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This Dope Verse

Comics, FYI
This Dope Verse
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #47 • View online
What if a What If comic turned into a social media disaster for Marvel?

On first glance, Marvel’s What If… Miles Morales seemed as much as anything like the kind of project the publisher puts out in advance of a movie, with the aim of having a new collected edition in bookstores when the movie finally hits theaters*. Originally announced back in November of last year, the series was described by Marvel as a “new spin on the classic What If series [that] will explore the Marvel Comics multiverse and answer the question ‘What if Miles Morales followed in the footsteps of a Marvel hero other than Spider-Man?’” 
So far, so generic – if, perhaps, a little depressing that the series’ big idea seemed to underscore the idea that, separated from his original context (and universe), Miles is less of an equal to Peter Parker than a glorified understudy. A day after that original announcement, Marvel unveiled Spider-Gwen: Gweniverse, in which the alternate superpowered version of Gwen Stacy would travel through time meeting even more alternate versions of herself similarly decked out like other Marvel heroes, suggesting that the publisher was attempting to create multiple multiverse-themed collected editions featuring Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse characters for curious bookstore customers to pick up after checking out the movie. You know, the sort of inoffensive project that generally disappears without a trace upon initial publication.
And then, last week, What If… Miles Morales #4 hit shelves.
Instead of being a relatively straightforward execution of the idea expressed on the cover – as the logo puts it, What If Miles Morales …Became Thor? – in which Miles finds Thor’s hammer, picks it up and suddenly possesses the power of Thor a la Eric Masterson in the 1990s or Jane Foster just a few years ago, the story utterly reimagines both the Thor and Miles Morales mythos and, in the process, ignores the high-concept behind the entire series altogether; instead of What If Miles Morales Became Thor, the issue is basically an answer to the question What If Thor Was A Black Kid and Asgard Was Brooklyn**.
That’s not what people are upset about, however; in fact, as an idea behind a reimagining of Thor, that’s something that has a lot of potential, if done right – which is where the problem lies, because it’s the execution, not the baseline concept, of What If Miles Morales… Became Thor? that has generated so much attention.
From the issue’s omnipresent expositionary narration – something that, I think, is meant to read as a rap: “Immerse as we traverse the universe. From the vast multiverse comes this dope verse,” is runs, in part – to the transformation of Asgard from traditionally gleaming, pristine city of gods into a place where seemingly every wall is covered in graffiti, with shoes hanging from power lines***, What If Miles Morales… Became Thor? is filled with very specific ideas of what kind of comic it wants to be. And, by “very specific,” I pretty much mean, “more than a little racist.”
The background details I just mentioned – and the fact that the Frost Giants that appear in the story have fades and wear jewelry, for some reason, because it’s not just Asgard that’s been recreated as self consciously Black, but all the other realms****, for some reason – might be easier to ignore, if not forgive, were it not for the treatment of Miles/Thor in the issue. 
For someone intended to combine Miles Morales and the traditional Marvel Thor, the protagonist of this issue bears little resemblance to either in terms of personality. The playfulness of Paco Medina’s design – which applies the street wear aesthetic of Miles to the design of Thor, and transforms the ostentatious long blonde mane of the regular Marvel Thor into something more contemporary (and artificial; I see you, dye job) – isn’t matched by the writing of Yehudi Mercado, who jettisons Miles’ regular character and replaces it with little more than a lot of references to late ‘80s and early ‘90s rap. “Right up to your face and diss you!” he exclaims in the middle of a battle, which might be more logical than yelling “All eyes on me!” in the middle of his father’s birthday celebrations*****. 
To, I suspect, the surprise of no-one, there is not one Black person credited as working on the issue. Beyond Mercado’s writing, the story was drawn by Luigi Zagaria, with Chris Sotomayor coloring, Cory Petit lettering, and Tom Groneman editing; Nick Lowe was supervising editor. It is, notably, the only issue of the series not written by a Black writer, with Cody Ziglar, Anthony Piper, and John Ridley being the writers on the rest of the series.
The response to the issue, which was released last week, built across social media this weekend. “There are reasons why black people keep asking for black characters to be written by black writers and drawn by black artists. That Miles Morales as Thor comic is legit one of those reasons,” read one tweet. “The more I see that image of Thor Miles Morales welcoming ‘hood Asgard’ the angrier I get, because of how tone deaf it is. Living in the ghetto isn’t fun, graffiti isn’t ‘street art’ or murals. It’s dark, dangerous, violent urban decay, and Marvel thinks blk people like that,” went another. Since then, the story has been picked up by mainstream media, including The Root.
Arguably even more than the cliches and unexpected choices in the comic itself, I can’t quite get over the fact that none of this was caught and/or changed before publication. After all, we know from Greg Smallwood’s experience just a few months ago that Marvel has a Standards & Practices division that is intended to flag material likely to offend, and ask for corrections – so how, exactly, did What If Miles Morales… Became Thor? get to print in the state that it did? Did no-one at any point in the process not take a look at the material and ask questions or raise concerns? 
Not for the first time, I find myself wishing that there was a little more transparency into who and what makes up Marvel’s S&P department and guidelines; is it that no-one was really giving this series much attention in the first place, or that what’s been causing such a reaction upon release was missed during review because those responsible for oversight are lacking the cultural context to recognize the problems? What made Smallwood’s inoffensive art require revisions, but this pass through in the state that it did?
(I wonder at what stage of the process Standards & Practices gets involved; do they only review once art has been completed and the book lettered? If so, given that the problems with What If Miles Morales… Became Thor? are all rooted in the writing, it’s possible that things were deemed to be past the point of making significant changes.)
Marvel has yet to publicly respond to the upset surrounding the issue, and as of writing, also failed to respond to a request for comment. That said, I wonder if some action has been taken on some level, as the digital version of the issue I bought on Monday is missing a panel much shared on social media; it’s possible that small changes are being made quietly behind the scenes, without notice, in the hopes of mitigating any more bad publicity surrounding the issue.
It’s an approach likely to draw even more criticism if that’s what’s happening – a tacit acknowledgment of the problem without actually admitting anything – and a suggestion, perhaps, that the company is slowly realizing just how big of a problem this could become. Expect another shoe to drop before too long.
* In this case, the movie is Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the follow-up to 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Whether or not the movie(s) will feature versions of Miles as other Marvel characters is unknown, but not entirely impossible if it’s the kind of blink-and-you-miss-it cameo situation that Marvel could sign off on. 
** As far as I can tell, the only element of Miles Morales that actually makes it into the comic beyond his skin color is the fact that he confides in his uncle about his relationship with his father – except, now his uncle is Loki and his father is Odin. (Miles’ relationship with his uncle across realities is the spine of the series overall, from what I can tell.) There’s nothing else about Miles’ personality that really makes it in, and the character isn’t even called Miles Morales beyond a nod in early narration – he’s called Thor throughout the entire issue. It’s a bad look, reducing Miles down to basically his skin color and having an untrustworthy relative.
*** The actual meaning of shoes hanging from power lines is something that is disputed by a number of people far more knowledgeable about the matter than myself. There’s an urban myth that they denote the presence of drug dealers or a particular gang, but more reliable sources suggest that they could be memorials for the dead, or the result of bullying and/or pranks gone wrong. Whatever they are, though, why is this meant to be happening in Asgard of all places? 
**** The comic makes a point a couple of times to establish that, in this reality, there are five realms belonging to the World Tree, instead of the more traditional nine in Marvel mythology; it’s a nod to the five boroughs in New York, I assume, but it’s an odd choice. Similarly inexplicable is making these versions of Asgardians flat earthers, in a bit that gets a few panels of play. Is there something I’m missing here?
***** He does, at least, come into this century when he tells another Frost Giant to “Flip it and reverse it!” in the climactic fight of the issue, but still, come on now. There are probably more such references throughout the issue – should I count “Ain’t no party! Like an Asgard party! Because an Asgard party don’t quit!” as a Faith Evans and Notorious BIG reference? – but I’m not catching all of them. Nevertheless, if you include the exclamation “Hammer time!” when he summons Mjolnir, that’s five lifts in a story that only lasts 20 pages. This version of Thor loves his classic hip-hop just as much as Marvel did when it kept doing album cover variants a few years ago, it seems.
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Graeme McMillan

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