Marvel's comic book world doesn't look the same as it used to.
Over the past five years, the company's proudest accomplishment has been to make its wide spectrum of superheroes reflect the wide spectrum of readers who love them. It's done this in a number of ways: by creating of heroes like Ms. Marvel a.k.a. Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenage superhero from Jersey City. By publishing storylines like the one where Iceman, an iconic member of the X-Men, comes out as a gay man. And by making tweaks to characters like Sam Wilson, the black superhero previously known as Falcon, taking up the mantle of Captain America, and Jane Foster, Thor's main love interest, wielding the mighty Mjolnir.
But while Marvel's push for diversity has been celebrated by both creators and fans, not everyone is happy with the changes.
And the latest fight began with the latest issue of Spider-Man.
Spider-Man No. 2 is about the issue of identity
The issue in question is Spider-Man No. 2 — the second installment of Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli's comic about the adventures of Miles Morales. Morales, who is black and Hispanic, is dealing with coming into his own in a world where everyone knows Spider-Man as Peter Parker. The first two pages of issue two address the problem explicitly.
In a battle with Blackheart, Marvel's prince of the underworlds, Miles rips part of his mask, and his dark skin is revealed. A vlogger (who appears to be Asian-American) sees, and broadcasts how excited she is, but Morales doesn't share the feeling:
Miles's dissonance with the vlogger continues on the next page. Eventually, he explains to his friend Ganke that he just wants to be seen as Spider-Man; he doesn't want the color of his skin to be the only way people identify him:
Last month, I spoke to Bendis about this comic and what he wanted to achieve with it; both he and artist Pichelli were returning to the title after creating Morales in 2011. And that interview gave me a bit of insight into this interaction. Bendis told me he wanted to write a story about Morales's struggle with balancing his life, but also his struggle with making a name for himself.
"That's the next chapter for Miles. What is his legacy going to be?" Bendis said. "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.'"
Miles Morales doesn't want to be seen as a "black" Spider-Man. Fans felt differently.
When Spider-Man No. 2 was released on Wednesday, March 2, fans reacted instantly. Some saw the discussion and panels as offensive, arguing that Bendis's dialogue showed a blind spot when it comes to race.
Writer J.A. Micheline, who contributes to the comic book websites Comics Alliance and Women Write About Comics, summarized the discontent on Twitter, explaining that the issue is not that the feeling Bendis wrote about doesn't exist — it's that many people feel it wasn't executed in a thoughtful way:
heads up white writers: don't write characters of color whose take is "I don't want to be defined by my race" do not.— J. A. Micheline (@elevenafter) March 2, 2016
The fracture point in Bendis's dialogue is in the moment where Miles doesn't understand why a nonwhite vlogger would be excited about a nonwhite Spider-Man. The reason? A nonwhite reader — like the vlogger — could interpret that moment as a reason to feel silly for liking a hero that he or she could relate to.
Micheline points out that by writing that interaction the way he did, Bendis made the argument that race and the nonwhite people who care about race don't deserve attention, instead of writing a story about why Miles would feel defensive over being defined by his race:
Even if that is a feeling that some/many PoC have, think for a fucking second about the power dynamics involved in you doing that— J. A. Micheline (@elevenafter) March 2, 2016
From you, it reads like "why do people care so much about race?"— J. A. Micheline (@elevenafter) March 2, 2016
The point that Micheline and other fans are making is an important one: If you want to create art and tell stories involving people of color, you need to have people of color in positions that matter.
To cite other recent examples in pop culture, the situation is similar to the frustration that many people feel toward the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in a movie that was produced by white men and women; the decision to make Iron Fist, Marvel's next Netflix hero, a white man despite a grassroots effort asking for him to be anything but; and the lack of diversity on TV shows like Girls or at institutions like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Bendis's message, when taken disingenuously, gives power to those who have always benefited from it (predominantly white men) by framing fans' desire for representation as a frivolous complaint.
The comic plays into a fear that social justice warriors are ruining comics
Over the past couple of years, a negative sentiment has formed in response to progressive, feminist, inclusive comic book fans who champion more diversity in the industry. It's a form of gatekeeping, where people who dismiss others' pleas for diversity write off those pleas as social justice gone awry. They use the term "social justice warrior" (SJW) to describe people they believe are more concerned with quotas than they are about comic books.
The Spider-Man panel has drawn a lot of attention on the Reddit forum Kotaku in Action (KIA), where it's racked up more than 1,900 upvotes (positive votes from redditors). KIA is a known Gamergate haven, and as the Gamergate scandal showed us, Gamergaters aren't big fans of social justice.
The panel is being interpreted as Bendis's takedown of the social justice movement.
"SJW is about power, its [sic] about control," one Redditor wrote. "These people are pointing out skin colour [sic] and gender because it matters to them and it matters because it can be used to manipulate people."
Another pointed out that SJWs are the true racists, and that Morales is speaking out against them.
"This is why we always say SJW's are the [r]acists," another added. "Stop acting surprised when black people accomplish things. You're taking away from their individual achievements. When my black friend Steve is the top seller at work, that is not a win for all black people. It is a win for [S]teve that he earned."
Believing that Bendis intended to portray the vlogger as obtusely racist — and arguing that Morales is insulted by the vlogger's surprised response to his accomplishments because she didn't think black people are capable of certain things — is a pretty liberal interpretation of the comic. But the people who think Bendis was making a statement against the social justice movement would argue that the negative reaction from fans who are upset with Bendis's writing is just as loose.
What did the comic panel really mean?
It's pretty clear that the Spider-Man panel isn't an anti-SJW screed.
Anyone who's spent 45 seconds reading Bendis's work should know that he's one of the most progressive writers at Marvel. A brief rundown of his professional history: He created Miles Morales; he told the dark story of abuse when he created Jessica Jones; he created the gay X-Man Benjamin Deeds in 2013; he wrote Iceman's coming out as a gay man in 2015; and most recently, he boycotted an international comic book award he was nominated for because the award organizers failed to nominate a single woman.
Perhaps the biggest argument against Bendis being anti–social justice is that there was a point where actor and rapper Donald Glover, much like the vlogger in Spider-Man, was so excited about the prospect of a black Spider-Man that he publicly campaigned to play Miles Morales. Bendis told me he was a giant fan of that.
"[Glover] did a joke on Community wearing Spider-Man pajamas," he told me in last month's interview. "It looked fucking great. Both me and Stan Lee have publicly endorsed his candidacy."
But there's something deeper at play here, right? There are two incendiary reactions from two opposite factions of the comic book community. Bendis definitely hit a nerve in writing this story. Fans are allowed to feel like he did or didn't accomplish his goal of writing Miles's feelings.
To be clear, there have been super progressive moments in Bendis's work that have been a little clunky (see: Iceman's coming out).
And after reading the Spider-Man comic and panels over and over, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it. At first I grappled with the idea that Morales wouldn't be able to grasp why he'd be inspiring or cool to someone who had never seen herself as a superhero. But I also understand that Bendis might be trying to depict Morales's idealism and refusal to believe that any of that matters.
Perhaps Bendis's most important accomplishment in Spider-Man No. 2 is that he's written something that isn't so easily flattened into a political argument and then dismissed. Both intentionally and unintentionally, Bendis shows us that diversity is not an automatic indicator of quality and vice versa. And while criticizing the work Bendis has created is more than fair, it makes me nervous to tell comic creators what they should or shouldn't be able write.
What I do know is that this iteration of Spider-Man is still young, and these two pages are part of an expansive story. The comic will continue to evolve and change as the issues roll in. And if there's any comics writer who's earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to pushing for more empathy and diversity at Marvel and in his stories, it's Bendis.
"If I ever learned anything from writing 17 years of Spider-Man, it's that with great power comes great responsibility," he told me last month. "If I don't act that way in my daily life, what the fuck am I doing?"