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What a black Hispanic Spider-Man means for Marvel

Spider-Man No. 1.
Spider-Man No. 1.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

One of my favorite things about Marvel's Spider-Man No. 1 is that it's nothing like the company's recent gigantic crossover event Secret Wars.

Secret Wars, though plagued by delays, was an impressive and immersive story. But there was something impenetrable about it — from its provocative, booming title to the way it wove many years' worth of writer Jonathan Hickman's storytelling into its bones.

Spider-Man feels like coming home to a familiar story.

Spider-Man is still in high school. He's struggling with his secret identity. He's just starting to date. He's figuring out that with great power comes great responsibility.

The only difference is Spider-Man is now a black Hispanic young man named Miles Morales.

The events of Secret Wars plucked Morales from his alternate universe and placed him in Marvel's central universe. Now he'll get to fight alongside Tony Stark (Iron Man), Sam Wilson (Captain America), Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) and, yes, Peter Parker in Marvel's reshaped world.

With Morales adjusting to a new place in the Marvel comic book universe, his creators, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, have teamed up once again, and the result is a snappy and gorgeous book. I caught up with Bendis to talk about where the character of Miles Morales goes from here, and where Bendis, Pichelli, and Marvel want to take him.

Alex Abad-Santos: For people who might not have kept up with Secret Wars but are looking to get into comic books, can you explain why it's important that Miles Morales is now in the main Marvel Universe — is that the right name for it? Sorry, I still want to call it 616 [the original name for the main Marvel comic book universe].

Brian Michael Bendis: Look, Tom Brevoort [Marvel's VP of publishing] will yell at you. It's the Marvel Universe.

AAS: Please don't tell him. Okay, Marvel Universe.

BMB: The gorgeousness of it is that the Marvel Universe is as complicated as you want to make it. A book like this, you open it up and here is this boy named Miles Morales, who is Spider-Man, and he is having a hard time, and that's all you need to know. He's got a very interesting backdrop. He goes to a charter school with his friends. He is really struggling with his grades and paying attention to his civilian life, because his life as Spider-Man is obviously much more pulse-pounding, and the effects of Spider-Man are much more immediate.

As far as picking this up, all you need to know is he is really struggling to balance his life because of what he's witnessed. It always comes back to — and I think what Stan Lee's genius was — is that it comes down to the universal truth of how hard it is to balance your life. Particularly when you're a teenager and you think you've seen it all, you know it all, and you just want to get on with things. Yet you're still stuck in high school for two years.

I think that is the universal truth. Miles's unique place in the Marvel Universe now is the extra-good stuff. What we pride ourselves on is not punishing anyone for not having read something else. You open up this book and you know he never goes, "Wow that Secret Wars was hard."

Spider-Man No. 1. (Marvel)

AAS: Right. "The thing that happened…"

BMB: Yeah. There have been comics that have done that. We really, particularly with debut issues, give a lot of thought to being as welcoming as possible. By doing so, if we do our job right, you want to go back and read Miles's previous chapters and the other storylines he's been in. If we make you feel bad about it, then we've done something horribly wrong.

AAS: In Spider-Man No. 1, you're returning to a character you created in 2011. But there's also been a lot of shift in Marvel as a company — it's gotten more diverse, there are more female-driven comics in production, new characters have been introduced and spotlighted. How does it feel to come back to the character?

BMB: When Miles was created, he was created out of a conversation we were having at Marvel. There's always been this bubbling conversation about Spider-Man and how interesting he is, and how inclusive his story is in relation to others.

A lot of us [at Marvel] are from different backgrounds. I'm Jewish, our editor in chief is of Hispanic descent, and our CCO is of Cuban descent. We all come from different worlds, but we all have this similar experience, of relating to Spider-Man and his story. Then we get into the conversation of, if you really look at that origin story, it probably would be a kid of color if you really think about it; you know what I mean?

I always make this joke, "Oh, yeah, Peter is Jewish."

You could just tell.

AAS: Hahaha, okay. Go on.

BMB: He was created by two Jewish men, and you don't tell me Aunt May's not Jewish. Holy shit, all the guilt, are you kidding me?

Anyway, she's not, but you can feel it there. The conversation got larger, and then it got to the point of, why don't we? Once that ball starts rolling and then stories start popping up into your head, it's really hard to come up with a reason not to do it. Then we have a conversation that Peter's probably going to have to go bye-bye. The only way to do it is to have Miles pick up the mantle.

At the same time and completely unrelated, I was adopting two girls, one African and one African-American. My life did change, and my perspective on life and lot of things has changed and continued to evolve.

As we were doing this, one of the actors on Powers [a show on Playstation Bendis produces based on a comic book he wrote] came up to me and told me a story about how when he was a kid, he and his friends played superheroes every day, and his friends wouldn't let him be Batman or Superman because of his skin color, but he could be Spider-Man because anyone could be under that mask. I was reminded, "I have now heard this story 100 times in the last 10 years."

When people supported Miles, that emboldened Marvel to pull the trigger on Ms. Marvel [who is a Muslim teenage girl], pull the trigger on Sam Wilson [who is a black Captain America], and pull the trigger on other things that they are doing. I'm certainly not taking responsibility for any of those things. I do know that the success of Miles, which is in the hands of audience, allows these other ideas to find a way.

Spider-Man No. 1. (Marvel)

AAS: I'm going to talk about the comic a little bit now. Sara Pichelli's art is just amazing. And you mentioned in an interview, I think over the summer, that "Miles's mom and dad are coming back." Are his mom and dad coming back, or were you talking about you and Sara getting to do this again?

BMB: Well, it's both, actually. Though Miles had lost his mom a couple of years ago in the book, in the event of Miles coming here [to the main Marvel Universe], he got her back, because Miles did something good and the universe rewarded him.

What we're getting out of that is his father knows he's Spider-Man but his mother does not. We have a very interesting family dynamic brewing in Miles's household. As far as in reality, Sara and I had a baby named Miles Morales. Mommy went away for a while, and now she is back.

AAS: She's back, and the art is amazing. I love how quickly it can transition into comedy and then into drama — the change of pace is really great.

BMB: Sara is an amazing comic artist, I truly believe one of the great comic book artists of this generation. From her earliest work at Marvel, you are like "Oh, my God."

It makes you write better. I'm writing for one of the great artists of our generation — I better not write something stupid.

Sara's character design work and costume design work is so impeccable. It's so amazing. Her design work is insane. I don't mean panel structure. I mean, look what the characters are wearing and how it speaks to their character. This is an immense amount of work, the detail that goes into this.

Now what's interesting about coming back to it is that the character has actually aged since his creation.

AAS: He's had a growth spurt.

BMB: The character was 13 when we created him, and now he is close to 16 or maybe 15. I don't know. It's hard to tell. That changes the physicality of every character in the book. Sara has this unique experience of returning to the series but the series being visually different. She is evolving as an artist as well, so her style is also evolving. It's all really unique. I get so excited about it.

AAS: Can we talk about the moment in the comic book where Miles sees Captain America — Sam Wilson — and his shield? It's this huge "holy crap" moment for me, with a black Hispanic Spider-Man and a black Captain America saving the world. Is that something that you could have imagined when you first created Miles?

BMB: No. We are so far beyond the intended goal that I don't even know how to respond to the question.

AAS: Well, it's mind-blowing.

BMB: It's so funny. We [Bendis and one of his friends who is a fellow comic book writer] were talking about this the other day. When people are hired at Marvel, they immediately start touching all the toys. Nick Fury shows up [in a comic], then Daredevil shows up. Because you don't know how long until Marvel kicks you out. [laughs]

You just want to be able to tell your friends, "I worked with Daredevil once." That's why Nick Fury shows up in every single book I did in the first year at Marvel.

I can't tell you it was a conscious decision, but when I see it drawn, I realize I'm doing it again. Marvel is such an amazing, diverse, cool place that I just want to touch it all. You're just so proud to be part of it all.

Spider-Man No. 1. (Marvel)

AAS: One of the things I really liked when I first read Miles Morales was this feeling that Peter Parker was like Miles's Uncle Ben. And Miles was having a hard time living up to that legacy. Do we get to see that in this run?

BMB: Well, not to spoil the end of the issue, but Peter is coming quickly into the storyline. I think people can relate to this as well, that things change as we get older. You go, "Okay, I don't want to live up to a legacy anymore, I want to be the legacy. When can I put my own stamp on it?" That's the next chapter for Miles.

What is his legacy going to be? It's good because now we're at the place where Peter Parker is alive in his life. It's easier for a character to be an Uncle Ben when they are an ideal, versus an actual person that tends to whine a lot.

The interaction between them, I think, is going to be very fun. They have not seen each other in a while. The reaction to each other in the next couple of issues is interesting. And Miles is heading on his own course.

AAS: Whenever I read your books — this is sort of silly — I always try to find your little comments on internet culture. In Spider-Man it's about the YouTube comments, like staying up late and writing YouTube comments. I think in Uncanny or All-New X-Men there was something about how the message boards are going to love an Emma Frost versus Jean Grey showdown. Where does that come from?

BMB: It's just the world we live in. Everyone comments on everything. As I get older, I'm getting more obsessed with this idea of the energy people put out in the world. Do some people know about the energy they are putting out in the world? Or are some people oblivious to it?

They can say shitty things all day and think it's not going to matter. It does matter. You're making the world around you shittier. Now we're getting the first taste of people not getting jobs because of their Twitter history. This is where we are now, and that's interesting as well. I'm fascinated by it. As writers we're fascinated by society and how it affects each other.

And I'm not allowed to comment on message boards. [laughs] I get to do it in the comics.

AAS: You've always been one of Marvel's more progressive writers. You've created Miles Morales and Benjamin Deeds, a new gay X-Man. You wrote Iceman's coming out. Kelly Sue DeConnick always mentions you as one of the people who have helped her advance in her career. And you also participated in the recent boycott of the Angoulême Grand Prix, which started because it didn't include female writers. As a writer, how important is it that your work reflects the world around you?

BMB: There are choices in front of us every day. Sometimes they are little choices, and sometimes they are obvious choices. [The boycott of] Angoulême was obvious. I really don't know the name of a person in charge of the Grand Prix. I was very honored that that would be included. But at the same time, I would say no. Something was off in the process. The only way to help that is to make a choice.

I have daughters, and I'm very aware of the world they are growing up in. And, yes, it is far better than the world my mother grew up in. The fact that we are aware of it and it's still dizzyingly off — it's more frustrating because we are aware of it. It's just the obviously right thing to do.

I'm writing superheroes all day — the least I should do is the right thing.

If I've learned anything from writing 17 years of Spider-Man, it's great power comes with great responsibility. And if I don't act that way in my daily life, what the fuck am I doing? It's so funny because, getting back to the comments and stuff, it's like people get wound up at us about minutiae. But the point of these books isn't to scream at each other online. It's to live to a higher ideal. That's the point of most of these books.

You use what you know. And this is a ridiculous thing to say, but there's this quote in that movie Contact where one character says, "That's just not the world we live in," and she says, "I've always believed that the world is what we make of it."

It speaks to me. Make the world the way it's supposed to be, little by little. That's all.

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