Superhero comics are an odd slice of pop culture, living and growing throughout the decades by constantly reimagining and reshaping their characters and universe, while somehow appealing to an audience that angrily resists change. I covered the issue of regressive storytelling as it pertains to women last month, but it applies equally to all characters that aren't white, straight, male, abled or otherwise at the top of the food chain.
Marvel's Ultimate line was set up to explore characters in a new and contemporary setting; a beginner's level entry to the world of Marvel superheroes that didn't rely on reading years of continuity recalibrations. The Ultimate Peter Parker was killed off (he's still alive and well in the main Marvel Universe) and fans have been waiting to see who will pick up the Spider-Man mantle.
When the mask was lifted to reveal Miles Morales, a half-Latino, half-Black teenager, comics were thrust into the media spotlight while the internet and press exploded in shades of righteous indignation, outright bigotry, and misplaced concern. With one side firing out the "I'm not racist but..." diatribes, and the other prostrating themselves with the old "I'm whiter than white and I think..." cringe, let's pause to consider why this new Spider-Man, and the extreme reaction, really does matter.
The term "regressive storytelling" was coined by Chris Sims in his article for Comics Alliance last year: The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling. Reboots and relaunches in superhero universes commonly place Silver Age characters back in their original roles, usurping more modern interpretations who are often less white than their elders: Ray Palmer reclaiming the Atom suit from a murdered Ryan Choi being a prime example. Of course, many of the rejuvenated Silver Age heroes are replacing fellow white people, and while many characters of colour are killed off, the same is true of white characters – something that those with a fear of "political correctness" are always keen to point out.
But the overall effect isn't similar at all. Already in the minority, every character of colour removed has a huge impact on the overall diversity of the superhero universe which is already blindingly white. All the major iconic superheroes, with the exception of Wolverine, were created between the 30s and 60s, and as a result are overwhelmingly white, straight and male. Creating a new icon is difficult and near-impossible work, much less creating one who doesn't fit the parameters of the previous success stories. And so again and again, new characters are white as default or regressed back to white interpretations.
All of which is met with dismay by comic fans of colour, and those who want their comics to better reflect the real world in terms of diversity. The Marvel and DC Universes may be fictional fantasy, but they are based on our own world, a world that is full of different races, sexualities and abilities, with half the population being female. The majority of superhero comic book fans however are white, straight males, and while their percentage share is diminishing as the rest of us muscle in, they are still the crowd that the major comic book publishers are playing to; something that may now be changing as the Big Two seek to expand their audiences in a shrinking market.
Equally, the majority (disclaimer: the majority, not all) of superhero comic book writers are white males, and while that doesn't mean that good non-white (or non-male) characters cannot be created, increasing the diversity in the creative teams can only increase diversity on the page. And while the existing teams increase diversity on the page, so will they attract a more diverse set of would-be employees and fans.
Back to Spider-Man, and it can be argued that replacing Peter Parker was always going to cause disappointment and concern for some fans, although he does still exist in the main Marvel Universe. For as long as Spider-Man has existed, his name has been synonymous with that of Peter Parker: this is a big change. But this would not have caused nearly such a fuss had Miles been white. It's a sad fact but not a particularly surprising one, that the media can still react with such outrage to the idea of a) a superhero being black, and b) a black man taking over from a white man.
Miles of course is biracial, both Latino and Black: in the press, the former has been ignored while the latter has received all the attention. Miles' heritage is equally important to the many mixed race readers (and to Marvel's Editor-in-Chief, Axel Alonso), but from a publicity point of view it seems like the world is divided in two: black and white.
In recent years Bruce Wayne was replaced as Batman, his absence from Gotham leading to a battle to wear his mask. Dick Grayson taking on the mantle caused very few ripples outside of the comics community; few people I spoke to at the time and just recently were even aware Bruce Wayne had "died". Charitably, this may be partly down to Dick Grayson being an old character himself. However, it's hard to believe that even a newly introduced character taking over the role would have caused much of a reaction: unless of course that character had been black, something only acceptable in side characters. The potential outrage such a move would have caused is illustration of how gutsy Marvel are being with their Spider-Man change.
And Miles is in good hands, with writer Brian Michael Bendis well known for his progressive comics, and brilliant Italian artist Sara Pichelli bringing fresh talent to the table.
Some commentators have argued that now their child has no hero to look up to, which is absolutely incredible. Firstly, to single out the one "main" superhero who now has a mask worn by a black man rather than the multitude with white skin, as the death of their child's heroes. And secondly, the implication that no white child can or should look up to a man of colour. The implications of that are staggering: at worst that the realm of being "super" should not apply to anyone without white skin, at best that readers are unable to relate to anyone who isn't identical to themselves.
Jackie Ormes: The Ormes Society is named in her honour.
I say staggering, but of course this is only surprising to those of us with the privilege not to have it shoved in our faces every day. The fallout of the new Spider-Man reveal has caused no such revelations amongst communities who must put up with such bigoted commentators (at best) every day. The huge reaction show just how important Miles Morales is as an addition to the world of comic books. A (very) brief look back through comics history helps explains why.
In 1937, Jackie Ormes became the first syndicated black woman cartoonist with her strip, Torchy Brown. Incredibly, she remained the only syndicated black woman until the 90s, over fifty years later. Torchy was one of the very few black characters at that time to not be a crude stereotype: she was intelligent, independent, sensual, fashionable, and spoke clear English, a world away from the mammies and maids that black women were usually portrayed as. But Torchy wasn't read by everyone: only the African American newspapers carried Jackie's work. Later there were All-Negro Comics too: again, only within the segregated black communities.
Ebony White, the sidekick of Will Eisner's The Spirit, is perhaps the most famous example of the stereotypical African American character that white comic readers were used to. Eisner was arguably making a larger point, but Ebony remains a fair example of what black characters were relegated to at the time. Tintin in the Congo is another notable example, as the right-wing influenced Hergé regurgitated common beliefs about the Congolese people. More naïve maybe than deliberately racist, subsequent editions were edited by Hergé to try and tone them down, yet instructions to keep the title out of children's sections in bookshops have predictably been met with anti-"politically correct" outrage. But regardless of intent, the book remains controversial and offensive.
From the very beginning of superhero comics, there were a handful of black characters in the background of a few titles, or as African chiefs in the jungle story strips. The majority of these were racist stereotypes, crudely rendered side characters or spectators hooting and hollering at our heroes. As the century progressed, and casual racism became slightly less acceptable, these caricatures retreated, leaving a vast white expanse.
In 1966, Marvel introduced the first black superhero with the début of Black Panther (T'Challa) in the Fantastic Four, and in the 70s the first major black hero to have his own series, Luke Cage, as well as the first black female superhero, Storm, in the X-Men. Cage suffered in his early years for being a product of the Blaxpoitation era – an ex-con with exaggerated slang, and the only hero to charge for his heroics - but recovered in later years, and this progressive decade also saw the arrival of a new Green Lantern, John Stewart, and Black Lightning over at DC.
John Stewart is arguably as famous a Green Lantern as Hal Jordan, due to his presence in the popular Justice League animated series, and he made his stance clear: he was a man who happened to be black, and who would not tolerate racism. His creators were tuned into the Civil Rights movement, and resisted calls for the character to be renamed Isaiah Washington, a typical slave name.
Storm is possibly the most famous of all black superheroes: the powerful mutant has been present in many key storylines, as well as the popular animated television series, and the blockbusting films of the last decade. But Storm has many critics despite her role as a powerful woman, giving in somewhat to the tropes of hyper-aggressive black woman and mystical exotic woman. The white hair and blue eyes also softened the impact of having an iconic African American female superhero, and her marriage to T'Challa has been labelled as tokenism by many – a charge that is hard to avoid when so few characters of colour exist in the first place!
In '93, Dwayne McDuffie co-founded Milestone Media, a comics company with a focus on making non-white characters the stars. McDuffie had impressed with his awesome Damage Control series, and was a huge champion of diversity in comics. Sadly the comics imprint was only to last a few years due to a belief amongst both sellers and fans that comics focusing on black characters could only be for black readers: a belief that Miles Morales will be trying to subvert.
It was a problem McDuffie came up against frequently; the writer was often accused of shoving a "black agenda down the readers throats". An all white line-up for a comic causes no controversy, yet an all black line-up would be accused of sensationalism or being anti-white; and even having more than two black characters in a sea of white could do that. McDuffie described his rule of three: that three black characters would be enough for threatened white fans to term the title, "a black product".
Latino characters rarely cause such a reaction and are notable for their racial invisibility, often being portrayed simply as white. Bane, that hulking Batman villain, is being played by Tom Hardy in the upcoming Christopher Nolan film, yet his origins plainly state that he is Latino. Where was the media outrage on this change of race? Perhaps everyone was too busy still after the outrage over a black actor, Idris Elba, was cast to play Heimdall, guardian of the Bifröst bridge, in the 2011 Thor film. Angry conservatives staged a boycott of the film, with many others supporting their argument that it was "wrong" for a black man to play a Norse god, and more of that "political correctness gone mad". Clearly one person of colour is one too many.
Thankfully there are a few good Latino characters in comics, though they are often shunted out of the limelight: Renee Montoya has yet to receive a place in the New 52 although Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes) does have a new title, while the new Spider-Girl (Anya Corazon) is still web slinging, and old Kyle Rayner hasn't cracked up quite yet. Outside of the superhero realm, do pick up Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez.
As for mixed race characters, forget about it. The focus on Miles' blackness demonstrates that too many white people are struggling to get over one hurdle, never mind what they'd perceive as two. However, Miles is not the first mixed race Spider-Man: back in '92, Marvel introduced their Marvel 2099 line, a series set one century later than normal continuity. This future Spider-Man was Miguel O'Hara, of Mexican and Irish descent, and his title was a popular one: ending due to the sales slump of the other 2099 titles.
Miguel is often written off as being a true Spider-Man of colour, as his story was not that of the "real" Spider-Man; something Miles has been accused of too. But the Ultimate Line is a far cry from the Elseworld stories of the past that have seen experimentation and black Supermen: Ultimate Spider-Man is more successful than the main title, and has been consistently popular since its conception in 2000. It doesn't get any realer.
The lack of racial diversity within superhero comic book universes puts a lot of pressure on those characters of colours that do exist. Instead of being just a character, they become a representative of their entire race within comics, in a way that no white character ever has to deal with. There are a lot of expectations on Miles Morales shoulders, and fans and boardroom executives will be quick to point the finger at him if sales start to drop.
Whiteness of a character is never an issue: it is seen as the default. No one asks, "why is this new mutant/alien/hero white?", but any new character of colour is seen as being either tokenism or affirmative action; the latter is a charge often used alongside the phrase "political correctness gone mad", a belief that "progressive" is a dirty word, and hyperbolic accusations of a racial agenda. The charge of tokenism does contain some merit, with many fans asking that new characters of colour be created rather than shoehorned into white skin which could be seen as a half-measure.
But creating a new icon is near-impossible with a white character, let alone with a character of colour. Consider the fate of Milestone Comics, dismissed as comics for black people simply because of the prominent black characters. To create a new character who is also non-white, is perhaps less commercially viable at this point in time. Difficult to get the initial sales, and any drop in figures would be attributed to the colour of the hero's skin. Stepping into Spider-Man's suit gives Miles a chance, and subsequently gives all characters of colour a chance. The more successful diverse characters there are, the more they will continue to appear.
Yes comics companies should be creating new characters of colour – like Spider-Girl and Batwing and preferably some completely independent ones – but no heroes should be untouchable, particularly in alternate universes like the Ultimate line. Why couldn't there be a black Spider-Man? Or a female Superman? Or a gay Batman? Many have said they object to a black Spider-Man not because they are racist, but because it's not correct. But these characters were created at a time when they could only be white: their whiteness was not a deliberate choice, but a default setting. Stan Lee did not set down that his heroes must be white, no more than he said they couldn't be Jewish. Minorities should not have to settle for sidekick duty in the main titles; all superhero comics are completely malleable, and have been throughout the decades.
Moreover, there are countless tales of Spider-Man as the white Peter Parker already in existence for fans to read. Change is good, evolution is good, and hey, it'll all get rebooted in at least one continuity at some point anyway.
A tabloid in the UK ran with the headline that Spider-Man was black and could (gasp!) be gay in the future due to the open-mindedness of the creators. Spidey is now not only pushing a black agenda, but a gay agenda too! While Ultimate Peter Parker was always set to be replaced this year, people have jumped to the illogical conclusion that clearly he was killed simply to make way for a black man. In fact, the idea of a non-white Spider-Man has been waiting in the wings for some time and the planned death of Peter Parker allowed the idea to be put to use. Poor straight white people, with their lack of representation. Oh wait, they have everyone else.
Despite what many commentators would have you believe, the decision to have a new Spider-Man of colour is not racist, nor is it "reverse-racist". It's not even discriminatory. Western society is however, institutionally racist, with white people holding both the power and the prejudice (as well as control of the dictionary definitions). Almost 30% of the US population identifies as non-white (15% in the UK), but these numbers do not translate to our films, television programmes, or comics. (Equally, women make up 51% of the population of both the US and the UK, unlike the population of films and comics.)
The reveal of Miles Morales under the Spidey mask has shone a light on the nasty side to our so called "post-racial" society. Believe me, those that have to live it every day never believed in such a thing. The day a character can be revealed as being non-white and that not be newsworthy? Well then we might be getting somewhere.
Comics may be an odd slice of pop culture, almost constantly at odds with both their fans and society at large, but the one thing they can do better than almost any other media is reflect and even instigate real change in the real world. The path of black characters in comics, as well as that of women in comics, has intersected with the real life movements in our society, and historically Marvel have led the way: from the noble T'Challa, Joseph Robertson who kept J. Jonah Jameson in check, through to Luke Cage and Storm, many of these characters are still around today, albeit very low in number. Perhaps Miles Morales will be around decades later too.
If the superhero world is a reflection of all the best that humanity can be, fans of diversity need to step up and support all decent attempts to show the world as it should be. Progressive, not regressive.