Miles Morales as Influence or Influencer: Marvel Comics’ “Ultimate Spider-Man” in Diversity Discourse

By Heber Guerra-Recinos ’20, an English and Art and Art History double major and Creative Writing minor.

The following work was created for ENG 494: Book History and American Print Culture.

Short Description: After the rise in popularity of Miles Morales after the success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, this paper is interested in his comic origins. Specifically, this paper explores whether Miles’ creation as a “Black Spider-Man” was the result of demand from Marvel comic book readers or an intentional effort by Marvel to diversify established comic book heroes.


Introduction

My topic was, as stated above, the role that Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Spider-Man series plays in the discourse on diversity in superhero comics. My decision to research this comic series was its main protagonist, Miles Morales. As a character, Miles is famous for being the Black Spider-Man. I decided to investigate this comic series because I jumped at the opportunity to do my research project on Miles, wanting to do research on a character that I have come to adore. Last year, in December 2018, I was studying abroad in England, at Royal Holloway University of London. A habit that I developed with friends there was to watch movies in the neighboring town of Staines. The last one we saw together was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, whose main protagonist was Miles Morales. I fell in love with not only the movie, but also the character: it is not often that I, a Hispanic, see people that look like me in film. Granted, Miles has a dark skin complexion, but he is half Latino. Thus, I could see myself as Miles in some way. Since then, I have become a loyal fan and fierce defender of the film, and Miles Morales. I had grown up as a Spider-Man fan, and I am inspired by the morals and truths that Peter Parker lives by, but he is a white male, I am not. Thus, there was a difference that I can not overcome in any way. Being that I was able to see myself in Miles based on race/ethnicity, I felt that it would be important to investigate this aspect of the character further, being that his race has been a major point of praise or debate among readers. 

Research Question

My research question at the time of my prospectus was “With the introduction of Miles Morales as Spider-Man in Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man in 2011, what role do comic books play in the discourse of superhero diversity, what does the response say about Marvel and its readership?” The question I initially tried to answer was, considering Miles being the Black Spider-Man, what role did his comics play in the discussion of race in comics and superheroes? How did this role play out through the reception history of his comics? Was Miles Morales the first non-white/non-Peter Parker Spider-Man? Additionally, with Miles being included in the canon of Marvel comics, what did the critic and fan response to Miles say about not only Marvel’s readerbase, but Marvel’s publishing methods as well? Were most critics and fans in favor and supportive of a Black Spider-Man? Were there some who were opposed for one reason or another? This is what I looked at. Over time, and with feedback from my peers, the question became whether or not Marvel’s decision to create Miles Morales was a reactive decision – responding to the demands of its readership and fanbase – or if Miles was the result of a proactive response – creating a non-white superhero to spearhead a movement of diversifying its traditional comic book characters. 

With these questions in mind, I did expect to find a number of results. For the reception history of the critics and fans being in support or opposition of a Black Spider-Man, I felt that the answer would be obvious. With minor research that I had done prior to the course, I had discovered that the feedback for Miles’initial inception was mixed. Some people, including Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, praised the character for being a good role model for children of color. Others, however, felt that Miles’ creation was more the result of a publicity stunt that was used to boost media attention and sales. Regarding the question whether Miles’ creation was reactive or proactive, I anticipated a mix of results. I expected the results to follow along the lines of Marvel’s fan- and reader base increasingly demanding a more diverse cast of comic book characters, with Marvel responding after some time and creating characters such as Miles. Lastly, I expected to find that Miles’ creation and comics were being praised and commended for its diversifying of established Marvel characters, representing a fanbase that would normally be absent from the media. 

Methodology

My primary method of collecting information and data was research and locating sources that either played into what Marvel Comics’ intentions were for creating Miles, the results of his creations, and how his comics were being used. 

I began by requesting a copy of Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man graphic novel via Interlibrary Loan. Once I had it in my possession, I skimmed the entirety of the book, as it contained the first twelve issues of Miles’ comic run, so I can familiarize myself with its contents. I decided to use this comic book, and not Ultimate Fallout #4, which is technically Miles’ first canon appearance, because I felt it would be more beneficial for me to use a comic book collection that had Miles as the central protagonist. While his first comic book series does mention and show Peter Parker, it only depicts the latter in his finals moments before dying, and how this inspires Miles to take on the mantle of the Spider-Man persona. Additionally, since 2011, Miles has starred in a number of comic books series, some of which are not necessarily his own. As a result of this, I decided to limit myself to the aforementioned comic book, as I would need to narrow my focus down to one of the series. 

From there, I began to look for sources on Onesearch, Miller Library’s database. At this stage, I did not necessarily have any specific intentions for the nature of sources. I simply wanted to find sources that discussed the Miles Morales comic on an academic or intellectual level. For the most part, the sources that I found via Onesearch tended to be secondary. After I found a number of sources that I deemed helpful, I used the ones I decided would be helpful in my understanding of not simply the reception of Miles’ character and his comics, but also the use and results of his comic book run. 

After receiving feedback on my prospectus, I decided it would be essential for me to look for primary sources that was more than simply the comic book itself. While I could not locate any more helpful sources via Onesearch or its databases, I thought it would be important to locate any interviews of Brian Michael Bendis, a comic book writer who formerly worked for Marvel, and the original writer of the Miles Morales comics. For this action, I went to YouTube, simply searching for interviews with Bendis that focused on his work centered around Miles. 

I separated the sources into two groups: for the primary sources, which consisted of the interviews of Bendis, I decided to look for and only use interviews that had Bendis sharing his thought process, intentions, and inspirations for creating Miles as a character. With the secondary sources, I decided to use sources (articles, journals, links, etc.) that involved the discussion of race and diversity in comic books before and after Miles. Additionally, I used only the secondary sources that exclusively discussed Miles and race, or the use of his character and the use of his comics in the discussion of race among the Marvel reader base. 

Findings

Over the course of the research done, a number of discoveries were made, some surprising, others not so much. One important detail that needs mentioning as a “disclaimer” of sorts is the prior knowledge that had been obtained prior to pursuing this study: as previously stated in the research question, some months before the study was concocted, very, very minimal research on Miles Morales the character out of pleasure, and the result was that at the time of his inception, Miles had mixed reception, due to the belief that his creation was a publicity stunt and the praise he garnered for being a good role model for children and readers of color. So, when the  research was being done and I came across information that complemented this knowledge, I was not “surprised,” per se.

First, in Ora C. McWilliams’ 2010 article, “Who is Afraid of a Black Spider(-Man)?”, McWilliams shares details that contribute to the discussion regarding Spider-Man’s race. She credits the beginning of the discussion by mentioning Marc Bernardin’s article “The Last Thing Spider-Man Should Be Another White Guy,” where Bernardin highlights the idea that Spider-Man’s most defining characteristic is that he is a New Yorker, not that he is Peter Parker. Thus, Peter Parker’s, or more specifically, Spider-Man’s whiteness is more accidental than defining. This is supported by a myriad of interviews done by Stan Lee, where he has said multiple times that Spider-Man’s unique design of a full-body costume is to suggest that it can be anyone behind the mask, not simply Peter Parker. 

Donald Glover read McWilliams’ article, and after a number of his fans expressed interest in Glover auditioning for the role of Spider-Man in the then upcoming film reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, the famous actor created a Twitter campaign with the hashtag “#donald4spiderman.” This campaign grew large in size, gaining the attention of several news outlets and Stan Lee himself. Ultimately, the campaign failed, with the role of Spider-Man going to Andrew Garfield. Yet, the idea of a Black Spider-Man was definitely up in the air, and Marvel was well aware of its existence. This could potentially serve as an answer to the presented research question: that Marvel’s decision to create Miles Morales was a reactive response to the media and its fans, being aware that a large number of its fans had a demand for a Black Spider-Man. 

Then, in 2011, Marvel introduced its new Ultimate line of comics, serving as a reimagining or reboot of its original comics from the 1960’s, as a way to “modernize” its characters. Marvel decided to change Spider-Man’s identity to someone other than Peter Parker, who just happened to be Miles Morales (a Black character). The change in identity was intended to be used as a step in a “publicity blitz” to draw attention to the new line of comics, with the change in race being described as provocative. Again, this could be described as a reactive move on Marvel’s part, responding to the interests and demands of its fans. 

Although, after Miles’ introduction, information arose that did in fact support the notion that Miles’ reception was mixed. After Miles’ introduction, many people, including Glover himself, noted the negative Internet backlash against the idea of changing Spider-Man’s race. An example given by McWilliams is that of a comic book retailer, who posted a racist comment on Twitter about a Black Spider-Man. However, it was not merely racist comic book readers who pushed against changing Spider-Man’s race, but some fans of color as well. 

In an IGN article titled “Race in Comics: Spider-Man’s Impact,” Joey Esposito notes the curious reception of Miles Morales by a few readers of color. One example is myIGN user RK2504, who said, “Hi, I’m a black guy. This is stupid. Calling attention to something does not make it normal. The fact that they feel the need to diversify comics by making established characters minorities is stupid. And in case you haven’t noticed, we minorities really, REALLY hate that.”  The same user goes on to express his sentiment that he hopes the Miles Morales comics fail. Esposito responds to this, saying that most fans were upset by the fact that changing Miles Morales’ race felt like a publicity stunt at gaining media attention and sales, rather than being a genuine attempt on Marvel’s end in diversifying its cast of characters. 

However, taking a look at more secondary and primary sources, there was substantial evidence to suggest that Marvel was in fact intentional with its decision to create Miles for the sake of reaching and representing an audience that was previously underrepresented in comics. The strongest and most convincing argument for this were the interviews of Brian Michael Bendis, the original writer for the Miles Morales comics. In an “Ultimate Spin” interview, Bendis shares a number of details regarding his intentions when creating the Miles Morales character and comics. Bendis shares that he is the father of a multiracial household, having two adopted daughters; one being African-American, the other Ethiopian. As such, he notes that he lives vicariously through his daughters, observing and remembering their experiences as well as his own, which he goes on to describe as truths. Later on in the interview, Bendis mentions that he created characters such as Miles because he wanted to create a character that would serve as a catalyst for discussions on race in comics. Additionally, he wanted to create a character that would allow children or readers of color to connect their identities to the world, much like how Bendis connected his own identity through Peter Parker. These notions can be described as successful, as the host, himself Indian, comments that the Miles comics have been helpful for him to have conversations about race with his own son.

Another interview found was Bendis’ interview with SYFY WIRE, hosted by Mike Avila. In this interview, Bendis echoes or reinforces the ideas he expressed in the Ultimate Spin interview. Bendis mentions that he has a desire to create and write characters that he describes as “real,” and reflective of the society we live in, and its increasing demands for diverse representation in media. He explicitly mentions that Miles’ creation was not out of commercial desperation, but more a desire to share a difference in perspective and voices that he did not see in media. He also states that his focus was not so much Miles skin color for diversity sake, but more so the diversity in experience of someone who would look like Miles. This is strong and convincing evidence from the creator of Miles himself that the character was created not to boost sales and media attention, but a genuine intention to diversify Marvel’s characters and bring honest representation of groups who are normally underrepresented in media, including comic books. 

The following secondary sources, while not necessarily related to the development behind Miles Morales, do aid in the understanding of the role that Miles played in the role of diversity discourse, and do answer the original proposed question of what the comics say about Marvel’s reader and fanbase. The first is an article by David E. Lowe titled “Students Contesting ‘Colormuteness’ through Critical Inquiries into Comics,” where Lowe describes his time researching the CIC, or Comics Inquiry Committee, an afterschool program in Philadelphia that discusses comics with students. In the article, Lowe describes the idea of “colormuteness,” [sic] or the suppression of talk in academia revolving around race. This is a result of the belief that racism is a thing of America’s past, a historical period in time that the nation has moved beyond. Lowe says that “By locating racism in America’s past, post-race discourses seem designed to alleviate present white discomfort while doing nothing to diminish future white privilege,” (19) which in turn leads to the suppression of “race talk.” In the article, Lowe shares his work with the students, and his use of a handful of comic books with non-white protagonists/heros, one of which is Miles Morales. On page 21, Lowe mentions that the students used the comic books in two ways: the first was using a critical approach to the comic books, noting the content of the colored and their experiences. The second was using the comics and its lack of proper representation as inspiration for creating their own comic books with their own characters. 

The second article is “Miles Morales: Spider-Man and Reimagining the Canon for Racial Justice,” written by Mario Worlds and Henry “Cody” Miller. This article is different from the rest in that it does not go into the Miles Morales comic that I used, but instead discusses the 2017 novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man. This article analyzes the nature of the literary canon, and its embedded racism by constructing “whiteness” as superior (44). The two also mention on page 43 that contemporary texts that address racism in the classroom tend to be neglected, leading many students to “associate racism with the past.” (43) The only time racism is acknowledged in literary canon, Worlds and Miller mention, is when white characters learn about racism, rather than the experience of racism by colored characters. 

In the article, both writers refer to Bryan Cooper Owens’ definition of racebending, which he defines as “the ‘practice in comic books (and other media) of taking an established character and rebooting them as another ethnicity.’” (45) They then refer to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Amy Stornaiuolo’s argument on racebending, saying “that racebending is a form of restorying, a ‘process by which people reshape narratives to represent a diversity of perspectives and experiences that are often missing or silenced in mainstream texts, media, and popular discourse.’” This supports Bendis’ claim for creating Miles: a way in which to represent and give voice to the groups of people who are not represented in media. The article also discusses on page 45 the notion that, by having Miles in the role of superhero, it subverts the idea of who a hero can be, as it makes him, a Black male, a character who would have been historically antagonized, the protagonist. The article also makes a claim that novels such as Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and the Miles Morales comics, can be used to address racism embedded in political systems. While this is a far cry and expansion on Bendis’ original claims, it is helpful in answering my question on whether Marvel was producing comics as a reactive response or proactive approach.

Conclusion

Overall, I would describe my project as “obvious,” but helpful in understanding the specific details of what I was asking. Initially, my question was what the role of Marvel comics was in regard to diversity discourse in its comics, and what the response to Miles Morales says about Marvel’s reader- and fanbase. However, with refinement and stronger focus, my question became whether Marvel’s decision in creating Miles Morales was a reactive response to the demands of its fans or a proactive approach to diversifying its characters. I came to learn that my research supported both statements but had stronger evidence to suggest the latter; Marvel was made aware of the fan demand to see an increase in diversity in its characters when the campaign to have Donald Glover cast as a Black Spider-Man for the The Amazing Spider-Man film series gained lots of media traction. This would lead some to believe that Marvel’s decision to create Miles Morales was a response to this; however, Brian Michael Bendis, the original writer for Miles Morales, has explicitly shared his motives on creating Miles, saying his main priority was adding voices in media where he saw them lacking, and Miles serves to bring about discussions of race and diversity of experiences. Lastly, I came to learn and read about the fruition of Bendis’ intentions with the use of Miles’ comics and characters in other media. Miles was and is being used by groups such as the Comics Inquiry Committee in Philadelphia, or even within family households, to have discussions on race, racism, and representation in the media, as he gives children and readers of color a means to connect their identity to the world, as Bendis desired. 

As for what I didn’t learn, there is not much. During the initial stages of my research, a potential direction to take that I had considered was comparing the reception history of Miles to other non-Peter Parker Spider-characters, such as Gwen Stacy (Spider-Woman) or Miguel O’Hara (Spider-Man 2099), a female and Hispanic Spider-Man, respectively. Feedback from my peers suggested that I ditch this idea, as it was too big a scope for what I needed to do for the assignment. This is a potential opportunity for future research, as the three aforementioned Spider characters had different receptions, with each being created in different contexts. Miguel O’Hara was created in the early 1990’s, before the Internet era, while Miles and Gwen were created in the 2010’s, right in the heart of the growth of the Internet. From what little research I did on the matter, Miguel (a Hispanic) received fairly good reception, whereas Gwen (a white female) received much praise, leaving Miles with the mixed reception he received. This sparked my curiosity, and could serve as a potential research project.    

Works Cited

Bendis, Brian M., Sara Pichelli, Chris Samnee, David Marquez, Justin Ponsor, and Cory Petit. Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimate Collection (Graphic Novel), Book 1, 2015, Print.

Bendis, Brian M. Interview by Mike Avila. Brian Michael Bendis on Creating Jessica Jones,       Miles Morales & More (Behind the Panel) | SYFY WIRE, Nov. 7, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hbRfET6BIw&t=14s

Bendis, Brian. Interview by Brian and Kyle (of Ultimate Spin). Ultimate Spin: Interview with Miles Morales Spider-Man co-creator Brian Michael Bendis (April 2017), Apr. 4, 2017, http://ultimatespinpodcast.com/episode-50-1-interview-with-brian-michael-bendis/

Esposito, Joey. “Race in Comics: Spider-Man’s Impact” IGN.com. Jan. 19, 2012 https://www.ign.com/articles/2011/08/04/race-in-comics-spider-mans-impact

Low, David E. “Student Contesting ‘ColorMuteness’ through Critical Inquiries into Comics.” English Journal, vol. 106, no. 4, Mar. 2017, pp. 19-28. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eft&AN=123360407&site=eds-live

McWilliams, Ora C. 2013. “Who Is Afraid of a Black Spider(-Man)?” In “Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books,” edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0455.

Worlds, Mario and Henry “Cody” Miller. “Miles Morales: Spider-Man and Reimagining the Canon for Racial Justice.” English Journal, vol. 108, no. 4, Mar. 2019, pp. 43–50. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eft&AN=135603323&site=eds-live.


Heber Guerra-Recinos ’20 is a senior studying English and Art at Washington College, having already accepted a life of unemployment. He was a photographer and cartoonist for The Elm. After graduating, he plans to return (or stay because of the pandemic) home and support his family, begin tackling his large backlog of books, and play his Nintendo Switch. When he’s laughing to himself, it’s usually because he remembered a meme. 

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