Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why Ultimate Spider-Man's Being Half-Black, Half Latino is No Big Deal

Not having grown up in a multi-cultural society I have had the good fortune of never having experienced racism firsthand, though of course I've heard and read about it. I don't feel qualified, as a result, to join the chorus of people yelling "racist" at all of the fanboys objecting to the fact that Marvel Comics has replaced "Ultimate" Peter Parker, also known as Spider-Man, or one of the at least three versions of the character they are currently publishing, with a young teenager who happens to be half African-American, half Puerto Rican. To be honest, I don't feel qualified to join the conversation at all, even though on a purely intellectual level I can grasp the concept of what is racist and what is not.

As someone who's read comic books for most of my life, though, I do feel qualified to defend Marvel Comics' creative decision, regardless of whether or not they appreciate the gesture.

The "Ultimate" Marvel line was conceived around eleven or twelve years ago when Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada assumed control over Marvel Comics as a solution to the fact that over the last forty years, the universe created by Stan Lee and his various collaborator/artists had gotten so bogged down in continuity issues accumulated over time that the original magic of the characters and books had dissipated or at least become severely diluted. The idea was to recapture what originally made the various titles special when they came out in the 60s, but this time without all the baggage, and with a "modern" twist.

The result worked at first; Peter Parker, a twenty-something married man in the "regular" Marvel Universe was a teenager again, stripped of all of the added flab of decades of stories, many of them shoddy, that had come with his going from teen to adult over a nearly-forty-year period. Teams like the Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four, all of which had been turned inside-out and upside-down by decades of different stories as well as bad editorial decisions, and periodic status quo shakeups were restored to their purest, nascent states.

The problem with serialized fiction in which the characters' adventures continue indefinitely is that while there is a beginning, there is rarely a middle or an end to these characters and their development, and while the Ultimate line was created to replicate the early years of Marvel but with a twist, it would, as the years went on, gradually start to find itself saddled with its own continuity and history issues.

Not only that, but because of the success of the "Ultimate" line, the powers-that-be at Marvel wanted to transplant its "real-world" vibe into the main line of comics, and as a result the line's writers, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar were placed on books like The Avengers and Spider-Man, and for better or worse, the mainstream Marvel Universe, after a fashion, did start to resemble its "Ultimate" counterpart in terms of the tone of storytelling, particularly during the Civil War event engineered by Marvel, with Mark Millar's seven-part miniseries at the forefront.

Marvel then became a victim of its own success. Having successfully "updated" the mainstream Marvel Universe to be more like its "ultimate" counterpart, Marvel effectively rendered the "ultimate" line obsolete, and as a result the "ultimate" books' sales began to drop.

Now, one thing Marvel could have done would have been to let the line "lie fallow" to use an agricultural term, and revisit it some other time with new stories and ideas, but seeing as how it's in the business of selling comic books, its editorial made the decision to shake things up, first by killing off a whole slew of characters in a line-wide event entitled "Ultimatum." Casualties of this little "holocaust" included several members of the Ultimate versions of the X-Men and the Avengers, and as a result the Ultimate version of the Fantastic Four broke up, with Reed Richards apparently becoming a bad guy. The comic books were then relaunched with new #1 issues and some tweaks to the creative teams.

There was a momentary spike in sales, but even with the relaunch the titles didn't sell nearly as well as they did in their heydays, and sales dropped right back to earth in fairly short order.

It made sense that they would, even though major characters like Wolverine, Cyclops, Magneto and a couple of Avengers had been killed off, most of the audience whose interest in comics had been piqued by the Ultimate line had either jumped over to the mainstream, "616" Marvel Universe. After all, in the time that had lapsed since the launch of the Ultimate universe, Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane had been retroactively annulled (and not in the legal sense) the Avengers had become "cool" again thanks to an infusion of new members that included Spider-Man and Wolverine, and the X-men...well, thanks to a bunch of gimmicks like "M day" and a presumably talented slew of writers, had managed to win much of its audience back. There was nothing in the Ultimate line of comic books that people couldn't see by reading the main line of Marvel Comics.

By killing and replacing Peter Parker with another Spider-Man, was finally able to effectively convey the message to their readers that they had tried to make with all of their shock-value deaths in "Ultimatum:" in the Ultimate universe, ANYTHING can happen.

What definitely annoys about the widespread reaction to the switch is the fact that before the decision was made, sales of the Ultimate Spider-Man title had been dropping like a stone. Fewer and fewer people cared about the line or that particular iteration of the character, who had arguably become superfluous now that "616" Peter Parker was "young" again by virtue of being a swinging single. Had Peter Parker not been killed, readers would have continued to bail out until there would be simply no justifying the existence of the comic book.

Besides, the Ultimate line, the way I see it, was always intended to be a venue for experimentation, for attempts to tell stories involving Marvel's beloved characters which could not, by editorial mandate, be told given the constraints of the "616" universe. Here, Cap could be a right-wing borderline fascist. Here, Thor could be a smelly hippy mistaken for a paranoid schizophrenic. Here, Hulk could actually kill people when on a rampage, whether or not they were bad guys. Here, Black Widow could be a murderous double agent, and Wolverine could actually want to kill Cyclops, and vice versa. The Ultimate has always existed just beyond the boundaries of what was possible in the regular Marvel Universe. Some of the ideas were good, and some bad, but to me it's to Marvel's credit that they allow these tweaks to happen.

And so I think that Miles Morales' introduction as the new Spider-Man is in line with the spirit of some of the first "ultimate" stories in that it puts a new spin on an old favorite. Some people may like it and others may not, and if it's the latter then Marvel will certainly go back to the drawing board, but casual fans who don't read the "Ultimate" line and who are complaining about Morales' race should either read the "Ultimate" comic books to understand the spirit in which this kind of story is told or should just shut the heck up and stop exposing themselves for the closet racists that many of them probably are. Not only that, but the people who are familiar with the "Ultimate Spider-Man" line and who abandoned it only to complain about the switch should really be ashamed of themselves; they're the ones who put Ultimate Peter Parker in his grave, not any "PC" agenda of editorial.

Finally, having read and enjoyed the first two issues of this title, I find it consistent with the experience I had when reading Mark Millar's and Bryan Hitch's "Ultimates" for the first time, in that what was old became new again, and I'm willing to give this direction a try.