Spider-man is Black. Or at least, he could be. . . I am not talking about Miles Morales, the new half-black/half-latino Spider-man (as if Black and Latino were mutually exclusive). No, I am talking about how a fan engages with elements of popular culture in ways that help to both inform and express their identity.
The image above is the final panel from Peter Parker: Spider-man #35 (2001) (read it here), a story in which poor LaFronce manages his life with a cracked out mom in a gang-ridden inner-city neighborhood through his imagined visits from Spider-man, who provides him with advice for staying healthy and handling the emotional instability of his home environment. There is no sense that this story takes place in the Marvel Universe, and the fact that Spider-man’s dialog seems filtered through the mind of a six-year old kid, his catch-phrases seeming just off—saying things like “My spidery senses were jangly”—suggests that something is not quite right in terms of comic book continuity.
But I think that slavish adherence to continuity is bad for comic books. Stories like this one are possible because it can avail itself the foundation of Spider-man as an icon without having to worry about the details of his history. The kid doesn’t even read comic books, instead he knows Spider-man through a treasured trading card, a Spidey-themed baseball cap and his own drawings of his hero in action.
This issue is not free of problems. Some of the representations are iffy, the dialogue is stilted in a way that sounds simultaneously stereotypical and inauthentic, and there is dubious pronouncement about masculinity when Spider-man says, “Big men don’t hug each other,” but for that last panel alone, I love it. I understand that deep identification with Spider-man, so deep that unmasked he becomes a reflection of the self. So Spider-man can be black and/or Puerto Rican and/or Jewish (see Brett Chandler Patterson’s essay “Spider-man No More” in Webslingers) or all of these, not according to the writer, but according to the reader, as they participate in the long-standing comic book fan tradition of collecting what they need from the expansive history and ephemera of a character and acting as a form of curator of a reflective identity.