JANUARY 4, 2020
There’s always more to the story, right? I mean, a name, whether good or bad, is almost never just a name. There’s always something behind it. Something more to it.
— Miles Morales, Miles Morales: Spider-Man
AFTER BLACK PANTHER, Miles Morales, the new in-continuity Afro-Latinx Spider-Man, is the most impactful Black superhero on both page and screen this decade. Yet, Miles has already had to undergo a process of de-colonization similar to the still-ongoing revisions of Black Panther, despite coming nearly 50 years later.
Created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli in 2011 for Marvel’s Ultimate/Earth-1610 series, Miles’s popularity has brought him not only into Marvel’s prime universe, Earth-616, as Peter Parker’s mentee, but also to now multiple Disney animated series (2012; 2016–present), a hugely successful video game developed by Insomniac Games (2018), and the critically acclaimed blockbuster movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018).
Across these media, perhaps no authorial choice better captures the much-needed de-colonization of the character than the naming of his African-American father Jefferson Davis.
That Miles’s father shares his name with the president of the Confederate States of America, one of the most horrific advocates for the continuation and expansion of racial slavery, might be shrugged off as a coincidence — although this would be akin to Superman landing in Smallville, Kansas, and being raised by a farmer randomly named Robert E. Lee. The name of Miles’s father stands out even more against the character’s background. Jefferson is an NYPD officer in both the movie and the video game, whereas in the comics he is a former criminal turned undercover aide to Nick Fury and, ultimately, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Both versions are laden with racial connotations and potential minefields for even the most politically adept and sensitive writers.
Incredibly, the stories give much more attention to the fact that Miles is given his mother’s last name. The multiple explanations include that his father didn’t want to burden his son with his criminal past, or that it would just be plain silly to have his son share his name with the jazz musician Miles Davis. This is apparently less absurd than Jefferson Davis’s own namesake, now left up to posters on troubling message boards to sort out.
Of course, it is relatively easy to speculate about why Miles’s father is named Jefferson Davis. Occam’s razor suggests that it is because at no point in the development of the character had anyone in the creative or editorial team considered it noteworthy. They either had not remembered Jefferson Davis from their US history class or did not care. For what it’s worth, the creative team led by Bendis has found themselves on the wrong side of more than one controversy over their handling of race.
Fives years into his tenure with Miles, Bendis writes what I read as both his epiphanic concession about the character and a scolding email from a nervous creator facing pushback from readers. In Issue #8 of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Luke Cage, a problematic fave in his own right, offers Miles some advice: “Spider-Man is a kid of color now. That is cool. It’s important. Don’t screw it up.” That Bendis places the onus on the character’s shoulders reflects an environment in which creating characters of color was a substitute for hiring writers of color or seriously attending to the issues faced by communities of color. Despite Marvel’s financial interest in expanding the diversity of its characters during and after the election of President Barack Obama, they initially charged very few writers and editors of color with the creation and development of these characters.
Marvel has since course-corrected in this respect, hiring highly acclaimed writers of color to helm various prized characters, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay (Black Panther), Nnedi Okorafor (Shuri), and Eve L. Ewing (Ironheart — another Black character initially charged to Bendis). Miles has more recently benefited from this about-face, and the work to de-colonize the character by the writers Jason Reynolds and Saladin Ahmed, with artists Javier Garrón and David Curiel, deserves dedicated attention. As Rebecca Wanzo writes, “The road to better Black representations is a long one, often because people are constantly reworking the old ones.” These writers are part of this process, and Miles now has an even brighter future because of their work.
The directness with which Reynolds addresses the naming of Miles’s father in his YA novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man (2017) is refreshingly shocking: Miles learns for the first time about the historical Jefferson Davis from Mr. Chamberlain, his villainous history teacher who not only romanticizes slavery in class but turns out to be part of a network of Confederate zombies working to punish students of color and fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.
In the novel, Miles attempts to figure out why his spidey-sense is triggered every time he is in Mr. Chamberlain’s class. On one occasion, Mr. Chamberlain quizzes students about the originator of the quote, “All we ask is to be let alone.” He provokes Miles out of his stupor when he announces it was Jefferson Davis, reminding Miles of his father. As Chamberlain explains, “The quote is a simple one, but it means so, so much. It’s simply asking that the people of the South be allowed to govern themselves. That the way things were was just fine.” A student speaks up, saying, “Unless you were a slave.” But Mr. Chamberlain continues his lesson unabated: “We underestimate the bond between slave and master. So many slaves were comfortable with being enslaved. Happy even. Later this week, maybe I’ll bring in some images to better illustrate my point.” Building on this white supremacist view, Mr. Chamberlain suggests that the prison-industrial complex thankfully provides a similar, modern-day “opportunity.” Miles, a direct target of Mr. Chamberlain’s racism throughout the novel, suffers through the lesson, “letting every word dagger through his mind.”
Building to the climax of the novel, Miles once again hears this quote, this time uttered by his father in reference to his now deceased super-villain brother, Miles’s Uncle Aaron. Miles and Jefferson learn that Aaron had a son, Austin, whom they decide to visit in prison. After realizing that Aaron’s desire to care for his son might have motivated his turn to crime, Miles’s father laments, “Like, I always thought he just couldn’t help himself. Or … didn’t want to … and all I wanted was to be left alone.”
With the repetition of this quote, Miles must consider his father side-by-side with the specter of Jefferson Davis, once again through the link between slavery and the carceral state. At issue is Miles’s father’s belief that Aaron “couldn’t help himself [from committing crimes]. Or didn’t want to…” This characterization of Aaron mirrors the rhetoric of Black criminality used so frequently to justify over-policing, racial profiling, and outright police brutality in communities of color. Moreover, the echoed desire to be “left alone” now refers not to Southern states’ desire to protect the institution of slavery, but Jefferson’s desire to separate himself from his criminal brother, and by extension his community, in order to excel — a dynamic also reflected in his decision to enter Miles into the lottery that would send him to the charter school Brooklyn Visions Academy.
From this point of the novel forward, Miles begins to discover that Mr. Chamberlain is actually just one of untold Mr. Chamberlains who have been torturing and framing Black and Latinx teenagers in schools, detention centers, and prisons across New York City, and perhaps beyond, to ensure the continuation of slavery. In true genre fashion, Miles follows his Mr. Chamberlain to a secret meeting of Confederate zombies led by a prison warden who presides under a large portrait of … the historical Jefferson Davis. With this apt image, Reynolds invokes the undead, ideological legacy of white supremacy that remains too diffuse to individuate. And, what better represents the intractability of this legacy, Reynolds self-referentially suggests, than naming the Afro-Latinx Spider-Man’s dad Jefferson Davis?
In his work on the comic series Miles Morales: Straight Out of Brooklyn (2019), Saladin Ahmed continues this project of building a more politically sensible, self-aware, and inspiring character. Through the narrative conceit of Miles’s creative writing journal, Ahmed opens his run by reintroducing readers to the character’s back story. Rather than using his full name, Miles introduces his dad simply as “Jeff.” But if this seems to sidestep the issue, the boldness of Ahmed’s political vision for the character does anything but.
Within the first issue alone, Miles confronts the moral urgency of racism, economic inequality, deportation, and family separation at the US border. In a panel drawn by Ahmed’s collaborator, the Spanish artist Javier Garrón, the reader sees Miles’s mother, Rio, reading a newspaper whose headline declares, “MORE IMMIGRANT CHILDREN DETAINED.” Rio, a Puerto-Rican American, demands that Miles as well as the audience stop to see the problem: “This whole world’s going crazy, Miles. Look at this. I see this and I think about if someone took you from me at that age … people are afraid to bring their kids to the hospital. Afraid they’ll be locked up. It’s not right.”
Miles confronts the reality of this headline when he helps his girlfriend Barbara babysit her cousin Eduardo. Eduardo’s father has been deported, and Eduardo’s own status is uncertain despite the fact that he has been in America since he was two years old. On one page, Miles, looking down at a faith-based food kitchen, introduces himself by saying, “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 responsibility.” This ambivalence will guide subsequent issues, as Miles teams up with the villain Rhino to investigate children, including Eduardo, being taken from their families and turned into robotic villains.
In the third issue, Miles leads Captain America and Rhino into a former S.H.I.E.L.D. detention center now commandeered by “The Snatcher,” who has abducted children under his control. Incensed at the villain’s callous disregard for his actions, Miles shouts, “These are innocent kids!” The Snatcher responds, “Innocent?! You know who I snatch from? Scum that sleeps on our streets. Dirt that ignores our borders. Garbage that fills their veins with poison.” Snatcher’s dehumanizing exclamations bring together the anti-Black racism emphasized in Reynolds’s novel with the bigotry and oppression faced by immigrants of color, particularly Latinx immigrants. The way in which the Snatcher depicts his child abuse as a punitive measure against his victims’ parents evokes the racist logic that transparently motivates both President Trump and the ICE officers under his authority. Here as elsewhere, Ahmed clearly shares with Reynolds the willingness to strip away the abstraction and equivocation that plagues not only earlier versions of this character, but also the most supposedly liberal or “woke” superheroes.
The third issue of Ahmed’s run ends with Miles sitting between Eduardo and Barbara at a movie theater, which in Garrón’s beautiful rendering shows a diverse audience in various states of emotional enchantment. Eduardo is portrayed mid-scream, an action I dare say some might call “uncivil.” In excerpts from his journal superimposed over the image, Miles answers the implicit question he posed in the first issue:
“With great power there must also come great responsibility.” The first Spider-Man used to quote that at me all the time. I’ve been to other planets. I know androids and demigods. But real talk? Our neighbors are more important than alien invasions or global conspiracies. And the people around us are our great responsibility.
Miles’s use of the word “neighbors” to describe Eduardo and the other racially diverse moviegoers directly counters the Snatcher’s language of “garbage,” “scum,” and “trash.” Yet, it is Miles’s clever dismissal of “alien invasions” and “global conspiracies” that is the true genius of this line. “Alien invasions” conjures our current, racist public discourse on immigration, while “global conspiracies” invokes the way in which this discourse intersects with other obsessions of Trump and the right — for instance their depictions of migrant caravans coming to the United States through Mexico as funded by the Jewish investor George Soros (whose name has become an antisemitic dog whistle) and containing “unknown Middle-Easterners.”
But, too, Miles is referring to the tendency of superhero comics to embrace the fantastic, depicting battles with intergalactic super villains and hinging upon ultimately trivial MacGuffins. By explicitly taking responsibility for the people around him, Miles is by contrast promising to address the problems that, in the cosmic world of superhero comics, can appear relatively minor: racial and economic inequality, bigotry, and white supremacy. Here Ahmed is, not coincidentally, returning the character to the “friendly neighborhood” roots given him by his creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Though the fantastic and the political are not incompatible, superhero comics, especially those that represent characters of color, too often fail to address their intersection competently — as the Jefferson Davis issue illustrates. This is made especially difficult for writers at a company whose priority is to be “apolitical” in the age of Trump, to the point that even Captain America cannot suggest the United States may be “deeply flawed.” But Reynolds and Ahmed show that, in order to responsibly depict the coming-of-age of an Afro-Latinx superhero, stories must not only be informed about issues of race, but also informed by issues of race. And lest this all seem too didactic, their stories can be lots of fun — for instance, Ahmed’s hilarious riff on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in his fourth issue.
To the extent that he has already made good on Miles’s promise, Ahmed makes a compelling case for the rest of his run with the character. He also lays down a challenge to those who will write Morales in the future. A de-colonized superhero’s responsibility is “more important than alien invasions or global conspiracies.” It is to combat the conspiratorial bigotry that identifies some people as aliens in the first place. So, as Luke Cage once said, don’t screw it up.