Pavitr Prabhakar: Spider-Man? Marvel Markets Move East

Pavitr Prabhakar: Spider-Man? Marvel Markets Move East
In an effort to further capitalise on its potential international audience, Marvel is revamping one of its most valuable properties. Timed to capitalise on the runaway success of the film franchise, and its South Asian release later this year, Spider-Man is going to India.

Peter Parker has been reinvented as Pavitr Prabhakar, a lad from Mumbai (formerly Bombay) who receives his powers from a mystic (no spider bite here), in order to battle an ancient evil that is threatening the land. The ancient evil appears in the form of Rakshasa, an reinvention of the Green Goblin. Over the course of the four-part series, Pavitr's love interest Meera Jain (modelled after Mary Jane) makes her entrance — in fact there are plans for most of the familiar faces from the pages of the original Spider-Man to make appearances during the series.

Clearly, such a move indicates cultural sensitivity on the part of Marvel — to take an American social icon and recontextualise him with an eye towards local interests, themes and issues is surely a progressive move, is it not? Not necessarily.

There's no question that Marvel's latest endeavour is going to be a success in its target market. After all, Spider-Man in its original form has been translated into hundreds of different languages and the character is an iconic symbol of New York City, and the superhero ethos. But beneath the innocent veneer of transforming Spidey into a different cultural hero and thereby earning Marvel kudos for being sensitive and progressive, there lurks another rather dark possibility. By giving access to and creative control over one of the biggest money makers for the company, Marvel looks like a big brother handing off a well-used toy to a younger sibling.

The challenges — for comic fans and for the creators of this Indian Spider-Man — are more deeply rooted than simple changes in costume and geography. Part of why Spider-Man works is because of where he's placed: New York City. He is an urban hero — and as a web-slinger, he needs tall buildings and plenty of them. He's also an urban-dwelling American, and the themes of justice, individual responsibility and collective freedom the comic has always explored are particularly Western in nature. Relocating him in a different culture isn't so easy — it erodes the foundation that has defined the character's very essence. He is no longer Spider-Man; he's been changed into a different kind of hero and shouldn't be likened to the original.

That's not to say that any American cultural creation must, by definition, remain unchanged. Certainly other companies (see sidebar) have explored culturally sensitive issues in a comic context. But Spider-Man is a specific case. While a case can certainly be made that DC heroes like Superman or Wonder Woman are citizens of the world, Spider-Man needs New York. New York needs Spider-Man. Theirs is a defining symbiotic relationship, just as Daredevil has Hell's Kitchen and Batman has Gotham City.

Part of what makes Spider-Man work as a translated comic is the fact that he lives in such a different world from any culture he's being shipped to. Changing his name and the origin of his powers doesn't mean it's an all-new character.

There's no question that Marvel has the right idea. Reinvention — even a complete overhaul — has always been a key element of comics' evolution. In this case, it simply doesn't work because of who Spider-Man is as a superhero and a person. Leaping around rickshaws and scooters isn't the same as swinging through the skyscrapers of New York. It just doesn't make sense.

Comics' Sensitive Milestone
Marvel's latest marketing move has fooled everyone into thinking that they are the first company to cross cultures in comics. Not so — in 1992, Milestone Media became the first to achieve success as a comic imprint that focused solely on ethnic superheroes. Created by Dwayne McDuffie, Derek Dingle and Denys Cowan, Milestone's purpose was to provide an African-American voice in the lilywhite comic industry. The success of black comic heroes Hardware, Icon and Static demonstrated a substantial market for such an approach and comic giant DC snapped up the small imprint.

This led to the arrival of other ethnically diverse heroes. In creating these characters, McDuffie gave writers and artists complete freedom in bringing their ideas to the comic book superhero form — and made sure that ethnic diversity was represented behind the scenes as well as on the page. McDuffie felt that by seeking out authentic voices, there would be more of a connection between creator and character.

Milestone wasn't just supporting black artists. With the title Shadow Cabinet, Milestone combined heroes of colour in a group that showcased a wide range of diversity. By using inner circle strife among the group to make his characters seem much more down to earth, McDuffie ensured that the comic would garner a devoted following. What's more, the female characters wore real costumes — less boob, more character development — and helped make Milestone more positive to women readers as well.

It's sad that there aren't more imprints that do this sort of thing. It's even sadder that Marvel receives so much attention for doing something that not only has already been done, but has been done better and with more style. Milestone didn't have to reuse a character that already had a following. They made their own.