The internet and many mainstream media outlets were abuzz with the news that Peter Parker (the secret identity of Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man since 1962) would soon be killed, and would be replaced by a half African-American, half Latino teenager named Miles Morales.
There was an immediate negative backlash against this, with everyone from anonymous Internet posters to Glenn Beck railing against the move.
There was only one problem. It wasn’t true.
Not quite, anyways. The Peter Parker that fans of comic books, movies, and TV shows have loved since 1961 isn’t going away at all. In fact, he’s doing quite well, with a brand new movie coming out next summer. If you’re confused, you’re not alone.
Around 11 years ago, Marvel Comics created what they call their “Ultimate Line”. It was an alternate world that used most of the same core characters that they had had in their stable since the early 1960’s, but with their origins and backgrounds updated and cleaned up so as to entice new readers.
Spider-Man’s origin was tampered with the least, with writer Brian Michael Bendis going back to basics on the character, focusing on what it would be like for a young teenager to have to deal with the responsibility of incredible power. The fuss revolving all of this seems to be more about his replacement’s ethnicity than the actual replacement itself.
“It is kind of surprising that people would be so offended by the concept of it,” says Aaron Birkenhead, owner of Vancouver store RX Comics. “It was almost as if people couldn’t tolerate the idea of Spider-Man not being white.”
Birkenhead also noted that while the negative reaction from media and from customers wasn’t overwhelmingly negative, that the responses seemed extreme.
But local comic book fan Samuel Chan isn’t part of that naysaying choir. As a local comic book fan he thinks it’s a good move for the character.
“It reinforces the idea that anyone can be Spider-Man, which is what Stan Lee wanted to begin with (when he created the character),” says Chan. “Readers can really tell that it’s who is under the mask that defines what the character is about, not the costume or the power.”
Giving beloved characters updated secret identities isn’t new to the superhero comic world. In fact, it’s done fairly regularly. Captain America and Batman are only two of the many iconic characters that have “died” recently, with temporary replacements then taking up their mantle.
Such changes are rarely permanent, with the original characters almost invariably coming back, and reclaiming their roles. In fact, Spider-Man isn’t even the first character to be “replaced” by a member of an ethnic minority, with lesser known DC characters such as Firestorm, The Atom, and Blue Beetle all getting new non-Caucasian identities in recent years. But as Birkenhead notes, this particular change seems to have touched a nerve with people since Spider-Man is so high profile.
In the short term, Marvel’s strategy for reviving interest in their Ultimates line seems to be working, with sales of Ultimate Spider-Man being the highest they’ve been in years.
“It’s definitely caused an increase of sales of the Ultimate Spider-Man book, as well as the Ultimate Fallout book (the comic that actually revealed the identity of the new Spider-Man), which probably wouldn’t have sold at all (without the death), ” says Birkenhead.
“There have been a lot of Ultimate series that have tanked, but this time customers feel as if there’s something worth reading for. The big reveal of the new Spider-Man was the big payoff. “
The long-term future of both Ultimate Spider-Man and comics in general might not be so rosy. Sales of comic books have been falling steeply in recent years due to piracy, increasing paper costs, and the competition from other forms of media such as video games. And so “stunts” designed to regain flagging interest like this one will most likely be the norm, at least for a while.
Birkenhead is more optimistic of how this might affect the book industry.
“They say any press is good press, right?”