Tuesday, February 28, 2012

'Ultimate Spider-Man' collection introduces biracial hero

Posted By on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 3:58 PM

No, really, thats Miles Morales in the new black-and-red suit.
  • No, really, that's Miles Morales in the new black-and-red suit.
We’ll be seeing several new takes on Spider-Man in 2012, most prominently with the reboot film, The Amazing Spider-Man, opening July 3 and starring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker. A few months earlier, on April 1, Disney offers its take on the web-slinger with a new animated series, “Ultimate Spider-Man,” based on the Marvel Comics title of the same name. For a genuinely intriguing reboot of a pop character, the new movie and show will have difficulty topping Brian Michael Bendis’ current storyline in the Ultimate Spider-Man comic books, which replaces Peter Parker with a new, biracial wall-crawler.

Even if you don’t follow comic book news, you may have heard last summer that a biracial teen named Miles Morales would be taking up the Spider-mantle following the death of Peter Parker. Marvel’s “Ultimates” titles offer a parallel, somewhat streamlined depiction of its major characters, so Peter is alive and well, barring the odd spider-villain attack or loss of his spider-senses, in Marvel’s other titles. Marvel has just released the intriguing, five-issue introduction of Morales in a hardback volume (Marvel, $24.99, 136 pp). Written by Bendis and drawn by Sara Pichelli, Ultimate Spider-Man shows how to take a familiar character and give it an exciting spin.

Bendis gives Miles Morales plenty of similarities to his predecessor: alliterative name, book smarts, a fateful bite from a genetically-modified arachnid. The origin story details, so familiar as to feel nearly rote, become fresh when viewed through the prism of a new character. Where Peter was an orphan raised by his Aunt May, Miles has both parents, an African-American father and Latina mother (who doesn’t appear much in this volume). Rather than being weighed down by tragedy, like Peter, Miles feels pressure to live up to his family’s expectations and use his education to escape from their socioeconomic limitations. Miles’ spider-bite seems only slightly more significant than his winning entry in a charter school via a lottery.

When Miles discovers that he can climb walls and make himself invisible (his power set differs slightly from the original Spider-Man), he views his abilities neither as a blessing or curse but a pain in the ass. In an America marked by public distrust and governmental oversight of super-powered characters, Miles spends months on the down-low, simply going to class and doing his schoolwork. Where Peter Parker decides to use powers to uphold law after the death of Uncle Ben, Miles makes the same decision after the death of Peter Parker himself. This volume presents some of the big scenes from the Death of Spider-Man arc (originally drawn by Marietta's Mark Bagley), only from Miles’ point of view.

Bendis seems to be still feeling out Miles' character, but retains his trademark witty dialogue. When Miles makes his first public appearance in costume New York bystanders recognize that he’s not the original Spider-Man and remark, “That’s in really poor taste.” More dramatic scenes also work well, and one of the collection’s highlights, Miles’ father admits to youthful mistakes, including a stint in jail, to illustrate both the price of bad choices and his bad blood with Miles’ uncle (whose double life as a cat burglar instigates the spider-bite in the first place).

Pichelli’s artwork emphasizes Miles’ youth and vulnerability. I saw a website identify the character as 13 years old, and he certainly looks it, so he comes across as just a kid, and not nearly as confident or capable as Peter Parker did. Pichelli’s facial expressions aren’t very nuanced, but the artwork has a clean quality that suits Miles’ age: darker, grittier illustrations would seem out of place.

The Ultimate Spider-Man volume includes Miles’ first public appearance as Spider-Man from Ultimate Comics Fallout #4, along with the other two stories in that issue, which seem to have nothing to do with Spider-Man continuity and are thus kind of baffling if you don’t follow the other Ultimate books.

Marvel Comics was accused of pandering to political correctness by introducing a biracial Spider-Man. But so what if they are? Miles Morales
offers an opportunity for Marvel to appeal to the sizeable, underserved minority readership of comics. The critique seems pointless, given the high quality of Ultimate and Peter Parker remaining alive and well in other titles. This volume includes a confrontation between Miles and Nick Fury, who oversees American superhumans (and was drawn to look like Samuel L. Jackson long before the actor took the part on the big screen). It’s fascinating to see two characters, who originated as Caucasians, re-imagined as African-Americans, without their race defining their relationship.

Given the rules of comic books and mortality, it’s entirely possible that the deceased Peter Parker could make a comeback: for one thing, an earlier arc of Ultimate Spider-Man included identical, super-powered clones of the character. One hopes Marvel will stick with Miles Morales, who fulfills what readers would want from Spider-Man, while spinning new yarns about him.

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