by Adam Benay
A little over a year ago, Marvel began publishing a “Hip Hop Variant” cover for the first issue in new run of each of their many series. These covers re-imagine rap albums with superheroes (or villains) in place of MCs. Black Panther pulls his cap down like Jay Z on the cover of Fade to Black. Iron Man stands in for 50 Cent on Get Rich or Die Tryin’. 3 members of the X-Men have their heads in a circle like De La Soul on 3 Feet High and Rising. Marvel has never been as mainstream as it is today, and these variants are a way to keep up that up. They’re also fun way to get into new music and comic books. Building my collection was worth it if for no other reason than to discover Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night. Not all of the covers have direct ties between the album and the comic (I’m looking at you, Guardians of Infinity!), but in this series I will discuss some that I believe do.
Spider-Man, words by Brian Michael Bendis, art by Sara Pichelli, Hip Hop variant by Adi Granov (Nas’ The Illmatic)
In 2010, when Marvel announced they would reboot the Spider-Man film franchise, fans of the actor/comedian Donald Glover (aka the rapper Childish Gambino) launched the #donald4spiderman campaign. The hashtag became a movement (promoted by Glover himself), and while the role ended up going to Andrew Garfield, later that year Donald wore Spider-Man pajamas in an episode of Community as a nod to the campaign.
Watching said episode was Brian Michael Bendis, Marvel mainstay and then-writer of the Ultimate Spider-Man series. Bendis and the editors at Marvel had been tossing around the idea for a black Spider-Man for a couple of years, and seeing Glover in the iconic blue and red costume inspired Bendis to create the half black/half-Hispanic Miles Morales. In the Ultimate series, Peter Parker dies and Morales- who had been bitten by a spider that was created with Parker’s blood- becomes Spider-Man.
When I first saw Miles used in an Illmatic cross-over, it made perfect sense to me. Growing up in Vermont, the only Queens natives I knew of were Nas, Peter Parker, and the guys from Entourage. While I later found out that Miles is actually from Brooklyn, the more stories with him I read the more I understood why the Illmatic was indeed a perfect choice. In an early issue of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, Morales’ uncle, a career criminal, dies after accidentally causing an explosion in a fight with his nephew. Before dying, Morales’ uncle tells him: “You are just like me.” And with that, Miles lives with the specter of a criminal life haunting him.
The Miles/Nas variant issue is, like The Illmatic, a debut: Miles has traveled dimensions to the main Marvel universe (it was a whole thing) and though by this point he has chosen the path of the hero and is even a member of the Avengers, he still has the kid-brother cockiness and need to prove himself that Nas had on “N.Y. State of Mind.” If you replace “web-shooter” with “nine,” then “I’m suited up in street clothes/hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes/y’all know my steelo,” well-suits the teenager who blows off school to fight crime with Tony Stark. Spider-Man’s elusive, acrobatic fighting style personifies Nas’ legendary flow on The Illmatic. They both tell their stories with blood-pumping first person narration. They both live with death around every corner. They are both confronted with their racial identity- whether they like it or not. In a conversation where his best friend Granke, who is Asian-American, tries to tell him that no one cares about race anymore, Miles says “Yeah? Try walking into a Duane Reade and have an itchy security guard follow you around just because…”
While Miles’ stories touch on similar themes as The Illmatic, Bendis stops well short of the realism that Nas describes in gritty detail. Most emblematic of this is that Miles’ grandmother persistently accuses him of taking and/or selling drugs to explain why his grades are plummeting, when the decline is actually a result of him saving the world from demon princes, alien warlords, and time-traveling necromancers.
NEXT WEEK: The smartest person on Earth is a 9 year-old girl from the Lower East Side. She’ll kick it with a mutant T-Rex and Ramona Park’s finest MC. Stay tuned, true believers!