Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Jason Reynolds & Miles Morales

When Jason Reynolds' agent called him about writing a book about Miles Morales, the first thing he said was: "Never heard of him."  "He's a Spider-Man in Brooklyn who's black and Puerto Rican," she explained.  He paused.  "Continue..."

Throughout his work, Reynolds has written with the intention to teach young boys of color how to become men, so it made sense for him to have an instant interest in writing a YA novel for Miles.  That and it's Marvel.  There was just one small request from Disney: that he write the book in twenty-eight days.  He had to cut himself off from the world to do it, but he succeeded in weaving a narrative that may have a keener awareness for Miles than even the comic books did.

If you haven't read Miles Morales: Spider-Man, the quick run down is that Miles' spidey sense is on the fritz and he's just been suspended from his private school for constantly leaving to "go to the bathroom."  This causes tension with his family, particularly his father, who is adamant that Miles doesn't fall into the same criminal habits as his uncle.

When Reynolds kicked off the release of Miles Morales: Spider-Man at an indie bookstore (which was fitting since he's the 2017 Indies First Spokesperson), he talked about the hiccups in the character's comic book background that he had to address.  "His father's name is Jefferson Davis, first of all," he said, pausing to let the audience absorb this.  Miles Morales, an Afro-Puerto Rican teenager/superhero, has a black father named after the president of the Confederacy.  Uh-oh.

"Then I realized that Ganke is Korean but that's not a Korean name," Reynolds continued.  "And if Miles' mother is Puerto Rican, she's probably - speaking generally here - she's probably Catholic and would change her name.  So why does Miles have her last name?"  In the book, Miles explains that his father and uncle made Davis a bad name back in the day, so that was why he goes by Morales.  The characters acknowledge the strangeness of other two name problems later in the book, though they can't give an answer to them.

As for the Peter Parker Spider-Man, Reynolds always thought the famous line "With great power comes great responsibility" sounded silly in a fifteen-year-old mouth.  "If I got powers, I'd be thinking a whole lot of other things first," said Reynolds.  He expressed his interest in expanding Miles' identity as a superhero of color who does not automatically have the same privileges as the likes of Peter Parker.  How could Miles be saving the world when his own neighborhood needed saving?

In the novel, Reynolds explores the "survivor's guilt" that Miles feels not only for making it to a private school but also gaining supposedly undeserved powers.  When his spidey sense goes out of wack, Miles repeatedly wonders if his time has a hero has run out.  If he'll inevitably go back to the hustling in his veins.  Miles' conflict sharpens whenever he has a conversation with his father, who had narrowly escaped Uncle Aaron's fate by turning his life around in his youth and who repeatedly emphasizes that he is Miles Morales' father, not Spider-Man's.

Over and over Miles hears the words "You're just like me" in his nightmares, in his day-to-day life, everywhere.  He hears the warning that he will turn out just like his uncle.  Like how every other brown kid is expected to turn out.  It's the fear that plagues real kids like Miles who made it into the good school to help them get out of their rough neighborhood, only to be thrown into the school to prison pipeline as they experience harsher discipline than their white peers.

"It has to matter that he's black and Puerto Rican, " said Reynolds.  And he does make it matter.  When you realize what Miles is up against in the book, you know that it's intertwined with his racial identity and family roots.  Miles' reality is harder because of his skin color.  The book makes no qualms about acknowledging that and does not neatly resolve Miles' problems.  As a result, the novel's last scene reverberates with a power that only an author like Reynolds could pull off.

As if Reynolds hadn't already won me over enough, he also discussed his mission to deconstruct toxic masculinity in his writing.  "In my stories, I have a brown boy who is terrified," said Reynolds.  In Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Miles' crush calls him out on his fear.  Reynolds also talked about an alternate narrative of men fumbling like nervous wrecks instead of boasting about their womanizing ways.  Reynolds illustrates such a narrative when Miles' father tells Miles that he spilled salsa all over his mother when they first met and that Miles should go ahead and "spill the salsa" on his crush.  It's a more lighthearted refrain in the novel, but no less powerful in showing a different way to be a man.

If none of that is enough to convince you that Miles Morales: Spider-Man is worth reading, I don't know what to do with you.  But if you have any interest in Miles as a character or in Reynolds' mission as a writer, I highly recommend you go to the closest indie bookstore and buy a copy ASAP.

Me and Jason Reynolds at Kepler's Books

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