Title: Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel
Author: Jason Reynolds (Twitter)
Rating: Super Highly Recommended
Genre/Category: Superheroes, Slice of Life, Spider-Man, Young Adult, Race and Representation
Release Date: August 1, 2017
Publisher: Marvel Press/Disney Hyperion
Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review and that’s what you’re getting.
“Everyone gets mad at hustlers, especially if you’re on the victim side of the hustle. And Miles knew hustling was in his veins.”
Miles Morales is just your average teenager. Dinner every Sunday with his parents, chilling out playing old-school video games with his best friend, Ganke, crushing on brainy, beautiful poet Alicia. He’s even got a scholarship spot at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions Academy. Oh yeah, and he’s Spider Man.
But lately, Miles’s spidey-sense has been on the fritz. When a misunderstanding leads to his suspension from school, Miles begins to question his abilities. After all, his dad and uncle were Brooklyn jack-boys with criminal records. Maybe kids like Miles aren’t meant to be superheroes. Maybe Miles should take his dad’s advice and focus on saving himself.
As Miles tries to get his school life back on track, he can’t shake the vivid nightmares that continue to haunt him. Nor can he avoid the relentless buzz of his spidey-sense every day in history class, amidst his teacher’s lectures on the historical “benefits” of slavery and the importance of the modern-day prison system. But after his scholarship is threatened, Miles uncovers a chilling plot, one that puts his friends, his neighborhood, and himself at risk.
It’s time for Miles to suit up.
Jason Reynolds’s Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel is the kind of Miles Morales content that I’ve been craving since the second Brian Michael Bendis had Miles straight up not get that him being “the Black Spider-Man” was significant representation for kids.
Reynolds’ novel portrays a version of Miles that fans of the character (and some of his lingering detractors) need to be reading. It is, easily, a portrayal of Miles that is more honest and authentic than any we’ve seen so far. Reynolds’ imbues the novel (and Miles’s life) with details about his day to day life at home and in school, giving us a look at Miles’s life that we so far really haven’t seen in the comics themselves.
What’s fantastic about Miles Morales, is that this is a novel where we really get to know not just Miles, but the people around him. When Spider-Man Homecoming came out, everyone was beyond pleased with the fact that we had more time with Peter and his friends and in his neighborhood than ever before.
We got to know the kid under the mask.
That’s what Jason Reynolds does for Miles.
Miles Morales takes readers home with Miles. We see his family dynamic (one that explicitly includes Miles’s best friend Ganke as a part), how he interacts with the neighbors that have known him since he was a little kid.
The fact is, that Miles’s neighborhood isn’t just a setting in the novel. It comes alive to the point where calling it a character on its own wouldn’t be too far-fetched. Reynolds gives us vivid details about what Miles’s Brooklyn neighborhood looks like. We meet Miles’s neighbors, many of whom have known Miles’s dad and late uncle since they were his age), and we meet his classmates. We see him fumble his way through a crush on Alicia Carson (who is such a pure, brave soul).
One new character that we see in Miles Morales is the titular character’s cousin Austin Davis, a teenager Miles’s age that writes him from jail at the start of the novel. I think that he’s a character that I’d like to see more of if we get further novels from Reynolds in this world because in many ways… he’s a lot like what Miles could’ve been if things were just a little different and I want him to get that chance.
Much of this novel revolves around Miles’s relationship with his family. He dreams of the night that his uncle Aaron died, blaming himself despite the fact that his uncle took advantage of his love in order to blackmail him.
Coming to terms with the fact that things weren’t as clear-cut as they seemed and that Aaron was more than the person Miles knew, is something very difficult that Miles has to deal with and I really wish that the novel had dealt with that and Miles’s relationship with Austin in further detail.
The main villain in Miles Morales isn’t really (or only) his teacher Mr. Chamberlain.
It’s not even the dozens of Mr. Chamberlains that have tormented Black students across the country for years.
It’s white supremacy.
It’s anti-black racism.
We see that at the beginning of the novel when Miles gets suspended for leaving Mr. Chamberlain’s class after his request to go use the bathroom was denied.
We see that in how the principal of Miles’s school initially assumed that Miles was responsible for stealing an entire store’s worth of canned sausage and threw his family’s past in Miles’s face. He decided that Miles was untrustworthy because of his father and uncle’s past and straight up accused Miles not just of stealing and lying, but of letting down his family by not disrupting what he clearly views as a legacy of crime. Like he actually says this (text spaced out for clarity):
“As you wrote in your own words, you could have chosen to rise to excellence,” the dean said, shaking his head.
Miles’s father clenched his jaw.
“Such potential to break the chain,” he continued. Miles’s father now gripped his chair and tapped his foot more intensely. “But, unfortunately it doesn’t look like that will be happening.” (104)
We see it in the way that a principal could say something like that to a student in front of his parents because he clearly doesn’t see himself as being in the wrong. As far as we know, he never apologizes. He never gives Miles his job at the school store back so that he doesn’t have to work/his parents don’t have to pay for his housing out of pocket. He never gives Miles another chance because clearly, he views the dubious privilege of having Miles, a young Black boy, attend the prestigious school as all the chance he’s going to get.
There’s a point in the novel, the night of the Halloween party, where Miles’s father’s friends are sitting around playing cards, when it comes out that they all had a Mr. Chamberlain in their lives. Not the same man exactly, but a white male teacher or principal that did their level best to get them kicked out of school for the most minor of infractions.
They all had similar stories about how their Mr. Chamberlains were the reason why they wound up leaving school and in many cases, getting arrested for committing crimes. Even Miles’s uncle had a Mr. Chamberlain that was, in many ways, partially responsible for the path that he wound up on. It’s a set up that shows the way that a bad teacher/educational figure can negatively impact vulnerable students’ lives without removing responsibility for the characters’ choices.
The effects of the school-to-prison are insidious and very visible throughout the course of the novel and they mirror the real-life inequality that plagues Black and Latino students and leads to a world where over 60 percent of people currently incarcerated are Black or Latino, given heavier sentences and punishments for crimes that white criminals often walk away from with a slap on the wrist.
According to the 2013 “State of Equality and Justice in America: The Presumption of Guilt” article:
“While African American and Latino teens are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than whites, they are 3-4 times more likely to be arrested, convicted or sent to jail or prison for non-violent drug offenses.”
Black students are three times more likely to be arrested at school than their peers. (Something which pushes said students into the criminal justice system and leaves marks on their records.)
In Miles Morales, Miles is suspended for leaving the classroom to use the bathroom. His crush and classmate Alicia is suspended for protesting Mr. Chamberlain’s explicit anti-black racism and his attempts to dehumanize Black people.
Alicia is punished for peacefully protesting against a teacher who singled-out what may have been the only Black students in the class as he went on to say things like:
“Slavery was the building block of our great country. We shouldn’t just blindly write off the argument for the Confederacy wanting to keep it.” (60)
“We underestimate the bond between slave and master. So many slaves were comfortable with being enslaved. Happy even.” (115)
He romanticized the antebellum South, praised the prison system for keeping slavery alive, and actively worked to dehumanize two Black students under his charge. His goal, and the goal of the other Mr. Chamberlains that have made flooding the school-to-prison pipeline their game, is to enslave Black people in the 21st century.
Their mission is literally to make sure that young Black students are so disheartened from being disenfranchised that they feel as though they have no choice but to drop out of school and (automatically, according to the Chamberlains) turn to crime. There’s a scene during the aforementioned Halloween party where Miles has an opportunity to spy on the Chamberlains and they’re all standing around crowing about how well they’re doing in their attempts to return to what was, for them, “a better time”.
It’s one of several moments in the novel that made me shake with anger because there are people who believe this today – people that believe that Black people were born of filth and that they are destined to remain that way forever. There are so many people who look at people like me and like Miles and see a sub-human being. People in power. People who are respected. It’s upsetting to think about.
And Jason Reynolds doesn’t gloss over that.
At the end of the day, Miles doesn’t just stop having to deal with the effects of systemic anti-black racism because an old white racist with weird mind control powers has died. He doesn’t defeat the bad guy and have his racist teacher turn into a genial crusader for equal rights.
Sure Miles saves the day, defeating a racist evil that has existed for at least a hundred years, but he still lives in a world where Black boys can be and are killed just for who they are. There’s no automatic out for him.
Even at the end of the novel, Mr. Chamberlain doesn’t magically stop being racist.
He doesn’t actually start treating Miles like a person with agency.
And that’s because the things that the other, older Mr. Chamberlain believed about Black people were always in this one. The desire to humiliate Black students was always something that he had within it. The villain in this book just nurtured that what was already present in him.
And that’s the thing: the real villain in Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel isn’t a costumed bad guy that can be locked away or rehabilitated. It’s a systemic sort of violence that infects and affects the day to day lives of Black people. It’s a hydra with a million heads.
At the end of the day, to Mr. Chamberlain and men like him in and out of the education system, Miles will remain a Black Puerto-Rican kid with no hope of success and no future. Superheroes can’t defeat bigotry like that.
Not even one as amazing and spectacular as Miles is.
But the novel ends with a protest from Miles, Alicia, and the rest of the students in their class.
It ends with them reclaiming their personhood and their agency and fighting back against a world that can accept superheroes easier than it can people of color.
Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel ends with Miles and his classmates telling Mr. Chamberlain that they are people: not puppets, punching bags, or pets.
It ends on a powerful note.
As I go back through the novel, it seems more than fitting that Jason Reynolds opens Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel with a stanza from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask”. The poem, which refers to the cheerful “mask” that the descendants of enslaved Africans often put on in order to make dealing with an anti-black society, works with who Miles is as a character and brings the different masks that he has to don right to the forefront of our minds.
His novel fleshes Miles out, giving him an authentic voice that I feel hasn’t been present in the comics very much. Miles could be my nephew. He could be my cousin. Under Jason Reynolds’ pen, Miles becomes a fully fleshed out character whose struggles and successes echo those of people that I know and that I’ve experienced.
I can’t wait to see what else Jason Reynolds brings to the table in future works with Disney Hyperion and Marvel. If the powers that be learn anything from this brilliant novel, I hope it’s that he needs to be their go-to writer for Miles from here on in.