Bendis Talks Diversity and the New ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN

Bendis Talks the New ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN

The news broke early Tuesday morning — or late Monday night, depending on your time zone — that the new Ultimate Spider-Man would be Miles Morales, a half-African American, half-Latino teenager.

That announcement sparked a flurry of reaction, from both fans excited about the development and detractors writing the move off as a "PC" ploy by Marvel aimed to generate mainstream media attention. All of this before the comic book introducing the character, Ultimate Fallout #4, even went on sale.

With that issue on stands (both physical and digital) today, Newsarama talked with the man at the center of it all, Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis, to learn more about Miles Morales, from the character's conception to naming to the New York City borough he calls home. We also discuss diversity in comics, the USA Today comments section, how much Community actor Donald Glover influenced the creation of Miles Morales, and why it's not Ultimate Miguel O'Hara.

 

Newsarama: Brian, you must be excited to have this news finally out there, since you've obviously been sitting on it for a while.

Brian Michael Bendis: What a reaction. It was announced, and then I went to bed, then I woke up saying, "Wow!"

Nrama: And the news really didn't leak — up until the USA Today article went online, people were still speculating that it would be Spider-Woman, or the Ultimate version of Miguel O'Hara, or whoever else.

Bendis: The guesses were pretty fantastic. And I'm sorry if you guessed wrong; it doesn't make me a sh*tty writer. [Laughs.] I'm always baffled by that. It's been going on for years. "It's not Ben Reilly? You suck!"

Nrama: So you've indicated that this has been in the works for a while, but when did it all start coming together? At the same time as the planning of "Death of Spider-Man"?

Bendis: No, this is a while ago. This has been the theoretical discussion —talking about different aspects of what comics are, and what they could be, and what they should be, and what they might be. We discuss that endlessly, and one of the topics was, "Wouldn't it be cool if… ?" But it's got to be more than that.

 

Primarily Joe [Quesada] and I — this was back when Joe was editor-in-chief — would have this discussion. First you get the idea, if you really wanted to make this work, Peter's got to go. If anybody else was being Spider-Man, they're competing with Peter Parker as Spider-Man, and you just can't compete with that. Peter would have to go.

If Peter has to go, that story has to be just world-class; that has to be the greatest Spider-Man thing ever, or at least of that intent. We discussed it even around Ultimatum — "well, here's a perfect place to whack him" — but it just didn't feel right. I still had this big pile of stuff I wanted to do with him. We were just getting to a place where it was getting closer and closer, and we kind of committed that we were going to do this, and we'll find a place when it's time. I started working on the character, and everybody who knew about it — which was like four people — kept throwing ideas at me, and some of those ideas I loved, and will definitely be part of it.

While this was going on, two things happened: my family life changed dramatically, and Donald Glover stood up and said, "I want to be Spider-Man." I was like, "I would like him to be Spider-Man. Very much." I said so publicly at the time, and that came and went. We got closer and closer and closer to working on it, and then they did that hilarious bit on Community at the beginning of last season where he got out of bed and was wearing Spider-Man pajamas, and he looked fantastic! I had already written my first issue, and I was like, "Oh, I would so like to read that book!" then I was like, "I am writing that book. That's awesome!"

Now, Miles is a completely different character than Donald. He's much younger, and coming from a much different place, and is a completely different voice. But just the aspect of someone else being Spider-Man, and having a different place where they're coming from, to analyze what it means to be Spider-Man, and what it means in this world, versus the world that Spider-Man was originally created in — even the world Ultimate Spider-Man was created in was different. So, yeah. Here we are.

Nrama: And not just younger than Donald Glover, but as you said in the AP article, he's even younger than Ultimate Peter Parker, right?

Bendis: Yeah, he's young. He's like 13. He's a kid.

 

Nrama: So was it always the plan to go for it with a new character?

Bendis: Yes. It's funny, everyone coming at me with Miguel O'Hara jokes. We were making these jokes like two years ago, and someone at Marvel — I won't out them — but they were really mad that we weren't going with that name.

Then it becomes something else: "Oh is he from the future?" "Is the 2099 Universe now the Ultimate Universe?" It becomes this whole different thing, but it just completely confuses the story. We want to start fresh, and put some toys in the toy box. For every 10 I kill, I put one in. [Laughs.] A new character that has a completely clean slate from which to build was the way to go. It just was.

Nrama: Other than Miguel O'Hara, which was in a future timeline, and Ben Reilly, who was a clone, there really hasn't been a Spider-Man before that wasn't Peter Parker. That must have been — and must continue to be — a huge task, creating the character to fill that legacy. And probably an exciting one, too.

Bendis: Crazy exciting. So much fun to write. Sometimes it pours out of me like crazy.


Here's what I'll say for people who have been reading Ultimate Spider-Man: You will be rewarded for your concentration and dedication, because this character will be entering the legacy of Peter Parker, and meeting many people from Peter Parker's life in different ways. And that will all be addressed. In the first half-of-a-year of Ultimate Spider-Man, you will see Gwen Stacy, you will see Aunt May, you will see Spider-Woman; how he got his powers. All of this will be addressed very, very quickly — in the first two issues, both of which ship in September.

Nrama: It sounds like a definite balance there — introducing a new main character, but also retaining enough "classic" elements to keep things recognizable as a Spider-Man comic.

Bendis: These elements are just important, too. A kid on a discovery, trying to figure out why to be Spider-Man. It's a big journey for him. It's a character going almost against his entire personality to do this, so a lot has to be discovered.

When it comes to quote-unquote "minorities" — and I really mean "quote-unquote" minorities, because sometimes I don't think there is such a thing anymore — everybody's experience in life is so different. And Miles' will be different, and it will be informed by who he is, and where he came from, but it's not going to be the universal experience of all African-American or Latino culture. There's a very specific road that this kid's on, and I'm excited to explore it.

 

But I must say, as an example, I see a lot of female readers in comics who basically want to see their experience as a woman portrayed in fiction, and if they don't see it, they don't think it's real, or authentic. Whereas I have not met two women in the world who have had the same experience in the universe. Same thing with everybody.

I have so many female readers who identify with such different things in the writing, and then when I see someone stand up and say that they speak for all female readers, I'm like, "No, you don't. I've got female readers of all walks of life, who all want different things."

From the author's standpoint, I don't agree with that at all. Not everybody wants the same thing. Not any one culture or sexuality wants the same thing out of their comic books. I know that can be distressing for some, but that's what's cool, and that's why there are so many different comic books.

Nrama: What's really refreshing about Miles Morales to me is that he's actually multiracial — was that always part of the plan with the character?

Bendis: It just reflects my part of the universe. I'm surrounded by such a multiracial society, and I don't see that reflected so much. It hasn't seeped into the culture enough. This, and Takio, and other books I'm doing, and Scarlet as well — I'm not going out of my way to do it, but I just keep doing it. That's what I see in the world.

Nrama: Which is why it's disheartening when you see some of the complaints people have had about Miles Morales — "Oh, it's just being PC," and so on.

Bendis: What's PC about it? I kept seeing that.

I just got forwarded a bunch of stuff. It seemed that the comics community is pretty cool with it, all said and done, beyond the usual "You spoiled my book, you a**hole" thing, but that's OK, because I know I didn't. Nothing was spoiled; we just told you what the book's about. That's marketing, that's not spoiling.

Marvel Reveals New ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN
Marvel Reveals New ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN
 

It seems that the USA Today comments section was rife with crazy people. I didn't know they had comments, someone had to show it to me: "Wow, that's something." The word PC keeps popping up. I don't get it, honestly. I guess because I live in Portland, and I live in a Utopian society where no one gives a sh*t about anyone's skin color, or sexual orientation, every time I face it I go, "Really? What? What's the problem?"

Nrama: Definitely wanted to ask about the name of the character — naming a Spider-Man other than Peter Parker is a huge responsibility in itself. Was it important to keep an alliterative name as a little bit of a nod?

Bendis: The naming of the character was a blowout war between me and Joe, for months and months and months. I named the character a few things, lists were made, debates were had. There was another name for a while.

I settled on the alliteration. First you go, "Is it too obvious, the alliteration?" Then you go, "No, do it! Come on." It was one of those, "Is it smart-stupid or stupid-smart?" You can't tell. So I just went for it.

I settled on the final name by literally just typing it into the script so everyone would stop talking about it. So there it is.

 

Nrama: This is kind of a weird, speculative question, but in a parallel universe where Ultimate Spider-Man was starting today, do you think you would have just made Peter Parker an ethnic minority?

Bendis: I don't know, but I don't think so. Peter Parker's Peter Parker. This is a different character.

In my opinion, for it to truly be a Spider-Man story, and not an alternative or "What If?" or something, this is way the story had to go. You really needed the 11 years of Peter Parker to build to this moment.

I know there are some people who think that this was a "stunt" or something. Story first. And if it's story first, and the marketing happens, and we happen to hit on a slow news day where no one did anything crazy so we get a lot of press, there is nothing wrong with that, especially if it's a beautiful book that you believe in — and by "beautiful" I mean [Ultimate Spider-Man artist Sara Pichelli]'s work, I'm not talking about myself. It's a gorgeous book, and we're really proud of it, and there's nothing wrong with trying to get people to take a look at it, especially getting new people to come in a comic store who aren't coming in. A lot of our retail brothers are hurting, and anything we can do to get people in a store for them to take a tour around and check out all the cool stuff, there's nothing wrong with that.

I know that sometimes things feel a little stunt-y, especially when something explodes like this, but I can tell you from my heart of hearts that it was story-first for years, and once we knew that we had something we were really proud of, absolutely we let people know, and if people want to jump on the story, great.

I have no regrets over how we went about with the original launch of Ultimate Spider-Man — obviously. Really, it's probably the most important thing I've done in comics, and other than my waves of neurosis and self-loathing that cover me like a blanket every day, I'm very proud of what we've done. But this makes me more proud of it.

 

Nrama: There's been a lot of talk in recent interviews that the Ultimate Universe is the place where things happen that could never happen in the mainstream Marvel Universe, and this definitely seems like one of the most concrete possible examples of that.

Bendis: Yeah, I think so. I've seen some people be dismissive of the Ultimate Universe as a whole, because they're all locked in to the "parallel universe" or "multiverse" aspect of their brain.

The Ultimate Universe is not a parallel universe, or a multiverse. That's just not how it works. It is an interpretation of the characters, to me, as legitimate as any of the movies or television shows. It's just an interpretation of the characters. For a lot of people, this is the only Spider-Man they read. This is Spider-Man. It doesn't take away from anything that's going on in Amazing — obviously I write 616 Spidey in two or three of my books. I love that character with my whole entire heart, but that is an interpretation of the character, as is the movie interpretation, as is the upcoming new movie, and the cartoons, and the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon that's coming out.

Nrama: And terms like "parallel universe" tend to conjure sci-fi connotations that don't really apply in this instance.

Bendis: And I get where it comes from. There are whole sections of the comic book world that all we do is talk about multiverse and crossovers. But I think we've proven that's not how we go about making this book. This is Spider-Man. It's not alternative Spider-Man, it is Spider-Man.

 

Nrama: One more thing I was curious about with Miles Morales — he's half-Latino, but what nationality?

Bendis: His mother's Puerto Rican. And for some reason the borough seems to be an issue for everybody, too: the borough is Brooklyn.

Where he's going to school, and his own cast of characters, and his parents, and his family — you're going to meet them all in the first issue, and it's all pretty interesting stuff. They live in a world that's been pummeled by Magneto. It's a different world for them than it was for Peter. 

Nrama: With the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon debuting next year, was there any concern that there might be brand confusion with Peter Parker in the cartoon and Miles Morales in the comic?

Bendis: I asked that very question, and it seems the answer was no.

But I notice that some people feel that Peter will be back in the comic book by the time the cartoon comes out. That is not the case. I have already written up to the issues of when the cartoon comes out. That's not happening. This is a long-term goal. This is it.   

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