On the New Ultimate Spider-Man

So there is a new Ultimate Spider-Man. I’m sure that you’ve seen the photo, but in case you haven’t, look at the top of the page here.

Also, continue to read the interview, because that’s what I’m going to talk about in this post.

You see, there was some serious backlash to the creation of a non-white Spider-Man. The new character is apparently both a black guy and a latino guy, which is to say that he is in both of those spaces, as well as one outside of those. The backlash was pretty harsh, with comments on the USA Today website blaming the character change on Marvel being too “PC,” citing “reverse racism,” and generally just lots of people being hateful fuckers. Glenn Beck even blamed Michelle Obama, somehow, and claimed that the new character looks like Obama. Maybe he does if you think that all black people look the same, but he just looks like a biracial thirteen year old to me, which is precisely what he is. I’m glad I’m in the target market.

In any case, I’ve avoided talking about this before the creators of the comic had a chance to speak, and thankfully we now have an interview with Brian Michael Bendis up at Newsarama.

I think there are some choice things being said in the interview, the first of which is that this has been in the works for a long time. I think that’s good, and I also think that it’s good that this isn’t a flash-in-the-pan change in the Ultimate Universe. From the interview (I understand this could change at any moment; comics, everybody), it seems like they are committed to this change at least into the next year, and I think that’s amazing. I think it’s great that we can have a minority character in a bestselling comic that is going to stay bestselling written by a name-branded creator. I’m also really happy that it isn’t a giant black man who has to take “justice to the streets,” as is the historical status quo when it comes to comics.

But there’s still a little weird bit in my mind when I read that interview, and it comes when I read this section:

When it comes to quote-unquote “minorities” — and I really mean “quote-unquote” minorities, because sometimes I don’t think there is such a thing anymore — everybody’s experience in life is so different. And Miles’ will be different, and it will be informed by who he is, and where he came from, but it’s not going to be the universal experience of all African-American or Latino culture. There’s a very specific road that this kid’s on, and I’m excited to explore it.

But I must say, as an example, I see a lot of female readers in comics who basically want to see their experience as a woman portrayed in fiction, and if they don’t see it, they don’t think it’s real, or authentic. Whereas I have not met two women in the world who have had the same experience in the universe. Same thing with everybody.

I have so many female readers who identify with such different things in the writing, and then when I see someone stand up and say that they speak for all female readers, I’m like, “No, you don’t. I’ve got female readers of all walks of life, who all want different things.”

From the author’s standpoint, I don’t agree with that at all. Not everybody wants the same thing. Not any one culture or sexuality wants the same thing out of their comic books. I know that can be distressing for some, but that’s what’s cool, and that’s why there are so many different comic books.

Let me list out the things I find weird here.

1. I don’t know what he means by “minorities.” The belief that there are not people who are in the minority, and therefore have less of a say in the way that culture, politics, and society moves forward is a fundamental truth. Minorities, in fact, do exist.

2. I think the example of women readers is interesting, but it ultimately a political response. Yes, there are women who think that their experiences are not included in comics, and for the most part, they are completely correct. Lots of women’s experiences are not included in comics. Bendis makes a good point, and a point he has probably burned into his head at this point, since he works in comics: you can’t please everyone. And he’s right, of course.

But I think that’s used to an alarming degree to push off criticism. I read a fair number of blogs of women who talk about comics, and most of them are concerned with the political economy of comics, mostly with how many women in comics are able to tell comic stories about women. There are not very many, and I am concerned as well. I think that if there are stories about you, that generalize and essentialize you, that you should be able to have an equal part in crafting those stories.

The comics industry, in response to that kind of thinking, generally deploys age-old sexist arguments: if the stories were good enough, they would be the ones writing the stories, with “they” being any group that complains that they are under- or mis-represented in comics.

That kind of thinking presupposes some kind of equal playing field, and that level field doesn’t exist. As long as people in the comics field don’t see a reason to change, to tell different stories, the change how they represent people, they won’t.

That brings me to the second part of the interview that I think is problematic:

It seems that the USA Today comments section was rife with crazy people. I didn’t know they had comments, someone had to show it to me: “Wow, that’s something.” The word PC keeps popping up. I don’t get it, honestly. I guess because I live in Portland, and I live in a Utopian society where no one gives a sh*t about anyone’s skin color, or sexual orientation, every time I face it I go, “Really? What? What’s the problem?”

This is precisely how sexism, racism, and every other “-ism” that exists continues to exist. The unwillingness to see those things, or insulating yourself from them, means that you live in a world decontextualized from them. You slowly begin to lose sight of things-as-they-are and begin to see things-as-you-think. Living in Portland is not an excuse to say, “Oh, there are racists? Oh my!” and I think it’s pretty insulting to people who experience racism in the day to day to say or think that.

In any case, the whole thing rubs me the wrong way. Bendis is a white man with white man problems, and from that interview he doesn’t seem to take the time of day to consider other people and how they go through life. His real defense of his work, apart from the quotes above, is his writing that he has done on other books. I’ve read some of them, and I can tell you, I don’t think Bendis is any better at writing women than anyone else in comics. Powers has a main female character who is overly emotional and drawn to the male lead for no reason other than the fact that it “makes sense” from a story perspective. Scarlet, though I only read the first couple issues, is about a woman who takes revenge on the police force for killing her boyfriend. Both of those women are white, by the way.

So all of these characters are just women with stories and experiences of their own, I guess. I wish I could roll my eyes in text.

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2 Responses to On the New Ultimate Spider-Man

  1. I wound up looking at Portland’s racial breakdown when I was writing a paper on mass transit’s racial aspects last semester (which in Atlanta is an Issue). Portland has great mass transit, but some sprawl problems like Atlanta. Portland also has a literally 2% African-American population, if I recall correctly (and fairly low percentages of other non-white ethnic groups). You get the luxury of pretending your town is post-racial if, like Scandinavians or anyone else in that position, there are no non-white people where you live. Just because you don’t notice that there’s a problem (even in Portland) doesn’t mean it’s not there.

    • kunzelman says:

      Exactly.

      From what I have read, Bendis has a “multiethnic family,” though I’m not sure what that means, and he is writing this character in order to reflect the social situation of minorities. That said, isn’t that just the perfect storm of terrible? A white man living in Portland who reads comics and has a “multiethnic” family which gives him the “material” he needs to write about that situation. Wonderful.

      I think it would be even better to hire a person of color to write a comic book based around a character of color. I think that’s a really awesome, game-changing event–changing Spider-Man is nothing compared to that.

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