When Marc Bernadin suggested in May 2010 that the Amazing Spider-Man reboot should star Community’s Donald Glover – followed shortly thereafter by Glover launching an online campaign to be granted an audition – the response was predictably heated and divided, falling squarely within the contradictory rhetorical logics of post-racist discourse: those opposed argued that to cast an African-American in the role not only violated sacrosanct comic book continuity, but was also itself a "racist" action because it would make race the central tenet of a character that was meant to be an iconic everyman (trains of thought that ignored the multiple ways that Spider-Man had previously been ret-conned and elided the ways in which the historical representation of the everyman figure as Caucasian participates in a racialized power structure that equates whiteness with universality). Those in favor argued that Glover’s star persona mapped perfectly with Peter Parker’s characterization as nerdy, awkward, quick-witted, and athletic. In other words, support for Glover was often refracted through the same color-blind lens as those opposed to him: here Glover’s race was irrelevant, there it was an issue only because it would circularly make race an issue for a fanbase that dutifully refused to see race as an issue.
Where arguments in favor of staying true to the comic book source material may impede how American cultural icon like Spider-Man can be re-imagined on screen, the comic book industry has historically been quite open to exploring (certain) variations on its most iconic characters and stories. Dating back to the 1950s with DC’s "Imaginary Stories" and continuing through today with projects like Spider-Man: India, publishers have recognized that readers take pleasure in imagining alternate timelines, outcomes and characterizations that challenge canonical events and interpretations. There have already been African-American versions of Batman, Superman, and Captain America, so telling the story of an African-American Spider-Man would not be unprecedented.
The trouble with "What If" scenarios though is that they usually affirm the status quo even as they upend it. Rarely does the alternate outcome prove more rewarding than the existing continuity, and even when it does, the pleasure derived is based on reader ability to recognize the differences between the "original" and its "derivative". In terms of storytelling, this can be quite awesome. When it comes to representations of marginalized "others," less so.
Like Bendis read my mind...
As if on cue, USA Today reported yesterday that the new Spider-Man in the Marvel Ultimate Universe will be biracial, half Latino and half African-American. Miles Morales replaces Peter Parker, who was killed off several issues back. Unsurprisingly, Brian Michael Bendis, Ultimate Spider-Man's writer was quite vocal in his support for Donald Glover in the film version. This is an interesting twist for many ways, not the least of which being that it complicates anti-Glover arguments about needing to stay true to the comics (many nay-sayers were OK with Samuel L. Jackson being cast as Nick Fury in the movies because the Ultimate comic books had previously depicted the character as African-American -- Mark Millar has claimed that his inspiration for creating a Black Nick Fury was Samuel L. Jackson). It will be interesting to see how the industry and readers approach Morales and how inevitable comparisons to Peter Parker are articulated.
I really enjoyed this post. I think the Ult Spiderman development is complicated but pretty great, overall. True (as you say) it is an alternate universe, not the regular universe. It seems the Ultimate universe is different from an Elseworlds storyline, say, featuring a black Superman because it can be a sustained storyline. The move is not as gutsy as killing off the "real" Peter Parker and making the "real" Spiderman black, but it is still a big move.
I ventured on some of the messageboards on Comic Book Resources, and looked at the fan reaction. Obviously it was mixed. Everything from "Spiderman is Peter Parker, I'm quiting this title," to "at least they didn't make Peter black," to "they should have made an original character and left Spiderman alone, because Spiderman is white." Of course, the last argument totally misses the symbolic value of taking an iconic white character and seeing what would happen if s/he were another ethnicity (or another gender, sexual orientation, etc).
Continuity as "states' rights"
This may be a bit of a stretch, but sometimes I wonder if "continuity" isn't the comic book equivalent of "states' rights" or "strict interpretation of the Constitution" in American political discourse. It's an authoritative source to cite when you want to and it's equally easy to ignore when you don't need it.
Relevance of Race Beyond Spider-Man
I really enjoyed this post. I think that continuity should be pretty rigidly adhered to when you're talking about the development of character attitudes and psychology, but race is rarely an issue. We've already had a Superman played by a half-Japanese actor in a major television series (granted he didn't necessarily look too dissimilar from the source, you take my meaning), but even so, casting in other media for the more "iconic" characters is generally more rigid when trying to preserve their look.
With a character like Spider-Man, the look is intact regardless of race because of the nature of his costume. It covers all of him and wouldn't particularly matter too much. Todd McFarlane spoke of how race wasn't a large factor in this character when he was the primary artist, and I tend to agree.
Laurence Fishburne was recently cast as Perry White for the next Superman film, and I think that's brilliant casting from a capable actor. I remember talk of Will Smith being up for Superman a few years ago, but Superman should collectively embody the expectations of everyone, and while an African-American actor could potentially accomplish this, I think Will Smith would've been wrong for the part. Fishburne's casting has little impact on the wide perception of the Superman mythos, although it does diversify the Daily Planet offices while ensuring a good performance from a great actor.
This post could not have been timed better! I remember seeing somewhere (possibly on the DVD and in some interviews) that when Batman Returns and Batman Forever were being developed that Marlon Wayans was originally cast as Robin. The part was dropped from Returns and recast when the production team changed, along with the casting of Val Kilmer as the next Batman. I'm curious if there would have been a similar outcry, or what other debates might have come up? Would it have been solely a discussion of race (or even at all)? Would there have been more of a discussion of Wayans as a performer? It is even possible that none of these issues would have emerged.
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