Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

04 November 2016

Spider-Man, v. 1: Miles Morales

Collects: Spider-Man v. 2 #1-5 (2016)

Released: September 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 112 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785199618

What is this?: Miles Morales, the Spider-Man of the Ultimate Universe, has to adjust to being a Spider-Man in the regular universe with new villains — in addition to all the problems of being a normal teenage superhero.

The culprits: Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli

I’m not very familiar with writer Brian Michael Bendis’s magnum opus, Ultimate Spider-Man. I read a few of the early trades, killing time when I was bored, but I didn’t fall in love with the character or the universe.

That means I haven’t read any stories featuring the second Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles Morales. I’ve certainly heard of Miles, but other than Fox News-types screaming about “Black Spider-Man,” I didn’t have any information on him going into Spider-Man, v. 1: Miles Morales, which covers Miles’s first series in the main Marvel Universe.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales, v. 1 coverBendis throws the reader into the story immediately, starting with an in media res fight with the demon Blackheart, who has already defeated the Avengers. Before resolving that fight, Bendis then backtracks to a day in the life of Miles Morales, a high-school student who is the new Spider-Man. (He returns to the fight with Blackheart by the end of the issue.) Although the book has no lengthy infodumps, and the recap page is scanty at best, Bendis gradually introduces the information readers need to understand what is going on throughout v. 1. Occasionally, a bit of information will be shoehorned in as if Bendis couldn’t find a way to elegantly introduce it, but overall, the story flows well and didn’t leave me scratching my head.

(As a side note: As well as Bendis does this, I wonder how much my own familiarity with the Marvel Universe and how these stories are supposed to go allows me to follow along with Miles’s story so easily.)

While I am unfamiliar with Miles, I am quite familiar with Bendis. It occurs to me that Bendis is becoming the new Chris Claremont, albeit one who doesn’t let his bondage fantasies play out on comics pages. Like Claremont, Bendis has an authorial voice and narrative tics (danglers and mind control for Claremont, extreme decompression and a fondness for giving favorite — or just single — characters a push in group situations) that may drive off readers who have grown tired of them. (I dropped Powers years ago when I couldn’t take any more of Bendis’s stammered dialogue.) Fortunately, Bendis keeps those problems in check in v. 1; yes, the book sounds like Bendis, and the plot is a little slower than I would like, but the plot moves along and things happen. Bendis does, however, bring in Goldballs, a mutant character Bendis created during his X-Men work; Goldballs is inexplicably popular and immediately finds himself in the thick of the book without working for it.

As I said, v. 1 has action, but I’m not sure I buy it. It’s not the fault of artist Sara Pichelli; her fight scenes are a treat to read, clear and filled with movement. Bendis’s choices, however, don’t make for a compelling whole. The book’s big action piece is Miles’s fight against Blackheart, who has already taken out the Avengers. Without knowing anything about Blackheart, Miles battles the huge demon, even picking up Captain America’s shield during the fight. Symbolically, we know that’s supposed to be important, but Miles does almost nothing with Cap’s shield — he bops Blackheart’s face with the shield a couple of times. Blackheart, for his part, is no match for Miles; he grabs Miles once, but after Miles uses his venom blast, he never touches the teenager again.

What’s the venom blast? Well, with a touch, Miles can make humans feel like they’re having a heart attack. It has an even stronger effect on Blackheart. Miles also appears to become invisible at some point, although he never mentions the power and only uses again it to attempt to fool heat-seeking missiles. Still: Those are some impressive powers that allow Miles to defeat a near-cosmic level threat by himself.

However, Hammerhead and his goons take out Miles by firing a few missiles. Why was Hammerhead after Miles? Because the Black Cat hired him to do so. Why does she want to go after Miles, even though he’s battling Avenger-type threats rather than street-level criminals throughout this book? *shrug* After Miles has been captured, she says she has an instinctual aversion to Spider-Man, any Spider-Man, but seeking out a fight against a superhero isn’t the act of a rational crime boss, which is what Black Cat seeks to be (and is, in Silk).

And then Miles escapes from Hammer head and Black Cat by using some unspecified (and unnamed) power to shatter / repel the chains that bind him. It all feels so … arbitrary. I mean, I know all narrative fiction is arbitrary, and superhero stories even more so, but this seems even more arbitrary than usual.

Other than those unconvincing fights, the main conflicts come between Miles and his grandmother, who is convinced he is on the drugs after his grades slip, and between Miles and his best friend, Ganke, who reveals Miles’s secret identity to Goldballs, on the theory that heroes should share these things. The former is an excellent idea; family is an excellent shaft to mine for teenage hero drama, and grounding someone who can literally punch through walls is a nice irony. Miles’s grandmother toes the lines between an irritating, over-the-top, cartoonish, and out-of-touch old and amusing foil for both Miles and his parents. More often than not, she manages to stay on the right side of that line, but sometimes it’s uncomfortable. (Pichelli draws her as surprisingly young and fashionable granny — too young to have a teenage grandson, unless teen pregnancies run in the family. Which they could!)

Ganke spilling the beans to Goldball is an idiotic betrayal of Miles’s trust. Ganke rationalizes it by saying he wanted to impress a superhero he identified with (both are heavyset or overweight), but it feels contrived — and yes, arbitrary — that Ganke would immediately give up the secret. After trying and failing to connect with Goldballs? Sure, that could make sense. As an opening gambit? No. Is Bendis trying to say Ganke is a horrible friend? Nothing else suggests that. He may be trying to make a point about identity politics and representation, but if he is, it’s simultaneously ham-handed and muddled.

Those sort of representation issues are brought up more ably after Miles’s costume is torn during his fight with Blackheart, revealing that he is a person of color. A vlogger he and Ganke watch is ecstatic about learning the new Spider-Man isn’t another white guy, but Miles rejects her label of the “Black Spider-Man.” First of all, that label doesn’t match his personal identity; he’s only half African-American. Secondly, though, he wants to be known as just plain Spider-Man, which — let’s face it — is an unrealistic expectation as long as Peter Parker is walking around. Maybe there’s more to Miles’s rejection than that, as he stubbornly refuses to see the significance of a Spider-Man who is a person of color. But we don’t see any other components of his reaction in v. 1. I have to wonder, though, how differently this scene would have been written if it had been written by someone whose skin isn’t white.

Pichelli’s art is excellent, and I enjoyed reading her work. Her approach is heavy on double-paged spreads, and although she’s better at alerting the reader to continue from one side of the book to the other than most artists, it still disturbs the reading experience, especially in a book as heavy in conversation scenes as a Bendis comic. Still, Pichelli makes those conversations interesting to look at; she doesn’t reuse headshots over and over. People are moving in those scenes, and their movements feel real. Miles’s face is always in motion as well, although none of his expressions are subtle. Then again, teenagers aren’t subtle, are they?

I am really on the fence about v. 1. I have a feeling Bendis wrote this book as a continuation of his Ultimate Spider-Man book, and if I kept reading the series, then I would get into the rhythm and narrative feel of the book. But reading Bendis has made me leery of putting too much faith into him, so I’m not sure I’m going to pick up the next volume.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol (3 of 5)

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