Marvel’s “What If…?” comics explore standalone stories that experiment with Marvel canon. The recent issue “What if…? Miles Morales Became Thor” is a typical concept for the series—but this new story came under fire last week, criticized for its tone-deaf depiction of Afro-Latino superhero Miles Morales.
Written by Yehudi Mercado and illustrated by Paco Medina and Luigi Zagaria, this story reimagines Thor’s home planet Asgard as a New York neighborhood. Miles is described in cringey rhyming verse (“Odinson, he’s the son of gods and kings. Got so many wins, check out all those rings.”), including lines like “Asgard is his hood.” At one point he brandishes a graffiti-covered Mjolnir while exclaiming “Hammer time!”
Black Marvel fans were quick to call out the comic’s racist undertones, highlighting it as a textbook example of a non-Black writer mishandling a Black character. The Root’s Stephanie Holland summarized it as “a weird Blaxploitation caricature,” pointing out that this version of Miles bears no resemblance to his awkward teen characterization in other comics.
Best known as the star of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales is one of Marvel’s most popular Black superheroes. He’s also a key example of fandom debates over Marvel’s editorial choices, because he was co-created by a white writer (Brian Michael Bendis) who was sometimes accused of depicting Miles in a tone-deaf or inauthentic manner himself.
While attempting to make the Marvel universe (and its pool of creative talent) more diverse and inclusive, the publisher has repeatedly hit snags like this. For every success story like Black Panther, there’s a gaffe like promoting a white Editor-in-Chief who pretended to be Asian or launching the disastrously-named nonbinary superhero Snowflake.
With a beloved character like Miles, there’s a recurring sense of frustration when Marvel fails to hire creators who can portray him in an authentic manner.
Published on June 15, this comic already attracted major backlash within a couple of days, with writer Yehudi Mercado posting an apology on Twitter on June 22.
“While I’ve lived a different experience through my own Jewish and Mexican background, I still know inauthenticity hurts, and I’m sorry this failed on that front,” he wrote. “I’ve appreciated hearing and learning from my Black and Puerto Rican comics peers and hope to use this moment to help promote better authenticity.” He also said he would donate his Marvel paycheck to the Brooklyn Book Bodega.
With its clumsy hip-hop references and racial stereotypes, this comic reflects poorly on Marvel’s entire editorial food chain. While Mercado is obviously responsible for the dialogue that earned so much criticism on Twitter, his script would’ve been read by multiple editors and collaborators before being published. And none of them realized that Black readers might find this comic offensive.
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