Editor’s Note: Today we have our first guest post of 2016, and surprisingly, the blog’s first post about the new Spider-Man, Miles Morales and the representation of his Latinidad. Alejandro first emailed us a year ago to express his interest in the blog, and wanting to contribute. After many discussions and delays we finally have what we hope is only the first of his contributions. We work to publish guest posts at least four times a year, so be sure to check out our submission guidelines.
When I walked into the comic book store in September of 2011 and saw that Miles Morales, an African-American/Puerto Rican-American boy from Brooklyn, had taken up the mantle of Spider-Man in Marvel’s Ultimate universe, I was ecstatic. Seeing a Latino take up the role of such an important pop culture figure was incredibly meaningful to me, a Latino college student constantly looking for compelling reflections of my ethnic identity. Brian Michael Bendis deserves a lot of credit for pushing Miles, a character of color, into a leading role in the Marvel multiverse, but he still has some work to do to develop him compellingly. Until recently there have been no overt references to Miles’s ethnic background aside from his skin color in any of his comic appearances. Bendis, instead of writing an African-American/Puerto Rican-American character, simply writes a character whom the artists and colorists mark as “Other.” Complexion alone stands in for being Afro-Puerto Rican-American. By neither having Latinx or African-Americans working on his comics, nor including any indications of Miles’s ethnicity aside from his skin color, Marvel and Bendis, thus far, have made Miles more a publicity stunt than a true effort at diversifying the predominately white comic book world, even if recently it may seem to be changing for the better.
Since his introduction in Ultimate Fallout #4 in August 2011, Miles has become one of the most popular and publicized Marvel superheroes. There have been social media campaigns by fans to have him appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he has appeared in the Disney XD animated TV series Ultimate Spider-Man, and has been introduced as a member of the All-New All-Different Avengers. His current gig as one of two mainstream Marvel Universe’s Spider-Men was announced through a NY Daily News exclusive story. It’s clear that Miles has a large fanbase and will have a notable presence in Marvel’s future.
As Spider-Man, Miles has an important role in the new Marvel Universe, but he’s also the only Latinx character receiving major support from one of the big two comic companies. With Miles, Marvel has an opportunity to introduce readers to the lived experience of Afro-Puerto Ricans and African-Americans in New York City. However, in Miles’s comics, there have been no outward expressions of Miles’s Latinidad. Miles is a great character, but Marvel, specifically Bendis, misses the chance to develop Miles’s identity through the lens of his underrepresented ethnic and cultural heritage. Despite four and a half years’ worth of press releases, marketing materials, and, of course, comics, Spider-Man vol. 2, #2 (released March 2, 2016) only recently included the first in-comic allusion to Miles being “Hispanic.” Until this point, his Latinidad was only mentioned in paratextual materials, such as the Daily News article and responses to published reader mail.
The usage of Spanish is one of superhero comics’ most commonly used methods of indicating that a character is of Latinx descent. DC’s Blue Beetle and Marvel’s own Araña and Nova are prime examples of this. In response to a letter published in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #11, Bendis explains that Miles speaks some of the language but there have never been any examples in Miles’s actual dialogue. Not even Rio, his mother, from whom he presumably might have learned the language, is depicted speaking Spanish. Bendis’s exclusion of Spanish as even a part of the comic book’s conversation unfortunately sets the tone for the character. For example when Michel Fiffe writes Miles, in All-New Ultimates #1, Miles jokingly wants to give himself a new “exotic” name. Here Fiffe gives himself the opportunity to recognize Miles’s cultural heritage. Instead, he settles on the “Die Spinne,” possibly a reference to the German reprinting of Spider-Man comics in the 70s or perhaps to 1987’s Spider-Man Versus Wolverine one-shot. With this choice, Fiffe (and Marvel) reinforces the fact such an allusion is more important in superhero comics than using the cross-cultural naming to address (even in passing) Miles’s Latinidad.
Furthermore, Miles’s isolation from peers of color reinforces a skewed sense of his world. Despite going to school and living in Brooklyn, Miles only interacts with two people of color near his age. One is Ganke, Miles’s best friend, who is non-determinate Asian. Where Miles’s ethnicity is given in the editorial letters, Ganke’s is left as an exercise for the reader. The other PoC is Miles’s and Ganke’s roommate Judge, a black student at their school. Judge spends most of his page time being ostracized by Miles and Ganke for fear that he’ll discover Miles’s secret. Bendis has the opportunity to develop a supporting cast of peers for Miles that would include well-developed characters from a broad range of ethnic, cultural, and even socio-economic backgrounds. Instead, Peter Parker’s old supporting (mostly white) cast are written as to be heavily involved in Miles’s story, cutting off another avenue for Miles’s comics to serve as the advocate for diverse representation they were marketed to be.
Despite Bendis not engaging meaningfully with Miles’s Latinidad, Marvel uses this same Latinidad in promotional materials to trumpet their attempts at diversity. By doing this, Marvel shows that while they do not want to make a commitment to the representation of Latinx culture and diversity, they are more than willing to profit from the buzz surrounding a Latinx character. However, the way Miles’s Latinidad is represented, or not represented, is not necessarily the norm for Marvel’s efforts at diversifying its cast. The erasure of Miles’s ethnicity within his narrative lies in stark contrast to the ways that the ethnicities and cultures of Victor Alvarez, Afro-Dominican powerhouse, and Kamala Khan, Pakistani-American Marvel wunderkind, are appreciated in their respective stories.
Victor Alvarez, a.k.a. Power Man, was introduced in the 2010 limited series Shadowland: Power-Man. While Victor is a lesser known character, he’s also a great example of a character whose ethnic background is put into context and integrated into the story. When Fred Van Lente and Mahmud Asrar introduce Victor’s family in issue #1, they do it through a full page of untranslated Spanish conversation. In issue #3 Van Lente also presents Santería, as a potential source of Victor’s powers. Santería is a syncretic religion combining elements of Roman Catholicism, Yoruba mythology, and Indigenous American traditions. By doing this, Van Lente forces the reader to acknowledge that Victor, as an Afro-Dominican-American, is a byproduct of cultural and ethnic fusing and that this fusion has the potential to create a powerful identity.
The rich and diverse portrayal of Muslims in Ms. Marvel has garnered a lot of praise. Kamala Khan and her supporting cast, down to each individual member of Kamala’s family, is shown to have their own relationship with their religion and cultural background. Kamala goes to mosque, and her superhero costume is based on a burkini, a swimsuit for women designed to adhere to Quranic code. G. Willow Wilson, a follower of Islam (though not Pakistani herself), writes a diverse representation of Muslims and Muslim-Americans, and thus is able to delve into the ways in which culture and religion affect her characters, not resorting to clichés, stereotypes, and caricatures.
To really highlight the differences between the ways in which Miles’s, Victor’s, and Kamala’s writers discuss the impact of ethnic/religious culture on their characters, we can look at the way that each character’s interactions with their family are written. When Victor and his family speak, they constantly flip from English to Spanish and back again. While this may not be the Spanglish spoken in many Latinx-American homes, it approximates the way many English-Spanish bilingual households communicate. At dinner in the Khan household in Ms. Marvel vol. 3 #1, Wilson presents a nuanced view of a Muslim family. Each character is clearly influenced and informed by their religion and culture, but each one also interacts with that influence differently. For example, just before dinner, Aamir, Kamala’s pious brother, and Jusuf, their father, argue. Aamir’s pre-meal blessing is cut off by Jusuf wondering aloud if Aamir is avoiding searching for a job by constantly praying. Aamir retorts that he refuses to work with Jusuf at the bank because it would offend Allah. The basis of this discussion is a disagreement over how each expresses and interacts with their shared religion entwine with personal and family life. We, as readers, are privy to a Muslim-American family dinner discussion which demonstrates how diverse their religious community can be.
In Ultimate Comics Spider-Man vol 2, #7 dinner at the Morales home is depicted as contentious and directly related to Miles’ superheroic identity. Jefferson, Miles’s father, talks about his hatred for all things superpowered while Miles privately stresses about his secret identity as Spider-Man. This is a topic that’s brought up numerous times, all dealt with the same way. Jefferson expresses distrust of superpowers, and then Miles looks nervous. Ostensibly, Bendis could use such a scene to show us complex interactions between Afro-Latinx-American family members and develop their personalities, but he chooses not to. By sending Miles off to boarding school, Bendis compounds this failure. There are fewer opportunities to develop Jefferson and Rio on a more consistent basis, and get a sense of their relationship to their Black and Latina identities. With the death of Miles’s mother in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man vol 2, #22 Bendis eliminates her completely as a potential expression of Latinidad.
By isolating Miles from his cultural heritage, Bendis does a disservice to Miles, to Miles’s fans, and to Latinx people. Bendis has the opportunity to touch on major issues of biracial and Afro-Latinx identity and the intersections of African-American and Latinx culture. Bendis can use the recognizable metaphors of the superhero genre to give readers insight into the home life of a mixed race family. Bendis can present Miles’s parents as fleshed out and well-developed characters of color. Instead, Bendis shields Miles from dealing with Miles’s complex racial identity and cultural heritage and presents a family seemingly obsessed with only one topic of discussion. In separating Miles from his ethnic background, Bendis and Marvel engage in a form of cultural appropriation. Miles’s Afro-Latinidad is great when it helps grab headlines and sell comics, but Bendis deems it unnecessary when actually writing those comics.
The Marvel Universe as a whole is becoming more diverse and inclusive, both in the books and among those writing them. And with the new Spider-Man series, which hit comic book stores February 3, Bendis has a kind of new beginning at Miles and Miles’s relationship to his culture and ethnicity. He might be taking advantage of this opportunity. The revival of Miles’s mom in Ultimate End #5 will provide possibilities to interact with both characters’ Latinidad, and the inclusion of Judge in Miles’s squad (in that same issue) as well as the inclusion of an African-American crush in the new series may be the start of a more diverse supporting cast for Miles.
In the most recent issue, Spider-Man vol. 2, #2, Bendis begins to realize some of these possibilities. A fan of Spider-Man posts a video on social media in which she excitedly talks about the new Spider-Man being a person of color (she saw his skin through a tear in his costume). In talking about the video with Ganke, Miles states that he’s “half-Hispanic.” Bendis then introduces readers to Miles’s grandmother, who speaks Bendis’s version of Spanglish. There are some problems with how these themes are handled. Miles mentioning that he’s half-Hispanic in reaction to being called the “Black Spider-Man” partially acts to erase the identity of Afro-Latin peoples. Miles’s grandmother’s dialogue sounds more like a stereotypical representation of Spanglish speakers than an actual Puerto Rican grandmother. With her introductory dialog, “Face it, tigre, you’re about to get a big old kick in the culo” (emphasis theirs), an attempt to showcase the Morales family’s Latinidad falls flat because of the awkward usage of language meant to reference the introduction of Mary Jane Watson in Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1, #42. This raises questions about who writes and edits Miles’s stories and what personal experiences or knowledge they need to have to fairly represent these characters.
Bendis has given interviews recently in the lead-up for Spider-Man #1 where he talks about his desire to discuss Miles’s ethnicity. Considering Marvel’s diversity efforts, these interviews, and the recent injection of racial and ethnic matters in Spider-Man #2, I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll see Miles’s Latinidad play a more prominent role in his stories going forward. Bendis has a lot of different ways to make this happen and his writing experience is such that he should have the ability to use Miles’s cultural identity as a strong character development tool. Hopefully, Bendis will give us the Miles we need: a Latino character that we don’t just read about in the news, but see in every book.
Alejandro Jimenez is an engineer currently living and working in Connecticut. He graduated from Yale University in 2014 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. His childhood love of Dragon Ball Z grew into an adult love of comics and manga. He tries to tweet @ashejandro.