Creating an iconic character is like trying to create another Mona Lisa. There’s no formula to it. Nobody truly knows whether a character will become an icon any more than Da Vinci knew that his paintings would be the subject of a Dan Brown novel. It’s these iconic characters that make up the backbone of the comic book industry and if modern comics has a Mona Lisa, then it is best manifested in the character of Peter Parker.
He’s not just a character that Marvel and Disney milk for billions. He’s a proverbial everyman whom readers can relate to more than aliens from Krypton, warriors from Paradise Island, or talking raccoons with machine guns. Peter Parker embodies that uniquely close connection with readers wherein his heroics and his persona aren’t larger than life. The strength and success of Peter Parker helped make him an icon. He turned Toby McGuire into a Hollywood superstar. He turned Andrew Garfield into someone other than that guy who once dated Emma Stone. Indeed, Peter’s influence is beyond dispute.
In the same way the music industry looks for the next Elvis Presley, Marvel keeps trying to create another Peter Parker. The success of such efforts are varied, at best. For every Kamala Khan, there are multiple Ben Rileys. By most measures, the biggest success to date is Miles Morales. He may have been born from the defunct pile of ashes that was the Ultimate Universe, but the strength of his character has made him an icon in his own right and he managed to do it without resorting to clones.
With the end of Secret Wars, Miles Morales has now set up shop in the prime Marvel Universe. Now, absent of the baggage that made the Ultimate Universe the ultimate afterthought, he’s free to develop on a new path in Spider-Man #1. That path follows a similar route to Peter Parker with a few unique twists along the way. The destination is the same, and the route might seem a bit too familiar at times.
Miles Morales is in a very different place compared to Peter Parker. It’s not just because he’s a teenager, he’s still in high school, and he hasn’t been cloned yet, either. He’s still trying to establish himself in this world of female Thors, talking trees, and time-displaced X-men. He has to do that while trying to navigate life in high school, getting good grades, and coping with teenage hormones. The responsibilities placed on him couldn’t be more unreasonable without demanding he master origami in the process.
This is the sort of balancing act that Superman, Batman, and Captain America never have to deal with. They’re adults dealing with adult problems. What Miles deals with, and what Peter Parker once dealt with as well, are problems that actual people face as teenagers. Give any teenager superpowers and they’ll still struggle with just being a teenager. Adolescence is everybody’s kryptonite to some degree. This is what made Peter Parker relatable in his youth. This is what makes Miles Morales relatable in Spider-Man #1.
Brian Michael Bendis goes out of his way to emphasize Miles’ struggles as a teenage boy over his struggles as Spider-Man. He spends most of the issue out of his costume, dealing with the frustrations and complications that come with being a teenager. This includes dealing with baffling irate teenage girls and uncomfortably discussing midterms with the parents. For countless teenage boys, these kind of things are every bit as daunting as a battle against Galactus.
These are typical experiences in teenager’s life and a part that many adults try to forget. Spider-Man #1 goes out of its way to capture that discomfort and for good reasons. Those experiences are the foundation of Spider-Man’s formula. While his reality keeps Miles grounded, as prescribed by the classic Peter Parker formula, it does have some shortcomings.
At times, the narrative tries too hard to make Miles Morales into a younger, non-clone version of Peter Parker. In the same way it’s impossible to recreate the Beatles without John Lennon, it’s not possible to make Miles exactly like Peter. It’s one thing to have him struggle with school, grades, and women. This has been the basis of every Spider-Man movie and cartoon for nearly two decades. However, Miles Morales has a few key elements that set him apart and these elements are poorly developed in Spider-Man #1.
For example, Miles doesn’t live with his Aunt and Uncle. Miles’ best friend doesn’t have a rich father who occasionally puts on goblin masks and throws pumpkin bombs. Most notably, Miles isn’t the nerdy white boy that shows like The Big Bang Theory have been glorifying for a decade. He’s a half-black, half-Latino kid living in an urban environment.
That’s not to say that these differences are outright ignored. Miles’ friendship with Genke, as well as his dealings with his parents, do help establish that Miles is not a Peter Parker clone. In any Spider-Man story, that counts for a lot. However, the failure to explore the elements that make Miles a different kind of Spider-Man is a significant shortcoming for the story.
Despite such shortcomings, Spider-Man #1 still sticks close enough to the formula to work. It still shows Miles functioning as both a teenager and as Spider-Man. When he finally does put on his costume, he confronts a threat that doesn’t feel like it was pasted from old Steve Ditko art. There’s sufficient intrigue to make Miles Morales’ story worth following.
Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli follow the necessary formula to make Miles Morales feel like Spider-Man, but the finished product feels incomplete. It lacks the kinds of flaws that would make that formula volatile. There’s never a sense in Spider-Man #1 that Miles Morales is ready to make a deal with Mephisto. Miles is still a long way from Peter Parker in terms of iconic status and movie appearances, but with this issue, at least, he takes another important step.