When Marvel Comics first announced a new Spiderman who is half-Hispanic and half-African-American–from the popular Peter Parker to a New Yorker, Miles Morales–back in 2011, radio host Glen Beck shared his thoughts on the matter. Beck argued that Michelle Obama was behind the creation of the biracial superhero. On this radio show, Beck said, “Do I care if he’s half-Hispanic, all Hispanic? No. Half-black, all black? I don’t care. However, what I do care about is that I think a lot of this stuff is being done intentionally.” Then he played a sound clip of Michelle Obama: “Barack knows we’re going to have to make sacrifices, we’re going to have to change our conversation, we’re going to have to change our traditions, our history. We’re going to have to move into a different place.” The reaction of Beck, who thrives on controversy, was somewhat expected. The surprise is that the controversy about the 13–year-old superhero has not stopped since then. Marvel Comics perhaps did not expect the backlash of comments in blogs and social media.

Sample comment from a 2012 forum on Spiderman on the site comicbookresources.com: “Even if it wasn’t on the grounds of hating him for being black, there were an awful lot of people who accused people of killing Peter for the sake of political correctness.” Others pointed out that with the death of Peter Parker the history and relationships of the comic book story ended: “It’s like a person out of college becomes the head man in charge in a company without prior experience.” (See more comments here.) This idea was reinforced some months later on the site Comicvine.com, which started a thread about the possibility of a videogame about Morales’ life. Some fans did not agree with the videogame, because of the lack of background and recognizing the new Spiderman. A commentator wrote that potential buyers of the videogame would ask, “Who the hell is this black guy? I thought Spider-Man was Peter Parker?” (See the complete thread here.)

Amid the controversy, cartoonist Ty Templeton published a cartoon on the site comicsalliance.com to explain the negative reactions to Morales. Templeton stressed that readers are generally against any change in the comic book tradition, particularly if the established hero is killed and replaced by a character of another race. But what the comments on comics’ websites and Templeton’s cartoon demonstrate is that there is a young generation following these stories, who are similarly opposed to the decision of publishers to introduce characters with diverse backgrounds.

At this point, you might wonder what does Marvel Comics have to say about all this? According to the Global Post, Axel Alonso, chief editor at Marvel Comics, had this to say: “We have a president of mixed heritage; in fact, I’m of mixed heritage, this is just the world we live in.” He also added “the superhero genre has been dominated by Caucasian superheroes from Superman to Batman. When Spider-Man peels back that mask, there will be a whole new demographic of kids who we’ll be reaching on a new spiritual level.” Regarding the new Spiderman, Alonso went further and told wired.com: “If you think everything is going to be put nice and tidily back in the toy box, think again.”

As the life story of Morales has developed through more than 22 editions, bloggers such as Sonia Harris criticize the fact that the story line of the comic itself does not refer to race. In a May 2013 blog post on comicbookresources.com, Harris contends that violence is the greatest element used by Marvel to bring more attention toward Morales’ life. The teenager suffered the death of his uncle and mother, in addition to the coma of his father. Harris posits that race and sexuality are taboo topics that do not push an increase in sales. Thus Marvel, as one of the main comic book publishers, is not interested in posing questions about Spiderman’s racial background.

However some hope remains regarding an upfront take on racial issues. According to Washington Post blogger Canva, Axel Alonso assured that race will become an issue down the road when viewers learn Miles Morales’ true background: either half-Puerto Rican or half-Dominican. However Marvel decides to deal with the implicit racial issues of the Spiderman series, the blogger is confident that “Miles Morales has a world to change.”

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.