Miles Morales vs. Spider-Man: When You and Your Blackness Disagree

Omar: You ever get so excited over something that you miss the small details? Like Seeing Dear White People and leaving the theater thinking it was a good movie, but then realizing bit by bit days later it was actually a how-not-to-be-racist paint-by-number book for white people with every possible Black stereotype played out… but you already wrote your review praising it and now you gotta live with the weight of that hindsight? Yeah, that’s kinda where I am at with Miles Morales addressing the “Black Spider-Man moniker” in Spider-Man #2. I touched upon this lightly in the review I wrote for this issue (which I loved, no take backs).

In the issue, we see a vlogger zoom in on footage of Miles’ battle-damaged suit during his fight with Blackheart. Through a large tear it’s evident that this new Spider-Man is a person of color. She is fan-girling over this HARD, as well as Thor, Sam Wilson, and other heroes that are now all over the Marvel Universe. Miles however, isn’t amused in the least. Miles is lookin’ at her video like Taye in the Dormtainment catfish sketch saying “no. All lowercase. Very small period.”

Miles moves the conversation to how he just wants to be Spider-Man, not Black Spider-Man. I was fucking with that statement because as a Black kid I’ve gone through that moment in my life. When I was pole-vautling for my high school team I was the only Black pole-vaulter in the school as well as the only Black vaulter at the track meets (thank God that didn’t last after my first season [Although I am the only Black person in my office]). As a Black person or person of color you WILL HAVE that moment of not wanting to be the “Black accountant” because it stays being a thing.

MMS

I thought Bendis’ handling of this was excellent per usual. We know this isn’t the end result and is leading to an eventual confrontation with this vlogger, either in his civilian identity as Miles Morales or as Spider-Man. Bendis is finally bringing the real-world backlash of fans’ reactions into the comics. I thought, “Yes. Go there. Get real with that shit.” “if you are going to create a character different from you it is your responsibility to ensure that you do the necessary work and research to be able to write for that character”

A friend of mine brought to my attention the backlash that Bendis received for having brought up the issue of race. Our conversation touched on whether there was a right or wrong answer for Bendis’ attempt. Again, keeping in mind that it hasn’t wrapped up yet. I went back to the panels and looked at what was actually being said, not just what I wanted to see. Yeah, I think I was wrong. Especially once I started talking about this with Thuli, I realized I was looking at the wrong view of what was being addressed.

Thuli: Listen, I like Miles Morales and have enjoyed reading him. Here however, I feel Bendis is mixing issues and missing the mark. First: The vlogger is excited about representation; she is thrilled at the fact that Spider-man is a POC, like off-the-walls ecstatic. Representation man! Yes! And Miles’ response to that: Why does she care? Que sound of car coming to a screeching halt… Say what now?! Miles, why you missing the point here, why you talking like a white liberal? Yes, to be Black in this world means that you have at some point been looked down on by someone as ‘The Black _______’ (fill in the blank) as a way of demeaning you / your work, but, THAT IS NOT WHAT IS GOIN’ ON HERE. This woman is excited to see someone other than a white man as a superhero. Which, for me, makes Miles’ reaction inappropriate and entirely misplaced.

Not Black Spider-Man

Foremost: Even if that were the issue here, I would still take exception. Miles saying I don’t want to be Black Spider-man I just want to Spider-Man is like President Barack Obama proclaiming: I don’t want to be The “First Black” President I just want to be The President. Hashtag never going to go down that way. With this response Bendis not only undermines the real need and desire for representation, he also just straight up acts like race is unimportant/irrelevant. The dismissal of race is classic white liberal rhetoric, it paints a world in which there is no problem and so, we never have to go through the uncomfortable process of reckoning with privilege or the hard work of finding solutions, it serves as a tool to maintain the status quo.

Why does race matter, they say, as their privilege affords them the bliss that is willful ignorance. A Black person however, would not ask that question, because we know. We know all to well. Which is what bothers me so much about this. Bendis is hiding behind Miles, using him as a mouthpiece to push an agenda that not only does not serve the character or the community he comes from, it actually hurts it. And as if that isn’t enough, Bendis has Miles further distancing himself from his Blackness: “First of all I am half Hispanic,” he says. Yes, Miles is Afro-Latino. He can be, and is, fully both of those things, not less one or the other.

half hispanic miles

And look, I don’t think Bendis had any malicious intent here. If anything his treatment of this is, I imagine, well intentioned, but that is not enough. To quote V: I didn’t come for what you hoped to do, I came for what you did. So, intention aside, you have a Black hero who many POC read and love, who younger kids are looking up to, out here trivializing stuff as if he doesn’t know what it is to be Black in this world.

“POC don’t have that many chances to have their story told. When it misses the mark, it impacts us that much more”

Now as Omar said earlier, this may not be all that is going to be said on the matter and I’ll be watching to see how he develops this story/unties this knot. I’m skeptical… but I am ready to be wrong.

I don’t believe you have to share the same race/gender/ethnicity/socio-economic status/etc. as a character in order to write them. However, if you are going to create a character different from you it is your responsibility to ensure that you do the necessary work and research to be able to write for that character. If the needs of the character exceed your ability to write for them, there is no shame in seeking help from people better skilled. It is in fact what you owe both the character and your readers.

Omar: I realized in hindsight where my fault lay. I thought I was seeing Bendis’ having Miles address race in the same way Dwayne McDuffie did with Green Lantern/John Stewart in his 2007 run of Justice League of America. I wanted to believe these were both one in the same when they actually weren’t. Dwayne McDuffie addressed years of the known-but-never-said-aloud-in-canon view of John Stewart just being the “Black Green Lantern” in just two panels (like a fucking boss).

John Opp

McDuffie hits the nail in the coffin by having John state his opinion on the matter, without ignoring what was being said of him or dismissing his Blackness. McDuffie is almost breaking the 4th wall without breaking it. John is true to himself and we know the issue being discussed is one of race, but it’s handled in such a subtle way. This was done back in 2007 and nine years later this is an instance of McDuffie (a Black creator / person of color) taking it upon himself to write a stance on a Black character. Something we still aren’t seeing much of today.

Now if we take a look at the highlight reel there have been white writers that have handled the situation perfectly without beating the reader over the head with it, look at Kelly Sue’s telling of Penny’s past in Bitch Planet or Al Ewing’s work on Mighty Avengers in the interactions between Luke Cage and his father. It can be done, and done incredibly well. However, when it isn’t that becomes an issue with us as an audience because POC don’t have that many chances to have their story told. When it misses the mark, it impacts us that much more and we don’t know if that will ever get rectified, retconned, or revisited.

Thuli: What I really like about the way McDuffie handles this with John Stewart is that he doesn’t make him internalize the issues. He uses Hal to bring up the unspoken which allows John to be the source of the solution — he faces it directly and deals with it decisively. He squashes it right there and then, without acting like it isn’t happening or seeking to distance himself from his Blackness. McDuffie gives John the power.

John Opp 2

And yes, Stewart has about 20 years on Morales so yeah, he’s lived through and dealt with a lot more and seen around more corners. It makes sense that he is more self assured and self aware. Still, having Miles internalize this issue bothers me, having him be the source of the problem makes it unlikely that he will be the source of the solution. More likely the solution will come from someone outside (hopefully not a well-meaning, world-wise white guy) and that gives the world the power, not him.

Omar: It will be interesting to see how this all does get resolved as Miles’ tenure as (despite what he may believe) The Spider-Man of the 6(16) continues. Bendis is an incredible writer that I’ve followed for years and this is the first time I’ve found myself at a cross roads putting me at odds with his work. Am I going to never read his work again? Nah. However, I am going to be more critical of his work in handling race as we move down the line. It’s important to not just accept a perspective that is given to you without questioning it or yourself, as you may find yourself rooting for a misrepresentation of what you thought was happening. Better to be sure of the work you are consuming and how it gets the job done or fails to do so.

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  1. Leonard Guerrero on March 16, 2016

    Just because Miles isn’t “woke” doesn’t mean his response isn’t valid. Being biracial is an extra set of hurdles. As an Afro-Latino, I was 100% on board with how Miles handled this. He’s young and he’s learning about who he is and what his place is in the world. Just like Peter before him. I think Brian Michael Bendis is giving Miles more nuance than you’re giving him credit. Let the story play out before y’all lean too hard into think pieces.

    • Owen on March 16, 2016

      I agree. I went through a lot of the same thoughts when I was his age. I probably would have handled things in a similar fashion if I had been in Miles’ shoes.

    • CB on April 9, 2016

      Totally agree.

  2. Owen on March 16, 2016

    I remember being Miles’ age and thinking exactly the same way. I think that his reaction was realistic for his level of maturity. But, I agree with the article in that I would like for him to get some advice from someone about it. I think that Ava Ayala could give him a different perspective. Or Monica Rambeau. Or T’Challa. Or … you get the idea.

    • Mwatuangi on March 16, 2016

      Definitely T’Challa! He’s so badass.

    • voltorocks on March 17, 2016

      would *love* to have Monica step in on this. In addition to just flat loving the character I think her perspective would be right on the money for Mile’s current situation (having certainly been thought of as “the black captain marvel” during her tenure).

      Ava would also be great no doubt, though white tiger started off as a latino superhero, so it’s a bit different for her. I Love T’Challa, but c’mon, he has never once had to wrestle with ‘I don’t want to be known as the black Black Panther.”

  3. ken rod on March 16, 2016

    It’s true that most of us who were young and black have dealt with antiblack identity issues and as an afrolatino I think it’s important to shed light on that. But this didn’t do that, none of those panels do that. If you have the platform why regurgitate what’s already happening? Comics are fantastical for the reason that they transport us to places we’d like to be. Why then is it a good idea to take such highly regarded black super hero and diminish his identity in the same way some of us black folks do at younger ages? When dealing with discussions of race you’d think they’d be more progressive since we’re at such a low in the discussion? I don’t trust white folks writing black characters tbh. If you aint live blackness what can you really add that hasn’t already been said? in this case the white liberal fantasy where race isn’t an issue. And when you got a hero like spiderman who’s an afrolatino why would you toss the chance up to show a visibly self loving black kid as spiderman? Only a white/nonblack comic book writer would do black characters wrong like that. Since race is still such a touchy subject for white folks they shouldn’t be allowed to voice presumably black opinions through these characters. Something about it seems so.. evil. White liberalism is hell.

    • Umi Ebon on March 16, 2016

      I’m saying tho. Like don’t put an Afro-Latino face on your age-old White erasure of Blackness.

  4. Mwatuangi on March 16, 2016

    I like the way this convo goes, but I don’t think the writer is dismissing race. Whiteness is often seen as the norm in the public consciousness, and anything else as either inferior attempts to emulate it, so it’s easy to see how- at least as I interpret it – Morales being pegged as the “Black Spiderman” in-universe could be seen as somewhat patronizing to him, or at the very least, Othering. Even major Black science fiction writers who focused on race in their work – Butler, for instance – didn’t like being solely defined by their Blackness, because then you just become some “model minority” the public automatically expects to resolve all issues of race rather than a person with agency of their own. I think in cases like these, there’s a delicate need to find a way to not only make sure his Blackness, Latin@ness, etc. is acknowledged but also not abused as an attempt by the larger public to tokenize him. I do look forward to seeing how they accomplish this.

  5. Hannah on March 17, 2016

    Seems to me like IF this is some kinda plot resolved by some “bigger blacker” hero coming along and edumacatin’ young Miles bout his POC identity like some hopeful folks above posit, then PERHAPS it should not have been written essentially as a cliffhanger within the context of that framework, yannow? Feels to me more like the icky uncomfortable return of “colorblindness is cool!” trumpeted by certain kinds of liberals and conservatives both… just sayin. I like Bendis plenty but I fall hard on the “he mighta tried to make waffles but those are pancakes on my plate” side of the fence here.

  6. DanStone on March 17, 2016

    Nah. I felt Mile’s commentary and I was happy to hear him say it out loud. The way I interpret it is that he’s not against representation, but against the hyphenation being used to label him as a novelty.

    That’s how I’ve always felt about Black-anything. I know I’m not alone in this.

    Yes we need representation, but if it’s not on equal footing and in the same arena as what is already considered the “norm” or in the broadest avenue of exposure, it’s still just being separate but equal.

    Just because John Stewart chooses not to even give it a thought doesn’t make it a victory or even the correct frame of mind. He understands he’s got a job to do and he’s not going to let the label, whether he agrees with it or not, shade his ability to accomplish his goal. That’s awesome in it’s own right, but it’s not a counter to Mile’s point of view, it’s just choosing not to engage the issue. That’s not ‘effective,’ that’s a dodge. Effective for waving away the elephant in the room but the elephant is still there.

    Mile’s is opening up the debate. A much needed one.

  7. DanStone on March 17, 2016

    The biggest problem with the framing of Black-this, Latino-that, Asian-this… is it still promotes the very idea of race, which is itself a fallacy.

    Humans have phenotypes that can be traced to regions and bloodlines that aren’t strictly defined by borders, religions, or cultural practices. “Race” is a social construct built BY white supremacist institutions to insinuate not simply biological and superficial differences, but an inherent hierarchical system of superiority backed by psuedo-science. It feeds directly into the concept of eugenics.

    People often confuse this to mean refusing to acknowledge race means erasing culture, but the label more often limits culture and cultural acceptance, and sets it up for tourism, rather than being seen as a normal part of the human experience in the Western world.

  8. Pingback: Not Being a Dick: A links round-up - Reading the End 1 Apr, 2016

    […] A thoughtful response to the recent “I don’t want to be Black Spiderman” issue of the Miles Morales Spiderman comic (by Brian Michael Bendis, a white dude). […]

  9. Célia on April 18, 2016

    Truthfully I thought it was just because it was his first time battling a freaking demon, there were like 2-3 pages of him still being overwhelmed/disgusted/grossed out about it : he was on an otherwordly issue and bringing his race on at that moment was uninportant to him for just that : a guy fights a demon and people notice he’s black. I understand why he’d be annoyed at that especially since he’s new at the whole demon thing and unlike the vlogger who had distance, he was right in the middle of it.
    I don’t think it was so much a general judgement as something the character would feel in the context of that issue. (Maybe it’s the author’s goal, maybe it’s not I don’t know about that, but that’s how I read it).
    I think that’s the main problem here : the various analysis of this page I’ve read are often made on a general idea forgetting the character’s feelings at that moment however the writing is made in a certain context to embrace those feelings. It’s never said that this is the right way to feel about all this just that this is how this character feels at that moment.
    Also one thing to remember is that John Stewart is an adult, who became a lantern as an adult, with experience who’s had a lot of time to think about the issue, Miles is a 15/16 years old child who has been spider-man since he was a pre-teen, Their emotional maturity is not the same, their exeperience is not the same : even as superheroes, everyone knows John Stewart is black since he first started (his mask never hid that), Miles spend a few years fighting with no one knowing that there’s a big part of his life where no one knew he was black for years where he didn’t have to think about it (let’s face it his worries were more green than black).

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