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Marvel Comics and Manifest Destiny

Spider-Man is going to India. Just how universal are America's most cherished comic-book ideals?

11:00 PM, Jan 27, 2005 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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Later that same night, Peter returns home to find out that his beloved Uncle Ben has been murdered. Enraged, Peter hunts down the murderer, only to discover that it is the tough he let go. This tragic coincidence provokes his epiphany.

In Spider-Man: India, young Pavitr Prabhakar learns his lesson in an almost identical manner. While swinging across Mumbai, Pavitr hears the cries of a young woman surrounded by a gang of thugs. He does nothing and swings away. Moments later, Pavitr's beloved Uncle Bhim hears the cries of the same young woman and decides to confront her assailants. They warn Uncle Bhim that they will hurt him if he does not walk away. Bhim stays. He is murdered. Later that night, Pavitr learns of his uncle's death, hunts down the murderers, and experiences an epiphany of his own.

Although its innovations seem trivial, India's reworking of the Spider-myth brilliantly enhances the painful irony of the American original. Whereas Ben's murder is a matter of pure coincidence, Bhim dies because he had the courage to confront precisely the same evil that his nephew wouldn't. In both instances, the punishment for selfishness is the death of a loved one. Yet in India, that loved one is also a martyr whose death becomes the embodiment of the ethos to which Spider-Man must aspire.

THE COUNTERPOINT to India's subtle reworking of the death of Uncle Ben is its ambitious recasting of Spider-Man's powers as the worldly incarnation of a purposeful, mystical force rather than the accidental outgrowth of a scientific experiment. In a recent interview, Devarajan observed that the diametrically opposed forces of science and magic represent the fundamental contrast between Eastern and Western culture.

At a time when IBM is outsourcing thousands of high-tech jobs to Bangalore, it may seem strange to hear an Indian-American insist that magic is the essence of Eastern culture. Nonetheless, Devarajan's decision to build his story on a mythological foundation provides a much better testing ground for the hypothesis that the superhero ethic is part of a "universal psyche" rather than an American one.

As a literary device, the replacement of science with magic functions smoothly. In both accounts of Spider-Man's origins, there is a seamless integration of plot and metaphor. Although Peter Parker is now a married man in his thirties, he was a bespectacled teenage bookworm when Spider-Man debuted in the 1960s. A friendless outcast, Parker devoted all of his time to academic pursuits, such as the public science exhibit at which he was bitten by a radioactive spider. Although nominally an accident, the spider bite is a metaphorical expression of the American faith that knowledge is power and that science is the engine of progress. Initially taunted because of his devotion to science, Parker ultimately becomes all the more powerful because of it.

In Spider-Man: India, Pavitr Prabhakar is an outcast not because of his academic talent, but because of the traditional clothing that he wears to an expensive private school in cosmopolitan Mumbai. As a scholarship student from a small village in the countryside, it is all Pavitr can afford. One day, while being chased by the bullies who taunt him for wearing harem pants reminiscent of the glory days of MC Hammer, Pavitr stumbles upon an ancient mystic who warns him of an impending battle between ancient forces of good and evil. The old man endows Pavitr with the power of the spider and tells him "This is your destiny, young Pavitr Prabhakar. Rise to the challenge . . . fulfill your karma." In the same manner that Parker embodies the ideals of modern America, Prabhakar embodies those of traditional India.

At first, the suggestion that Pavitr has a destiny that he must fulfill may strike some readers as un-American. In the land of opportunity, we reject out of hand the notion that individuals must resign themselves to their fate. Instead, we believe that there are no limits to what can be achieved by a combination of hard work and ingenuity.

Yet is the concept of destiny really so foreign? Was it not under the banner of Manifest Destiny that the young United States claimed for itself the Great Plains and the northern reaches of Mexico? Was it not Ronald Reagan who constantly reminded the citizens of the United States that they had a "rendezvous with destiny"? To what else did George W. Bush refer to in his second inaugural address when he stated that "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty"?