MILES MORALES, the Bildungsroman, and the Ethnoracial Pause

After a screening of my doc. Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics at the Durham County Library, a librarian asked: “What comics do a good job representing diversity, especially for young readers?”

My reflex answer: “Go to the independents! Begin with those Latinx and African American creators featured in the documentary. Then follow the yellow-bricks to those creators that make happen the Latino Comics Expo, the Black & Brown Comix Arts Festival (BCAF), and my very own SÕL-CON. These are the creators doing the hard grind, and with spectacular results.”

My second reflex answer: “If you go mainstream behemoth, check out post-New 52 Teen Titans, Araña, All-New Ghost Rider, Ms Marvel, America, Ironheart — and, of course, Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man.” I ended with a soft push toward my book, Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics, where I talk about all this, and more.

Interior art by Javier Garrón

There’s diversity in comics. And, there’s diversity in comics.

With the exceptions just mentioned and a handful of others — mostly contemporary and mostly Marvel — diversity in mainstream comics history has mostly been a series of gratuitous fits and starts; splashes of proverbial color to widen reader demographics for the bottom line: larger profits.

When mainstream comics get diversity right, it involves what I call elsewhere a great will to style: the creator or team of creators’ bringing a high degree of artistic skill (drawing, inking, coloring, for instance) in shaping a kinetic visual (and verbal) narrative as well as a serious responsibility to the distillation and reconstruction (paraphrasing) of the ethnoracial building blocks that make up their storyworld.

Of course, a female creator such as G. Willow Wilson who converted to Islam, or a queer Latinx creator like Gabby Rivera readily infuse their proximate gender, religious, and ethnoracial experiences into their respective super-hero storyworlds, Ms Marvel and America. In terms of the paraphrasing of the building blocks of gender, ethnoracial, and LGBTQ experiences, their will to style is, say, closer at hand. Arguably, their will to style “homework” requires less, say, research, consulting with others, and so on.

This doesn’t mean that they still don’t need to do homework when stripping down and reconstructing the building blocks in comic book narrative form gendered, sexual, religious, and ethnoracial realities. Nor does it mean that non-“diversity” creators can’t make extraordinary “diversity” comics.

This brings me to the various creators involved in the Miles Gonzales Morales story arc: Brian Michael Bendis, Sarah Pichilli, David Marquez (and other artists) — and recently Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garrón. No matter the experience and subjectivity (gender, sexuality, ethnoracial, religious, for instance), such teams of creators can and do bring a great degree of a will to style in their reconstructions of diversity that wakes readers to perceive, think, and feel in new ways about “diversity” in mainstream comics.

Interior art by Javier Garrón

Starting in 2011, Bendis and Pichelli laid the foundations for an Afrolatinx Spidey who had room to breathe and grow. The slow-burn set-up firmly anchored a teen Miles in a mixed-race family life as well as specifics of place: Brooklyn.

That is, they laid the foundations for what would become over a near-decade of storytelling, a dynamic and robust education-of-self narrative. They created an Afrolatinx bildungsroman.

Indeed, once bitten, over this near-decade of storytelling we witness the unfolding of a doubled journey of the self: 1) as Blatinx teen Miles within the social: stresses of being a high schooler at the Brooklyn Visions Academy along with home-life with Nuyorican mamá, Rio, a nurse at Brooklyn General Hospital, and African American papá, Jefferson Davis, a cop and former agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. 2) as Spider-Man discovering then fine-tuning his superpowers to fight neighborhood and supervillain criminals.

There are moments of overlap and intersection between these two education-of-self journeys that intensify the tensions Miles/Spider-Man experiences as at once a singular and doubled self. I think readily of the ripping of the Spidey suit that reveals an eye — and his brown skin — within the public eye. This intensifies the social mirror that he’s been negotiating as a Afrolatinx teen and as a costumed superhero. It also collapses for an instant this doubled journey of the self: the eye/I of Miles and the eye/I of Spider-Man.

Importantly, this bildungsroman is very much anchored in the life of a teen, an Afrolatinx teen. Of course, as Spider-Man this might be expected. It’s canon that Peter Parker was a high school freshman when bitten by a spider. And he remains a teen throughout his many decades of adventuring. However, several Spidey iterations have imagined him as an adult.

Interior art by José Duran

I think readily of José Duran’s El Sorprendente El Hombre Araña (for La Prensa in the 1970s), Peter David and Rick Leonardi’s Miguel O’Hara in Spider-Man 2099 (1992-1996; 2014-2015), and Dan Slott and Ryan Stegma’s Superior Spider-Man (2013-2014). With the exception of the Mig O’Hara Spidey that does spend some time following his journey as a teen, these adult web-slingers mostly fall flat.

A modicum of intrigue and excitement lies only in how the creators pump up the epic the super battles. The curiosity to know the world and obstacles overcome in everyday life simply don’t exist; these adult Spideys experience the rather stale and staid stresses of adults. Hombre Araña worries that once he marries Gwen Stacey, she’ll discover his secret identity; later he frets about Gwen’s trip to London and her being so far away from him. No matter how expert José’s visuals are at conveying this, we just don’t care.

Jon Watt’s Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) is just fine as a Spidey story, but similarly falls flat. It’s not only that Watts’s Spidey is, well, business-as-usual Anglo. It is a bildungsroman of sorts: Tom Holland as Peter/Spidey struggles between wanting to have fun as a teen and accepting responsibility as an adult. But that’s it. There’s no nuance concerning Peter/Spidey’s ravenous hunger to explore physically and cognitively the world as a teen self.

In contrast, to Watt’s Spidey and the adult Spideys just mentioned, Miles is a teen with a huge hunger to know the world—and to test what he learns from books and others about this world in his actual actions. He’s ravenous to discover for the first time the totality of the universe. His journey is firmly situated in the world — a racially diverse Brooklyn in the 21st century.

And, along the way he discovers that he also creates, to a certain extent, this world. The team of creators consistently characterize him as a teen who constantly struggles to hold back an adult world that seeks constantly to quash in him his huge curiosity to understand and map physically and cognitively the world as well as the desire to create something new.

Interior art by Javier Garrón

This leads me to another related point. Spider-Man as a teen-in-formation will always generate more interest than a Superman — or any fully formed adult superhero character born with infinite powers. Once the origin story of a character born a non-bildungsroman superhero is told, there’s not much left to keep us interested. That they are fully formed and thinking adults is the last thing I want to engage with as a teen or as an adult. We as readers hunger for the journey. We crave the narratives where we recognize the self and another. In the case of Miles, our teen of color self-formation and as another: a Spider-Man Other.

Miles’s journey is one of a kinesis of consciousness, primarily driven through the bildungsroman mode. His mind actively encounters and develops within and against the social—the many minds. This constantly growing and transforming self also learns to think, feel, and act in ways that transform this social.  Indeed, as Miles’s story moves from origin to superhero, he moves from proximate spaces of family and friends outward into a greater world.

We see this especially marked when moving from the issues that make up Miles Morales: The Ultimate Vol. 1 to those issues that make up volumes 2 and 3 where he increasingly encounters a world beyond Brooklyn as well as sets of superhero formed social minds: the Avengers and Ultimates, for instance. WE see this enlarging of the social also in the second solo series, Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man (2014-2015) and when Miles is center-staged as a member of the All-New, All-Different Avengers (2015-2016).

These post “Secret Wars” storylines and storyworlds — destruction of the Ultimate and Earth-616 universes land Miles on a new planet, Battleworld, built from the remains of the various alternate Earths — present all new social spaces with all variety of new challenges for Miles/Spidey to learn and grow from.  And, we see the most complex and layered moments of self-formation in the pauses between the battles.

Interior art by Javier Garrón

In Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics I argue that for superhero narratives to soar, there needs to be the skillful and willful visualizing — geometrizing — of character, theme, and plot to guide our imagination (our gap-filling mental processes) and that drive “our co-creative insertion into a storyworld” (94).

In other words, I argue that the skillful use of geometric shaping devices (perspective, mise-en-panel, layout, font shape, balloon placement, for instance) create a visually kinetic story—and that this is absolutely necessary with superhero comics.

I’d like to complicate this.

In my current book project, ‘I is Another’: Teen Superheroes of Color in Mainstream Comics, I attend to those narrative pauses that take place in between the epic battles—especially in teen superhero of color bildungsroman comics. It’s not just that a comic book series like Miles Morales gets it right in terms of creating a teen character ravenous to know the world. It’s that taken as a whole Miles’s grand story arc builds in ample ethnoracial pauses that breathe life into Miles in ways that go way beyond his superheroic battles.

Yes, Spidey’s epic battles against supervillains are exciting. However, what’s most compelling are the pauses in between the epic battles. Those moments of human connection, interaction, and action where misunderstanding opens to understanding, fear turns to acceptance, and hard ethical choices are deliberated.  Indeed, it’s the slowing down of time and space as situated in a racially diverse storyworld with a racially diverse teen protagonist deeply engaged with all variety of other characters (social minds) that ask readers to take this ethnoracial pause:  willfully built diverse social time-spaces that richly texture complex human perceptions, emotions and thoughts.

When Saladin Ahmed and Javier Garrón published #1 Miles Morales: Spider Man (December 12, 2018), they masterfully continued Miles’s bildungsroman in and through the creating of an expansive ethnoracial pause.  As the issues unfold thus far, we see how these pauses bring complexity to his education-of-self as set within a complex and diverse urban space: architectured interiors, exteriors, streets and subways; languages, including slang, swearing (^%$#^), Spanish-English code-switching; everyday life of biracial and bicultural Miles; family life, including his mamá Rio’s hectic 9-5 as a nurse at Brooklyn General; relationships with the dad and his uncle Aaron.

Cover art by Marco D’Alfonso

And, we see in the pause that superhero comics can also contain the everyday political—a no-no in mainstream comics storytelling. In #1 Ahmed and Garrón includes a Newspaper headline that reads: “More Immigrant Children Detained.” The ethnoracial pause happens powerfully with Garrón’s visuals, too. His urban landscapes aren’t all skyscraper squeaky clean. Nor are his barrios only clichés of the grim and grime. There’s complexity in Garrón’s visuals of exteriors.

In one Spidey aerial view, we see below a line of regular folks (not indigent) waiting outside a building: Warm Meals.  To this and much more Miles contemplates: “I’m Miles Morales, Spider-Man. And I’ve never been more sure of my power” / But I’ve never been more confused about my responsibilities.” There’s complexity in Garrón’s visuals of interiors. Uncle Aaron’s brownstone pad (bought by selling his Spider Iron suit to Stark Enterprises) features African art along with modern furniture.

Saladin’s verbal and Garrón’s visual ethnoracial pauses allow readers to step more viscerally and empathically into Miles’s shoes: the struggles and conflicts faced by a teen of color living in Brooklyn in the 21st century. As if Miles, we ask ourselves: should I be truthful with my Latina girlfriend Barbara Rodriguez and reveal my secrete superhero identity? Should I skip class to check out “A Brief History of Brooklyn Hip-Hop”? Should I save a child from a burning building? Should I Spidey super-punch the school bully?

And, these ethnographic pauses invite readers to experience what it means to be a self under constant racialized surveillance. At school, he’s constantly shadowed and hunted by the suspicious Anglo Assistant Principle Lyle Dutcher.

Interior art by Javier. Garrón

I should add here that an important shaper of the ethnographic pause is the work of the Mexican colorist, David Curiel. His color palette brings vibrantly alive an urban space and family that’s all shades of brown, reminding the readers that Miles, Barbara, Ganke Lee, Rio, Jefferson, Uncle Aaron, and all other PoC characters are not one color — but a multiflorous spectrum of the many.

Sure, Ahmed and Garrón give us the epic battles with supervillains like The Rhino, Tombsone, The Snatcher — a red-head, red-beard redneck who kidnaps and traffics children, for instance. But I’d tell that Durham County librarian mentioned at the beginning of this piece, that what they really get right is to expand the ethnoracial pause, and with this, create a diversity superhero comic at its best.

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