How Miles Morales Changed the Spider-Verse

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.

Dear Miles,

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.

Love,

Uncle Victor

Advertisements

What We Hunger For

by Roxane Gay, originally published at The Rumpus, 12 April, 2012

I am always interested in the representations of strength in women, where that strength comes from, how it is called upon when it is needed most, and what it costs for a woman to be strong.

All too often, representations of a woman’s strength overlook that cost.

The Hunger Games, released in 2008, is the first book in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the next two books, were released in 2009 and 2010. The franchise was an instant success. More than 2.9 million copies of the books are in print. There are more than twenty foreign editions. The Hunger Games was on the New York Times bestseller list for 100 weeks. There are special editions. There is merchandise including a Katniss Barbie, which Katniss would absolutely hate. In March 2012, the movie was released and thus far has earned nearly $460 million worldwide. I am part of the problem. I have seen the movie four times and have plans to see it again. Continue reading “What We Hunger For”

How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization

David Hopkins, April 2016, The Observer  (http://observer.com/2016/04/how-a-tv-sitcom-triggered-the-downfall-of-western-civilization/)

 

I want to discuss a popular TV show my wife and I have been binge-watching on Netflix. It’s the story of a family man, a man of science, a genius who fell in with the wrong crowd. He slowly descends into madness and desperation, lead by his own egotism. With one mishap after another, he becomes a monster. I’m talking, of course, about Friends and its tragic hero, Ross Geller.

You may see it as a comedy, but I cannot laugh with you. To me, Friends signals a harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America, where a gifted and intelligent man is persecuted by his idiot compatriots. And even if you see it from my point of view, it doesn’t matter. The constant barrage of laughter from the live studio audience will remind us that our own reactions are unnecessary, redundant.

The theme song itself is filled with foreboding, telling us that life is inherently deceptive, career pursuits are laughable, poverty is right around the corner, and oh yeah, your love life’s D.O.A. But you will always have the company of idiots. They will be there for you.

Don’t I feel better? Continue reading “How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization”

Fortress of Tedium: What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher. A novelist’s education in the classroom. (excerpt)

by Nicholas Baker, New York Times Magazine, 7 September 2016

One wintry mix of a morning, while I was in training to be a substitute teacher, I saw a textbook that was being used in an 11th-grade English class. The class was studying transcendentalism, and the students were required to read excerpts from an essay called “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was an unmethodical writer with low, puffy sideburns who liked to work himself up into paragraphs of rapture. When it came time for him to write an essay or give an oration — about nature, say, or self-­reliance — he combed through his voluminous journals and pulled out choice bits that were more or less on topic, and he glued them together with some connective prose. For instance, in “Nature,” Emerson writes: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball.”

In the textbook, next to this passage, there was a brief assignment printed in the margin. It said: “Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369. Which aspect of transcendentalist thought is reflected in Lines 12-19? Explain your answer.”

Continue reading “Fortress of Tedium: What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher. A novelist’s education in the classroom. (excerpt)”

How to Tell a Mother Her Child is Dead

Excerpt from piece originally published at The New York Times.

by Naomi Rosenberg

First you get your coat. I don’t care if you don’t remember where you left it, you find it. If there was a lot of blood you ask someone to go quickly to the basement to get you a new set of scrubs. You put on your coat and you go into the bathroom. You look in the mirror and you say it. You use the mother’s name and you use her child’s name. You may not adjust this part in any way.

I will show you: If it were my mother you would say, “Mrs. Rosenberg. I have terrible, terrible news. Naomi died today.” You say it out loud until you can say it clearly and loudly. How loudly? Loudly enough. If it takes you fewer than five tries you are rushing it and you will not do it right. You take your time.

After the bathroom you do nothing before you go to her. You don’t make a phone call, you do not talk to the medical student, you do not put in an order. You never make her wait. She is his mother.

Continue reading “How to Tell a Mother Her Child is Dead”