by Victor LaValle (originally published in Love letters from the New York Times Style Magazine, 14 February 2019)
The writer Victor LaValle reflects on the power of the Oscar-nominated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and its young hero.
My kids think you’re great, but I’m the one who loves you. I’m 47, my son is 7 and my daughter is 5, but at the end of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” I’m the only family member who sat there in tears. In the movie you look like a teenager, but in reality you’re barely 8 years old. Back in 2011 two folks at Marvel Comics — the artist Sara Pichelli and the writer Brian Michael Bendis — created you. In the sea of Caucasity that was (and still is) the comic book industry, you were long overdue. I know this is all a bit meta, but that history was rolling through my brain when the movie ended. Meanwhile my son and daughter were too busy pretending to turn invisible or web-sling across the Magic Johnson Theater lobby to notice. I watched them playing and thought about myself at their ages. I know, I know, nothing is duller than listening to an adult talk about how things were “back in the day.” I’m going to do it anyway so go ahead and pre-roll your eyes.
I grew up loving Peter Parker, identifying with him. I’m a working-class kid from Queens; wasn’t raised in a “traditional family,” whatever the hell that means. But Peter Parker was the “boy next door” and I wasn’t. How did I know? Well, because in the world of comics — the only world that mattered to me then — a boy who looked like me never lived next door. Dennis the Menace (to use a reference you definitely don’t know) could barge into his neighbor’s home and television audiences found it endearing, cute. But a brown-skinned boy entering someone else’s home without knocking has never been adorable in America. (I guess Urkel used to do it in the ’90s, but look how much they had to neuter that boy in order to make such a thing palatable.)
Which brings me back to you.
I loved your movie from the start, but I felt a particular kind of thrill when I watched you walking to school in your uniform, passing old friends alongside a basketball court in Brooklyn. I knew that walk, had made it myself throughout my childhood. I gasped because, finally, there you were: the boy next door. But this time you were the boy who lives next door to me.
I mentioned that my kids enjoyed the hell out of the film but didn’t come away with the same profound emotional reaction. At first I felt offended, sat them down for a lesson on the long, problematic timeline of American comics. Superman had to assimilate to find acceptance. Wonder Woman began, in part, as a bondage fetish character. And Luke Cage, most famous these days from his (canceled) Netflix series, used to talk like a blaxploitation character as written by a blaxploitation software program.
Both my son and daughter nodded along as I lectured, but they weren’t listening. It’s me who had to reckon with the math. I spent 39 years without you, but you’ve been a part of my kids’ imagination for their whole lives. They didn’t get emotional because, for them, a brown-skinned Spider-Man with big, beautiful curly hair is a commonplace. NBD. Other people may take it for granted that they have a face like a superhero’s. I’m happy my kids get to feel that way. I spent too long without such a thing; my big feelings about you reflect how much I needed it.
So I apologize that at the cookouts and family reunions you’ll have to put up with uncles and aunties who pull you close and hold you too tight and get a little teary-eyed when you come around. We’re just so proud of you. Forgive us. Or don’t. I don’t care.
You’re still getting hugged.