I’ve been reading the adventures of Spider-Man since before I could actually read. Back when I was a kid who had not yet learned to read, I studied the pictures in issues of Amazing Spider-Man. As it turns out, I learned how to read through the comic book adventures of Spider-Man, Batman, and the Hulk. Of all the superheroes that populate the pages of Marvel and DC Comics, Spider-Man and his alter-ego Peter Parker has always been my favorite, occupying a special place in my heart that no other character in the world of fiction could ever hope to occupy. And then along came the new Spider-Man, teenager Miles Morales who took on the crime-fighting identity of the murdered Peter Parker, (NOTE: Peter only died in Ultimate Spider-Man, which takes place in a different universe from all the other Spider-Man comics, so he’s not all dead, just mostly dead), and suddenly I had a new favorite superhero.
To say that I’ve been waiting my entire life for a hero like Miles Morales may sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but I’ve definitely been waiting for him for a long time. I felt the need to see someone like Miles the moment I became painfully aware of the fact that there were no superheroes that looked like me. That’s to say there were no superheroes that were black. Sure, Marvel had Falcon, Black Panther, Black Goliath, and of course Luke Cage, Power Man (the only superhero who charged money), but none of those characters were Spider-Man, and perhaps more important, none of their secret identities were like Peter Parker. Peter was a poor kid, from a broken home, who struggled to make ends meet while neither him nor Spider-Man ever seemed to catch a lucky break. Compared to the African kings and ex-cons that made up Marvel’s black superheroes, Peter Parker was more like me and my friends than any of the heroes of color.
Over the years I have argued and championed and stood upon a soapbox and preached to anyone within the range of my voice about the importance of diversity in popular fiction—including comic books. Especially in comic books. The number of American kids who develop an interest in reading through the medium of comics is impressive, and these kids come in a variety of colors, yet they are represented by an disproportionate number of white men in weird costumes, who protect predominately white populations, in a multitude of universes that are overwhelmingly white. Now, before anyone mistakes what I’m saying as being anti-white, please know that this isn’t the case. But we absolutely must face the fact that the world of superheroes does not even come close to representing minorities and women in a way that is healthy to the development of any young people, no matter what their racial or ethnic background may be.
Throughout the course of human history, every culture has developed its own mythology that serves to convey the human experience through fantastic tales. In the ancient world, these tales were of gods and goddesses, told by humans sitting around campfires all over the world. In the 20th century, in America, these gods and goddesses took the form of the modern superhero. Characters like Superman, Batman, the Lone Ranger, and Wonder Woman became the new embodiment of old archetypes, and a new mythology was created with these colorful characters. Unfortunately, the American superhero has rarely reflected the actual diversity of the population, and as a result many people have been excluded from this mythology. And it isn’t just in comics, all forms of popular entertainment in America has been deficient in creating heroes that reflect the larger population.
You might not notice these types of things if you’re white, and you probably can’t articulate it if you’re a young kid who is black, or Latino, or Asian, or Native American, or a girl—not because you lack the intelligence, but simply because not being included is “normal.” You just know that something doesn’t feel right. You grow up watching TV shows and movies, and reading comics, and wondering why there are so few characters that look like you. You play with action figures—the physical representation of your heroes, which are, in fact, the gods and goddesses of modern mythology—and you wish deep down inside that just one of them looked like you. That just one had your skin color, or hair like yours. And this eats away at you, and as you grow older, and try to talk about it, far too many people respond in ways that betray an underlying racism that crushes your soul. But then along comes Miles Morales, and even though this one character doesn’t make it all better, it is a step in the right direction.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of Spider-Man. I’d argue that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the most important characters in the history of the comic book, just behind Superman, and right in front of Batman. And Spider-Man is definitely the most important comic superhero of the second half of the 20th century, period. In his own way, Miles Morales is just as important as Peter Parker, and most definitely the most important superhero of the 21st century thus far. He is the character that I have been waiting for my entire life.