Thanks to the Oscar winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the Playstation 5 launch title, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, you know who Miles Morales is. He’s the Afro-latinx, Brooklyn based webslinger, who shares the name Spider-Man with some guy from Queens. He can do everything a Spider-Man can and more, like turn invisible and do a little venom blast thing just like spiders do (allegedly). And most of all he’s one of the most influential characters to Black and Brown kids you can find in the comics landscape right now.
The way Miles has been embraced by the Black and Afro-Latinx community is amazing. There hasn’t been a character so beloved by Black nerds since the original Black Spider-Man, Static from Milestone Comics and the Static Shock cartoon. The internet lit up after the trailer for his stand alone game showed he had a fresh line up. He’s a hero that wears Jordans, that has a love for hip-pop, and that’s so undeniably for the culture.
And he sure didn’t get that from the comics.
Miles was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli following the death of Peter Parker in Earth 1610 aka the Ultimate Universe. Despite the Ultimate Universe being…the mess that it was, Ultimate Spider-Man starring Peter had been that line’s consistent high point which made this move huge and gave Miles some big webbed boots to fill. Bendis talked to CBR about the decision of wanting to put a new toy in the toybox, and root him in things that he felt hadn’t been done before. He drew inspiration from his own multicultural family, and the documentary Waiting for Superman on charter schools. Bendis also sets the record straight that he wasn’t directly inspired by the campaign to cast Donald Glover as Peter Parker in what would become the Amazing Spider-Man reboot, but it did reinforce the idea that he was “on the right track”.
Bendis also gives this quote about Miles’ race, “Miles is a different ethnicity than Spider-Man has ever been before, but he’s not going to represent all that is race in this country. That is not what this story is about. It’s about a little boy.”
Oh. Miles was also created in 2011, just before Barack Obama’s second term in office. In the height of our post racial America. In Hal H. Harris’s essay, How to Make a Blacker, More Truthful Spider-Man, calls out this imagining of a post-racial world where, “race would simply become a marker of personal identity….. While benign in conception, it’s still anti-Blackness.” Harris’ essay is excellent and is an excellent primer at how Bendis fails at engaging Miles’ Blackness to the characters detriment and there’s a lot that can be said about Bendis being the common denominator behind many mainstream Black heroes (Ironheart, Naomi, etc.) in the past few years but that’s another essay. At the end of the day Bendis approaching Miles as a superhero that happens to be Black, rather than a Black superhero is a huge disservice to the community that are eager to claim him as their own and is going to be a dilemma we are going to run into a lot in this series.
Miles’ birth in the myth post racial America, is something I relate to intensely. I remember interviewing at my predominantly white private school in Georgia and seeing an auditorium full of these white kids watching Obama’s inauguration and my 10 year old self thinking, “We did it.” Cut to 2016 where these same white kids gave a standing ovation at the single mention of Trump in that same auditorium. The lie of a post-racial America is a truth both Miles and myself had to come to terms with almost in parrallel. I was 12 when Miles first debuted and just started reading comics regularly. I was primarily exclusively into the New 52 (I’m SORRY) but I always made sure to keep up with Miles (as well as I could w/ the Ultimate Universe). So I quite literally can say I’ve grown up with this character and to see both of us come to terms with and embrace our Blackness over this time has been a journey. I can’t say my personal identity is fully formed but hey, at least I wasn’t written by Brian Michael Bendis for nearly a decade, so I’ve got that going for me.
So who is Miles Morales? That’s the big question and the reason for this series. Around the same time as Miles’ debut, I was really into Silver Age Spider-Man and was so enamored watching the character and world of Peter Parker being molded and defined by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita. Every issue introduced a villain, a cast member, or a concept that would stay with this character over 60 years. Those early issues can still be held up as definitive texts for this character and it has always been a frustration of mine that there doesn’t feel like there’s that definitive text for Miles in comics, despite becoming such an iconic character so quickly. Who’s in his rogues gallery? Who are his love interests? Greatest struggles?
What makes Miles Morales, Spider-Man?
Well look no-further! The sisyphean task of Miles To-Go hopes to answer this question with a comprehensive look at nearly everything Miles Morales. Prowler? Got it! Spider-Men 1 & 2? Bet. That time Miles’ mom got killed by Venom and then came back when he moved to 616? Yeah sure! I missed those issues so let’s figure that one out together. And we (me) aren’t just sticking to the comics! Arguably Miles in other media is more influential than the comics so we are going to be looking at Miles in cartoons, video games, and of course Into the Spider-Verse.
So, uh…let’s talk about Ultimate Fallout #4 and the first five issues of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man. What? You thought we were taking this slow? We’re on the clock baby!
Ultimate Fallout #4 is the very first appearance of Miles Morales! I’m sure that there’s other stuff in that comic but in flipping through to get to Miles I saw the phrase “the United States government created mutants” and said NOPE. But Miles’ very first appearance is both brief, to the point, and the most Bendis thing I’ve read in so long. Basically, the Kangaroo is shaking down a dude and an All New, All Different Spider-Man leaps into action. All the while everyone keeps parroting “this is in bad taste” because it is a line that made Bendis chuckle. The major takeaways from the brief story is that there is a Spider-Man back from the dead and he is *gasp* a Black tween! There’s not a ton here looking back a decade later, but I’m sure it’s just enough of a teaser to get fans interested and/or enraged according to the letters page of the first issue. Sarah Pichelli and Justin Ponsor’s artwork in this story is quality stuff. Pichelli has excellent body language down for Miles and Ponsor’s colors are top notch and are going to be the key for visual consistency in this era going forward.
Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man’s first twelve issues are by far going to be the most familiar to fans of Into the Spider-Verse and the recent playstation game, and in that it might also be the most jarring, which we’ll get into in depth whenever we get to those entries. There are a ton of elements that get adapted and remixed into…arguably more streamlined and more emotionally resonant origins for Miles, his family, and his relationship with his uncle. However, this is what we got for now and this is what I’m covering.
The first issue is pretty straightforward. We’re re-introduced to Oscorp, their many spiders, they go under after Norman Osborn is revealed to be the Green NotHulk Goblin and the Prowler, Aaron Davis, slips in to plunder and a spider stows away in his bag. Meanwhile we get introduced to Miles and his parents, Jefferson and Rio, as they attend a charter school lottery where Miles gets in. Miles visits his uncle after (even though he’s not supposed to) gets bitten by the aforementioned spider and has a dramatic reaction. His dad shows up and is not happy in the slightest. Miles slips out and as Jeff goes looking for him, he can’t find him because Miles is *gasp* invisible?
And thus ends the first issue. I think one of the things I might complain about a bit in this series is just how decompressed this story is. One of the more frustrating things about trying to follow this series monthly as an impatient 12/13 year old is that it takes nearly six issues (aka 6 months!) for Miles to even get the costume that’s on the cover. That on top of a typical Bendis comic taking maybe around 60 seconds to read it was a rough time. There’s still a lot of legwork Bendis does, with introducing Miles, his parents, and his uncle. I’m going to get into my problems with the Prowler later, but the idea of making Miles Morales’ version Uncle Ben, the Ultimate version of the Prowler is clever enough but again there are problems. Bendis also seems to want to say something about charter school lotteries in this, but the unfairness of this practice doesn’t really get questioned again anytime soon.
Moving on to the second issue we get Miles exploring his new powers and being called a mutant on the street, which again feels very Ultimate comics. 616 mutants are hated and feared of course but the Ultimate Universe has the baggage of Magneto drowning New York which comes up in dinner conversation. Miles ends up at his best friend, Ganke Lee’s place and reveals his venom strike on some legos. Ganke is definitely one of the more enduring aspects of Miles’ lore so much so the MCU took him, filed off the serial number and named him Ned Leeds, all the way down to the legos. Jeff shows up and takes Miles to the park where they chat about Aaron and Jeff’s criminal past. It’s definitely one of the more interesting conversations Bendis tries to write about criminality. Jeff talks about being unable to see past the worldview that drove him and his brother to crime until he met Rio. It feels like Bendis is on the cusp of a conversation that I think would be better handled by a different writer on what drives people to crime but it doesn’t go there and unfortunately the Prowler is a lost opportunity for him to go there as we’ll see. Also Jeff isn’t established as a cop yet which is interesting. This convo is capped off with Jeff being anti-mutant/superhero nonsense which again is another layer on top of their relationship that is dramatic stakes for Bendis but also another very interesting story for a writer that’s not Bendis. There are layers of story to be told about a cop dad to a Black teen, even more so about a cop dad to a Black teen hero with a bias specifically against superheroes.
Later that night Ganke sends an article about Spider-Man’s infamous spider-bite and he texts the painfully 2011, “R U SPIDER-MAN??” . And lo and behold Miles sticks to the ceiling. In the next issue Ganke comes over and they have some Bendis speak before heading to Aaron’s to ask about the spider, but his apartment is cleared out. While on the street there’s a fire that prompts Miles to leap into action. He awkwardly performs a classic fire rescue that Pichelli illustrates so well in terms of body language. The toddler he saves grabs Miles’ shirt in a way that’s a really small but very cute and human touch. There’s also an excellent panel of one Black firefighter telling another “Told you Spider-Man was Black.” Miles leaps off and has a huge adverse reaction to his heroic business and swears off doing it again, asserting that there’s already a Spider-Man (not for long!). We then get a montage of Miles starting his new school, Brooklyn Visions, and his new roommate, Judge. I like Judge! I have no reason why! He just has always seemed like a cool dude.
Not long after his school life is established, the student body gets called to the gym to hunker down during the events of Peter Parker’s death. Mile’s sneaks out and sees Pete’s final moments. It’s a genuinely well done scene, thanks to Pichelli and Ponsor’s ability to convey some real emotions. Miles reflects on the scene with Ganke and he has fully reversed on his reluctance. He now thinks that if he had been in the loop he could have done something. The two show up at Pete’s funeral and have a wild interaction with Gwen Stacey which makes me so afraid of Bendis writing teenage girls She gives a brisk summary of the great power, great responsibility mantra to two middle schoolers she’s never met, before returning to the funeral. These two scenes sort of push Peter’s death as Miles’ Uncle Ben moment and I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it, particularly in relation to the more literal Uncle Ben moment in issue twelve
Anyway Ganke brings Miles an old Halloween costume, for Miles’ superhero lifestyle and he hops in to do Ultimate Fallout #4 and Bendis gets to type his “It was in bad taste” joke one more time. We get a remix of Miles hiding his secret ID from Judge and Miles’ internal monologue kicks in, which he notices, a nice gag that gets reused for ITSV. Miles heads out to do some Spider-Manning and gets intercepted by Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew (I think she’s a clone in this universe), and the art duties shift for the fifth issue to Pichelli on layouts and David Messina on finishes. They have a fun little confrontation before Miles knocks himself out trying to get away, only for him to wake up in the Triskelion, home of the Ultimates and Nick Fury. I immediately panic as I know nothing about these Bizzaro Avengers and am afraid to learn.
Luckily they work in context for now as they most just vet that Miles is the real genetically altered spider bite deal. Fury tells Jessica Drew to go write a blog (its 2011) and give them the room. Fury gets the rundown on what Miles knows about his powers and tells Miles his uncle is actually the Prowler but they are interrupted by Electro breaking out and wreaking havoc. He takes out the Ultimates and Miles’ unpredictable new powers give him the upper hand and decisive blow. The next day Miles is filling Ganke in, Jessica Drew gives Miles a fancy briefcase containing….his costume! The one from the cover! Yay!
All right let’s take a breath. Five issues and Miles Morales is finally Spider-Man. A fun thought experiment that I’m going to try is to imagine all of these as a single first issue. And the way it works in trades, that’s not a bad idea. This arc introduces Miles, his family, Ganke, introduces him to the wider world and sets up his first real threat. Based on that, you could argue this is a solid introduction, but the thing that really kills it is the pacing. And I’m not saying that because my inner 13 year old is still bitter. There’s a very strange feeling that Bendis is both writing for the trade but also trying to balance writing for the cliffhanger, which I know to be a problem that won’t go away anytime soon. The first two issues and a lot of the third take their sweeeeet time, and while it’s great to see Pichelli and Ponsor have a lot of page space to work with, does it take two pages to show the spider getting into Aaron’s bag? Despite this decompression there’s still not a ton of time to figure out who Miles is as a character which is frustrating. Everything just sort of happens to him and we don’t even really see what his life was like prior to really feel the shake up of his Spider-ification. What does Miles enjoy to do? What does he want to be when he grows up? There’s a lack of an inner life from Miles which makes the overly decompressed storytelling feel even more wasteful.
Complaining about decompressed storytelling from a 2011 comic feels like I’m yelling about “ludonarrative dissonance” in this new fangled Uncharted computer game, but it really is a valid complaint. I’ve joked about it, but I genuinely was disappointed reading some of these early issues and not getting to see Miles in costume, and having the plot move so slowly, and I was a Black 13 year old. Truly the prime audience for this comic. A new Spider-Man was so exciting but the pacing of this first chunk really killed the momentum for me. And the last two issues feel like Bendis became aware of that because we burn through Miles starting school, Peter dying, meeting the Ultimates and getting a costume in a way that feels rushed in comparison.
None of these things kill the enjoyment or impact of these first few issues obviously because Miles is Miles now and I really think that it’s the benefit of how much goodwill people have given this character. The letters pages in some of these issues are grim but the people who write in about how Miles resonates with them are so earnest and they represent just how much the character means to a lot of people. If they have to sit through weird pacing, they will. And it’s great they did because as we see now the character had and continues to have potential but we may have Miles To Go before we get there (I used the title! Get it?).
Join us next time for some yummy Chris Samnee art, some dicey views on the societal causes of crime and the confrontation with Miles’ uncle: the Prowler!