• April 22nd, 2024
  • Monday, 09:28:04 AM

‘Across the Spider-Verse’ and the Latino Legacy of Spider-Man


 

Regina Marie Mills

 

As a Latino literature and media scholar, a lifelong gamer and a Guatemalan-American girl whose dad read her comics every night, I quickly became a fan and then scholar of Miles Morales, the Afro-Puerto Rican Spider-Man who first appeared in comic book form in 2011’s “Ultimate Fallout #4.”

 

Just seven years after his introduction, Morales swung into theaters in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” a visually stunning, 3D-animated film that won an Academy Award for best animated feature.

 

Now, its sequel, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” features two Latino Spider-Men in starring roles. Irish-Latino Spider-Man Miguel O’Hara of “Spider-Man 2099,” voiced by Oscar Isaac, is jumping into the fray. And although he was a well-received Spider-Man as a Marvel comic book character in the 1990s, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him.

 

Breaking the mold

 

Latino characters, particularly ones who have a starring role, have traditionally been underrepresented in mainstream comics.

 

Marvel’s first Latino hero, Hector Ayala, debuted in 1975, after the success of “Black Panther.” Written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by legendary comic artist George Pérez, Ayala, known as White Tiger, was a Puerto Rican college student living in New York. His powers came from a magical amulet that bestowed him with speed and martial arts expertise.

 

As Latino comics scholar Frederick Luis Aldama argues, Mantlo and Pérez avoided many of the stereotypes that plagued Latinos in comics, which often cast Latinos as criminals or drug dealers. Later iterations of White Tiger included his niece Angela del Toro and his sister, Ava Ayala.

 

The first Marvel Latina superhero, also co-created by Mantlo, was Firebird – real name, Bonita Juárez – who first appeared in 1981. A Catholic social worker from New Mexico, she represented a departure from the Black and Latino comic characters who predominately come from big cities like New York.

 

Spider-Man’s web extends into Latin America

 

In Latin America, Spider-Man has been a popular character since the hero first appeared in his own series, “Amazing Spider-Man,” in 1963.

 

Marvel licensed Mexican publisher La Prensa to print Spanish translations of Spider-Man issues just a few months after its release in the U.S.

 

La Prensa also extended Spider-Man’s reach to Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Perú. In Mexico, Spider-Man quickly became more popular than any other Marvel character, save for his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy.

 

So in the 1970s, La Prensa began to create its own Spider-Man stories on weeks when Marvel didn’t release a new Spider-Man issue. These new stories, like an issue where Peter Parker dreams that he married Gwen Stacy, only appeared in Mexico.

 

Perhaps Spider-Man’s popularity in this part of the world is due to the fact that he’s scrappy, hardworking, and trying to help his family. Or maybe Latin Americans love his luchador-esque costume – Peter Parker did, after all, debut his Spider-Man title and threads as a professional wrestler.

 

An Irish-Latino swings into the Spider-Verse

 

Firebird and White Tiger never headlined their own series, though. And the Spider-Man who Latin Americans embraced in the 1960s and 1970s was white.

 

So it was a big deal when Miguel O’Hara took on the mantle of Spider-Man in his own series, which ran for four years.

 

While the multiverse is a recent development in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, multiple Earths – each with its own versions of Marvel superheroes – have existed for decades in the comics.

 

This has allowed for different iterations of the same superhero.

 

Peter Parker is the Spider-Man of Earth-616, the official Marvel universe. Miles Morales began as the Spider-Man of Earth-1610.

 

Miguel O’Hara is the future Spider-Man of Earth-616 in the year 2099, a post-apocalyptic future run by greedy corporations.

 

When O’Hara first appeared in 1992 as the main star of the “2099” series, fans embraced him, with little controversy.

 

It’s possible that O’Hara was uncontroversial because questions of race and racism didn’t factor explicitly into the plots of each issue. And perhaps O’Hara’s light skin made it easy for readers to forget that he was Latino in the first place.

 

Yet comics scholar Kathryn M. Frank argues in the collection “Graphic Borders” that the writers of “Spider-Man 2099” were aware of their hero’s ethnic identity and subtly incorporated commentaries on race into the series.

 

In the comics, O’Hara has an accent due to his elongated, spiderlike teeth, which may reflect the assumed foreignness of Latino citizens in the U.S. and the discrimination they suffer for it. He also embraces his difference in his own style. As fans have pointed out, his costume mixes a Day of the Dead skull with the classic spider insignia in an explicit connection to his Mexican heritage.

 

Recasting Spider-Man as an Afro-Latino

 

Then, in 2011, Marvel announced Miles Morales, the first Spider-Man who was both Black and Latino.

 

This time, the responses were more polarizing.

 

Former Fox News pundit Glenn Beck blamed then-first lady Michelle Obama for the creation of Morales, pointing to a clip of her saying, “We’re going to have to change our traditions.”

 

However, to some fans, recasting Spider-Man as Black made perfect sense. Walter Moseley, a popular crime novelist, has provocatively argued that the original Spider-Man of the 1960s is actually “the first Black superhero,” since his backstory – raised by his extended family, growing up in poverty and demonized by the media – was more relatable to Black New Yorkers.

 

When Morales came on the scene, he wasn’t merely a carbon copy of Peter Parker, though. He was raised by his African American father – an ex-con who had turned his life around – and Puerto Rican mother in Brooklyn.

 

How Morales’ race and ethnicity would play into the stories has been a point of contention. As English professor Jorge J. Santos, Jr. argues in the collection “Mixed-Race Superheroes,” the first comics series featuring Morales “barely makes any mention of Miles’s ethnicity.” He didn’t seem to speak Spanish, nor did he have any Puerto Rican or Latino friends. He even resisted being seen as a Black Spider-Man.

 

That somewhat changed in the following series, which came out in 2018 and was written by Saladin Ahmed and drawn by Javier Garrón. In December 2022, Cody Ziglar, a Black comic writer, took over as the head writer of Morales’ story.

 

Latino representation in the Spider-Verse is still somewhat lacking. Araña, a Mexican-Puerto Rican Spider-Girl conceived in 2004, is the only other major Latino Spidey character.

 

Marvel has tried to highlight Latino diversity in its other comics. In 2021, the comics publisher released an entire collection showcasing Latino characters titled “Marvel’s Voices: Comunidades #1.”

 

The sequel to “Into the Spider-Verse” is sure to make viewers of color in the U.S. cheer. As Latino media scholar Isabel Molina-Guzmán argues, while race complicates Hollywood casting and writing, Black and Latino viewers reacted very positively to Morales. But she insists that the movie also invites longtime fans and audiences of all backgrounds “to stand in Miles Morales’s space” and root for the mixed-race teen trying to save the world.

 

To me, that’s what makes superhero films starring characters of color so compelling. These characters are, in many senses, outcasts searching for community – in their real lives and in costume.

 

As Frank, the comics scholar, notes, these differences can lead to feelings of alienation.

 

But they can also be a source of empowerment.

 

 

Regina Marie Mills, Assistant Professor of Latinx and U.S. Multi-Ethnic Literature, Texas A&M University. This commentary is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.