Something remarkable is happening the world of mainstream superhero comics this week. And one of the best and most remarkable things about it is that no one seems to think it’s remarkable.
I’m talking about All-New Ultimates, Marvel’s new Ultimate Universe team book written by Michel Fiffe, with art by Brazilian newcomer Amilcar Pinna. A spinoff of both the long-running Ultimate Spider-Man title and the recent Cataclysm event crossover, what makes All-New Ultimates remarkable in my book is the makeup of its titular team: Four women (Black Widow, Bombshell, Dagger, and Kitty Pryde) and two black men (Cloak and Spider-Man).
As near as I’ve been able to discover in my research, that makes this the first superhero team starring in a book by a major mainstream publisher without a white male in it.
Let me be clear: I’m not advocating the exclusion of white males from superhero teams. What I’m applauding is this concrete evidence that a white male is not a requirement for having a superhero team.
That’s a big step in terms of representation and diversity in superhero comics, but making it even niftier is that no one seems to be making a big deal about it.
I think that’s because no one seems to have set out to address a need or omission with All-New Ultimates. Yes, there have always been justified complaints that there aren’t enough empowered women, or people of color, or other underrepresented constituencies, in superhero comics, and when those lacks have been remedied (however minimally) it has always been with a certain amount of publicity. Big-time “firsts,” like Northstar of Marvel’s Alpha Flight coming out in 1992, or the February launch of Marvel’s new Ms. Marvel title, featuring a teenaged Pakistani-American girl named Kamala Khan in the title role, have (possibly by dint of the surrounding publicity) appeared to come about as an intentional response to a specific lack of representation in the fictional worlds we all love so much.
And don’t get me wrong, these are indeed positive developments, and deserving of hoopla. If a segment of the population that has been unjustly unserved or underserved in terms of heroes and role models they can see themselves in, gets a new hero that reflects their lives and experiences, I have no problem with the creators letting the world know that in the loudest and proudest way.
But there’s something equally neat about the quiet, almost accidental way this new team of Ultimates came to be.
Of course, it was a big deal back in 2011, when the Peter Parker of the Ultimate Universe died a heroic, heartbreaking death, and a 13-year-old half-black half-Latino boy named Miles Morales stepped into the webs as the new Ultimate Spider-Man. Over the last two and a half years, Miles has established himself well in the role, and in the course of his adventures a number of other characters have come into his world in ways that have seemed pretty appropriate and unforced. Some actually date back to the Peter Parker era of Ultimate Spider-Man:
- Kitty Pryde – the mutant who can “phase” through solid objects was a member of the Ultimate X-Men when she started dating Peter Parker. They broke up after the Ultimate Clone Saga, but she remained a prominent part of the Spider-Man story.
- Jessica Drew – One of the clones of Peter Parker introduced during the Ultimate Clone Saga, she had her own set of spider-powers and was the only one of the clones who survived. As Spider-Woman, she served as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and something of a mentor to Miles during his early days as Spider-Man. In the wake of her traumatic experiences during the Cataclysm event, she has renamed herself “Black Widow”.
- Bombshell – Lana Baumgartner was originally a potty-mouthed tween who could fire explosives from her hands while robbing banks in tandem with her equally potty-mouthed and similarly powered mom Lori. After they were busted repeatedly by Peter Parker, Bombshell has broken free of her mother’s influence and appears to be trying to go straight.
Meanwhile, the Ultimate Universe’s versions of Cloak and Dagger (Ty Johnson and Tandy Bowen) were introduced much more recently, during the late 2013 “Spider-Man No More” story arc that truly planted the seeds of this new team. When Jessica Drew’s stubborn snooping reveals that the evil Roxxon Corporation had conducted illegal and unethical experiments that resulted in Cloak, Dagger and Bombshell unwittingly (and unwillingly) gaining their powers, all those superpowered young people team up with Miles to take down Roxxon’s unscrupulous “Brain Trust”. That these various characters would come together as an impromptu team in this situation made perfect sense within the context of story being told and all the events that had come before. Writer Brian Michael Bendis filled the story with youthful naïveté, satisfying moments of vengeance and righteous outrage, and his trademark witty (and wordy) dialogue. It was four or five issues into the six-issue story arc that I remember saying to myself, “This team needs to be a thing. If they had a comic book of their own, I would read that one all day long.”
That was clearly part of the intent, but at no point was any particular attention drawn to the phenotypical make-up of the kids. They were center stage because they belonged there for entirely organic story reasons; and that they were all tremendously appealing characters that were a joy to root for was a function of who they’d been presented as by Bendis and artist Dave Marquez, not what they were.
So on Wednesday, April 9, we get the payoff, only no one’s treating it as a payoff. And in its own way, that makes it one of the biggest payoffs of all. After all, a society that works just that way, in which such a development isn’t a big deal at all, isn’t that what we’re all working towards?