Marvel Roundtable–part two

Mary Jane, Miles, and the diversity dance in comics.

Megan Purdy

UltimateSpiderManIn part one of WWAC’s Marvel Roundtable, I talked to Skalja of @#$% Yeah, Spider-Wife!, Corrina Lawson of Geek Mom, RonchRonchRonch, and webcomic creator Indigo, about romance, mental health, and motherhood. In part two, we talk about Superior Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, and more generally, about disposable youth characters as a convenient vehicle for diversity.

I think it’s important to note that in the weeks since we got together for this roundtable, two of the DC characters mentioned in passing regarding diversity in the Big Two  have been killed off (Damian Wayne) and rumoured to be killed off in coming issues (John Stewart). Did we jinx them? Keep a close eye on Luke and Misty, in case they’re next!

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Mary Jane Watson has had a hard time of it in the last few years. These days she’s stuck in a weird body-swap story with Doc Ock. It’s interesting that Marvel has put so much story-telling weight on her shoulders, and in doing so acknowledged her importance to Spider-Man, while also, in the past, disavowing her in-story importance to Spider-Man. What’s going on here? And how could Marvel do better by the character and her fans?

Indigo: I was dubious about the MJ story in Superior Spider-Man, but I’m going to say I’m actually very impressed with the way Slott has handled it.  Keeping in mind I only just came back to comics, and hated One More Day.

It began with Ock!Spidey being smarmy and slick as he tried to enjoy being a young hot man with a young, hot woman like MJ paying him attention, and it did get very close to the point of squick. He was accepting kisses from MJ as part of his “spoils” for defeating Spider-Man in such a visceral way.

But the revelations in Amazing Spider-Man #700 (which I hope are common knowledge now), have changed the game. Otto is still full of ego and hubris, still sure he’s better than Peter, but the memories being implanted so that it feels to Octavius as if he lived them himself, have had an effect. So he goes from just wanting to bone MJ, to accessing Peter’s memories and actually developing the same genuine romantic love for her as Peter has, as a result of revisiting the memories of the relationship from Peter’s POV. That changes his entire worldview where Mary Jane is concerned. He loves her, genuinely cares about her, and doesn’t want to see her come to harm. And to the surprise of both readers, and characters in the book, he vows to keep his promise to protect her and keep her safe–but abandons the relationship for her sake. Which saves the reader from the squick, and saves MJ from having to be in a relationship with someone who isn’t who she thinks he is. I imagine she’ll still be around, but not in the same romantic yo-yo sense she’s been up until now. And to MJ’s credit, she knew something was not quite right about Peter and called him out on it on several occasions, so they didn’t de-brain her for this story arc either.

Skalja: Wow. It’s interesting we have such different reactions to this plotline–I couldn’t disagree about it more strongly.

Superior Spider-Man has done a huge disservice to MJ’s character. I can accept that Mary Jane, even with all the superhero weirdness she’s experienced, wouldn’t immediately jump from “Peter is acting like a jerk” to “Peter is actually Otto Octavius in Peter’s body.” But the passivity with which MJ accepts Peter’s disrespect–addressing her as “woman” to her face, throwing a fit when she turns down having sex with him, stringing her along emotionally–is not only screamingly out of character, but uncomfortable to read. She thinks “Peter” is “stressed”–that’s not an excuse she would have accepted from the real Peter, so why she’s putting up with it from Ock is beyond me.

The elephant in the comic store is that MJ isn’t capable of consenting to sex or sexual contact with Otto, and his attempted seduction of her is actually an attempt at rape by fraud. At no point over five issues of this subplot is this acknowledged; you can practically hear the Benny Hill theme playing while Ock tries to get into MJ’s pants. Evil genius Doctor Octopus, foiled by the unspoken codes of the dating scene! Tune in next issue to find out if he succeeds! And hey, here’s a cover of MJ in a short, tight dress, being manhandled into a kiss while you can see her tits and her ass!

superior spider-man
Ock!Spider-Man kissing a confused Mary Jane.

Then, with no foreshadowing, Otto realizes that he’s inherited Peter’s feelings for MJ, and he breaks off his “romantic” overtures because he feels too much for her to treat her as shabbily as he has been. But there’s no sense Otto realizes it’s wrong to treat any woman that way, regardless of his feelings for her, let alone an acknowledgment of the consent issues. For this Peter applauds Otto for “doing what he’s never been able to do,” while MJ, rather than being frustrated that “Peter” reinitiated their relationship, took her on a bunch of dates, and then dumped her without letting her get a word in, suggests in a discussion to Carlie that he did the right thing and she just needs to move on the way he has.

Indigo: With only 4 issues so far, we don’t know yet that MJ has accepted it. We know the policewoman is rethinking her conversation with Peter!Octopus now. There’s a lot to build on. And as for the consent issues–as readers we’d like to see it, but it’s not in Otto’s best interests to give himself away and tell who he really is. It’s villainous, but it’s also a type of self-preservation in this case.

Skalja: But is the consent storyline even necessary? The Peter/MJ romance was dormant, and revived specifically for Otto’s takeover. For that matter, is it even in character for Otto to pursue MJ the way he has? Otto is a deeply disturbed individual, but he’s also among the few Spidey rogues who’ve had serious (dysfunctional, but serious) relationships with women. I was rereading some J. M. DeMatteis issues recently, and it was shocking that his actively villainous Doctor Octopus was miles and miles more respectful of Aunt May than Superior Otto is of MJ, even after he supposedly realizes he “cares” about her. Now, characterization shifts are part of the nature of comics, but as a long-time fan of Ock it’s disappointing to see him written as simplistically as “villain, ergo misogynist.”

I’m all for giving a new comic an arc’s worth of issues to find its footing, but between Amazing Spider-Man #698 and Superior Spider-Man #2 I think I’ve given Slott’s vision a fair shot. An issue of a comic isn’t like a chapter of a book: yes, it’s part of a larger whole, but at $3.99 a pop it has to deliver in its own right.

I think a writer with a better grasp of both Otto and MJ’s characters and the ethical nuances involved could’ve sold me on the storyline, sure.

Going back to the original question, of how Marvel can serve MJ and her fans better: there’s this ongoing tension in the Spidey titles between Mary Jane Watson, one of the most dynamic, nuanced, and realistically flawed characters that Marvel has to offer, and Mary Jane Watson, pin-up sex object. It’s not inevitable tension. Mary Jane is attractive. It’s not sexist to acknowledge that! But if sex appeal was all there was to her character, she wouldn’t be an almost continuous fixture of Spider-Man spanning back most of fifty years; writers and editors who understand that do much better with the character.

Corrina: Why is Otto so interested in MJ anyway? Does she fit the type of women he’s traditionally been interested in? I’m just curious if that’s been addressed.

MP: It’s inconsistent with his previous relationships. This storyline seems to be: Mary Jane Watson, Man Catnip In Chief. 

Putting the current Spider-romance disaster aside, I’d like to talk about the other Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and other youth characters.

Marvel has a long history of doing ‘junior’ books, like New Mutants, Generation X, Young Avengers and so on. They’re a kind of testing ground, both for creators and new characters. Interestingly, they’re also where many characters of colour, and LGBTQ characters have debuted. These junior books though, get cancelled at much higher rate than mainstay books, and the characters are very often killed or benched.

Are the junior books Marvel’s way of perhaps unintentionally having its cake and eating it too (ie. diversity, but only in select books)? What does it mean that so many of Marvel’s characters of colour, and LGBTQ are also ‘disposable’ youth characters?

Corrina: The quick and obvious answer is that there wasn’t, until quite recently, many older characters of colour or LGBT characters. That’s because superheroes date back to times when straight white men was even more the [assumed] default than it is today, when we’re starting to move away from it.

So the question becomes: do we create a new LGBT character, or introduce a new aspect of older one. Given that Marvel & DC require repeat readership to stay afloat, it’s no wonder they’ve moved away from the idea that, say, Hawkeye could be bisexual or gay. (It’s also interesting that it seems to be easier for them to write female characters as newly bisexual or lesbian, but that’s a tangent.)

So when the chance comes up to create new characters, it’s good to see a diverse lineup. You can see this goes all the way back to All-New X-Men which replaced the all-white group with a much more diverse cast. And a lot of those lasted. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it does place them in a precarious position if they’re not popular. Because we’re not really going to kill off, say, Cyclops. But maybe you, Thunderbird, can stay dead.

Basically, what it says is that the Marvel Universe is stuck in time and the youth movement can maybe get them out. But fans also are mullish about any changes to their favorites, so that means the newer characters are far more at risk as cannon fodder. (Avengers Arena, anyone?)

Indigo: Gonna be honest. This one is a sore spot with me.

Storm was the first black superhero I ever saw. Claremont treated her with respect. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized he also played to the “exotic woman” trope that tends to go with women of color–Ororo’s white hair and her blue eyes with cat pupils (which seem to have been sort of retconned now).

I was overjoyed to see Brazilian Roberto DaCosta, Vietnamese Xian Coy Manh, and Native American Dani Moonstar in New Mutants when it first came out. I am pained to see that DaCosta has been colored progressively lighter and lighter over the years from his original rich, dark complexion. Dani, thankfully, has not completely disappeared from the pages. Xian is in Astonishing at the moment, and Dani is supposed to turn up in Fearless Defenders.

I loved the Generation X kids, but of them? Everett died. Julio died. Jubilee was already an established character. Monet’s backstory was twisted into something unrecognizable, and now she’s been whitewashed (again, colored lighter and lighter) and is in X-Factor, a book with almost no connection to the X-Universe in general.

I was also pleased to see Idie Okonkwo and Arana turn up along with the new Sprite (Japanese) in Wolverine and the X-Men. But the problem is, as it always is, increasing diversity makes people uncomfortable. If it’s white people in a story, it’s perceived to be for everybody. If it’s got more than a couple People of Color, the perception changes that it’s not for everybody, but it’s an ethnic story, and thus people shy away from reading or buying it. And the fact is, the writing is often really eggshell-stepping aware of the ethnic issues at first, but then eventually just ignores it. Like they have Idie being this self-loathing person who thinks that all mutants are monsters because of her upbringing, and she is clinging to that steadfastly, even after living first on Utopia and now on the campus of the Jean Grey school. Her worldview should be expanding, but it’s not. They have her having showed respect to Broo (sort of–she “named” him Broo by asking what to call him) for his intelligence and his respectful attraction to her, only to have her treat him literally like a dog after his recovery from being shot regressed him to a primitive state.

And Runaways–I opened that book full of hope, and gave up on it in despair when the black kid, the genius, turned out to be The Mole.

There’s also the fact that Marvel hasn’t been really good–nor DC, for that matter–with hiring diverse writers. So you get writers who aren’t really comfortable writing characters of color as people, but who awkwardly think of them as ‘the black mutant” or “the Asian” mutant.

MP: Indigo, this came up in the DC roundtable. There are very few women of colour working on superhero comics. A few more men of colour, but the numbers there aren’t very impressive either. For example: can you think of any black women, or South Asian women regularly working as a writer, artist, colourist or editor on a mainstream superhero book? (Please do tell me if I’m mistaken on this one). DC evidently had two black women writers. In the 70s. That’s a pretty sparse roster.

Corinna: Marvel has so many team books that the chances of survival might be greater. I hope. OTOH, DC keeps rebooting its universe backwards. No Cassandra Cain. No Renee Montoya Question. No spotlight on the [widely known] Green Lantern, John Stewart. We should not be going backwards.

Ronch: Superhero comics are often nostalgia-driven, with writers and fans attached to characters they grew up with, and for years that meant mostly WASPy straight dudes. For legacy and second-generation (or third, or fourth gen) characters, who are often more diverse than their predecessors, it’s hard to gain staying power–when Generation X aren’t kids anymore, where do they go when the older, “classic” X-Men are still active? It took decades for the New Mutants to graduate to the big leagues, with Magik and Karma full-fledged X-Men and Sunspot an Avenger.

The Runaways was a hit with new, young readers and almost made it to theaters, but Marvel let it slip into limbo and now two characters are stranded on Cannon Fodder Island (oops, I mean Avengers Arena). It’s sad to see this team I love reduced to cameos or the next “dramatic” crossover death. Marvel in general has a problem with handling new characters, but I also suspect that they just didn’t know what to do with this team made up primarily of women, led by characters of color, and including queer and nonbinary characters–none of whom were X-Men or Avengers. Runaways was an anomaly too good to last.

Skalja: It’s hard to think what to add that you all haven’t said already. The two big problems for minority characters in Big Two comics are the difficulty in getting and keeping a foothold for a character that wasn’t created in the Silver Age, and the lack of minority writers to write minority characters from their lived experience. Not that white/male/straight writers can’t write convincing non-white/female/queer characters if they put some thought into it, but there’s a lot of general obliviousness and well-intended missteps. Take Karma/Xi’an Coy Manh for instance–being part-Vietnamese myself, I want to love this character. I do still like her a lot. But it’s hard not to cringe every time I think that it’s 2013 and it’s still her official origin story that she’s a boat person who escaped from war-torn Vietnam and her crime boss uncle. I get that updating historically-linked origin stories can be tricky (hey, remember when Reed Richards was a Korean War veteran?), but c’mon, if you need origin trauma she has the crime boss uncle right there. Isn’t that enough, without effectively ignoring decades of history of a real life country? And don’t even get me started on Psylocke.

I still miss Runaways, by the way.

MP: Do you see the massive popularity of characters like Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Miles Morales as significant changes to this status quo? What does it mean to make Luke Cage the face of the Avengers? Miles Morales a ‘real’ Spider-Man?

Indigo: Miles Morales is a legacy character without actually having been biologically born to it. So yes, he is the real Spider-Man just as Peter Parker was before him. Even though so many people freaked out at the idea of someone else wearing the mask. It’s not even the first time someone besides Peter has done the job of being Spider-Man. And on the subject of wearing another person’s mask, yes, I am more than a little put out that Monica Rambeau is not the current Captain Marvel.

Unfortunately, I see the characters of color as just another flash in the pan. Monica has led the Avengers. Storm has led the X-Men (and she is an exception because she’s a mainstay at this point) and is currently leading another team. Misty is in Fearless Defenders but it looks like that book is the Valkyrie show so far. We are always making progress toward more diversity, but it’s painfully slow and often dragged backwards by the resistant white male fanbase. The only thing I can think of that might help is introducing the new characters to young readers early, so they get diversity from “new readers” age so that by the time they can buy their own, they look forward to characters being diverse.

MP: Without long term commitment from On High, I’m not sure that even starting kids on a more diverse MU would work. John Stewart is my generation’s Green Lantern. When it came time for a movie, we got Hal Jordan. The Twitter backlash (“they made Green Lantern white, wtf!?”) was pretty telling, but ultimately didn’t even net a response from DC.

Corrina: I have to disagree that these are “massively” popular characters, as I think the sales figures for Ultimate Spider-Man are only so-so and it remains to be seen how many people know who Misty Knight is, unfortunately. Ditto Luke Cage, though I was hoping the big muscled guy in Thor who fights the Thunder God might be Luke Cage, when I first saw the movie.

MP: Maybe they’re only massively popular in my amazing alternate universe. Megan World is a pretty great place to be. Carol AND Monica both have their own books. She-Hulk was never cancelled. Wolverine and Jubilee will be published in perpetuity. Original Jean is around, being cooler than everyone.

Corinna: Of course, Miles is a “real” Spider-Man, as much as Damian is a real Robin. But Marvel fans aren’t as used to the “legacy” concept as DC fans, so I think Marvel is getting more blowback about their hero being replaced, than about his mixed race background.

It can mean a lot to have Luke or Misty to be the face of the franchise, as exposing the less diverse comic audience to more diversity is always a good idea. But I fear their staying power may not be there. What Marvel should do is push the Miles digest collections via Scholastic Book Clubs, just like they did Spider-Girl, Mary Jane and SMLMJ. That will be a big help. Of course, it’s interesting to note the biggest change from a white character to a diverse character, Nick Fury, was basically pushed through via Hollywood and the power of Samuel L. Jackson, not by Marvel trying to diversify.

I guess, bottom line, is that I’m very down on the direct market as the best place to affect diversity in comics. I used to think “bookstores” but now I think digital outreach to grab those people not coming into comic shops is the best idea to get more readers who don’t fit the straight white male, 18-35 demographic.

MP: Scholastic Book Clubs is a great angle. They move so many books.

Ronch: Whether it’s a big, permanent change to the status quo depends on not just the comics, but if we ever see characters like Luke Cage and Misty Knight on the big screen as Avengers or Heroes for Hire. It’s great to see Luke as a major player in Ultimate Spider-Man, and I think a Miles Morales Spider-Man movie or cartoon would be a breath of fresh air compared to the Nth retelling of Peter Parker in high school. But when the only faces Marvel’s pushing as The Avengers in multimedia are four white dudes, that’s a problem.

Skalja: I think Marvel is finally beginning to understand that they need better metrics for measuring success besides the number of pamphlets sold. Spider-Girl and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane did great in trade sales, as Corrina mentions, but they were both cancelled because they didn’t move enough of the individual issues. Most new fans these days come in through the movies, or the cartoons, or the trade paperbacks, or if they do buy comics issue by issue, they do it digitally. But there’s still a popularity ceiling where non-WASPy characters can headline comics and co-star in cartoons, but they still take a backseat to the “iconic” characters, who of course are the WASPs. And even when icon-ness (iconicity?) isn’t relevant, the spectre of “relatability” comes up, which is why the Guardians of the Galaxy film cut out three of the four female characters (two of whom were queer and in a relationship) while keeping the talking raccoon and the giant tree alien. I happen to like Rocket and Groot, but come on.

MP: Obviously there’s nothing scarier, and more franchise killing than space lesbians!

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.