Miles is the new Ultimate Spider-Man; Jenny was the new… well, she was a new Iron Man. Miles is half-black, half-Latino, a New Yorker who picked up the Spider-Man mantle after Peter Parker’s death. Jenny was a white woman of privilege, an MIT engineering professor who fell into an avenging-hero role after the death of her father at the hands of his business partner.
Miles gets a lot of controversy thrown his way, much of it incredibly, stunningly racist; Jenny didn’t really get any, in her time. But they’re both products of the Marvel alternate-universe machine, that editorial gremlin that creates and destroys worlds in an unending quest for good press and higher sales figures.
Jenny had three chances to make a go of it under those rules– first in the 1986 title Spitfire and the Troubleshooters (also known as Codename: Spitfire), then in a few issues of Exiles, and lastly, as Jenny Swann in the late, lamented Warren Ellis/ Salvador Larocca reboot, newuniversal. As far as enduring popularity, though, she didn’t make the cut. Whatever it is that makes a Marvel hero iconic, Jenny didn’t really have it.
People are already arguing that Miles Morales has the same problem. He’s an alternate-universe hero. He’s a cheap attempt to grab press from the Marvel editorial machine, or the end result of some nebulous Disney-mandated diversity program. He doesn’t “count” because he’ll be rebooted or retconned away in time. In the “endless second act” model of the Marvel Universe, where nothing is certain except reinventions of the same old thing, Miles Morales is a grain of sand on an endlessly reimagined beach, already starting to roll into the narrative undertow.
Here’s the thing, though: so what? Even if all of that were true– and, given Bendis’ own family background, a lot of it isn’t true at all– will any of those theories matter to the people who will eventually read the new Ultimate Spider-Man?
I don’t think they will, and I say that because I was in the same spot with Spitfire in 1986.
Let’s say Miles Morales sustains his own title for… 13 issues. Ultimate Fallout #4 and a year of his own Ultimate Spider-Man title. He has a decent run of it, but it’s nothing exceptional. Maybe they change up his mandate after the first six-issue arc, trying to juice up the sales a little bit. They put out a TPB of the first arc for the trade-waiters, and maybe release a digest version for the kids.
And then, hey, it’s over. Bendis and Pichelli did their best, but whatever it takes to support a long-running Ultimate title isn’t there. Audiences are fickle. Direct-market sales aren’t what they used to be. Whatever the reason, Miles ceases to exist except in retrospect, plucked out of the record occasionally to support a new novelty project but permanently removed from the spotlight.
That’s pretty much what happened to Jenny Swensen in 1986… but here I am writing about her in 2011, because 13 issues of Spitfire were more than enough to cement her in my memory. Jenny was a redhead from Massachusetts, a Smart Girl, the cool professor that all the geeky kids idolized because she’d come up the MIT way, just like they wanted to.
I was a pigtailed, redheaded 10-year-old geek in August of 1986, already getting told that I’d cure AIDS or work for NASA when I grew up. I lived twenty or so minutes’ drive outside of Cambridge; MIT hacks occasionally made the front pages of the local papers. I picked up the first issue of Spitfire on a newsstand, maybe at the Bookends in the Northshore Mall, and there was a redheaded, Massachusetts-native, grown-up female geek.
(In power armor. Years before Gwyneth Paltrow became Pepper Potts, years before Pepper Potts became Rescue.)
Jenny Swensen probably meant nothing to you at the time, if you were around and reading monthly comics in 1986. That’s fair. Not all narratives mean something to everyone who reads them. I read a lot of comics that I appreciate but don’t identify with, don’t adore. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you accept that your experience with a book probably isn’t the same as another reader’s experience with the same work.
And my experience of Jenny Swensen was that she was the first redheaded female geek I’d seen in a comic book. Jean Grey was a redhead, and a heroine, but not much of a geek… and you couldn’t just go to MIT and receive the X-gene on graduation, after all. An engineering degree, though? That was doable, if you were prepared to fight for it and work hard and realize that sometimes academia hates technical women for no reason other than that they’re women in a traditionally male field.
Some images of our future selves are more attainable than others.
As it turned out, though, I didn’t get the X-gene or the engineering degree. I struggled with serious personal and medical problems for years; there was no job at NASA, no cure for AIDS. Intelligent and compassionate scientists who hadn’t had the same struggles I had treated me compassionately and helped me sort out my shit, and I went on to a reasonably normal adult life.
(Albeit some years later than I would have if I’d been correctly diagnosed and treated earlier. Science occasionally has to catch up to the human condition.)
I wasn’t Jenny Swensen after all, but her stories stuck with me while I figured out who I was.
I’m still figuring. I expect that there are a lot of kids out there who aren’t white, who aren’t privileged, who are actively engaged with the task of figuring out who they are, too. It’s not easy, and it takes guidance and courage and investment in your own narrative.
Miles Morales will be there for them, like Jenny Swensen was for me, whether or not anyone believes in the commercial or cultural potential of a biracial Spider-Man who can’t pass for white. One issue, thirteen issues, 160 issues… 25 years later, some guy or girl in a writers’ room or a comics bullpen will say “Hey, like Miles Morales. I fucking love Miles Morales.”
I love that guy or girl already. You should too.