In his lyrics under the rap pseudonym Childish Gambino, Donald Glover proposed, "I'll be your hero - Donald for Spider-Man." It might have sounded innocuous to the uninitiated ear - just another hip-hop boast among many in the rap catalog. But to the pop culture community, the words held a much greater significance given the context. Back in 2010, Glover embarked on a Twitter campaign to audition to be the next Spider-Man in the upcoming reboot. The role eventually went to "Social Network" star and British actor Andrew Garfield.
Glover's crusade of securing an audition opportunity gave rise to a heated debate in the comic community. As i09's Marc Bernardin wrote at the time, "In this day and age, why does Spidey have to be another white guy?" While many were supportive of the effort, some fanboys and fangirls took offense at Glover's potential portrayal not being in line historically with the character. And still other Marvel devotees had a vile reaction to the idea of seeing the rapper/comic/actor/writer in the patented red spandex tights. They weren't worried about whether the young multi-hyphenate was talented enough; they were worried about his skin tone. They didn't want a black Peter Parker. Glover himself, again in the voice of alter ego Childish Gambino, doubled down on the controversy in his song "Not Going Back", lamenting that "They couldn't see me as Spider-Man, but now I'm spitting Venom." Later, the rapper would appear in the role of Troy on the critically-acclaimed, fan-beloved, but little watched cult sitcom "Community" in adult footie pajamas, which were, of course, a replica of the sarcastic Web Crawler's outfit. It was wink and a nod to his fans and haters alike.
While this was a controversy over a comic book character, it really played to a larger discussion on race-relations that continues to take place throughout most, if not all, of America. Why shouldn't a talented actor be considered to play a fictional character regardless of race? Are we as Americans really so tied to ethnicity that our fictional heroes must continue to look, act, and be a certain way without alternative interpretations? For the most part, the objections to casting Glover stemmed from true die-hard fans connected to historical preservation of the lore. However, the amount of racist language thrown at Glover during the process clearly wasn't an adherence to the comic aficionado's geekdom, it delved deeply in traditional notions of hate and bigotry that have long plagued the internet and our society.
Unknown anyone weighing into the debate, however, was the fact that a major change in this community soon to be underway. Writer Brian Michael Bendis, along with co-creator Sara Pichelli, believed that the Ultimate Spider-Man saga - one of a few different visions of the world of Peter Parker in existence - needed a reboot. The pair had already decided Parker, in this "Ultimate" world, needed to die in order to breathe fresh air into the series, and debated how he should be replaced. They saw a need for additional diversity within the world of comics, and drew from inspiration of President Obama and the debate over Glover himself to create a new multi-cultural character - Miles Morales. This was a particularly personal effort for Bendis, as he has two adopted children of Ethiopian and African-American descent. "Wouldn't it be nice for them to have a character or a hero that speaks to them as much as Peter Parker has spoken to so many children?" he asked in an interview with USA Today back in 2011.
Now coming full circle this week, we see that Disney has opted to have Glover be the voice of Morales/Spider-Man in a new cartoon for its network. Not, perhaps in the way he'd hoped, but in arguably an even more important manner, Glover will still get his crack at portraying a legendary character with a new twist. While this all may seem superficial and less than germane to the historic current events we've witnessed in Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri, along with the death of unarmed black men in Los Angeles and New York City within the past weeks, I believe stories such as this play a vital role. If we are to affect change and challenge a long national history of tense race relations, instances such as this are small steps that may have a lasting impact. It's a chance to show younger generations that heroes can look like and be like anyone. It influences these readers by demonstrating that people of any color can have kindness, strength and honor. There is no archetype; there is no "one-size-fits-all" when it comes to bravery and protecting your community. While minorities and women, in the past, have been marginalized within entertainment, we now have multiple examples of powerful and positive characters that can help everyone dream of greater things.
Don't misunderstand me -- the creation of a comic book/cartoon character isn't going to end the racial divide in this country. It won't rectify the militarization of police. It won't stop looters or violence, or protect denizens. That will take communities coming together - the citizens and the officials who govern and protect them - with a true desire to rebuild trust and the will to see it through. But having minority superheroes provides a subtle subliminal message to millions of children and adults that their community exists, it is respected, and does have value. It was announced early this year that in this coming November the character and famous sidekick of Captain America, African-American superhero Falcon, will take control of the red, white and blue shield himself, becoming the new Cap. Whether this is a wave of change breaking in new ground, or just a once-off example, it shows that Glover and Benis aren't alone in their logic or desire for something fresh. It may be a small change, but even a tiny oscillation can be a sign of a tide reversing its direction.