January 2, 2017
January 3, 2017

Eric Cline

It’s comic book column time again! Following on the heels of the recently released trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming, I’m going to talk about my favorite spider-themed wall-crawler: Miles Morales.

Obligatory quick background information dump: Miles Morales, a.k.a. Spider-Man, is a superhero character with similar powers and costumes as the original and more well-known Spidey, Peter Parker. Miles debuted as the star of a Spider-Man series published as part of Marvel’s Ultimate Comics imprint, which depicted stories set within an alternate timeline from that of mainstream Marvel continuity. Eventually, following the comic series Secret Wars, Miles was brought over to the main Marvel continuity. If you happen to recall news coverage regarding the debut of a black Hispanic Spider-Man a few years back, Miles was the character in question.

If you’re shaking your head at how complicated a character going from an alternate reality to a “main” one sounds initially…well, I can’t blame you. That’s comics for you. I’m just getting the more difficult stuff out of the way first so I can move past it and explain why Miles is a great character whose worth wading through some initial confusion for.

Miles Morales, like Peter Parker, was bitten by a spider and ended up getting spider-esque superpowers as a result. Much like Peter Parker was back in the original Spider-Man comics of the 1960s, Miles is a teenager. What Brian Michael Bendis, writer of all of Miles’ solo-series to date, achieves that the earliest years of Spider-Man comics didn’t, is a fully realized setting with an accompanying and well-developed supporting cast. Ganke, Miles’ best friend, is believable as a well-meaning if sometimes inept teenage boy. Miles’ uncle, Aaron, also dons a super-persona as the Prowler, though his actions are of a more criminal nature. The moral clash between the two characters weighs heavily into Miles’ earliest stories. There’s also Miles’ parents. His father, Jefferson, is a particularly interesting character. Though Jefferson has a criminal history, he has tried to distance himself from his past actions and those of his brother, whom he does not approve of. Early in the series, Jefferson expresses hatred for superhumans, which causes a lot of anxiety on Miles’ part. The two characters’ relationship following Jefferson discovering his son’s secret identity is one of the most touching parts of the series, as Jefferson must face negative aspects of himself to do what is best for his son.

Earlier, I said that the original Spider-Man comics of the early 60s were not as successful in creating a multidimensional cast. I should qualify that statement. Aunt May has been around since Peter Parker’s inception, as has, of course, Uncle Ben and his part in Peter’s tragic origin. J. Jonah Jameson, Parker’s boss, also debuted early on. However, though Jameson’s anti-Spider-Man rants and antics were entertaining in the early issues, Jameson was not yet a very multifaceted character. Popular love interests Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson would not even debut until Peter Parker had been around a few years. The early 60s comics can still be enjoyed to a degree today, largely due to the strength of Parker’s rogues gallery, but I still think it is fair to acknowledge the ways in which they feel dated. Many of Parker’s best moments were yet to come, so I don’t mean to dismiss Parker altogether.

With that said, a lot of Miles’ stories contain similar themes as those of the early Peter Parker comics. Miles, like Peter, is an intelligent high schooler who nonetheless sometimes feels in over his head as he struggles with juggling his two separate identities. He cares for the people closest to him and fears for their safety should his identity ever become known by the wrong people. Part of what helped Marvel Comics regain their popularity in the 1960s was the fact that their characters were comparatively more realistic and troubled than their counterparts from other comic companies. Now, comics as a field have improved by leaps in bounds in terms of their character development, and Miles’ stories are a great example of that.

I mentioned Brian Michael Bendis, Miles’ original and current writer, earlier, and one of his strengths is dialogue. A poor fantasy writer often constructs dialogue that feels non-character specific, or like it is overladen with plot points to shove down the reader’s throat without much care for the depiction of realistic human interactions. Bendis, when at the top of his game, does the opposite. Miles’ voice reads nothing like Jefferson’s, and neither of their speech bubbles could be mistaken for those of the Prowler. Ganke is Miles’ friend and has his own personality, rather than feeling like a carbon copy of Miles himself minus the superpowers. When dialogue contains plot-centric information, it is conveyed appropriately and seems to be spoken by characters, not the word-of-god effect of a writer who can’t progress his plot adequately without spelling it out in cringe-inducing detail.

Sara Pichelli, who has illustrated Miles’ stories since the character’s inception and co-created the character, creates work that feels alive and more than does justice to Bendis’ high-quality scripts. Pichelli imbues panels containing no words with emotion through her understanding of human facial features and body language; she always draws in just the right amount of detail on a scrunched-up nose, enraged pair of eyes, or slouched shoulders to sell the emotional energy of an image. Miles’ series to date would have lacked much of their quality and effectiveness had a lesser artist been the one to draw them.

Miles’ status as a black Hispanic superhero has been commented upon in the series itself on multiple occasions. In one instance, Miles watches a video online posted by a young woman who notices Miles’ brown skin after seeing footage where Miles’ costume is damaged and partially torn up. Miles expresses frustration at how much of a big deal the woman makes her discovery out to be. His reaction hints at the inappropriateness of some fandom reactions that reduce certain characters to identifying labels, such as “the black Spider-Man” or “the female Thor.” With that said, Miles’ race is not simply brushed off as being unimportant. At one point in the series, Luke Cage (a fellow black superhero) speaks of how important their presence as black superheroes is. Bendis and Pichelli’s work successfully establishes Miles as a multidimensional and worthy Spider-Man in his own right, without ignoring or claiming color-blindness in regards to Miles’ race.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plots of Miles’ series due to fear of spoiling things. Honestly, I fear I’ve already spoiled too much. With that said, Miles is currently the star of Spider-Man (by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli), and also appears every month as a member of the teenage super-team entitled the Champions (by Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos). Both series are excellent, and I highly recommend them.

fullsizerenderEric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.