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A little more than a year ago, journalist and comics writer Marc Bernardin penned an editorial wondering why the Spider-Man in Sony’s movie-franchise reboot had to be played by a white actor, inspiring actor/comedian Donald Glover to spearhead an online campaign to secure an audition. The role eventually went to Andrew Garfield, of course, but Glover’s lobbying effort inadvertently ignited a disturbing Internet firestorm that Community creator Dan Harmon later characterized as a “curious eruption of a previously unknown demographic of racist comic-book readers.”
It wasn’t one of fandom’s shining moments. But fast forward 14 months, to the 49th anniversary of Spider-Man’s first appearance — that’s right, Amazing Fantasy #15 hit newsstands this week in 1962 — and the introduction of the new Spider-Man of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. Caution: Spoilers follow for those who haven’t seen the countless newspaper and website articles on the subject.
Overnight, USA Today revealed what many have suspected for the past few days, if not since the death of (Ultimate) Peter Parker last month in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #160: that the new Spider-Man isn’t another white guy. Instead, a half-black, half-Hispanic teen named Miles Morales will star in the title role when Ultimate Spider-Man relaunches in September.
It’s a move by Marvel, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli that doesn’t “make” Peter Parker black, or gay, or whatever other complaint is usually lobbed whenever superhero comics test the waters of diversity. It’s taking a character from a different background, putting him in the iconic costume and using that as an opportunity to explore different facets of age-old motifs. “The theme is the same: With great power comes great responsibility,” Bendis told the newspaper. “He’s going to learn that. Then he has to figure out what that means.”
Browsing the reactions at USA Today and elsewhere is disheartening, as they’re littered with accusations of PC-ism — a term so overused, and misused, that it loses its meaning — opportunism, and worse. Even Pichelli’s sole quote, an innocuous statement that, “Maybe sooner or later a black or gay — or both — hero will be considered something absolutely normal,” drew criticism. And then there are the patently offensive comments made even before the official announcement by a frequently criticized comics retailer who, when faced with the negative response declared the remarks a “good natured joke” before pulling a Steve Urkel (“Did I do that?”). That may be irony, but I can’t say for certain anymore.
However, my spirits were lifted by a second article in USA Today in which Bendis credits the inspiration for Miles Morales to the opening scene of the season two premiere of NBC’s Community that featured Glover clad in Spider-Man pajamas. It was, in Harmon’s words “a cutesy inside wink to the Donald Glover for Spider-Man campaign” and the ensuing controversy, bringing our story full circle.
“He looked fantastic!” Bendis recalled. “I saw him in the costume and thought, ‘I would like to read that book.’ So I was glad I was writing that book.”
Glover has reacted humbly to his part in the creation of a new Spider-Man, tweeting overnight “So fly,” before adding this morning to Bendis: “Just wanted to say ‘wow; and thank you for doing something really cool and interesting! You’re tops.”