New Spider-Man: Not the Obama of Comics

Let's not mistake a new black superhero for a real-life role model.


To hear some tell it, this week marks an important moment in black history: the debut of a half-black, half-Hispanic Spider-Man in Marvel's "Ultimate Fallout No. 4." The kid's name is Miles Morales, and he takes over for Peter Parker, Spider-Man's alter ego, who was killed in "Ultimate Spider-Man No. 160."

We have Donald Glover to thank for this watershed moment, according to a USA Today article. Last year the actor, comedian and rapper took to his Twitter account to campaign for a chance to play the role of Parker in the latest Spider-Man movie. As a joke, Glover, who stars on NBC's hit sitcom Community, appeared on the show's season premiere in Spider-Man pajamas.

No, it didn't result in his getting cast in The Amazing Spider-Man, currently in postproduction. That role went to Andrew Garfield, he of Social Network fame. But Glover's shameless self-promotion did result in comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis giving Glover "mucho credit" for changing the complexion of Spider-Man's latest incarnation.

Let's give a point to Marvel for taking advantage of an opportunity and adding more color to its already diverse roster of comic book characters. Bravo, Marvel! But let's not equate this with something as significant as getting a black man elected president of the United States, as USA Today's Brian Truitt did when he asked, "We have an African-American president, so why not an African-American Spider-Man, too?”

The question is certainly rhetorical, but its implication is insulting. The idea that anyone besides Glover and his legion of followers might care as much about the color of Spider-Man's skin outside of his costume as they do the color of the president is not only exaggerated but also slightly patronizing. Here's a little secret about black people that some may not know: We don't wish everything and everyone was black.

Like a lot of kids, I grew up a fan of comic books, specifically Spider-Man -- hyperspecifically, Peter Parker. Parker was a cool white dude, as my friends and I would say. When he put on that mask, he whooped on the bad guys and had the gift of playground-worthy trash talk.

When he took off the mask and went home, he was laying up in bed with the smoking-hot redhead Mary Jane Watson. So when I found out that he died, I wasn't excited about his replacement, even if his racial makeup is like mine. I was more saddened by his death.

"Some will perceive that [Parker] had to die to make this happen, which is not the case," Bendis told USA Today. "This character carries on the legacy of Peter Parker, a Spider-Man who will have a completely different relationship to the world." I'm curious to know exactly how this relationship will differ from Parker's relationship with New York City, the home of both the past and present Spider-Men. As Adam Serwer pointed out in the American Prospect, "Peter Parker could be white. He could be black. He could be Puerto Rican. As long as he's the same working-class kid from New York.”

If Marvel wanted to show how Morales is a reflection of a more racially tolerant culture, the company wouldn't trumpet such fanfare about Morales' being the teenage son of an African-American father and a Hispanic mother. It would assume that most young readers today are more tolerant than were those in 1962, when Spider-Man made his debut. Marvel also might want to specify Morales' Latino origins instead of tossing off his heritage as "Hispanic."

And if the company really wanted to show that it was a new day, it would employ a black writer to write this new series. This is not to say that Bendis isn't worthy of his duties; he most certainly is. But let's not mistake fictional diversity for real-life victories.