Committed: Death Sells… But Who’s Buying Ultimate Spider-Man
In our current social climate, the one high impact event that it is acceptable to use as children’s entertainment, is violence. The most extreme outcome of violence is death, therefore when it came to creating some high-impact events in Ultimate Spider-Man; first his uncle was killed off, then his father was put in a coma, and now his mother has been killed off. In less than 22 issues poor Miles Morales is finding out that the price of being a young superhero published by a mainstream company is death all around him.
Think about it, if you are one of the big two publishers, producing a bit of a marketing vehicle of a monthly book like Ultimate Spider-Man, the last thing you want to do is piss people off. However, you do want to surprise people and create a marketable event every month. How can you do this? Can you depict a young superhero exploring his budding sexuality, or questioning his sanity, or learning about the relationship between poverty and crime, or combatting racism? No, of course not, because sex, mental health, and politics are taboo subjects, and when approached in an all-ages comic book they would take a deft hand to make simultaneously media-attractive, socially acceptable, and relatable for an all-ages audience. While writing about issues like these (which could plausibly arise in Miles Morales’ world) could be compelling and also attract media attention, they could also raise an outcry which violence doesn’t, and no mainstream publisher is interested in dealing with that.
Why did Miles Morales’ mum have to die? The new Spider-Man is a young, bright, smart, sweet boy who became a superhero by accident and for nearly 2 years we’ve watched him blunder though it. I thought that just maybe just once we could have a kid with two, healthy, loving, solvent parents ,who would fight crime simply because he felt it was right, without the need for a hackneyed guilt/revenge scenario. This was a kid too young to have much sense of self-protection, but tons of empathy, a taste for adventure, and a good heart. He wasn’t born from tragedy but from a happy accident, his origin story didn’t have to stem from the depth of some horrific death in the family. But then it did…
When Miles held his mum in his arms and the life just ran out of her, I started crying, not just because it was a sad scene at the end of a whole lot of sad scenes, but because I was mourning for the whole damn genre. Someone came up with some good stories a long time ago and writers keep returning to that well, churning out the same stuff, never daring to try something different. I thought just once that we would see something entirely new, but I was wrong. Once again we have a practically orphaned child, torn apart by pain, forced to watch loved ones attacked by evil.
When I want to listen to the Rolling Stones, I do. I don’t listen to the Strokes. They’re cute and I quite like them, but too much of the time they’re like a Rolling Stones New, so it feels better and richer to just listen to the original source material and lose myself in Let it Bleed. I used to apply the same logic to Ultimates comic books, I made fun of friends who read them because I didn’t see why I’d need a modern retelling of a story that was already done well the first time. But for a little while, Ultimate Spider-Man showed me I was wrong, he was a different kind of Spider-Man with a different kind of supporting cast. I got drawn in, I got attached. Today I was reminded that all big publishers play it safe and focus on violence to sell books. When push comes to shove they don’t want to try something new, they just want to write the same damn stories again and again.
The artist on this has been Sara Pichelli, and she is one of the greatest new voices in visual storytelling to emerge, so I’m grateful to Ultimate Spider-Man for bringing her to my attention. If not for her, perhaps I wouldn’t have become so attached to Miles and his family, or believed that this little kid could and would throw himself around the city to take the kind of risks he does.
In terms of the character’s writing though, I am disappointed. Painting with a broad brush is all well and good, but reverting to hackneyed, violent-centric story lines and depressing clichés when a book is seeking attention is cowardly and lazy. In the real world children are already being subjected to news of violent deaths in the playgrounds of America far too often, using violent death as a recurrent theme in all-ages comic books is no longer healthy or acceptable. If the envelope needs to be pushed, try pushing buttons outside of violence. At their core, all-ages comic books are adventure stories, fantasies of power and escapism for children who do not have much power or many escapes from their everyday lives, let’s stop using violent death as a touchstone in these books.