So I finished The Ecstasy of Influence the other day. I enjoyed the section on comics and film the most, by far, and so I wanted to talk a little about why Lethem is an important figure for me as far as comics criticism goes.
Really, I just want to talk about his essay “Izations,” which is about comics being developed into films. You can read it here.
I’m gonna head off with a quote:
But spontaneous applause by an auditorium full of children is not a thing to be cynical about – especially, I must risk saying, when that audience is eighty percent inner-city blacks, as this one was. That they knew that Spider-man was for them – the film was free of black faces – probably speaks to many things. At least one of these is a key element of Spider-man’s myth: no matter how blandly central and popular this character becomes, and no matter how whitewashed of ethnicity the name “Parker” has always been, Parker-Spider-Man is always an ‘other’. Spider-man’s official creator (more on authorship controversies below) Stan Lee (typically, for his generation of showmen, a de-Judaicized ‘Stanley Lieber’) has boasted “Spider-man’s costume covers every inch of his body…any reader, of any race, in any part of the world, can imagine himself under that costume.” But, quite satisfyingly, Parker doesn’t don that costume until after sixty-five minutes of the film’s running time (my own informal measure, by wristwatch). His white skin is thoroughly on view. No, it’s the pre-existing backdrop of Superman and Batman’s deep whiteness which establishes Spider-man’s metaphoric blackness. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne live in palaces of privilege and operate from fantasy cities, Gotham and Metropolis, while working-class Spider-man is a bridge-and-tunnel person, from Queens, in the real New York. Spider-man’s good intentions get misrepresented in the media, and he gnaws over this injustice, wondering why he ought to help anyone when he’s never been given a hand up himself. Spider-Man is always short of a buck, Spider-Man don’t get no respect, etcetera.
This line of thought is interesting, and at the same time, really sad. What Lethem is suggesting is that the shit-upon nature, and that is really the best language I can come up with, of Spider-Man makes him particularly close to something like a black experience. I can get behind that, in a way. There is something horrifyingly parallel between blackness and Peter Parker. Parker will eternally work for a man who hates the “real” Parker (Spider-Man); J. Jonah Jameson even directs the entirety of the media apparatus in the Marvel Universe against Spider-Man.This seems to me to be the experience of any minority in the United States, and I think the new writing that Bendis is doing with a non-white Spider-Man is something that should have been done years and years ago.
What really matters to me here is that there is something problematic with being okay with a white figure standing in for nonwhite people. Lethem opens the essay with the example of a six year old child seated behind him who repeated, sometimes word for word, pieces of the film that had been gleamed from the trailer. The long quote above mentions that the theater was “eighty percert inner-city blacks.” I think it’s safe to say the kid seated behind Lethem was a young African American child, and if he wasn’t, then there were others in the theater–what I am getting at is that these kids are investing a lot of internal narrative structuring and emotion into the story of Spider-Man. To contemporize it up some, there are probably kids who are doing the same thing with Hal Jordan or Thor or Iron Man or any other current superhero film.
I hope you notice that all of these characters are white.
So I think there is a problem. While Spider-Man could be anyone under that costume, not just anyone is under there. The body beneath the costume is distinctly white, and as working-class as he is, that doesn’t mean that he is racially grey. I think that kids should probably have superheroes that actually represent them, not just in social position, but in skin color. The number of superheroes who are nonwhite is small, and the number of nonwhite cover characters is almost nonexistant.
So what I am saying is that, yeah, Spider-Man is a working class hero, but that doesn’t mean that the comics industry gets a pass. It needs more diversity.
I’ll close with the famous essay “Juice for Mr. Lee” in which Jeff Winbush calls Spider-Man “the original wall-crawling, web-slinging white nigger.” I thought that was pretty fucked up, and Lethem quotes it in his essay, so I burrowed through The Comics Journal archives until I found the article. Then I made a pdf for you.