By: Derek Ng.
Spider-Man is bi-racial, there is a female Thor, Ms. Marvel is Muslim, Captain America is African American, and Superman is Black. This is an extremely small sampling of how iconic heroes are changing and the general direction in which comics are moving. As a comic fan, I am excited every time a major company announces big and dramatic changes like these. But my excitement often turns to frustration every time I read my absolute favorite internet comment: “Why can’t they just create new characters as new heroes?” This is a common thought, but it really isn’t necessary or even effective to create new heroes. At the end of the day, these changes can be extremely positive.
Many people will be eager to argue this point and site Stan Lee’s recent comments on the status quo. Lee stated that he thinks Peter Park should remain white, since he “originally made him white. [He doesn’t] see any reason to change that.” In regards to a minority character, Lee “wouldn’t mind, if Peter Parker had originally been black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else, but that he should stay [the way he was created.]” Who are we to argue with Stan Lee, right? Well, there is an important distinction to make there. Lee is saying Peter Parker should remain white, not Spider-Man. That distinction makes all the difference…new characters and new heroes are completely different things.
One of the best characters to highlight this discussion is Miles Morales. Miles is a bi-racial character created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli. The character was recently announced to be starring in the new post-Secret Wars comic, simply titled: Spider-Man. Not Spider-Men or Ultimate Spider-Man, but just plain Spider-Man. This is not Peter Parker in costume, and the character Miles ever claim to be Parker. Miles Morales simply is Spider-Man. It may be jarring to think of a Spider-Man who isn’t Peter Parker, but Miles has been a hero since he was debut in 2011. Regardless, many people still ask: “How can Spider-Man not be Peter Parker, the character I’ve grown up with for more than 50 years? Why can’t Marvel just create a new superhero for Miles to be?”
If you read the Ultimate Comics All-New Spider-Man, you’ll realize that Miles Morales IS a new superhero. “Spider-Man” is a title for a superhero who understands that with great power come great responsibility. Peter Parker hasn’t magically become bi-racial and changed his name to Miles. Even though Miles may have the title of “Spider-Man,” he has problems unique to his own background. Yes, there are similarities, but there are also many differences. Miles Morales is the “high-school underdog” for a new generation of readers. Where, in all of comics, is it stated that Peter Parker can’t pass the mantle of responsibility down to another character? In fact, superheroes have passed their mantles down all the time. It’s a part of comic history. The whole concept behind the successful Batman Beyond series was that Bruce Wayne was too old to be Batman so Terry McGinnis took the role. So why is it such a big deal that a minority take the mantle of a big-time superhero?
“But why does Miles have to be Spider-Man?” Well, why not? What made Peter Parker such a great character was his relatability. Peter Parker was originally created as a teenager who worried about fitting in and doing well in school. Peter Parker crossed races, religions, and nationalities because none of his characteristics related to his race. Stan Lee even said that the idea behind Spider-Man’s mask was so that any reader could imagine themselves as Spider-Man. The entire mythology of Spider-Man is based around his relatability. So why can’t Miles take over as Spider-Man now and again?
Comic companies create new diverse characters all the time. The problem is, no one cares or actively wants to read about these characters, so they remain in the background. A Muslim Ms. Marvel was created for the purpose of helping Muslim teens relate to a superhero. Ms. Marvel wouldn’t have made the same impact if she was a side character or new hero created in someone else’s comic. There would be very little media coverage, and all the positive influences the character could have made go to waste.
In the case of Spider-Man, people are more interested in Miles and more interested in a minority character because he’ll be Spider-Man, as opposed to “Cricket-Man” or whatever. Miles isn’t insulting die-hard Spider-Man fans. Peter Parker has been, Spider-Man for over 50 years. Now Parker has the unique opportunity to fulfill the role of a mentor for this newcomer. And he’s still Spider-Man, mind you. Now, both characters can grow and improve from this experience. At the same time, both old and new readers can enjoy new stories that have never been told with these characters!
“Okay fine, if it’s all about titles, then Marvel should make a white Black Panther!” Well, this is where the topic gets a little more complex. With heroes like Spider-Man, Captain America, and Superman, these names are titles. These are heroes whose fundamental qualities aren’t defined by race, religion, or sexual orientation. As long as Superman is an alien from a different planet that inspires mankind to be the best they can, the concept of the hero still works. What would a female Captain America be called? Captain America! In Black Panther’s case, the character’s origin has everything to do with race. Black Panther is a title rank given to the chief of the Wakandan Panther clan in Africa. Black Panther is mystically connected to the Wakandan Panther God and can communicate with his past African ancestors. Black Panther’s character has had a long history of dealing with racial issues because the character is African. In the past, Black Panther has dealt with Apartheid and the Ku Klux Klan.
Spider-Man doesn’t have stories centered on the fact that Peter Parker is white. His “whiteness” is not what defines him as a hero. When you think of Spider-Man, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t his race, it’s his age. That’s why so many of his stories focused on his social life and academic struggles. But as he aged, that key element became less and less relevant, so a new Spider-Man was introduced.
“Okay, okay, I understand that mantles and titles can be passed down, but Thor? Come on, that’s a name!” I’ll give you that, yes. Thor is a name. But in the comics (keyword!) Thor is also a title. We’re not talking about actual Germanic Neopaganism, we’re talking about the comic book character, which is not the same as the Thor in Norse Mythology. Marvel’s Thor is an adaptation and reimagination. Anyone who lifts Thor’s hammer in the Marvel Universe shall have his power. The plot to the Jason Aaron’s Thor comic asks who is the male Thor (henceforth referred to as Odinson) if he cannot lift his hammer? I think that’s a pretty interesting question that demands exploring. The new female Thor is not Odinson. She’s a completely different character…Odinson has not gotten a sex change. The female character didn’t set out to steal Thor’s name or title. The female character had the opportunity to save the world and she took it. She is simply worthy of the hammer and its strength, since Odinson is no longer worthy.
And who says females cannot be worthy? Steve Rogers is worthy. A robot named Vision is worthy. And a horse-alien named Beta Ray Bill is worthy. Why can’t a woman lift the hammer? It was Odinson that gave the female character the title of Thor, which in the context of the story is a very powerful moment. Odinson feels so unworthy and disgraced over the fact that he cannot lift his hammer that he doesn’t even want his godly title. That’s why having a female character take the title of Thor works. Jason Aaron has written a story that explains why she’s Thor.In the end, having a female Thor now works the same way as having Miles Morales be Spider-Man. There are new stories and adventures to be told for a new and old audience of readers.
Having a female Thor works for the comic industry, as well. Just from personal experience, there have been times when families have asked for comic suggestions simply because their daughter or sister likes reading the new Thor. But ask yourself…would a new female hero have gotten a Colbert Show caliber announcement? This is what the comic book industry needs to survive and succeed. Comic book fans are often weary of change, especially when many changes to their favorite characters have been poorly handled or even ret-conned. But these new diverse characters bring a lot to the comic book industry and are worthy of readership. They bring new stories, new creators/talent, and new business to local comic book stores. Comic book writers often speak now of how they are proud to be a part of this new comic book renaissance.
Asking “why doesn’t the company just create new heroes for new characters” is like asking “why put blueberries in pancakes when you can just create an entirely new breakfast item?” Instead of criticizing these announcements, we should be encouraging them. We should critique once the story is released and we can fully judge the role of the character in question. Are they quick cash grabs or do these new characters provide meaningful stories and live up to their potential? The comic book industry, like any business, follows the voices of the consumers. If we don’t like a comic or story, we don’t have to buy it. Maybe that style of story isn’t right for you. You may not read Ms. Marvel, but you can surely appreciate and respect the hard work and good intentions surrounding the creation of that character. You may not like anything extra on your pancakes, and I can respect that choice, just as you can respect my choice to include blueberries in mine. As comic fans and readers, we have to keep reminding ourselves that there has never been a better time to be a comic book fan. Let’s hope the industry continues to grow.
Derek is comic book fan like none other. You can follow him on Twitter.