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SPIDERTEMBER: What Can Spider-Man Tell Us About Diversity In Comic Books?

Diversity in comic books and comic book movies has become an increasingly important topic of discussion in recent years. Whether it’s due to the dominance of white male superheroes in comic book movies or the increasing importance society places on diversity within pop culture, the question has been asked: Can superheroes that overwhelmingly represent one demographic be relatable to all fans? Given his status as perhaps the most relatable superhero, Spider-Man is a fine case-study of the relationship between relatability and diversity in comics.

Peter Parker is a high school kid who faces many of the same problems as his readers. He pays rent, searches for social acceptance, and struggles with his love life. A billionaire playboy Peter Parker is not, although he’s faced the same grief and loss as certain billionaire superheroes. Peter Parker is a relatable hero on several levels, but as a white male superhero in a sea of white male superheroes, is he relatable to all comic book fans? Or must Miles Morales or Spider-Gwen replace Peter Parker if Spider-Man is to remain relatable?

The enduring success of Wonder Woman, Falcon becoming Captain America, and the popularity of newer characters like Miss Marvel have all been important in keeping comic books diverse and relatable. Whilst women and people of colour can relate to the universal issues of love, money, and social acceptance faced by Peter Parker, Spider-Man has benefited from the introduction of the diverse characters of Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen. Facing similar issues to Parker, Morales and Spider-Gwen have been relatable and diverse characters, whilst crucially being interesting in their own rights.

However, diversity is less of an issue in comic books than it is in comic book movies. Without Morales and Spider-Gwen in Spider-Man comics, there would remain numerous important, interesting, and diverse comic book characters, whereas in comic book movies these characters have yet to fully have their time to shine. On one level this is understandable since studios want to make films starring the most popular superheroes, which tend to be white males. Only Wonder Woman is popular on the same level as Batman, Hulk, Superman, and Thor. But this situation is improving. Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel all have solo movies in the pipeline, Agent Carter has her own show, and Falcon, Scarlett Witch, Black Widow, and Gamora have played significant roles in the MCU so far. Although there remains scope for further progress.

If fans from under-represented demographics are unable to relate to comic book protagonists, characters like Spider-Man will suffer most. If we can’t relate to a super powerful robot like Vision, it has little impact on its appeal, whereas if we can’t relate to Peter Parker facing everyman struggles, we have a problem. Does a Miles Morales Spider-Man or some form of Spider-Gwen have to take Peter Parker’s place in order for Spider-Man to remain relatable to all demographics? Given the popularity of Peter Parker, the fact Spider-Man is finally part of the MCU and the importance of Peter Parker to storylines like Civil War; it was an unsurprising decision to keep Peter Parker as Spider-Man, but was it the correct one?

When answering these questions, it’s important to remember the greater potential for experimentation offered by comic books compared to comic book movies. Whilst comic books have the luxury of alternate timelines, multiple universes, and both canon and non-canon storylines, comic book movies must focus on the most famous incarnation of a character. When casual fans think of Spider-Man, they think of Peter Parker and will naturally want to see Peter Parker as Spider-man on the big screen. I’d argue that Peter Parker remaining Spider-Man on film does not stop Spider-Man from being relatable because  the key factor in determining whether a superhero film is relatable or not is not the diversity of the film, but the diversity of comic book movies as a genre.

Spider-Man will join the MCU at a time when Black Panther and Captain Marvel are doing the same, Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn are set to play major roles in the DCCU, and females like Psylocke, Mystique, Storm, and Rogue continue to play their roles in Fox’s cinematic plans.  Providing comic book movies continue to introduce compelling and diverse major characters, fans will remain able to relate to comic books as a genre and characters like Peter Parker will have no problems remaining relatable. That doesn’t mean that Spider-Man’s diverse supporting characters like Gwen Stacy or Mary-Jane don’t need to be interesting and multi-dimensional, because clearly they do; but providing the genre remains diverse, they don’t have to be starring characters for the film to be relatable.

It’s important to note at this point that whilst all comic book movies have a responsibility to maintain and increase diversity within the genre, some have more responsibility than others. Projects derived from source material rich in compelling diverse characters have a duty to ensure said characters are properly represented on film, and movie studios have a great responsibility in ensuring films starring these characters continue to be made. Therefore, providing comic movies continue to improve their diversity at the same pace they have for the past few years, characters like Peter Parker will have no problems remaining relatable in comic books or on the silver screen.

Do you agree? Do comic books need to do more to increase diversity? Or do you think diversity in comic books doesn’t matter? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!

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Sebastian Bench