind this was to offer a fresh start to new fans, most especially children, who might be intimidated by the forty years of continuity in the Marvel Universe proper (or as guys like me and other assorted assholes call it, the 616 universe). They started this in the logical place, with their most famous and accessible character, Spider-Man. When it started it did more or less just what was promised of it, retold the original stories in a more modern way, accessible to children and new fans, but not at all alienating to long time readers. The dialogue might have been hokey and out of touch, but that was the case with Stan Lee's work in the 60s, and it had all the heart and Spider-Man retained all the qualities I spoke of above that have made him the beloved, iconic character that he is.
This all became sidetracked relatively quickly as the Ultimate Universe became less about welcoming new fans and more about the writers doing weird, masturbatory things with the characters that they would never be allowed to get away with in Marvel's main continuity, taking things in entirely unnecessary "edgy" and "dark" directions. Some of the changes were no big deal, super-spy Nick Fury, a traditionally white character was portrayed as a black man (as we all know, Samuel L. Jackson is playing him in the movies), and the X-Man Colossus was gay (which was handled some what ham-fistedly, though with positive intentions). Other changes were not so superficial, and entirely changed who the characters were at their core. Captain America was shown as a jingoistic prick and the Hulk was a cannibalistic rape-monger. Apparently more "realistic" takes on the characters. Despite all this, and despite some questionable and just flat out bad story lines, Spider-Man remained true to who he was always intended to be.
Then, as the Ultimate Universe started to become more and more asinine, culminating in a story that saw a fat character eat a little character among other absurd things, people stopped reading and sales sunk.
In November of 2010 Marvel announced that ZOMG SPIDER-MAN IS GONNA DIE, NO REALLY. Which resulted in major headlines from the global mainstream media. It did come with an asterisk and some tiny text attached, however. If you didn't already know, I'm sure you can guess where I'm going with this. It wasn't the regular Spider-Man they were killing off, it was Ultimate Spider-Man, and even if it were regular Spider-Man there was no way he would be gone for more than a year or two, and even then they'd still manage to release some 'untold tales' or something. As anyone who is familiar with comics can tell you, a major character death, especially one as high profile as this, one that major news outlets are informed of over seven months in advance, serve no purpose other than to garner outside, real world attention. There is just no way he's going to stay dead.
So, seven months goes by and in June of this year Ultimate Spider-Man is finally killed off and I'm sure all thousand people who still read the book were very moved. About a month goes by, A MONTH, and Marvel announces ZOMG, SPIDER-MAN IS GONNA BE BLACK NOW, NO REALLY! This has also made worldwide headlines, and also comes with an asterisk attached. It's not really Spider-Man, don't worry. Regular Spider-Man is safe and sound, he's not going anywhere and he's still white. This is Ultimate Spider-Man, and hey, it's not even Peter Parker, it's some new guy that you won't give a shit about, won't get us those new minority readers we were hoping for and will be gone in a year or two when we bring back Peter Parker through the magic of comics nonsense!
In my opinion, this shows a basic lack of respect toward fans, potential fans and even Marvel's flagship character.
The inspiration for this change apparently goes back to May 2010 when casting rumors for the new Spider-Man film were beginning to heat up. The website io9 claims that after they ran an article saying that maybe Spider-Man could be played by someone who isn't white, a member of their community going by the name "Rootadoo" came up with the pretty inspired suggestion of Donald Glover. Now I doubt that Rootadoo was actually the first person to suggest this, but it doesn't really matter. Shortly after a passionate social networking campaign, spearheaded by Glover himself, started gaining steam. Glover from the get go made it very clear that all he wanted was an audition, a chance to prove that he could legitimately embody the character that he loved and identified with, all the while maintaining a light hearted, but realistic take on his chances. He joked on his website "I'm putting myself in the running for the Spiderman reboot. I'm actually quite interested to see how far this goes. If this happens, I'll buy each and every one of you a mini cooper."
Despite becoming a dark horse fan favorite for the role, including endorsements from both Spider-Man creator Stan Lee and Ultimate Spider-Man creator Brian Michael Bendis, Sony never gave him the audition. The part ended up going to Andrew Garfield, who I believe is just as suited for it as Glover, but that is a different article. Bendis claims the image of Glover as Spidey never left his mind, and upon seeing the actor in a Spider-Man costume on the sit-com Community, he was inspired to make the change in his book, hence the creation of the new Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles Morales.
I believe that Glover would have been great in the role of Peter Parker, which finally brings me to my point.
One of the things that I love so much about Marvel comics is the characters. I don't mean their powers and abilities or anything like that. In my opening paragraph I listed some of the reasons I love Spider-Man, and you may have noticed that not one of them had to do with him being a super-hero. Marvel has always been good about making sure that the man under the mask is what's important. In conversation with hard core fans you're much more likely to hear the names Reed, Scott or Tony than Mr. Fantastic, Cyclops or Iron Man. I may have been drawn to it as a small child by the web swinging and the wall crawling, and twenty five years later I'm just as big a fan as ever, but it's not the powers that have kept me interested, it's the person. What I'm getting at is that when I say I love Spider-Man, I mean that I love Peter Parker. Miles Morales is not Peter Parker.
Bendis is a guy who occasionally finds his way into hack territory but generally tries to find interesting ways to tell super-hero stories with both his original characters and Marvel's existing pantheon. I fully believe that he would have done this with Peter Parker if he could have, and I'm disappointed he took an easy route with this. He clearly anticipated reactions like mine, telling USA today that if fans are upset it won't be because of the color of his skin, but because he's not Peter Parker. I think he's wrong though, because other than myself, I haven't heard anyone else take this point of view. I think Bendis was naively forgetting, or intentionally ignoring, how reactionary, and flat out racist, the average comic fan becomes at the notion of these kinds of changes. I have read scores of people complaining about the change being a product of our increasingly PC culture, many cry babies whining about all the white characters being "taken away from us". People making what they must perceive to be clever observations, such as one commenter at Badassdigest who said "Can't wait to see Channing Tatum as T'Challa in the Black Panther movie. He is, after all, an actor and can play any role put infront of him." That comment is infuriating for so many reasons I don't even want to get into it, but it's sadly typical and unsurprising in this situation.
On the other hand you have people who are celebrating this as some kind of triumph of civil rights, and these are exactly the people Marvel is pandering to (well, them and anyone who wants to run a controversial news story that will garner them hits or ratings).
Marvel is posturing like they are doing something new, edgy, different. Like they are really progressive, forward thinking, but they are going about it in the most spineless way imaginable. Casting Donald Glover would not only have been all those things, it would have also been appropriate and honest to the source material (and yes, I understand this had more to do with Sony than Marvel, but I think it's ridiculous to assume they had no part in approving the leads). If they were being genuinely sincere about this in any way it would happen in a title that mattered, not one that no one cares about and is struggling in sales, and it would be Peter Parker, not some throw away new character. If Miles Morales is as fantastic a character as Marvel and Bendis are saying he is then he would do just fine as an entirely new super-hero. This is nothing but a shallow, cheap, insincere attention grab which can easily be reverted back to status-quo when it doesn't work out.
Headlines all over the internet are proclaiming DONALD GLOVER FINALLY CAST AS SPIDER-MAN (KINDA), and Bendis is confirming that, but it's just not the case. The character Donald Glover loves and wanted to play, the character that we all love, has nothing to do with Marvel's latest desperate attempt at attention.