On Exoskeletons and Assimilation: Revisiting the Latinidad of Marvel’s Araña

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is from a scholar who is becoming something of a regular around these parts, Nicholas E. Miller. He has taken part in both of our academic roundtables, and this is his second full-length guest post. In it, he revisits one of my favorite underrated and underused Marvel characters, Araña, and considers the role of Latinidad in her comics despite a decreasing representation of its so-called “authentic” markers.

Araña practices her skills in full costume at the end of her first story arc. [from Amazing Fantasy vol. 2 #6 (January 2005)] (art by Mark Brooks, Jaime Mendoza, Victor Olazaba, Larry Molinar, and Rus Wooton)

Following the acclaim for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse last year, which marked the first time Marvel had featured an Afro-Latinx superhero on the big screen, I want to revisit another Latinx character in the Marvel spider-verse: Anya Corazón (aka Araña), created by writer Fiona Avery and artist Mark Brooks. Anya first appeared seven years before the creation of Miles Morales (aka Spider-Man), yet her character has mostly lingered at the margins of Marvel storylines and critical conversations about Latinx comics. This is due, perhaps, to the fact that her appearance predated the launch of “All-New, All-Different Marvel”—thus missing out on the marketing push given to Miles and other characters that bucked against the historical trend of white male heroes, like Jane Foster as Thor, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, and Luna Lafayette with her fire-breathing dinosaur. Yet Anya’s marginal status may also result from a critical reluctance to view her character as more than a diversity prop; scholars have noted that her storylines often fail to produce meaningful or “authentic” Latinx representation. In this essay, however, I want to reconsider the politics of Latinidad found in her early narratives and reclaim the Latinx potential of Anya’s original character, even as I articulate how she gets assimilated toward whiteness in later comics.

This analysis is motivated by my ongoing attempts to consider the limits of representational justice in popular culture narratives. I am (perhaps naïvely) optimistic that there are other valuable modes for thinking about how identities are constructed in comics. Most scholarship on Araña, however, tends to view her character through the logics of representation; in other words, her Latinidad is dependent upon the ability to successfully exhibit key identity markers associated with Latinx identities. For example, Carolina Fernández Rodriguez makes the argument that, while Araña “may certainly help young women feel empowered . . . her Latinidad will not make her particularly appealing to Latinas, as it is reduced to a few insubstantial markers” (117). Rodriguez goes on to argue that “her Latinidad seems to be a mere accident that slightly colors her skin brown and determines her Spanish nickname” (117). Similarly, Karen McGrath argues that “Araña . . . and other characters [in the series], are still most often portrayed in gender and race stereotypical ways, despite the moments where Araña’s Latina identity is expressed” (271). McGrath then offers a catalog of gendered, racial, and ethnic stereotyping—including practices like objectification and misrepresentation—as it occurs in the series.

I do not dispute these arguments, but I am also not particularly invested in claims about representational “authenticity.” Nor do I care to position my reading of Araña as a liberatory alternative to other scholarship. Instead, I want to think about how Anya’s early narratives open up interpretive possibilities beyond representation—particularly in terms of how Latinidad functions in her stories. In other words, I am less interested in the perceived “realism” of her Latinidad than I am in how her status as a Latinx superhero becomes evident through the tensions that exist between Araña and the white structures of her world. In that sense, I see my analysis as aligned with the excellent work of Isabel Millán, who argues in “Anya Sofía (Araña) Corazón: The Inner Webbings and Mexi-Ricanization of Spider-Girl” that “Araña’s variations [in terms of character development] . . . closely resemble our contemporary understandings of the nuances around language, citizenship, race, gender, and sexuality” (205). These variations in the depiction of Araña over time eventually move her toward assimilation in later comics and invite us to revisit her Latinidad—particularly in terms of its shifting relationship to whiteness.

Araña tries on multiple superhero costumes courtesy of WebCorps. [from Amazing Fantasy vol. 2, #6 (January 2005)] (Click to enlarge)

Born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and a Puerto Rican father, Anya moved to Brooklyn with her father when she was five—immediately after the death of her mother. There she is introduced as a fifteen-year-old gymnast at Milton Summers High School who gets caught up in a centuries-long battle between two organizations: The Spider Society and The Sisterhood of the Wasp. Mortally wounded in a skirmish between these factions, Anya is saved by Miguel, a powerful mage from The Spider Society, who performs a ritual that endows her with spider-like powers. She is then recruited as a Hunter for The Spider Society, working with Miguel. Unlike stories about radioactive spider-bites common to Marvel, Anya becomes Araña with an immediate sense of belonging, purpose, and history. In contrast to the individualistic origins of other superheroes, she understands that she is part of a community—one that has a history of conflict with another society and its cultural practices. Her powers and costume reflect this difference between her and predominantly white superheroes. For example, Anya decides to create her own costume after mocking the more “traditional” (i.e. white) superhero outfits made available to her. She opts for sneakers, track pants, gloves with pockets, a backpack, and yellow-lensed goggles; her outfit thus serves as a clear rejection of the “typical” superhero costumes. In addition, her powers include an exoskeleton (or a carapace) that is blue, bug-like, and offers her additional protection. Lastly, instead of web shooters, she creates bolas for herself that can be used to attack or to grip onto objects.

The costume itself does not mark her as a Latinx character, nor should it serve as a primary indicator of Latinidad. However, I want to examine one aspect of her costume (and character design) that has received scant critical attention—her exoskeleton. What makes the exoskeleton striking, in addition to being unique among spider-persons, is how it opens up narratives about race and ethnicity. It functions on two levels: first, it offers a biological explanation for diversity in the spider-verse by representing Araña as a specific type of spider, and, second, it uses that specificity to create a tension between spiders and wasps that is racialized when deployed in her narratives. Although the exoskeleton does not serve as an explicit marker of Latinidad, its function in relation to the whiteness of other superheroes enables a Latinx reading of the character.

Anya’s carapace symbolically marks her as a member of the Tetrablemmidae family of spiders, whose members are known for the toughened layers of exoskeleton that cover their body. Often referred to as “armored spiders,” these spiders developed exoskeletons to protect themselves from the aggressive predatory wasps that hunt them. Such wasps are known to swoop down onto their prey and deliver a paralyzing sting that leaves spiders immobilized. For Araña, the threat of wasps materializes when she joins The Spider Society and gets caught up in a battle with The Sisterhood of the Wasp. Whereas Peter Parker’s rivalry with wasp-figures is told primarily through the idea of wasps as entomological creatures that have a predator-prey relationship with spiders, Anya’s narrative invites us to reckon with wasps as WASPs (i.e. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). And, although Anya was not technically Marvel’s “first Latina hero,” she was promoted as such in the media and on the back cover of digest editions of Araña: The Heart of the Spider (2005). By drawing attention to her perceived firstness, Marvel not only erases earlier Latinx representation (e.g. Bonita Juárez, aka Firebird, or the various incarnations of White Tiger) but invites a racialized reading of WASPs by drawing attention to Anya’s status as not just a superhero or spider-person—but as a Latina. Readers also learn that The Sisterhood of the Wasp came to the Americas from Europe long ago as a violent criminal group—a description that maps easily onto historical narratives about WASPs and their colonizing practices.

Araña in her full exoskeleton after calling upon the power of the Hunter. [from Amazing Fantasy vol. 2, #6 (January 2005)]

Moreover, three of the people she challenges in her debut series are notably white. First, she confronts a white high school student who bullies her Asian friend (Lynn), and in pursuing that fight runs into Miguel as he fights a white woman from The Sisterhood of the Wasp. Miguel and Anya then spend the rest of the series pitted (at least indirectly) against a white mage, Vincent—also of The Sisterhood of the Wasp. In contrast, Anya’s team with The Spider Society consists of one key white character (Ted). The closest people to her in her solo series—Miguel, Nina, Lynn, and her father—are not white. While the metrics of representation can be important to note, the proliferation of non-white characters (or establishing Latinidad through representational logics) is less crucial here than examining the social structures through which Anya engages with whiteness. Latinidad is a political identity that can facilitate solidarity and collective efforts toward decolonization and as such can shift our focus from a desire to quantify representation to the desire for collective action and collaborative world-building as imagined by scholars like Ramzi Fawaz:

“I seek to shift the frame of this dialogue away from a stress on the numerical expansion of minority representations, which measures the political progressivism of superhero comics by a quantitative accounting of the visual or narrative presence of minority characters, and their supposed ‘accuracy’ in capturing the realities of particular minority experiences.” (25)

Again, I do not disagree with the claim that Anya fails to express many normative markers of Latinx identity. But, much like Fawaz, I want to resist thinking exclusively about numerical expansion and the “accuracy” of such representations. As Osvaldo Oyola argues, more expansive and less essentialized representations of superheroes can disrupt monolithic notions of “authenticity.” In terms of Latinidad, for example, we might look to recent concerns about its erasures as a reminder that there can be consequences to constructing or embracing normative markers of Latinx identity. In the case of Anya, I prefer to read her as a character whose Latinidad is constructed out of a clear tension with whiteness (and its colonizing narratives). Rather than seek out “accurate” representation, I consider how Latinidad might be theorized as a collaborative form of world-building made possible through a wide-ranging look at the images and narratives central to her character. If Latinidad is constructed as a mode of solidarity that directs political power against the oppressive structures of whiteness, we might better recognize Araña as a uniquely Latinx superhero.

Araña explains to Ms. Marvel that her costume is “a part of me.” [from Ms. Marvel vol. 2 #7 (November 2006)] (words by Brian Reed; art by Roberto De La Torre, Jon Sibal, Chris Sotomayor, and Dave Sharpe)

This is where her exoskeleton becomes an important site of inquiry and opens up opportunities to reconsider Anya’s Latinidad, her proximity to whiteness, and narratives of assimilation. While claiming Araña’s exoskeleton as a commentary on Latinidad may seem like a significant interpretive leap, that argument is rendered plausible as her story continues beyond the Amazing Fantasy (2004) and the Araña (2005) solo series—particularly as she gets pulled into a Civil War storyline. In Ms. Marvel vol. 2, #7 (2006) we find Carol Danvers (aka Ms. Marvel) talking to Anya and her father about the need to comply with the Superhuman Registration Act (SHRA). When Carol tells Anya, “you could be ticketed for appearing in public in costume,” Anya replies by referencing her exoskeleton: “But it’s not a costume. It’s a part of me.” While space does not allow a detailed exploration of how these types of registration acts in the Marvel universe echo narratives about ethnic control in the United States, I will note that this exchange focuses on Carol’s concerns about how Anya looks in public—a comment that cleanly maps onto contemporary narratives of racial profiling and Latinx discrimination.

Carol follows up with a comment about Anya not “breaking any laws big enough for anyone to care about,” thus situating this metaphor within the realm of Latinx immigration, where undocumented persons are under a different type of scrutiny in terms of visibility and documentation status. In other words, Carol is not worried about Anya’s status as Araña so long as she keeps a low profile. If her violations get bigger, however, Anya is likely to draw unwanted attention to herself as somebody who is technically “undocumented” (at least under the SHRA). In many Latinx communities (especially in our current political climate), it is not uncommon for certain practices or behaviors to be deemed risky because they might render Latinidad visible to an oppressive police state (e.g. ICE). This political fear of public scrutiny has had severe social and economic consequences on whole communities. In the case of Anya, she notes how external markers of her identity (in this case, her exoskeleton) cannot be removed in order to make herself less visible. If her carapace serves as an alternative marker of her Latinidad, this commentary highlights one way in which Latinidad gets racialized even when not strictly defined as a racial or ethnic category. When Carol says that Anya “could” get ticketed for appearing in her exoskeleton in public—even though she has done nothing wrong—we might read this onto narratives of being Latinx in the United States, where there is often an implied threat of being extralegally arrested or detained for being visibly perceived as Latinx, regardless of status.

Anya’s participation in Civil War leads to the loss of this part of herself. In Ms. Marvel vol. 2, #12 (2007), Doomsday Man tears off Anya’s exoskeleton as she tries to help Carol—effectively removing her spider-powers. This tearing away of her identity, which leads to the erasure and revision of her character history, is indirectly facilitated by a “well-meaning” white woman. That it happens in a story tied to the SHRA highlights the danger of siding with Carol; Anya loses a marker of Latinidad because a white woman believed that obeying the law and registering herself would be protective rather than destructive. As a result, Anya rejects her family in favor of whiteness by going against the wishes of her father and joining the fight with Ms. Marvel—a move that may resonate with those who feel torn between their Latinx identities and white hegemony.

An example of how Anya (right), Rikki (center), and Rocky (left) are colored in the Spider-Girl series. [from Spider-Girl vol. 2 #2 (February 2011)] (art by Clayton Henry, Ray-Anthony Height, Walden Wong, Jerry Paris, Clayton Henry, John Livesay, Chris Sotomayor, and Joe Caramagna)

Although Anya does not assume the mantle of Spider-Girl immediately , this moment effectively marks the end of her story as Araña and initiates a long process of whitewashing her character. Whereas scholar Frederick Aldama claims that “Anya is one of the few Latina superhero characters who evolve” (67), citing the later Spider-Girl (2011) series, I argue that Araña may be one of the few Latina characters to assimilate. Aldama argues that in making Anya the protagonist of her own story, the creators develop “a superhero anchored in an urban, contemporary Latinidad” who is “dark-skinned” (68). Yet I find claims about her skin difficult to embrace in a series that is so inconsistently colored (Anya often shares a skin tone with the white Rikki Barnes, reads as a white character alongside the black Rocky Flint, and is lighter-skinned than her father). Again, however, the “authenticity” of her coloring is not my primary interest. Instead, I think it is vital to consider the significance of how in this new series she once again aligns herself with a white woman (in this case, the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman) in ways that distance her from her father (quite literally). Just as she did in Civil War, Anya ends up minimizing one community to join another. Moreover, in this instance her father dies while she is away participating in superheroics. If the tearing off of her exoskeleton and siding with Carol Danvers over her father in Civil War (who wanted her to remain safely at home) represented a decision to cast off her Latinidad, this storyline marks the metaphorical death of that Latinidad. This transition, and the inconsistency of her appearance, are also addressed in the work of Isabel Millán, who notes how Anya’s Latinx identity (or at least the claim that she was the “first Latina superhero” in Araña) gets erased in Spider-Girl through the language of  her making a new “debut” in the latter series’ promotional materials (211-212).

The assimilationist politics here are not strictly promotional, but the result of Anya losing her exoskeleton. Anya is reinvented as Spider-Girl, a move that is initiated when she is given Julia Carpenter’s costume in Grim Hunt (Amazing Spider-Man #634 to #637) and made official when she chooses to identify as Spider-Girl in Young Allies (2011). Through this transition, she is depicted as a “typical” Marvel spider-hero in terms of costume, signature moves, and narrative (which now includes the loss of both parents—a common trope among superheroes). In Grim Hunt, her story is woven into other spider-verse narratives, and she later regains spider-powers in the Spider-Island (2011) event, although they are not her powers and do not include an exoskeleton. Instead she is given normative spider-powers, which are referred to as “Spider-Man-like powers” on the inside cover of Spider-Island: Spider-Girl #1 (2011). Spider-Island thus represents another moment of assimilation for Anya, as it literalizes the indistinguishability of spider-powers across characters and reimagines her powers within white-normative structures. This move is a precursor, perhaps, to “All-New, All-Different Marvel” and how it demonstrates the limits of representational justice. As Johnathan Flowers argued in “Decentering and Recentering in the Field of Comics” at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus in 2016:

“‘All-New, All-Different Marvel’ becomes concerned with changing the perception of the field that Marvel organizes as white and male, and not changing the whiteness and masculinity of Marvel itself. . . . By placing a body that does not ‘look like’ the bodies around [it], Marvel is at once exposing the way in which the canon was organized around some bodies and experiences; and, at the same time, by presenting the new body as the ‘sign of difference,’ Marvel is confirming the sameness that is already in place.”

In the case of Araña, however, her body actually starts to look more like the white spider-bodies around her. While some artists continue to draw her bolas, many now illustrate her web-shooters with the same mechanics and style as countless other spider-figures. Her costume as Spider-Girl consists of a “typical” full-body suit and a more “traditional” mask, a far cry from the exoskeleton and goggles she donned before. There is little left to distinguish her from various other spider-women in the multiverse, which becomes even more apparent in the Spider-Girls (2018) mini-series (part of the larger Spider-Geddon event). There, her body and face cannot be easily undifferentiated from the other spider-persons on her team.

An image of Spider-Girl (right) with Spider-Man and various other spider-women. [from Spider-Geddon: Spider-Girls #1 (December 2018)] (words by Jody Houser; art by Andrés Genolet, Triona Tree Farrell, and Joe Caramagna)

In this way, Anya becomes functionally white within the spider-verse. Instead of examining racial markers (skin color) or linguistic markers (speaking in Spanish), which are inconsistent across creative teams, we can look to shifts in her powers and costume, or to structural changes to her community, to see her assimilation toward the white paradigms of Marvel. This assimilation is facilitated by small acts of erasure. For example, if her Latinidad was constructed, in part, on the community of color she inherited as Araña, that community has been overwritten through her team-ups as Spider-Girl—which now surround her with whiteness. Moreover, just as her debut as a Latina superhero gets overwritten in Spider-Girl (see Millán), in the final issue of the Spider-Geddon (2019) series the story of her carapace gets overwritten as well. In that issue, we are given the closest thing to a carapace since her early solo series, as Annie Parker (aka Spiderling aka the Pattern-Maker) provides her with an exoskeleton-like armor—an armor that is also shared by two white spider-persons.  In this way, her armored status, originally a gift from Miguel (and later retconned to be a gift from her mother) becomes a gift from a white character that effectively overwrites its original function (as protection from WASPs) as well as its explicitly Latinx roots.

Spider-Girl, Spiderling, and Spider-Woman power up to battle the Inheritors. [from Spider-Geddon #5 (February 2019)]

Despite this move toward assimilation, however, Araña’s storyworld is never fully untethered from her Latinx identity, even if that connection is sometimes subtle or unintentional. This is particularly true as Anya continues to find herself caught up in fights tied to toxic whiteness. It is perhaps no accident, then, that she ends up befriending Rikki Barnes (aka Nomad) during the brief Nomad in Conjunction feature (found in Captain America #602 to #605)—a woman whose brother nearly had her killed due to his ties with a white supremacist organization. Together (as one of my favorite head-canon ships!), the two of them also team up with Benito Serrano (aka El Toro) in Young Allies (2010), which requires Anya to be more explicit about her Latinx identity—even as she assumes the moniker of Spider-Girl. The centering of Latinx concerns in Young Allies has already been commented on by Jennifer Margret Smith, so I will not rehash that argument and I will simply note that the story explicitly engages with Benito’s undocumented status, Anya’s work as a translator, and the politics of bilingualism. Yet even as Latinx issues are foregrounded in Young Allies, Anya struggles with her new, depowered identity as Spider-Girl. The final issue of that series pays homage to Anya’s first costume session in a page laid out in similar fashion. Yet instead of vehemently rejecting the costumes of white superheroes as before, Anya wears the Spider-Woman costume she inherited from Julia Carpenter—an outfit that also inspired Spider-Man’s symbiote costume. As she answers the phone in the last panel, she is unable to say either of her superhero names: “Yeah, it’s Arañ– Spid– Anya here.” This moment speaks to an uncertainty about her status—particularly in relation to whiteness. Still, unlike the predominantly white “Golden Age” heroes, who fought the threat of white supremacy in the form of Nazis, we can continue to read Anya as a Latinx character in terms of how she functions in a world where white supremacy takes the form of WASPs, anti-Mexican rhetoric, and immigration concerns.

Anya looks into a mirror and grapples with her new identity as Spider-Girl. [from Young Allies vol. 2 #6 (January 2011)] (words by Sean McKeever; art by David Baldeón, N. Bowling, Chris Sotomayor, and Joe Sabino)

Ultimately, Araña’s Latinidad in earlier titles becomes most recognizable in the context of her assimilation in later titles, and I remain intrigued by the possibility of exploring her Latinidad as a function that is made manifest (and later lost) through her exoskeleton and how it orients her toward (and protects her from) whiteness. Losing her exoskeleton not only exposes her to physical danger in the comics, but also exposes her to the assimilative dangers of existing within the predominantly white structures of the superhero genre more broadly. Such dangers are not limited to Araña, of course, but instead seem endemic to Marvel as the company continues to employ predominantly white creative teams to write one-shots and team-ups that flatten the appearance of superheroes, as well as their narrative functions. Much like Johnathan Flowers, scholar Adrienne Resha has also written about the limits of Marvel’s diversity efforts and specifically about how one-shots and team-ups can undermine pre-existing narratives about non-white superheroes. Like Resha, I argue that such concerns are not strictly tied to the need for representative creative teams (although we certainly need more of them) but also to how one-shots and team-ups often remove characters from the settings and communities that provide important contexts within which their identities function. In other words, simply adding racial and linguistic markers to characters is insufficient to truly “diversify” Marvel superheroes—we also need to think about how comics that foreground community can help us to revisit Latinidad as a political identity that is invested in collaborative world-building and the disruption of white structures.

With that in mind, let’s bring back the carapace, Marvel!

And, while you are at it, bring it back with an all-Latinx creative team.

Nicholas E. Miller (@uncannydazzler) is Assistant Professor of English at Valdosta State University, where he teaches American literature, gender and sexuality studies, and comics studies. His essay, “Asexuality and Its Discontents: Making the ‘Invisible Orientation’ Visible in Comics,” has been published in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society (2017) and his essay, “‘Now That It’s Just Us Girls’: Transmedial Feminisms from Archie to Riverdale,” has been published in Feminist Media Histories (2018).

2 thoughts on “On Exoskeletons and Assimilation: Revisiting the Latinidad of Marvel’s Araña

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