INT. MILES’ APARTMENT – BEDROOM MILES MORALES draws HOME-MADE STREET ART NAME-TAGS at a desk, headphones on, singing along to a song he’s too young for (”Sunflower”), but he doesn’t quite know the words yet.
It’s no secret that part of what launched Into the Spider-Verse into the stratosphere and gained it tons of love from critics and audiences alike was how, for an animated movie starring superheroes and a cartoon pig from another dimension, real and relatable a film it was.
Spider-Man is one of the most relatable superheroes out there and when he’s not relatable, you know he’s not being written well. Even in the recent Spider-Man video games, little and large things alike serve to make you feel like you get insight into Peter Parker’s familiar life. Sure, he’s a superhero that swings across the skyline saving folks from all kinds of crime, but he’s also a nerd who loves his aunt and gets distracted by cool weird things and makes bad jokes.
Peter has had decades of being written to be relatable. Recently, he almost always feels like an authentic example of a millennial trying to make it work in New York.
Miles… hasn’t exactly had that.
Now, I know I’ve written about my beef with Brian Michael Bendis and how he wrote Miles Morales before, but I’ve returned to it in the time between reading Jason Reynold’s Miles Morales novel and seeing Into the Spider-verse. Mostly, because I now know what it feels like to have a fully fleshed out version of Miles that doesn’t hinge on the writer’s preexisting notions of what life is like for Black people.
(But I’m not going to lie, I’m also still salty as hell over how Bendis seems to be a go-to Diversity Dude ™ for comics even though he’s not that great at it.)
When we talk about diversity in media, a lot of times people think that just having diverse casts onscreen or on the page is enough. It’s easy to think that diversity coming from racebending Koriand’r for Titans or Brian Michael Bendis writing Black characters is enough, but in both cases, there’s something missing from the set up.
I think it’s authenticity.
The first time we see Miles in Into the Spider-Verse, he’s working on street art in his messy bedroom. He’s a kid in his element and as we see him interact with his parents and the neighborhood kids he’s largely left behind to go to the fancy school – there’s this feeling like “hey, this is a real kid”.
The crew working on Into the Spider-Verse put in the work to make Miles and his life seem real and they highlight that by focusing on how very normal he is.
Miles is just a kid from Brooklyn, a kid who speaks Spanish with his mom and friends, who has no idea how to handle growing up (or growing into superpowers), and who listens to music that he probably shouldn’t. He’s a kid who loves his parents, but can’t figure out how to talk to them. He’s a kid that struggles to make friends.
His hopes. His struggle. His fears.
They’re all so damn familiar.
In the acceptance speech that Phil Lord and Peter Ramsey gave for the film’s BAFTA win, Ramsey said that:
We wanted to make a movie that made people feel seen. I think all of us have had the experience of parents telling us about their children seeing themselves up on the screen when they see Miles, saying “Ah, he speaks Spanish just like me”, or, “I can be just like her.”
So many people – adults and kids alike – felt seen after watching Into the Spider-Verse. Like with Black Panther, you had Black kids around the world who felt represented by a Spider-Man that looked and acted like them. You had adults, Spider-Man fans for decades, get downright giddy at the idea that they were finally getting to see a superhero world center them.
And it’s all because of the crew that put in the work.
Not to harp on Bendis again, but beyond Miles being visibly Black, I didn’t feel seen from the comics. His relationships with his parents, with his friends, and with the few other Black people in that corner of the Marvel multiverse all feel so… shallow. His Blackness (as well as his Latinidad) does as well.
But in Into the Spider-Verse and Reynold’s Miles Morales novel, his relationships are deep and so’s the connection to his Blackness. I remember watching Into the Spider-Verse and feeling that this was the only other superhero film that I’d seen be this openly and proudly Black after Black Panther. From the music, to the clothes, to how he and his family interact with each other, Miles’s Blackness and the Blackness of the people around him are on full display.
This brings us to Jason Reynolds’ Miles Morales: Spider-Man.
Reynolds is a talented young adult and middle grade author who’s had a bunch of hits in his career. His books are nuanced, full of diverse characters dealing with shit. I think he’s amazing, and I couldn’t have picked a better writer for Miles if you’d asked me to.
His Miles Morales novel is pretty much everything I could’ve ever asked for in a Spider-Man novel. It blends the fantastic elements of superhero stories with the everyday frustrations of being a teenaged superhero perfectly, especially when you consider how Miles’ superhero identity and his public one are kind of running up against the same enemy.
In my review of the novel, I note that:
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.
Reynolds writes a version of Miles’s life that goes beyond the shallow representation that previous attempts have done. Like Into the Spider-Verse, his Miles is just a regular kid, but he’s also one that’s very aware of what it means to be a Black kid and a Black hero. Here his Afro Puerto-Rican heritage is even more visibly on display as and it’s a stark contrast from the character Bendis once wrote complaining after a blogger gets excited about him being a kid of color/brown.
The thing about diversity, is that when it’s shallow, it’s hurtful as hell.
Bendis’ portrayal of Miles is shallow. It’s not because he’s a white dude, but because he’s a white creator that never seems to be putting in the work to figure out how to write nuanced Black characters. There are white dude authors who’ve spent years talking the diversity talk and putting forward amazingly fleshed out Black characters.
But they’re not the only ones writing.
For the past year or so, there’s been a movement in the young adult literature community centered on #OwnVoices books, books that prioritize marginalized writers writing their marginalized identities into fiction. (For example, a Black author like Angie Thomas writing about a Black character like Bri in her second novel On the Come Up counts as ownvoices because she’s writing her identity and experiences into her book.)
I know that lots of authors see the rise of #OwnVoices and a call for publishers to give more chances to authors of color writing characters of color (or queer authors writing queer characters) as a threat to their freedom as writers, but well –
Authenticity is important because of what these authors bring to the table. They’re bringing themselves and their lived experiences to their work and their stories only benefit from that.
Reynolds’ Miles Morales novel benefits from having a Black author who grew up well… Black and shaping the world that he lives in. Into the Spider-Verse benefits, not just from the tons of animators and writers working on the film, but from having Peter Ramsey, a Black male director who understands what it’s like to be invisible even when trying to tell your own story.
I loved Into the Spider-Verse and Reynolds’ Miles Morales: Spider-Man because of how clear it was that these were people who understood Miles. They understood him as a nuanced, multi-faceted character whose Blackness can’ be brushed under the rug or divorced from how he exists as a superhero.
These two pieces of media are awesome because of the authentic Black boyhood that suffuses Miles and for how they refuse to shy away from embracing that. You can’t pretend that Miles isn’t Black in either media or that his Blackness doesn’t inform the kind of Spider-Man that he chooses to be.
That remains something I can’t say about Bendis’ work.
Right now, Miles is in a solo series written by Eisner Award-winner (and all around awesome dude) Saladin Ahmed. Even though this isn’t an #OwnVoices take on the character, Ahmed has made it clear from day one that he’s committed to writing Miles as he should be written and that includes not glossing over his Blackness or making him appear to be uncomfortable with being “the Black Spider-Man”.
Representation and diversity will always matter.
However, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Miles Morales: Spider-Man show us that authenticity – both from #OwnVoices authors writing their lives into their fiction and non-OwnVoices authors who’ve put in the work – are even more important because of how it allows readers to feel seen and to see authentic and amazing portrayals of marginalized characters.
We’re getting a sequel to Into the Spider-Verse at some point.
Here’s hoping they remember that authenticity needs to be a huge part of the creative process behind putting this next step in Miles Morales’ story together!