This week, Disney is releasing a YA prose novel about one of Marvel’s most popular characters, Miles Morales. Miles is Spider-Man. Created by Brian Michael Bendis, Miles takes on Peter Parker’s mantle after his death in Marvel’s Ultimate universe in 2011. In 2017, Miles is comfortably situated in Marvel’s main universe (the one that most closely resembles our own) and has his own starring Spider-Man series, written by Bendis.
Until this year, no author of color has consistently written Miles, a half-black, half-Latino kid from Brooklyn, New York. Penned by acclaimed YA author Jason Reynolds and with a striking cover illustrated by Kadir Nelson, Miles Morales changes all of that.
Reynolds has given Miles a lot to deal with in this book. He’s got school, work, crushes, and yes, being Spider-Man. After he gets suspended from school, due in large part to a misunderstanding, he begins to question whether he should even be a superhero. In the meantime, his spidey-sense won’t stop buzzing, especially around a certain history teacher who won’t stop talking about the historical “benefits” of slavery and the importance of today’s prison system. With the reveal of a terrifying plot, intense battles in his future, and lives hanging in the balance, Miles has to get to work.
There will be readers who are wondering why I bring up race. Race matters. It’s that simple. Miles is not just Spider-Man, Miles is a half-black, half-Latino Spider-Man. In addition to the stress of being a teenage superhero, Miles is dealing with issues that have to do with his race and his culture, a reality for so many kids of color. It was a relief to see that reality reflected on the pages of the novel. I was lucky enough to chat with Jason and Kadir about the book, comics, and what it means to be working on a character like Miles.
First things first, tell me about your relationship to comic books and to Spider-Man specifically.
JASON REYNOLDS: Well, here's the thing. My relationship to comics isn't nearly as strong as some people's. Ha! I mean, I grew up with a comic book fanatic. My older brother was, and still is, obsessed. And I was obsessed with the fact that he was obsessed, because I was obsessed with him. But not necessarily with comics themselves. But Spider-Man was always there. In my brother's room. On the TV. I had the toys. Spider-Man seemed to be pervasive, omnipresent. It almost seemed like I knew the story through some kind of osmosis.
Kadir, what was it like illustrating Spider-Man, such a beloved and iconic character?
KADIR NELSON: I was excited to paint Spider-Man. He’s one of my favorite superheroes -- certainly the first character I loved to draw as a kid. He kind of favors my 9-year-old son, so I was happy to create the artwork.
Jason, you've done an incredible amount of work bringing stories about young black kids to the forefront in your non-comics Young Adult and Middle-grade novels. Can you tell me a little about what it means to be writing a character like Miles Morales, arguably one of the most prevalent characters of color in the Marvel universe right now?
JR: It means the world to me, and I don't take it lightly. To be granted the opportunity to write and expand upon the story of a half-black, half-Puerto Rican Spider-Man was nothing short of a gift. An honor. But it can't go without saying that it's also a mammoth responsibility. I wanted to make sure I made every decision with precise care, because the readers of this book, many of them, could very well see themselves as extraordinary.
Kadir, were you familiar with Miles before working on this project?
KN: I was vaguely familiar with Miles before working on the cover art. I remember seeing a news story about the new character a few years ago. I enjoyed learning more about him and his background.
How did you make sure you were bringing an authentic voice to Miles' story, Jason? How important was it to have that authenticity in the text?
JR: The hardest part was just ... getting over it. Getting over the fact that I was writing Spider-Man, and getting into the fact that I was writing Miles, a black boy from Brooklyn. Once I dug my heels into that fact, the rest of it was gut work. Intuition. That's what I've always used to write with authenticity -- put it on the page in a way that feels good to me. That's all.
Miles is still going to work and school in Marvel's Spider-Man series. How was it working on a character who has an ongoing life, so to speak? What was it like bringing a character we've really only known through a visual medium into prose?
JR: For me, it made it easier. Miles is so normal. He's pedestrian in the sense that the majority of his life is filled with mundanity. Work, school, friends, family. It grounded him, and therefore helped me ground the story. As far as bringing a character that we've mostly known through a visual medium into prose, well ... I honestly didn't think much about it. Instead, it was more about making sure I provided the textures that the images normally would, but not necessarily thinking about the images, but instead thinking about what makes a good novel.
A common theme in young adult literature is coming of age, and Miles' story in this book is no exception. What is it about writing that theme that appeals to you?
JR: I still feel 16. I still feel like I'm "coming of age." The feeling of self-discovery, for me, is perennial.
Kadir, why did you choose to present Miles' expression as it is on the cover ... he's serious, with hints of fear and determination. Where did that come from?
KN:I felt the character was very new to being a superhero and was feeling his way through it. Sometimes it’s a bit scary to try something new, especially for teens. Miles has very big shoes to fill, so that is why his expression is so serious. He’s hyper-aware of what he’s doing, and very present in the moment.
One of the villains in Miles Morales is terrifying in a very real way, and without spoiling anything for our readers, he's a teacher misusing his position of power to denigrate and isolate Miles based on the color of his skin. Why did you decide to use him as an antagonist?
JR: The way I wanted to approach the antagonist was to figure out how to take a large social ill and personify it, if that makes sense. Without giving anything away, it would be like saying, "If world hunger was a person, what does he or she look like? How do they sound? How do they act?" That was my process.
Setting felt so important in this book, whether it was the barbershop or the prison or the school, we spend a good amount of time with Miles engaging with where he is. Did that happen as a natural progression of the writing, or was it a deliberate choice?
JR: Definitely deliberate, and something I've tried to do in everything I write. I believe that every character is a setting, a world with moving parts, and on the other hand, every setting, is in fact, a character — a living breathing thing, with personality and backstory. The way stories come to life, at least for me, is when these elements commune in relationship to one another.
You've created a compelling extended cast to add to Miles' world in this book; who are you looking forward to seeing make an appearance in the comics?
JR: Ohhhhh, GREAT question. I'd love to see more of Alicia. I think there's something there.
Jason, you're an accomplished poet, and you found a way to pull that side of your writing into a Marvel book, which was such a joy. If you could recommend one poem to Miles Morales readers to pick up, what would it be?
JR: Too many to name. But if I HAD to pick just one, I'd say the one that starts the book. "We Wear the Mask," by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It's classically beautiful, but what he's saying is so powerful. Almost shattering, when you think about it. We all, to some extent, wear the mask.
Kadir, are there any other iconic comic book characters you'd love to illustrate? If so, who?
KN: I’m a big fan of Wolverine, and interested to learn more about Black Panther.
The last few pages of the book illustrate a very powerful moment for the students of Brooklyn Visions Academy. What do you hope kids who pick up this book take away from it?
JR: Having a superpower has nothing to do with the ability to fly, or jump, or superhuman strength. The truest superpowers are the ones we all possess. Willpower, integrity, and most importantly, courage.