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

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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”

Harry Potter: Pampered jock, patsy, fraud.

By Chris Suellentrop, originally published by Slate, 6 October 2006

Warning: This article contains a few spoilers about the Harry Potter books and movies. Like most heroes, Harry Potter possesses the requisite Boy Scout virtues: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. But so do lots of boys and girls, and they don’t get books and movies named after them. Why isn’t the movie that comes out next week titled Ron Weasley and the Chamber of Secrets? Why isn’t its sequel dubbed Hermione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Why Harry? What makes him so special?

Simple: He’s a glory hog who unfairly receives credit for the accomplishments of others and who skates through school by taking advantage of his inherited wealth and his establishment connections. Harry Potter is no braver than his best friend, Ron Weasley, just richer and better-connected. Harry’s other good friend, Hermione Granger, is smarter and a better student. The one thing Harry excels at is the sport of Quidditch, and his pampered-jock status allows him to slide in his studies, as long as he brings the school glory on the playing field. But as Charles Barkley long ago noted, being a good athlete doesn’t make you a role model.

Continue reading “Harry Potter: Pampered jock, patsy, fraud.”

Fish Cheeks by Amy Tan

I fell in love with the minister’s son the winter I turned fourteen. He was not Chinese, but as white as Mary in the manger. For Christmas I prayed for this blond-haired boy, Robert, and a slim new American nose.

When I found out that my parents had invited the minister’s family over for Christmas Eve dinner, I cried. What would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas? What would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who lacked proper American manners? What terrible disappointment would he feel upon seeing not a roasted turkey and sweet potatoes but Chinese food?

Continue reading “Fish Cheeks by Amy Tan”

Isaac on the daily announcements

The most exciting time to live in Vermont is mid-February. This is the time when one is given the privilege of a 30-minute walk to school in sub-zero temperatures, with a 30-minute trudge home in the dark after a long day. It’s been four months since winter began, and it’ll be two more until it’s over. The firewood is being rationed to keep the house at a barely livable temperature, a steamy 50 degrees, and colds are so rampant that people lose half their body weight in phlegm each day. Yet, however dull Vermont may seem to students and teachers as they wrap themselves in layer after layer of flannel, make no mistake, today is the beginning of an era. Today is the day when Isaac (that’s me) starts his job of putting smiles on grim faces as the reader of the morning announcements.

Continue reading “Isaac on the daily announcements”

Yale essay by Viviana

There it sits, sullen in the passenger’s seat like a child in time out. Here we go again — someone else’s laptop to navigate, another Wi-Fi network to hack, another stubborn connection to overcome. After a frustrating drive through the neighborhood and careful identification of a network, success is stated simply: Connected. It is a brief moment of victory, but short-lived as I race against the clock to complete my stack of assignments. Sure, it would be ideal to have my own Wi-Fi, but I’d be satisfied if my family obtained a home first. Every day there is a new challenge; it is a game of adaptation: I beat each situation before it beats me.

Continue reading “Yale essay by Viviana”

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)”