Black Skin, Spandex Masks

by Sean Paul Ashley

I’m going to say something that will shock you. Superman is not American.

That’s bound to raise some hue and cry, because we as Americans hold these truths to be self-evident: Like Hamburgers and fries, and the Statue of Liberty – Superman is so down-home, homegrown, rootin-tootin, Southern-fried, Yankee-Doodle, God-fearing and freedom-loving, he makes Captain America look redundant.

But consider, also like the Statue of liberty (made in France), hamburgers, (invented in Germany) and French fries (eponymously French in heritage), Superman is an illegal alien. Born on a foreign planet, with no education to speak of, Superman illegally immigrated to America and proceeded to systematically take the jobs of hardworking, native-born American superheroes. The man’s a damn menace.

With that established, I’m going to say something else that will shock you. Spider-Man is black.

Yes, Spider-Man, who has gone through various configurations of limbs, costumes, and powers – has undergone his most disturbing mutation to date – he is a black man. With this, the escalating irony of American race relations, in which the president is black and the best rapper is white, has surely reached its climax. This new Spiderman, Miles Morales, is half-black, half-Hispanic; a deadly racial tinder inflaming the media, the comic faithful and the anti-PC community.

For those readers unlearned in comic canons, white Spider-Man, may he rest in peace, was Peter Parker. Pimply, ungainly, and downright dorky by day, upon debuting in 1962, Peter Parker epitomized American adolescence. Benefitting from a radioactive spider-bite, and an editorial staff with a reckless disregard for laws of human biology, Peter gained the ability to shoot spider-webs from his wrists, super-strength and a precognitive spider sense. With the mantra of “with great power comes great responsibility”, Peter confronts the demons of adolescence, personal trauma, persecution, sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Suffice to say, Spider Man is living breathing Americana, faster than a Ford, stronger than Paul Bunyan, and whiter than Lincoln’s ghost. Which is why, when Marvel killed off Peter in an alternate storyline earlier this year, questions, eyebrows, ire and gorges rose in unison. Exit Peter Parker. Enter Miles Morales.

Well hell, Miles Morales is blacker than a Model-T, faster than greased lighting, sweet as licorice and, generally is one bad-mother-SHUT-YOUR-MOUTH.

Actually he isn’t. With uncannily similar adolescent nerdiness, family troubles, and powers as Peter Parker – Miles is the spitting image of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, with one notable exception. Miles is an African-American.

Exit reason and logic. Enter hysteria, ignorance and chauvinism.

The right-wing hawks of the comic congress are urging immediate isolationism within the Marvel state, because on the horizon is a Superman who is gay, Chinese, Communist and in all likelihood, a multiple amputee. And Muslim too.

I exaggerate.

But barely, for littered in the commentary on USA Today are remarks ranging from the dismissive, “Well, that nails it. Spidey’s dead to me”, to the dimwitted “Minorities are typically less than 18% of the population, but they seem to get nearly 100% of the history. Why should white children not have a comic book hero that they can identify with?”

White Superman, Batman, Iron Man, the Flash, Captain America, Professor X, Wonder Woman and Thor were unavailable for comment.

It is a troubling tempest that’s brewing in America’s racial teapot, when a black man who assumes the mantle of superhero immediately becomes the target of scorn, anger, criticism, bemusement and shock. It is even more troubling when we realize that Miles Morales represents America today: adolescent, racially divided, and technologically savvy. Why then is Superman the beloved, beatified American defender, and Miles Morales, as another USA Today commenter put it, “politically correct, racist nonsense”?

The answer lies in the fiction of America, and the incredible disenchantment America faces when this fiction is threatened. Comic books have always been an escape from reality, with morals, plots and characters as two-dimensional as the pages they are printed on. Goodies and baddies. Right and wrong. Comics are the friendly neighborhood saviors of American tragedy, doing on a small scale what America has done in producing the grand narrative of American exceptionalism – sanitized, whitewashed, lied, mythologized and fictionalized its way through history. And through the comic medium, the myth becomes innocuous, inviolable, sacred and cherished.

This is why the black man can’t fit in.

Black America has always been the ugly underbelly of American history, one in which America’s red white and blue found itself in spilled blood, white hoods and the blues. Because America’s blacks have always suffered at the hands of white America, they have found themselves ostracized from the grand racial myth that has been so generous to hamburgers, French fries, apple pie and Superman. Liberty, fraternity and equality, somehow never quite managed to explain away slavery, bigotry, and racism. And so the black man was erased from white history, forced to eat in the kitchen while white America grew fat on this fiction.

But oh the times they are a-changing.

The Man of Steel, the ageless, ironclad pillar of liberty, fraternity and equality, seems increasingly obsolete in today’s America, with its increasingly scrutinized abuses of state power, discrimination against immigrants and meaningless wars. Mostly whites consume rap music, the American president is black, gays can marry, and China is poised to be the next global superpower. The decline of America’s global hegemony is being paralleled by a willingness to confront an increasingly feeble American fiction. And one of the first facts to raise itself will be America’s disfigured racial history, which demands from us, as patriots, our vigilance, respect and attention. And we have Miles to go before we sleep.

So what are my feelings about Miles Morales? Yes, he’s your friendly neighborhood black man wearing a mask. He’s bound to send some white Americans fleeing for the suburbs. But the content of Spider-Man’s character hasn’t ever been black or white; it’s red, white and blue.

That shouldn’t come as a shock.