How a Samoan Spider-Woman drawing won the love of the web

When lifelong South Auckland comic book fan Michel Mulipola uploaded his take on Spider-Man online, he didn't expect the Samoan version of the Stan Lee superhero would prove to be so popular.

Earlier in June, Mulipola shared the picture of a Samoan Spider-Woman - Web-Weaver aka Elisapeta 'Peta' Lalaga - just a few weeks after seeing the latest animated film Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

The film, which shows off various different iterations of Spider-Man, has proven phenomenally popular with moviegoers, becoming one of the year's biggest box office hits. In New Zealand alone, it's snared $4.40 million.

And Mulipola's artwork, complete with cultural references and explanations, soon became an online hit amongst Spider-Man fans and comic book lovers.

Mulipola himself has seen the film four times since it came out, he confessed to Newshub, and it finally spurred an idea into life he'd had for a while.

"I just sat down and decided to do it, really. And I started off with the spider insignia, the symbol, you know, and when that kind of revolved around the malu, the Sāmoan motif, which is a diamond pattern that represents protection and is kind of designated for females, I realised, 'oh, it has to be a Spider-Woman'.

"It seemed like it was an idea that's always kind of been in the back of my mind since really reading the Spider-Verse comic story, which a few years ago and I was into watching Into the Spider-Verse and Across the Spider-Verse, the great thing about the Spider-Verse concept is that, you know, there's a dimension for any kind of Spidey character you can create. And so what's really great is that a lot of indigenous creators are starting to make their own versions based on their culture."

Fans online have praised the Samoan version, with many commenting on how "freaking awesome" it is because of the minor details and the cultural explanations Mulipola uploaded with the drawings.

"When I design characters, I want it to be cool, you know, so it looks really awesome. But then at the same time, all the elements of the costume design have to have a purpose. [When it comes to] designing characters and costumes, I'm thinking about the character itself and what symbolises that character's personality as well as their, you know, their culture or  their mission. You know, they're what drives it."

Mulipola said it's about him opening up on his artistic process as well as providing insight.

But he laughed when asked about the inclusion of jandals on the Web Weaver, and how they'd stay on the feet as she went swinging through the air.

"If she uses them as a weapon, against an opponent, she can use the web to pull it back - or use it to smack them in the head. So yeah, I've got that covered," he joked.

Mulipola knows what he's talking about. He's worked for Walt Disney as a story artist and now works with them as a cultural consultant. He's been interested in comic books since the age of five and is part of the graphic novel series, Headlocked, a professional wrestling comic book - so it's part of his DNA.

But what took Mulipola back and surprised him the most was a comment from a teacher saying they'd use the drawing to inspire different cultures in their classes to create their own versions of famous characters.

Michel Mulipola's Spider designs come with cultural touchpoints for reference.
Michel Mulipola's Spider designs come with cultural touchpoints for reference. Photo credit: Twitter - Michel Mulipola

"Stan Lee famously said, 'it can be anyone under the mask' and under the costume. It's really kind of amazing what a lot of people, especially marginalised people, feel like they can be a Spider-person. It's really opened up the creative plug that well-known creators all around the world kind of want to design and create their own version to be the people that they can see themselves in. Who else is going to represent ourselves?" Mulipola said.

As for whether the Web-Weaver will end up in the sequel Spider-Man: Beyond The Spider-Verse, anything's possible.

Fourteen-year-old fan Preston Mutanga was hired as an animator to create Across the Spider-Verse's Lego sequence after the film's producers saw a Lego version of the trailer he'd made.

Mulipola is humble and pragmatic, telling Newshub while he didn't create the character for likes or social media clout, he wouldn't say no if he was approached by either Marvel or Sony Pictures for the Web-Weaver's inclusion.

"You know, one of my friends who worked on Spider-Verse, they gave me the seal of approval which is cool because my friend Kris Anka, who did the design for Spider-Man 2099 in the film saw it and he said, 'Oh damn'."

"If that's all the acknowledgement I get from anyone who was involved in Spider-Verse, then I'm happy with that."