Re-Examining Spider-Man 05 — Part 2: “I Can See For Miles”

(Continued from PART 1)

This post explores the development of Ultimate Spider-Man. The context to establish the road to Ultimate Spider-Man proved quite extensive so I bifurcated it into two parts. Part 1 covered the editorial disarray of the 1990s. Part 2 explores Ultimate Spider-Man specifically in terms of its original context of publication, and seguing from there to discuss the introduction of Miles Morales and how the latter’s conception improved upon the original vision for Ultimate Spider-Man.

In 2000, Bendis commenced work on Ultimate Spider-Man with Mark Bagley. Their collaboration included 111 consecutive issues which broke the record set by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee on their run of Fantastic Four for the longest writer-artist collaboration on any Marvel title. The manner in which Ultimate Spider-Man came into being, the specific context for its creation, and the choices made in conceiving and developing that vision of a teenage Spider-Man has generally not been examined in great detail. This post seeks to untangle that web.

LATE 90s BLUES

Detail from “Revenge of the Green Goblin” (art by JRJR) featuring Peter being tortured by Green Goblin, which captures the mood of that time.

The late 1990s were generally speaking not the best time for superhero comics. It was especially so for Spider-Man. As established in Part 1, the Clone Saga’s backlash was so intense that comics sales spiraled to a steep drop.

Internally within Marvel, there was a chaotic period under EIC Bob Harras (1995-2000). Bob Harras has always had a very contentious reputation. He made his mark as editor of X-Men titles whose claim to fame was driving away Chris Claremont from the X-Men books and unceremoniously ending the longest and most successful run on a superhero comic [1]. Harras turned over X-Men, the biggest comics in the market (so big that it constituted the third largest publication had it been siloed to its own universe) to Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and others to a period of initial high sales but also to tendencies that contributed significantly to the speculator bubble. Mark Waid was proverbially vitriolic towards Harras after he was fired from EIC at Marvel:

“Apparently, the fact that Bob was fired for unfair and wrong reasons one September rather than for all the tens of hundreds of RIGHT reasons he’d racked up in the seven years PREVIOUS gave a lot of staffers a sudden change of heart. Amazing. Overnight, they forgot what a two-faced, cowardly liar Bob had been and what crap they’d all had to suffer through because of his shortcomings as a manager. Instead, everyone was lighting candles for Bob. Jesus. You want to know the truth? In my humble =koff= opinion, Bob did as much to help destroy the comic book industry during the 1990s than any other single human being alive…For years and years and years, the editorial philosophy at Marvel was to make each and every comic book as labyrinthine and confusing as creatively possible. Marvel had the single highest-profile comic book in the Western hemisphere—X-MEN—and Bob did everything imaginable to make it completely incomprehensible and inaccessible to new and/or casual readers. Everything.

Mark Waid, quoted by Claire Napier. [1]
Spidey Kicks Butt: Spider-Man 2000 ...It was the Worst of Times? - Spider  Man Crawlspace
Mary Jane’s “death” issue

As EIC, Harras also mandated decisions on Spider-Man that proved controversial and polarizing. Most notably he ordered the “death” of Mary Jane Watson, leading to a controversial issue in Howard Mackie and John Byrne’s run that saw Mary Jane apparently board a flight (a “backdoor” left in for a fakeout and tease) that exploded [2]. The decision to kill off Mary Jane was opposed by writers Howard Mackie and John Byrne, as well as Paul Jenkins [3].

[ASIDE:Harras’ later career in DC was similarly divisive although vastly more sordid, I recommend reading Claire Napier from WWAC for all the details, see link down below].

It was seen as a decision that made the character and story too demoralizing. To the extent that Spider-Man was a character and title that had ups and downs, there was never a total point of return which is what the “death” of Mary Jane was seen as. The sales likewise saw a major slump.

I would say the biggest problem is it is depressing. The tone is the complete opposite of the way a Spider-man comic is supposed to read. You can absolutely tell serious stories with Spider-man. “The Death of Jean DeWolff” is a dark tale about serial killer and the death of a supporting character and it’s one of the ten best Spider-man stories I’ve ever read .. .But this book just piles on bad news after bad news to Pete’s life while also skewering the supporting cast…MJ’s death is just the tip of the iceberg of depressing nonsense in here. Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn also resurrects and dies again in this same volume–not once but twice, which is the epitome of overkill…Also for no reason, Flash Thompson and Liz Allen have regressed to their high school personalities with both cutting Peter out of their life and bad-mouthing him at his job after his wife dies because “he’s a jinx” and “there’s too much death around him”. I actually take back that last observation because even in high school they weren’t that shallow. Then we have Peter himself, who on top of being widowed is unemployed and homeless in the course of this story. It’s one thing to do a running joke on Peter occasionally having bad luck in love or business as the series often does and another to turn in his life into a bleak wasteland.

Scott Keith. [4]
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ASM#30 Vol. 1: First Issue of JMS’ run.

The Howard Mackie run on Spider-Man continued until mid-2001. By the end it turned out Mary Jane was alive but kidnapped by a random mutant. The trauma of her kidnapping led her to leave New York and a period of separation (which was actually told in Annual 2001 and not in the main title), clearing the way for J. Michael Straczysnki to begin his legendary run from June 2001.

By the time J. Michael Straczynski began writing the title, Amazing Spider-Man for a whole year wasn’t the top-selling Spider-Man title. It was already supplanted by Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man whose first issue came out in September 2000. This was the first period on a sustained basis that the main 616 Spider-Man title was outsold by an AU title and at the outset of 2001, Ultimate Spider-Man was selling higher than ASM and while JMS would close the gap, it would take him a while to bring back the readers lost to attrition from the Clone Saga and Post-Clone Saga period, by which time Ultimate Spider-Man was establishing itself as the major title on the block.

THE MAKING OF ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN

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Ultimate Spider-Man #1 (Cover by Joe Quesada)

Ultimate Spider-Man was the first title of the Ultimate Marvel continuity. From its success came titles like Ultimate X-Men, The Ultimates, Ultimate Fantastic Four as well as a few miniseries that had smaller runs.

The mastermind for Ultimate Marvel was Bill Jemas. In a 2015 piece on Slate, by future Lee biographer Abraham Riesman, the latter received a short profile in a longer article on the genesis and influence of Ultimate Marvel:

Enter Bill Jemas. He was a relative outsider to the comics world (he’d gotten his law degree from Harvard before spending most of his career in the collectible-trading-card industry) who was put in charge of Marvel’s editorial direction in 2000. He hated what Marvel had become: a place that was “publishing stories that were all but impossible for teens to read—and unaffordable, to boot,” as he put it to me. But Jemas had an idea, born of a suggestion he says the CEO of Wizard, a comics-industry magazine, gave to him: “turn our middle-aging heroes back into teens.” In other words, he wanted to launch a reboot.

Abraham Riesman [5]

Jemas had become President of Marvel Comics (which is not the same as President of the company that owned Marvel, which at the time was Toy-Biz) and shortly thereafter he played a part in promoting the editor of the Marvel Knights imprint, Joe Quesada, as EIC. Quesada had worked as an editor for Pre-Marvel companies and had a talent for networking and it was Quesada who offered Brian Michael Bendis a chance to work at Marvel, initially for the Marvel Knights imprint [6]. Jemas became fixated on the idea of Spider-Man as a teenager and he was not in the least deterred by the failure of John Byrne’s Spider-Man: Chapter One (discussed in Part 1).

The ultimate universe was very much Bill Jemas’s baby. He had a lot of belief in it and he also tended to stock it up and give it the same kind of advantages that Heroes Reborn and had before that which is to say you could spend more money on it, you could risk thinner profit margins. Those early ultimate books, not only were they priced at 2.25, which I think was less than or the same price as the other Marvel books but they had card stock covers and they spent more on the coloring and more on… So he wanted to build a universe that would be very clean, but also a universe that would then be contemporary. It would be the 2000 version of these things. A year or two before that, John Byrne had done Spider-Man:Chapter One and Spider-Man: Chapter One was not what Bill wanted to do. Bill looked at that and went, “This is stupid. You’re telling 1962 stories in 1997. No kid is wearing a sweater vest and no kid is fumbling around with a microscope. You have to think about your audience today. You have to build these characters, keep the essence of them the way they were, but you need to make them function for an audience today.”

Tom Brevoort, [6]
David Mack Guide.com: Collaborators > Brian Michael Bendis
Bendis (circa 2000 at the San Diego Comic-Con)

Joe Quesada, then EIC of Marvel, was skeptical of Ultimate Spider-Man as a project. On hearing it he sought to distinguish it from Spider-Man: Chapter One and per Jemas, would have preferred “tell stories about new heroes, e.g., Peter Parker’s nephew” [5]. In short a variant of the already published Spider-Girl and what PAD described as the “making new hero a relative of Spider-Man” tendency. Quesada recommended Bendis to Jemas, and it was in collaboration with Jemas that Bendis wrote the opening story of Ultimate Spider-Man. For the first 7 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, Bill Jemas would be credited as co-writer.

Brian Michael Bendis also elaborated on the original pitch to him:

“It’s my understanding that Bill Jemas had concocted this theory that the initial concepts for the X-Men and Spider-Man skewed much younger than the current versions. The basic premise of Spider-Man is that he is sixteen years old and gets bitten by a spider. It’s a high school kind of drama. Spider-Man sales had fallen in recent years, and Bill thought that the reason the character wasn’t connecting to the audience any more was because he had become a divorced thirty year-old instead of a teenager with superpowers. Bill thought we should go back to the initial premise as if it had happened today….Since I hadn’t been keeping up with Spider-Man at the time, I was unaware of other attempts at relaunching the character. I went in there with the gleaming eye of ignorance.”

Brian Michael Bendis [7]

Bendis’ admission that he “hadn’t been keeping up with Spider-Man at the time” is apparent when he paraphrases from Jemas, the description of Spider-Man as a divorced thirty year old since at the time he started writing the character, Spider-Man was technically a widower and he would never be divorced in 616. Regardless, Bendis’ observations that Jemas was driven by low sales and a desire to return Spider-Man to a teenage version is consistent with what was documented in Part 1 in terms of various internal Marvel debates and previous failed attempts at making the character skew younger.

From USM#1 – Art by Mark Bagley.

With Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis was able to give expression to a new style of writing comics to a wide audience for the first time. It was characterized by the technique now called “Decompression” which is to say that Bendis, who wrote detailed scripts, would pace out issues to have several panels of dialogue and character interactions. This page from USM#01 has a simple dialogue exchange of Aunt May reminding Ultimate Peter about rules governing reading at the table, but Bendis stretches this out over time. He uses repetition of dialogue, “dead time”, panels showing reaction without dialogue. Uncle Ben for instance has only two lines of dialogue but he has large close-ups showing his reaction. The nature of this storytelling is to drive home the character bond and community, showing the Parkers as familial and loving, rather than simply telling a story and plot point. On the nature of ‘telling a story’, one can remove this page from USM#01 and it wouldn’t change anything but it establishes the rhythm and sentiment of the scene.

The stories would be about characters and their interactions more than it would be for plot and action. Decompression was common in manga and independent comics influenced by manga, but it was Bendis who mainstreamed it with Ultimate Spider-Man and it is with Bendis, for better and worse, that it’s most associated. This new style and method was described well by Ultimate Spider-Man co-creator Mark Bagley, Bendis’ collaborator:

The biggest change at first was the change of pace…slooow pace. I really did not get what Brian was doing those first 3 or 4 issues, I mean – where was Spider-Man? This was really my first experience with [decompression], and after having spent years in the business it was really a shock for me…If you’d have told me back in the early days of my career that I would get as much enjoyment out of the slow unfolding of these character driven stories that I do, I don’t think I’d have believed you. But every story arc, my favorite parts to draw are the wonderful conversations and situations the non super hero folks populating the book are involved in. When I was working on Amazing it seemed I would go months without really drawing a human face, it was all Spider-Man masks and Venom heads. I cannot tell you how satisfying it is to draw “real people”, to have them be the focus of what we do.

Mark Bagley [8]

At the outset, Ultimate Spider-Man didn’t have much in its favor to augur for its success. It had an unheralded writer working in a new experimental (or experimental-for-mainstream-superhero-comics) style. It represented the fourth attempt in the last five years to generate more content with a teenage or young Spider-Man (The Clone Saga, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Chapter One) that with the exception of Untold Tales (which at most achieved lukewarm sales and cult appeal) had spectacularly crashed and burned.

USM was the fourth roll of the dice on a concept that Marvel’s internal editorial regime believed in all opposition to free market principles, consumer resistance, reader attrition, and skepticism from comics retailers:

“Jemas was overjoyed with the issue, but retailers were skeptical. “I publicly said, ‘If Ultimate Spider-Man made it to 100 issues, I would eat a bug,’” San Francisco–based comics-shop owner Brian Hibbs told me. The first issue debuted at No. 15 on the monthly sales charts for September of 2000, selling a modest 54,407 copies. But Jemas had a wild, risky scheme: He distributed millions of copies at chain stores like Payless Shoes and Walmart. Major media outlets picked up on Jemas’s publicity push, leading to glowing reviews…That all added up to overwhelmingly positive—and widespread—word-of-mouth praise. Sales steadily rose. Finally, in December, the buzz paid off and Ultimate Marvel hit the top of the comics sales charts. But it wasn’t with Ultimate Spider-Man. The first megahit Ultimate comic was the first issue of Ultimate X-Men, which sold a staggering 117,085 copies that month.”

Abraham Riesman [5]

It’s easy (and in my opinion, deceptive) to paint the success of Ultimate Spider-Man and later Ultimate Marvel, as a plucky underdog scrappy story of “the little idea that could”. From a broader institutional perspective however, it’s evidence of the kind of disproportionate largess a company will give to some ideas over others, regardless of how consumers ‘vote with their wallet’. One wonders how many superhero stories with a non-white or female lead by other DC or Marvel could have benefited with the high level corporate backing that ‘teenage Spider-Man’ got, from conception to publication to distribution. In other instances, a comic with a low first issue sales number doesn’t have the Division President breaking the Gordion Knot of comics distribution to generate buzz in a one-time “break glass in case of emergency” scenario. The constant failures of “teenage Spider-Man” leading up to Ultimate Spider-Man, and then it’s success, illustrates the arc we now understand as “failing upwards” regardless of the merits and values of USM as a comic.

LESSONS FROM SUCCESS

Amazon.com: Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimate Collection, Vol. 2:  9780785128861: Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley: Books

The success of Ultimate Spider-Man, would in the course of the 2000s, be cited as proof that Spider-Man works best as a teenager, and that the essence and core of Spider-Man is a fifteen year old hero. It would be cited in the Brevoort Manifesto as an influence for Brand New Day. Ultimate Spider-Man, on some level or other, influenced nearly every piece of Spider-Man media over the last two decades. The MTV Spider-Man cartoons, Greg Weisman’s The Spectacular Spider-Man, the video-game adaptation Ultimate Spider-Man (which is the only one to ever feature a teenage high school Spider-Man as a protagonist and status-quo), Spider-Man PS4. Ultimate Spider-Man was also cited as a referent for The Amazing Spider-Man movies and the MCU Spider-Man.

Spidey (2015) #1

The “success story” of USM appears to have settled the argument, at least as far as Marvel Editorial is concerned, that Spider-Man works best as a teenager and should ideally never have grown up. When placed in the original context of the late-90s, the failures leading up to it, the thumbs on the scale levied in favor of USM, this “success story” was far from inevitable and in fact it’s exceptional. In comics, since Ultimate Spider-Man there have been similar teenage focused comics in Alternate Continuity: such as Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Spidey, and the endlessly delayed and rescheduled W. E. B. of Spider-Man all revolving on a high school Spider-Man that, while achieving cult favor and critical acclaim in some instances, have failed to match the impact and commercial success of Ultimate Spider-Man.

The lessons from the success of Ultimate Spider-Man perhaps rests on how it differed from its immediate predecessors:

  • Spider-Man: Chapter One, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, The Second Clone Saga all sought to subtract and exclude later developments in Spider-Man’s continuity. Chief among them was the Mary Jane romance/love story, the more interesting and varied supporting cast and villains that developed over time.

  • Ultimate Spider-Man reimagined the teenage Spider-Man by consolidating within it elements that come from later periods. So Ultimate Mary Jane is Peter’s best friend and fellow school classmate who is developing a crush on him. Harry Osborn is also a classmate at Peter’s high school. John Byrne sought to recreate and revisit the high school era of Steve Ditko in fairly literal terms . Whereas Bendis openly admitted to drawing from different eras of Spider-Man and consolidating that in the teenage status-quo, favoring the Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. run in college in particular [9].

  • Branding, marketing and timing favored Ultimate Spider-Man. The comics were published with glossy stylized covers and the word “ultimate” espoused 90s futurism. They were also published in the year 2000 capturing the zeitgeist of the early millennium and a perception that they are modern and up-to-date comics for the 21st Century. This gave it an edge over Spider-Man 2099 (published in 1992, much too early) and Spider-Man: Chapter One (published in 1998, much too late for a series transplanting ’60s stories with 90s coating).

The fact that Ultimate Spider-Man succeeded in selling more copies than Amazing Spider-Man is a considerable achievement but is it really that much of a flex to sell more copies than Howard Mackie’s Amazing Spider-Man? Between a low-selling depressing run on the title deprived of the more charismatic figures and characters, and Ultimate Spider-Man which had all those charismatic elements, is it really a wonder that audiences favored USM over ASM? The true comparison would have been whether it would have sold well against Michelinie’s Amazing run of the early 90s, which is what Spider-Man 2099 had to contend with at its outset in 1992.

Image 1 - Ultimate Spider-Man #13 VF/NM; Marvel | save on shipping - details inside
Ultimate Spider-Man#13

Unlike John Byrne and Kurt Busiek who tried to respect and stretch out the original in-continuity high school status-quo that by design was threadbare and never intended to predominate over the Daily Bugle, Bendis reimagined high school by borrowing elements from across the Spider-Man continuity. He superimposed the college era on to the high school era as he readily admitted. In Issue #13, Bendis has Peter confess his identity to Mary Jane.

So Ultimate Peter and Ultimate Mary Jane start as close teenage friends turned confidants who get into a relationship, superimposing developments from the Defalco-Michelinie era on to the high school setting. In effect, the teenage relationship of Ultimate Peter and Ultimate Mary Jane is a YA reverse echo of their adult marriage selves from 616 much like The Flintstone Kids transplanted Fred and Wilma into child versions of their adult married selves.

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Ultimate Spider-Man #68, where Liz Allan describes Mary Jane as “Mary Jane Watson-Parker”

Between reading a Spider-Man/Peter in 616, who at that time was mourning his “dead” wife and a comic where Peter and MJ are young, but friendly and affectionate and attracted to each other, it’s not exactly a win over the married Spider-Man if the teenage Spider-Man featured the qualities that the married status-quo once had. And if Ultimate Spider-Man had to borrow elements from later periods of Spider-Man’s growth to make a case for “teenage” Spider-Man that speaks to the inherent weaknesses of “teenage Spider-Man” as a concept and not its strength.

ULTIMATE FANTASY

The stated mission of Ultimate Spider-Man by Bill Jemas was to reimagine Spider-Man as if he was a contemporary and starting out in 2000. The idea was to situate Spider-Man as a realistic teenager with contemporary archetypes.

“A young ostracized smart kid isn’t going to be the picked on nerd like the Peter Parker of 1962, he’s going to be much more an emo kid like this because if you look at the pop culture of the time, this is much more where the zeitgeist is. So Bill’s approach and all that stuff was kind of let’s do that and he really believed in that very strongly. He associated with it very strongly.”

Tom Brevoort [6]

The final conception of Ultimate Spider-Man is still “picked on nerd” and certainly not “emo kid” however (for that the world had to wait for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3).

This raises an interesting question however: how realistic is Ultimate Spider-Man as a representation of teenage life? I mentioned previously in Teenage Origins & Cultural History that Ditko and Lee drew from their memories growing up during the Great Depression and the Second World War for their portrayal of adolescence in the early 1960s. Steve Ditko modeled Peter’s high school in Midtown, as established in the above post, on his high school in Philadelphia but replanted to New York City. In the case of Bendis, he was born in Cleveland Ohio (much like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as he has proudly remarked) and he has subsequently settled in Portland, Oregon. Bendis admitted that he drew on his experiences from high school but also from the experiences of his wife as a high school teacher, both of which was located in Cleveland and not New York City [10].

  • As such, Ultimate Spider-Man is much like Amazing Fantasy #15 in being a composite view of high school life rather than an accurate “contemporary” representation, a transplant of a Cleveland adolescence to Queens, New York City.

From Ultimate Spider-Man #65
  • The portrayal of teenage life in Ultimate Spider-Man is certainly plausible and has a basic verisimilitude but it’s still mostly the teenage life of late 90s high school movies and teen dramas. The characters are very much TV-pretty and also, it must be said, very white.

ASM#68 (Art by John Romita Sr.)
  • In fact Bendis’ USM is far more white than the 1960s Spider-Man, since Joe Robertson’s son Randy who was a prominent part of the Lee-Romita college era that Bendis adores, lacks an Ultimate Spider-Man counterpart. Ironically the 2008 cartoon, The Spectacular Spider-Man did far more to diversify the Spider-Man cast (such as a Hispanic Liz Allan, an Asian-American Ned Leeds) than Bendis did. The character of Kenny “Kong” McFarlane, Bendis’ one new addition to the Spider-Man cast, was originally white in USM but made Samoan American in Weisman’s show.

  • The decision to never age Peter out of high school means paradoxically that the character is shackled to a single setting and is never in danger of expulsion or needing to go to a lower rent school or having him and his Aunt chased out of New York City. In short we have a Spider-Man shackled to a more static status-quo than ever existed during the marriage, far more of a safety net, and less room to generate adventures.

  • Among the many trade-offs with a Spider-Man who never ages centered entirely on high school is the diminution of J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle. He plays a much more marginal role in Ultimate Marvel than he did in the Lee-Ditko era. Spider-Man works at the Bugle as a web designer and IT guy instead of taking pictures of Spider-Man but that also puts him on a lower rung on the hierarchy away from his personal bond with Jameson conveyed in the Lee-Ditko era.

  • Likewise, while Bendis is able to plausibly reinterpret characters into high school teenagers who in fact appeared when Peter aged up and went to college (Mary Jane, Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn), certain characters such as Black Cat/Felicia Hardy simply don’t make sense as teenagers and Bendis doesn’t bother reinterpreting her or explore the Spider-Man/Black Cat romance aside from a darkly comic gag.
Ultimate Spider-Man#85 – Ultimate Felicia has a physical reaction to realizing she kissed a teenage boy several years younger.

Ultimate Spider-Man is a well-written and well-executed comic. Bendis’ distinct style of decompression, of extending scenes and moments makes it a perfect fit for a character based teen drama in an endless static status-quo. The characters are never going to age and Bendis doesn’t draw false suspense or raises fuss about grades, papers, assignments, careers, and quizzes. It’s an extended perpetual present and it’s never clear to which year in high school Ultimate Peter belongs. Someday I expect to revisit my favorite stories/issues/moments from Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man run if only to balance the critical focus and lens I submit his title to in this piece.

In either case, to me, Ultimate Spider-Man before Miles Morales for all its charms is mainly a consolidated digest of the mainline 616 comics and not at all what many perceived at the outset, i.e. Spider-Man as a realistic believable teenager.

At some point, the creators and executives behind Marvel also came to this realization. The Ultimate Marvel continuity as a whole was wearing out its welcome by the mid-2000s and a bizarre comic event Ultimatum achieved infamy for new depths of metaphorical and literal poor taste (the major example of a mainstream superhero comic to feature on-page on-panel cannibalism). The Post-Ultimatum period of Ultimate Spider-Man before the onset of Miles Morales is a little underrated but it also ties far too much to the wider Ultimate Marvel continuity rather than stay self-contained as the majority of the comics had generally been for most of the original 111 issue Bendis-Bagley run.

THE MAKING OF MILES MORALES

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Miles Morales made his debut in Ultimate Comics: Fallout #4 (August 2011) which is an Ultimate Marvel miniseries following the story arc “Death of Spider-Man” (which in due course was revealed to have merely decommissioned him). After that, the comics relaunched as Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man. Created by Bendis and Sara Pichelli, Miles Morales is part African-American and part Puerto Rican.

On his debut in 2011, Miles Morales caused a sensation and got discussed and covered on major news networks like CNN [11]. That puts Miles Morales in a small club of major comics events that becomes newsworthy (including the Spider-Marriage, Peter’s identity unmasking in Civil War, The Death of Superman etc). It also received the most sacred validation i.e. offending the right people, in this case right wing pundit Glenn Beck who saw Miles Morales as the work of the influence of “Michelle Obama” and also making aspersions of the character being homosexual [12].

The ideas behind Miles Morales was first traded in the lead-up to the election of Barack Obama in 2007-2008, where Obama appeared first as a major Democratic party candidate, and then main contender with Hillary Clinton (at the outset the odds-on favorite) before winning the nomination.

“My first memory of a conversation where we considered an African-American Spider-Man came several months before Obama was elected when we realized that we might be looking at a, the first African-American president in American history. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the story at that time. But more recently, when we were sculpting the story that became the death of Spider-Man, we realized we had an opportunity to redefine Spider-Man for the 21st century.”

Axel Alonso, [13]

Alonso’s comments about wanting to “redefine Spider-Man for the 21st century” is interesting since wasn’t Ultimate Spider-Man from 2000-2008 already doing that? It counts as an unintentional slip, an admission that Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man with its all-white high school supporting cast wasn’t in fact a true update and realistic representation of 21st Century teenage life.

Community' Easter Egg: Donald Glover for 'Spider-Man' Role in Reboot – The  Hollywood Reporter
Donald Glover in Community

In addition to this, there was Donald Glover/Childish Gambino who at the time was known for his appearance on Community. In one episode, Glover’s character wore a Spider-Man costume as an expression of Glover’s real life love for Spider-Man. When Sony announced recasting and rebooting The Amazing Spider-Man, Donald Glover and fans campaigned for him to play Peter Parker and for the new Spider-Man film to break boundaries of representation of popular franchise characters.

Glover’s campaign to play Peter Parker garnered news and also racist backlash [14]. It also garnered the overt support of Stan Lee and Brian Michael Bendis [15]. Ultimately the role was given to Andrew Garfield but Glover’s campaign to play Spider-Man declared an interest on the part of people to see Spider-Man as an African-American. Glover would in fact voice Miles Morales in his animated debut in the otherwise unrelated-to-the-comics Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon series and he would play Aaron Davis in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Spider-Rama: Amazing Spider-Man #87
ASM#87 – Art by John Romita Sr. Hobie Brown/Prowler the first non-Peter to wear the Spider-Man outfit

Spider-Man has historically always been popular with African-American audiences, and this led to the Lee-Romita era introducing African-American characters including Joe “Robbie” Robertson (the fourth biggest character in the Spider-Man supporting cast after Mary Jane, Jonah, May Parker), his son Randy Robertson (who is a no-show in Bendis’ Ultimate titles), and likewise the character Hobie Brown/The Prowler. The Prowler made his appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #87 (one of the greatest single issues in the entire Lee-Romita era), and in that issue, Peter temporarily needs someone to put on the Spider-Man costume and he asks Hobie Brown to do it, and that means the first time in 616 publication history to feature a character other than Peter Parker to wear the Spider-Man costume was an African-American character.

This history is paid tribute with the fact that Hobie Brown/Prowler in the Ultimate Universe is subdivided into Aaron Davis/The Prowler (originally a villain), Jeff Davis (Miles’ Dad) who is a reformed criminal much like Brown, while Miles gets to wear the Spider-Man suit as Brown briefly did. There’s also the hidden tribute to African-American culture. Miles’ father has the last name Davis but upon marriage to Rio Morales, adopted her family name and passed it on to his son. Had Miles kept his father’s name, his name would be Miles Davis, legend of Jazz, master of cool.

Bendis acknowledged this history and influence when describing the genesis of Ultimate Spider-Man:

From head to toe, Spider-Man could be anybody, so many people fantasize that they could be him. Recently a good friend of mine who is African American, turned to me when I was nervous about the announcement of the new Spider-Man and said, “When I was a kid, they wouldn’t let me be Superman or Batman but they would let me be Spider-Man.”

Brian Michael Bendis [16]

Bendis statement, “from head to toe, Spider-Man could be anybody” anticipates the tagline and ethos of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, “anyone can wear the mask”.

21ST CENTURY TEENAGE BLUES

Comic Book Wednesday: Ultimate Spider-Man "Who is Miles Morales" - VAVEL  Media USA
Ultimate Comics: All New Spider-Man #1 (Art by Sara Pichelli)

In 2021, Miles Morales’ fame and renown has vastly exceeded the original run of Ultimate Spider-Man leading up to it. This despite coming 11 years in the life-cycle of Ultimate Marvel. One of the reasons I will argue is that Miles Morales fulfilled the original mission statement of Ultimate Spider-Man as a teenager in the contemporary world far more than the Ultimate Peter Parker with his all-white cast and vaguely defined high school background (semi-Cleveland transplanted to Queens while riffing on the Lee-Ditko-Romita High School College era that similarly lacked any reality) ever did.

Ultimate Spider-Man Education Reform | The Mary Sue
Ultimate Comics: All New Spider-Man #1 (Art by Sara Pichelli)

For one thing, Bendis did try to situate Miles within the context of New York City’s notoriously segregated school districts. This research was selective and initially provoked controversy. In the opening story arc of Ultimate Spider-Man, he showed Miles entering a prestigious school on the basis of a lottery in a manner intended to echo charter school access [17]. Bendis cited as a referent, a controversial documentary called Waiting for Superman (2010) that was criticized for its inaccuracies and demonization of public school teacher’s unions [18]. This citation raised eyebrows from some commentators in the lead-up to the publication of the first Miles Morales run of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man:

“Marvel also recently made mainstream news with the unveiling of a new Spider-Man. Miles Morales, a half-African American, half-Latino teenager, will replace Peter Parker in a world in which the original Spidey has met a tragic end. Comics culture has an unfortunate habit of making the rest of American popular entertainment seem forward-thinking when it comes to gender, race and sexuality, so putting a non-white character into such a prominent role is to be lauded…So it was with some dismay that any left-leaning comic book readers who read an interview with Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada will have seen this words:

​“Now while I don’t want to give too much away, over the years I’ve been really intrigued by the revolutionary work being done by educator Geoffrey Canada, and as we looked deeper into Miles’ character, I suggested to Brian [Michael Bendis, Ultimate Spider-Man writer] that he watch the documentary, ​’Waiting For Superman’ (ironic, I know!). Brian loved it, and the wheels started turning.”

It’s a shame that the irony Quesada refers to here is only the fact that Superman is a character owned by a rival company. There’s also an irony here in that Peter Parker was himself a struggling science teacher. And, as such, he’s exactly the kind of person vilified by the steadfastedly anti-union Geoffrey Canada, by Waiting For Superman and by the so-called education reformers for whom the movie is a touchstone.

[…]Elana Levin, co-host of the comics and politics podcast Graphic Policy, says: ​“Teachers unions are like the X‑Men. They are not the Sinister Six. I am really glad that Marvel is looking at social issues in their comics that’s been their legacy but I hope they do some real reading into the real issues at hand (I could send them a reading list…) before buying the anti-teacher line that corporate interests who are trying to privatize education are selling.

Joe Macaré [19]

Right away we see the problem of trying to make a superhero adventure comic “too real” because in the real world the references and sources in the mainstream are often the loudest and not the most accurate. Of course, if one wants to reach for low-hanging fruit, we can also say that it reveals the pitfalls of blindly following Joe Quesada’s advice and references.

Ultimate Comics: All New Spider-Man #1 (Art by Sara Pichelli)
Ultimate Comics: All New Spider-Man #1 (Art by Sara Pichelli)

So an anti-union documentary propagating the value of “charter schools” (which does have legitimate benefits, as even critics of the documentary admit, and is supported by figures on both the left and the right) over public funding of education, ends up becoming a potential influence and source of compromise of the progressive mission of Miles Morales as a character. The controversy about the union-vs-charter school debate was enough that Bendis himself addressed it and insisted that he was not against teacher’s unions [20]. The final comic represented Miles’ admission into the school in a way that fudged the details of whether it was a charter school or a private school since charter schools do not charge tuition but Aaron Davis asks Miles how his father would pay for the school in question[20]. Such weird changes feels like Bendis covering himself at the last moment.

MILES MORALES: THE FIRST TEENAGE SPIDER-MAN

Spider-Man (2016) #4, Art by Sara Pichelli, Words by Bendis

Regardless, the fact is that for Miles to even be a high school teenage superhero in the 21st Century, one had to address real-world issues of segregated education, redlining, and systemic racism even if in the most general and indirect background. That meant that Miles had to be conceived and rooted in contemporary reality to a greater extent than Peter Parker in either 616 or Ultimate Marvel ever was. Peter Parker as established previously was never based on any realistic conception of being a teenager in the late 50s and early 60s. He was conceived on universal lines to reflect a broad overview of experiences. Ultimate Spider-Man fundamentally was cobbled together from multiple failed initiatives to create a successful version of teenage Spider-Man, plucking elements from multiple phases of Spider-Man’s continuity to create a composite, so it has a high school Spider-Man with the college-era cast, and an intense high school romance that draws from the long continuity history of a married couple for its emotional resonance.

Miles Morales on his appearance and debut was rooted in contemporary New York City culture to a greater extent than either 616 Peter and Ultimate Peter ever were. In 1998, Noble Laureate Toni Morrison described, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that Bill Clinton from a certain point of view was “the first black President” based on how he was treated by the media as ‘already guilty’ based on the vaguest of charges [21]. That epithet has come to be seen as 90s cringe, at least when it’s deployed without the intended irony (usually by Clinton supporters). But I would argue that one can hijack this statement without irony and apply it to Miles.

Miles Morales is in fact the first teenage Spider-Man, not Peter Parker.

ASM#30 Vol. 2 (Art by JRJR)

The first Spider-Man conceived to reflect a believable teenage experience in a changing reality where white male masculinity is no longer the default assumption for a universal experience. Miles reflects youth, aspirations, expectations and desires in the 21st Century in a way that Peter can’t do in quite the same way, at least when posed and presented as a teenage superhero. As noted by Joe Macaré above, the last time Peter Parker resonated with real-life New York City was his time as a science teacher in J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Amazing Spider-Man in the early 2000s.

INVERTING THE DISCOURSE ON LEGACY HEROES

The success of Miles as a representation of realistic teenage superhero is such that when the MCU chose to represent Tom Holland’s version of Peter in high school, they took more than a few cues from Bendis’ Ultimate run with Miles which actually incorporated the 21st Century to a greater degree than his original Ultimate Run ever did[22]. Chief among these borrowings is the character Ganke, Miles’ best friend who in Spider-Man: Homecoming is converted into an in-name-only version called Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) who in no previous version (Ditko, Bendis) was ever a high school student or friend of Peter Parker [23]. Brian Michael Bendis also reacted to the similarities of the casting and acknowledged his misgivings about not being informed of the borrowing of his concepts for this adaptation since Ganke, “wasn’t part of Peter’s story — he was part of Miles’ story” [24].

The narrative of the ‘legacy hero’ is that they are a remaking or reskins of the original archetype of the superhero. A careful look though reveals that in a lot of cases legacy heroes have added and contributed new elements to the franchise that in time tend to be appropriated by the original hero, in a manner not unlike the vampire sucking the blood of the young to extend its lifetime. A good example is The Flash. Originally Barry Allen was the Silver Age Flash but low sales and declining prestige led to his death being mandated in Crisis on Infinite Earths. A new Flash for the new era, Wally West, was introduced and thanks to a landmark run by Mark Waid, he became “The” Flash for a new generation until the late-2000s when Barry Allen was restored. In the process of Barry Allen being restored as The Flash, he ended up appropriating many aspects of the personality and world building first generated around Wally such as “The Speed Force” and a more jokey and youthful demeanor [25].

The word “legacy” suggests that something has been passed along or carried forward. But in fact in comics it’s the legacies who add back and prop up the main Intellectual Property, and most of the time are used, discarded and tossed aside.

CONCLUSION

In the case of Spider-Man, many elements introduced and innovated via legacy heroes, in alternate continuities, are appropriated by the main franchise without credit or acknowledgement all to cultivate a certain narrative of Peter Parker as an universal teenage superhero.

  • Alchemax which was incorporated into the 616 continuity originated in Spider-Man 2099, and the costume of Spider-Man 2099 often featured as an Alternate skin in many video games with Peter Parker as the protagonist.

  • Spider-Girl was intended to be contemporary and set in the 90s but by 2000 she had to compete against an AU version of her father who was now rebooted to be the same generation as her.

Miles Morales’ greater success and renown as a legacy superhero has, so far, insulated him from the same fate and his success after Spider-Man:Into the Spider-Verse poses a major problem for the company in continuing to present Peter Parker as a young teenage hero since he’s effectively competing with Miles. Peter continuing as the young Spider-Man of the 21st Century necessarily involves him appropriating from Miles. The alternative to this is of course to age up Spider-Man and portray him as a grown-up superhero. That was the approach in ITSV with its two versions of Peter Parker both significantly older than Miles.

“Teenage Spider-Man” was in reality a deeply flawed and circuitous and ambiguous corporate astroturfing policy. It was always a very limited and narrow approach to a character who was intended to be greater than that and to the extent the concept had success with Ultimate Spider-Man, it also faced greater limits in the direction of story and characterization. With Miles, they succeeded in a way that overwrote their original purpose and proved, unintentionally, that Peter Parker isn’t in fact an universal teenage archetype.

REFERENCES

  1. “Bob Harras: An Oral History in Collage Comics”. Claire Napier. Women Write About Comics. February 12, 2021
    https://womenwriteaboutcomics.com/2021/02/bob-harras-an-oral-history-in-collage/

  2. “Why Did it Have to be You, Mary Jane? Part 2: Tragedy and Rebound” by JR May 06 2020 Spider-man Crawlspace
    https://www.spidermancrawlspace.com/2020/05/why-did-it-have-to-be-you-mary-jane-part-2-tragedy-and-rebound/

  3. Paul Jenkins. The Spider-Man Crawl Space Interview.
    https://www.spidermancrawlspace.com/interviews/jenkins.htm

  4. “Waiting for the Trade – Spider-man”. August 3, 2015 by Scott Keith. Scott’s Blog of Doom.
    https://blogofdoom.com/index.php/2015/08/03/waiting-for-the-trade-spider-man/

  5. Abraham Riesman. “The Secret History of Ultimate Marvel, the Experiment That Changed Superheroes Forever”. Slate. May 26, 2015. 2:57 PM.
    https://slate.com/culture/2015/05/the-secret-history-of-ultimate-marvel-the-experiment-that-changed-superheroes-forever.html

  6. Tom Brevoort, VP of Marvel Interview by Alex Grand & Jim Thompson Created: August 31, 2020. Comic Book Historians.
    https://comicbookhistorians.com/tom-brevoort-vp-of-marvel-interview-by-alex-grand-jim-thompson/

  7. “Interview with Brian Michael Bendis”. Comics-Creators on Spider-Man edited byTom Defalco (editor and interviewer). Titan Books. 2004. Print. Page 231.

  8. Alex Segura Jr. “An Ultimate Fifth: Mark Bagley Talks Ultimate Spider-Man”. Newsarama. Recovered from The Internet Wayback Machine.
    https://web.archive.org/web/20071011162216/http://newsarama.com/NYCC/Marvel/Ultimate/report.html

  9. “Interview with Brian Michael Bendis”. Comics-Creators on Spider-Man edited byTom Defalco (editor and interviewer). Titan Books. 2004. Print. Page 241.

  10. “Interview with Brian Michael Bendis”. Comics-Creators on Spider-Man edited byTom Defalco (editor and interviewer). Titan Books. 2004. Print. Page 235-236.

  11. “Behind Spider-Man’s mask — a new, multi-racial face” By Chris Boyette, CNN August 4, 2011 1:44 p.m. EDT
    http://www.cnn.com/2011/SHOWBIZ/08/03/new.spider.man/index.html

  12. ComicsAlliance. Laura Hudson. Aug 4,2011
    https://comicsalliance.com/drudge-report-thinks-new-spider-man-could-be-gay-glenn-beck-a/

  13. “Biracial Identity For America’s Web-Slinging Hero” by NPR Staff. WBUR. August 11, 2011.
    https://www.wbur.org/npr/139536090/biracial-identity-for-americas-web-slinging-hero

  14. “Why Can’t Spider-Man Be Black?” Sha’Linda Jeanine Sha’Linda Jeanine
    https://foxync.com/2496162/why-cant-spider-man-be-black-video/

  15. “TWITTER REPORT: Donald Glover For ‘Spider-Man,’ Stan Lee In ‘Eureka’ And Specialized iPad Uses Brian Warmoth 06/01/2010”
    http://www.mtv.com/news/2596791/twitter-report-donald-glover-for-spider-man-stan-lee-in-eureka-and-specialized-ipad-uses/

  16. “Multiracial Spider-Man creator finds critics comical”. The Grio. Aug 6, 2011
    https://thegrio.com/2011/08/06/man-behind-mixed-race-spider-man/

  17. “Bendis Has Miles To Go with ultimate comics Spider-Man”. CBR. By Dave Richards Published Aug 16, 2011
    https://www.cbr.com/bendis-has-miles-to-go-with-ultimate-comics-spider-man/

  18. Rick Ayers. “An Inconvenient Superman: Davis Guggenheim’s New Film Hijacks School Reform”. HuffPost. 09/17/2010 12:04pm EDT | Updated May 25, 2011
    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/an-inconvenient-superman-_b_716420

  19. Joe Macaré “Will The New Spider-Man Smash Teachers Unions?” In These Times. August 12, 2011
    https://inthesetimes.com/article/will-the-new-spider-man-smash-teachers-unions

  20. Brett. “Marvel and Bendis Want to Talk Charter Schools But Can’t Get Their Facts Straight”. Graphic Policy. September 19, 2011.
    https://graphicpolicy.com/2011/09/19/marvel-and-bendis-want-to-talk-charter-schools-but-cant-get-their-facts-straight/

  21. Andrea Sachs. “10 Questions for Toni Morrison” Wednesday, May. 07, 2008. TIME Magazine.
    https://web.archive.org/web/20080509001557/http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1738303,00.html

  22. Armaan Babu. “What Miles Morales Gave to Spider-Man: Homecoming”. Absolute Geeks.
    https://www.absolutegeeks.com/article/comics/spider-man-homecoming-miles-morales-tom-holland/

  23. “Spider-Man Homecoming Basically Stole From Miles Morales”. Dec 18 2016. The Meanderings of a Clinically Depressed Black Guy.
    https://ubernegro.tumblr.com/post/154645655320/spider-man-homecoming-basically-stole-from-miles

  24. “Bendis on Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Ganke/Ned Debate”. By Liam Nolan Published Apr 06, 2017. CBR.
    https://www.cbr.com/bendis-on-spider-man-homecomings-gankened-debate/

  25. “Justice League Infinity Proves Barry Allen Stole Wally West’s Personality” Screenrant. Joshua Isaak. July 10, 2021.
    https://screenrant.com/flash-barry-allen-wally-west-personality-dc-comics/

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Re-Examining Spider-Man 05 — Part 2: “I Can See For Miles”

  1. I think its pretty arbitrary to consider either the failure of Chapter One or the success of USM the exception-and when people argue for younger they generally do indeed also mean more contemporary so UT and Chapter One not really that related to the idea.

    I don’t think either high school or older Peter is necessarily better or worse (although allowing some aging is better than just always unmovable status quo) but it is a shame that UT wasn’t more financially successful, it is an interesting concept (as is Ultimate) to have an alternate version who does stay and continue in an era. It’s also too bad that Spider-Man 2099 has been and still is pretty overlooked. It is interesting that it seems there wasn’t that much attachment to Ultimate Peter, there wasn’t more of a backlash to Bendis feeling that he had to be killed for there to be and only be Miles Spider-Man.

    I do think early Spider-Man was unique, and a unique teenage hero, for the ‘60s in that he was a teenage hero starting out and yet not at all a kid sidekick or even a protégé to another hero.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well the fact is Joe Quesada himself connected Chapter One’s failure to USM and Bill Jemas also saw Chapter One in the context of USM. The fact is Chapter One was in publisher’s minds going into Ultimate Spider-Man, that makes it the opposite of arbitrary. Untold Tales might not connect towards it the same way but it’s part of a lineage.

      Spider-Man being unique for being a teenage superhero who wasn’t a sidekick or protege is interesting but that only makes it more likely for him to grow past his teenage beginnings, and certainly adaptations that focus on Peter as a teenager (USM comics, MCU) do emphasize him as a subordinate figure to established heroes (SHIELD and Fury in the comics, Stark in the MCU) so they do subtract from the concept.

      Like

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