Stillanerd Reviews: Spider-Man #2

In which the second issue of Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s Spider-Man addresses the topic of Miles Morales as Spider-Man.

To say Miles Morales has been a topic of heated debate among Spider-Man and comic book fans is a gross understatement. Ever since his début in Ultimate Fallout #4 as the new Spider-Man after Peter Parker’s apparent demise in the Ultimate Comics, the character has had more than his share of defenders and detractors.  To this day, there are those who see Miles as a positive step forward in a genre still dominated by White Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual men, while others accuse Marvel of propping up Miles to undermine Peter Parker as Spider-Man for the sake of political correctness, if not replace Peter altogether. Given how Peter’s characterization has been so grossly mishandled by Marvel over the last decade, it’s no wonder fans see Miles as both a breath of fresh air and a source of dread.

As for Miles’ creator, Brian Michael Bendis, all that seemed to matter to him while writing Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man  was telling Miles’ story, in letting his stories speak for themselves and allowing the readers to judge Miles based on his own merits as a superhero (what a novel concept!). Now that Miles is a part of the “All-New, All-Different” Marvel Universe, however, it looks as though Bendis is left with no choice but to talk about what Miles being Spider-Man actually means with Spider-Man #2.

The comic starts off just where Spider-Man #1 ended with Peter Parker/Spider-Man still mad at Miles over Blackheart’s attack on the Avengers. Not because he believes Miles was responsible for the attack necessarily, but because Peter believes he’ll get blamed for any of Miles’ actions and mistakes so long as Miles continues being Spider-Man. This in spite Peter giving Miles his blessing as shown via flashback from “months ago.” I admit, I had to reread Peter and Miles’ conversation more than once to grasp what Peter’s objection was, in part because of Bendis’ use of dialogue during this scene. As a writer, Bendis has a genuine gift for making conversations feel real and natural, but the downside is they can also be repetitive and take forever to get to the point. And the point in this case is Peter cares more about his reputation as Spider-Man than almost anything else.  Not that Peter Parker shouldn’t worry. Peter does have a long-standing history of being accused of things he clearly didn’t do, and does get a little paranoid about what others think of him. In this case, however, Bendis over does it. Even though Peter’s vocal misgivings makes the reader more sympathetic towards Miles, it also has the effect of making Peter come across as a self-centered jerk. Even Peter’s concern that Miles is risking having his secret identity exposed what with his costume being torn is still within the context of Peter fearing how others might react towards him instead of how they might react toward Miles.

Yet in the end, Peter has an about-face after Miles defeats Blackheart, who it turns out didn’t retreat from the battle last issue after all.  In one of the comic’s better moments, Peter defends Miles after the police hold him and the recovering Avengers at gunpoint.  “He’s Spider-Man,” Peter says. “And he just saved everyone’s butts so show him a little respect. At least more than you show me.”  He doesn’t say Miles is another Spider-Man, or that Miles a different Spider-Man, but that Miles is Spider-Man. Just as Peter himself is Spider-Man.  On a metaphorical level, this is Marvel’s flagship superhero unequivocally declaring Miles Morales as his equal. It could’ve been done without having to portray Peter as a self-centered jerk at the beginning only to then have him stand up for Miles anyway for the sake of the plot, but it’s still an effective message all the same.

Bendis’ point [is] the Miles has just as much right to call himself Spider-Man as Peter does, that his race and ethnicity shouldn’t make any difference…Because what people ought to do is look at Miles as a person, period.

This leads to what I imagine some will see as the comic’s most controversial moment.  Miles and Genke watch a YouTube video showing footage of Miles’ fight with Blackheart.  The over-enthusiastic host of the YouTube channel points out how Miles’ torn costume reveals his “brown” skin underneath, causing her to rave about the new Spider-Man being, in her words, “a kid of color.” Miles, however, isn’t thrilled by her adulation as he wants people to see him as Spider-Man without any qualifiers or labels whatsoever, and doesn’t understand why anyone would even care about his race.  One doesn’t need to read between the lines to see that this is Bendis satirizing the real-life responses people have had towards Miles and towards Marvel’s trend in having minority characters adopt the mantle of white male superheroes. What’s so fascinating about this scene is that Bendis isn’t condemning those who object to Miles being Spider-Man on racial grounds (and Bendis doesn’t have to since his disdain towards prejudice is obvious) but is instead chastising those who celebrate Miles as an “African-American Spider-Man” or a “Half-Hispanic Spider-Man” only because he’s not another white guy like Peter Parker, and who thus not only patronize Miles but also disqualify Peter in the process.

No doubt there will be those who will take issue with the YouTube host being a stereotypical internet fangirl. There’s also the valid argument that Marvel are guilty of doing what the YouTube host does when promoting Miles as Spider-Man, and how they promoted other superheroes like Sam Wilson as Captain America and Jane Foster as Thor. Likewise, there’s the opinion that if both Peter and Miles are going to co-exist in the same universe, Miles should change his superhero identity to avoid any “confusion” (interesting how no one suggests Peter change his superhero name for the same reason) just as Disney XD’s Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon and Hasbro are now doing in calling Miles “Kid Arachnid.” Nevertheless, Bendis’ point still stands: Miles has just as much right to call himself Spider-Man as Peter does, that his race and ethnicity shouldn’t make any difference, and that those who champion diversity for its own sake can have narrow-minded views on race as any bigot or racist. Because what people ought to do is look at Miles as a person, period, and doing so likewise towards everyone irregardless of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. It’s why Bendis titled the new series Spider-Man without any adjectives in the first place.

Bendis also depicts how the mainstream media within the Marvel Universe reacts to this “new Spider-Man,” as well. There’s a scene towards the end of the comic where, during a cable news debate, a pundit complains about how Miles’ presence is a sign that the culture cannot handle any more superheroes, adding that with every new superhero, more “costumed criminals” will emerge to challenge them.  One might say it’s the standard debate found in many comic book stories, that the superhero “creates” their own supervillains. It could also be seen as a commentary on “superhero fatigue” and the over-saturation of superhero comics, television shows, and movies. Yet the scene also establishes that this same pundit lambasted the original Spider-Man “[abandoning] New York City for a more international flavor.” In that context, it reads as Bendis taking a shot at Marvel’s critics on their ostensible hypocrisy over Peter Parker no longer having his traditional status quo in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, even though they’re still getting one with Miles Morales in the pages of Spider-Man.  Except Bendis dilutes this by also having the pundit be correct about Miles’ unintentionally attracting “old Spider-Man [villains]” since the scene also shows Black Cat, still aspiring towards being the head of New York’s criminal underworld, watching the broadcast.

If Bendis truly wants his readers to see Miles as Spider-Man without any qualifiers…he needs to show Miles being capable of overcoming great physical adversity just like how the original Spider-Man has done over and over.

So aside from the comic’s social commentary, how does Spider-Man #2 stack up as an actual story? On the upside, Miles still comes across well as a believable and sympathetic teenager (though Bendis does overdo Miles being grossed over having touched and being touched by a demon) and, other than the misgivings I’ve mentioned about Peter’s depiction in the beginning, the supporting players’ characterization remains solid throughout.  The problem, however, lies in the central fight between Miles and Blackheart.  Or should I say the one-sided curb-stomp between Miles and Blackheart.  It’s a given that Miles, being the hero of the comic, should stop the bad guy or “monster-of-the-month.” Also, Blackheart does keep getting back up, even though he does eventually get KO’ed by a mere mailbox. Except Miles, who remember is only fourteen years old and still relatively new to superhero game, is able to take down Blackheart–a literal demon and Mephisto’s own son–all by himself while the entire might of the Avengers can not. Even Peter gets knocked out by Blackheart with one blow (and so much for Peter’s enhanced agility), and yet somehow a younger, inexperienced Miles is able to physically over power him? I’ve seen comic book creators lionize and prop up their own creations over established ones before, but this is ridiculous.

And ironically, the fight winds up doing exactly what Bendis rebukes others as depicted in the Youtube scene of doing, in that it patronizes Miles while disqualifying Peter along with all the Avengers, including Sam Wilson and Jane Foster. It’s moments like this–and similar scenes in past Miles Morales comics–which fuels the very accusations of Marvel’s kid-glove treatment of Miles in the first place.  If Bendis truly wants his readers to see Miles as Spider-Man without any qualifiers, to have people see Miles on equal terms as Peter, then he needs to show Miles being capable of overcoming great physical adversity against all odds just like how the original Spider-Man has done over and over. After all, wouldn’t it be far more respectful towards Miles and better highlight his heroism if Blackheart wasn’t a pushover for Miles, if their battle was a genuine David and Goliath match-up on par with Peter’s fight against Cain Marko in the classic “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut”?

But for as nonsensical as the fight is from a narrative and thematic standpoint, Sara Pichelli’s illustrations sure make it look fantastic. In those brief seven pages, we not only get panels which are fluid and energetic, they have visual rhythm, as Pichelli allows for a momentary pause during the combat. The rest of the art looks great, too, as Pichelli has a wonderful eye in depicting how people feel and express themselves through their body language without having to over-exaggerate it. And while I wasn’t enthusiastic about the use of Chibi-style art in the last issue, Pichelli’s usage of it in this one during the flashback is more effective.  It not only makes it distinctive enough from the regular art to show it’s a flashback, it lets the reader know we’re seeing those events through Miles’ point-of-view. You can always tell when an artist is in sync with a writer on a comic, and these last two issues of Spider-Man have been prime examples of this.

So while I don’t think Spider-Man #2 is as strong in terms of its story compared to issue #1, I still recommend this comic. While the first half has the bulk of the comic’s problems, the second half is far better.  It also has a message everyone needs to understand and should have understood a long time ago: that it’s a person’s character which matters so much more than the amount of melanin they have in their skin, or whether they have two x chromosomes, or who they’re attracted to, or what god they happen to worship, or what country they’re from, or who their ancestors were. But sadly, in a culture so obsessed with and divided on these issues, we all too often forget that the best way to champion diversity is to have the same responses as both Peter and Miles have in Spider-Man #2. That and having stories conveying that message without contradicting it, or forego telling a good story in the process.

Stillanerd’s Nerdy Nitpicks (spoilers ahead)

  • Peter: “Did he give a name?” Miles: “Not really…” Um, Miles? Were you not paying attention when Blackheart declared “I am Blackheart, son of Mephisto, prince of the Underworlds!” just a mere issue ago?
  • “Good. Not the red one. (Hate the red one.)” Glad to someone at Marvel is willing to have Peter remember Mephisto. Now if Bendis could only have Peter remember why he hates Mephisto.
  • “Oh, you know, robots.” And what about The Vision, Pete? Also, don’t you have one working at Parker Industries? Granted, it’s controlled by Doc Ock, but even so…
  • Okay, I admit it’s hard to judge whether Peter or Miles’ Spider-Man costume is “cooler.” But no way are both of Jessica Drew’s Spider-Woman costumes cooler than Peter’s (no offense to Jessica, mind you). Now if Peter was taking about Julia Carpenter’s original Spider-Woman costume which inspired the black suit, then that’s another story.
  • No need for you to tell Peter to duck, Miles, since Peter also has spider-sense. Then again, if Peter was actually paying attention to his own spider-sense, maybe Blackheart wouldn’t have gotten the drop on him in the first place.
  • So where did all these people with their camera phones come from? And why are the police not telling them to stay back from what is clearly a disaster area?
  • Hey, Miles? Don’t you know that destroying a mailbox, even if you’re using it to stop a demon, is a federal offense?
  • “Well, uh, I mean it was more like a group effort.” Miles, I appreciate your attempt at being modest, but the fight between you and Blackheart was anything but a group effort. That is if you’re including Captain America’s shield, a mailbox, and a school bus as part of the “group effort.”
  • Wow…so not only is the cop pointing his gun at Miles and Sam Wilson making a really bad judgement call, he tells them to disarm when neither one of them are carrying any weapons.
  • Okay, for as much I loathe how Black Cat being turned into the “Queenpin of Crime” (bleech!) her being able to do one-armed push-ups is quite impressive.
  • “Face it, tigre. You’re about to get a good ‘ol kick in the culo.” Really, Bendis? You’re having someone with no connection to Mary Jane whatsoever adopting and amending her famous catchphrase? Also, did Miles’ maternal grandmother exist in the Ultimate Comics before Secret Wars? Because if she didn’t, that’s one more continuity headache I don’t need.