Part of Spider-Man's appeal has always been that when the mask is on, he could be anyone. You, me, that weird neighbor down the street. But when the mask comes off, it's always Peter Parker, a white nerd from New York City. That's been true since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the Spider-Man character in 1962. But everything changed in 2011, when Miles Morales, a black teenager of Hispanic descent, was introduced in the comics, after the surprising death of Peter Parker.
Miles isn't featured in the (apparently very good) new Spider-Man: Homecoming movie opening this weekend, where the character finally gets their own film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's not to say Miles doesn't exist in the MCU, but this isn't his story. He'll be the main character in Sony's upcoming animated film, however, and Insomniac's impressive-looking PlayStation 4 game had a trailer at E3 this year, which ended with Miles shooting footage of Parker on his phone.
"It tells you that this is a different Spider-Man universe," said Spider-Man creative director Bryan Intihar in response to one of my questions during E3. "Miles and Pete being together [is new]. Yeah, there's been some comic things where worlds collide, but for us, Miles is part of our world. There's been a lot of Spider-Man stories, a lot of stories about Peter."
(Full disclosure: Intihar was my colleague at 1UP many years ago.)
It's unclear what role Miles will play in the PS4 game, but given how cagey Intihar was, combined with an evasive question about whether there will be multiple playable characters, it seems Miles won't be on the sidelines. When Miles was revealed to be part of the game, the Internet briefly exploded, as it often does when the character is invoked. The prospect of Miles getting his due has been teased since debuting in 2011, but it's always that: a tease.
Miles means something profound to a lot of people. He's only been around for seven years, but it's the same seven years when it feels like comics and other mediums have only started caring about telling stories that reflect the broader population of the fans lining their pockets.
One fan is Prince Yiadom, a 27-year-old videographer working in visual effects. In the 1980s, his parents moved from West Africa to London, and like Spider-Man, Yiadom found himself interested in nerdy shit: anime, games, comics. But something always gave him pause.
"One thing I always used to wonder," he told me over email recently, "but not really understand back then was, why aren't people who look like me represented in the things I like? And when they are represented, they're either done badly or under a negative light."
The second youngest of five siblings, Yiadom was deeply influenced by his older brothers and sisters, who would often play music around the house—R&B, hip-hop, you name it. He attended a troubled high school where he didn't fit in. This left him feeling lonely, awkward.
"I was too 'black' and cool for the nerdy white kids who I went to school with," he said, "and too nerdy and 'white' for all the gangster kids."
This sense of misplacement, a feeling of otherness, took root.
"It's embarrassing to admit, and without going into institutionalized racism too much," he said, "I remember being so subconsciously affected by it that when games came out that started allowing you to create your own characters, I would think it was weird for me to make my characters too dark skinned because they didn't look cool and were against the norm. I would think 'Oh, I shouldn't make his nose too big!' and stupid things like that."
"When games came out that started allowing you to create your own characters, I would think it was weird for me to make my characters too dark skinned because they didn't look cool and were against the norm."
Yiadom first heard about Miles when a friend texted him, and a first, he didn't believe him. Spider-Man was (and is) his favorite comic book character, so the prospect of a black Spider-Man seemed farfetched, what a friend says when they're screwing with you. But just reading the news made a tangible impact on Yiadom, a sense of pride and excitement.
"I can proudly look at my favourite comic book superhero," he said, "who is one of the biggest and most popular in comic book history and say 'He looks like me'. Kids today don't have to feel strange in society growing up. They can look at him [Miles] and feel that it's normal to be who they are. It's not weird, wrong or that there's something [wrong] with them, which is why they're not shown in what they love. It's okay to be different."
This response—"He looks like me"—was echoed by many folks I talked to about Miles.
"Miles was a hero I didn't know I needed until he was introduced. I've always been a fan of Peter Parker but I couldn't relate to some of the things he was going through. With Miles, I could see myself in him and the actions he takes when it comes to being Spider-Man. Just seeing someone who looks like me, it means a lot because usually black comic characters are never really in the spotlight. They're always pushed to the side or they're just in the background. With Miles this was someone who was on his path of becoming Spider-Man and you couldn't deny him. I mean some fans did by saying "Oh, he's not Peter Parker or better than Peter" and to me none of that mattered. What mattered was being able to see myself and that's what Miles did for me and so many other people." — Brian Benjamin
"As a kid growing up in the 90s, my main exposure to Spider-Man was the 90s TV show with the sweet Aerosmith intro. That version of Spider-Man painted an interesting picture of Peter Parker and NYC. He was an average white dude in a slice of NYC that fit into what TV taught me that NYC looked like. It was so lacking in diversity that every time I saw a black character on the show I would always wonder how Peter Parker's life would have been different had he grown up black in NYC. The friends and family that I did have from up north painted a completely different side of the city. It was gritty, dangerous but full of hope. What would it be like if Spider-Man adapted in the same way that my friends and family did?" — B. Carzo
(I'd also recommend these tweets by io9's Evan Narcisse, one of the smartest dudes writing about comics. He helps contextualize Miles' role in flipping what it means to be Spider-Man.)
Crucially, Miles wasn't merely a black reboot of Parker, he's new. He's not subject to the inevitable fandom backlash from swapping race, and has a chance to define his own world. (This isn't to suggest characters can't be rebooted like that—they're fictional characters whose whiteness had much to do with being conceived by white creators in an era where whiteness was the de facto norm, so who gives a shit?—but it does sidestep the issue.)
"Comic books have shown that the mantle of the superhero is just that, a mantle," said Terrence "The Black Nerd" Wiggins. "We've had three different Captain Marvels, multiple Captain Americas, Batmans (Batmens?), and so on and so forth. Miles wasn't/isn't just Black Peter Parker, he's his own entity."
The reason people reacted when Miles showed up in an E3 trailer is the same reason folks are picking apart the smallest indication Miles might be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: they deeply love the character. At some point, albeit one far too late, Miles will get his due, but until then, fans will continue to beat the drum over the character who "looks like me."
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