Zook: New Spider-Man shouldn't surprise

Kristal Brent Zook, an associate professor of journalism and director of the M.A. Journalism Program at Hofstra University, is the author of "Color By Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television."

Marvel Comics announced this week that, following the death of Peter Parker in the June issue of its Ultimate Spider-Man, a new character would hit the stands. Miles Morales, a 13-year-old Brooklyn kid with a Puerto Rican mother and an African-American father, is the latest incarnation of a nerdy teenager to discover his Spider-Man powers.

It seems incredible that such developments still merit commentary. One would hope that, by now, the introduction of a mixed-race superhero into a long-established comic brand would inspire a mere ho-hum. My own initial response to the news was noncommittal: "That's a movie I might like to see one day" -- as I suspect would millions of other American kids throughout the country, most of whom are also not in the least bit wedded to the original, 1962 Peter Parker creation.


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But Twitter comments indicate that others are perturbed: "PC multicultural lameness." "Superhero affirmative action." And, unbelievably, "Since when are Hispanics black skin[ned]?"

Even the venerable Roger Ebert tweeted that the move seems to be a sort of marketing "ploy."

"I'm the writer," tweeted Brian Michael Bendis in reply, "and would love for you to read the book one day. I think you'd be pleasantly shocked and informed."

Bendis could have avoided some of the brushback if he'd just created an all-new superhero instead of "replacing" Spider-Man with this more modern, and perhaps infinitely more relevant, version. But what a lame business move that would have been. You don't just walk away from a lucrative and successful brand name -- already famous around the globe -- for reasons of nostalgia.

Besides, why not take a bold step into the future? Especially since nearly half of all children under the age of 5 in the United States are now minorities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Axel Alonso, Marvel's editor-in-chief, told CNN that he, too, is biracial, with a Mexican father and an English mother. And Bendis, the comic series writer, lives in Portland, Ore. -- which he describes as a racial "utopia" where no one cares about skin color -- with his two, young, adopted daughters: one from Ethiopia and the other African-American.

Then, of course, there is the actor, Donald Glover. He launched a campaign last fall on Twitter and on his NBC comedy, "Community," in an effort to inspire the creation of a black Spider-Man, whom he might eventually play in the movie version. His antics -- including getting out of bed in Spider-Man pajamas on his series -- were duly noted by Bendis, and reportedly had a great deal of influence on the decision. ("Hope you dig it," tweeted Bender, in part, to Glover, when the announcement came down. "So fly," wrote Glover, retweeting the story. "It's awesome.")

No matter how open-minded people claim to be, what most viewers like best is to see reflections of themselves and those they love on the big screen. And the faces behind the cameras, behind the pages, behind the scenes, and the boardroom decisions, matter. Remember the boon of shows with African-American characters that exploded on the Fox network in the early 1990s? Those shows came about primarily because the newly empowered producers and writers and creators behind them were black.

When folks like Alonso and Bendis are thrust into the spotlight for making such "revolutionary" decisions, they usually don't see their actions as revolutionary at all. They see them as ordinary.

They see them as reflections of life. Because, really, when it comes down to it, most producers, writers and creative types are really just telling stories about themselves, and their own familiar experiences.

Which is what white producers, too, have done all along.

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