Wednesday saw the release of the first issue of Brian Michael Bendis and Stefano Caselli’s new Invincible Iron Man run. In the book, Riri Williams officially takes over for Tony Stark as the Marvel Universe’s Iron Avenger, taking up the mantle of Ironheart. The book blew me away…and now has me scratching my head trying to figure out how to make room for it on my pull list. This short, not-quite-a-review piece is my warm welcome to both Riri Williams and the necessity of Ironheart in the Marvel Universe and in our daily lives.
With it being the first issue, there’s not much to “review” per se without giving things away (and we know I’m a pretty solid anti-spoiler guy). But I loved meeting Riri Williams and her mother! The comic is a pretty straight-forward “first day on the job” sort of story that finds Riri in Cheyenne, Wyoming battling the mid-level villain Animax. She’s getting used to being the new Iron Avenger in the wake of…uh, whatever happens to Tony Stark at the end of Civil War II. Employing the same rich, layered characterization and world-building that made me fall in love with Miles Morales and Jessica Jones, Brian Michael Bendis gives us not just the dynamic and engaging Riri Williams but a dynamic and engaging world around her too. Yes, the superheroing is fantastic but it’s detailed flashes of the past ten years illustrating her relationship to her family, her friend Nicole, and her life growing up as a super genius that make this book a must-read for me. The comic and its cast of characters feel warm and inviting. Does that sound weird? In one issue, I’ve found a whole bunch of new characters I care about. I especially like the inversion of the traditional kid-sneaks-out-to-play-superhero trope with Riri’s mother knowing about and supporting her career as the new Iron Man. Stefan Caselli art had me lingering on each page, gazing deeply into each panel. The characters were living in the best possible way. Their visual vibrancy matched and fueled the narrative. It’s been a while since I’ve finished a comic and was immediately compelled by both the gorgeous art and the incredibly gripping story to go back and re-read it. But that was excitedly the case with The Invincible Iron Man #1.
More than just a fun story, I think Riri Williams’ rise to the role of Ironheart will end up being as important for us as it is entertaining. First, we can look at the setting. So many superhero stories are set in New York City but Riri’s from Chicago. The change-up in local in and of itself is interesting enough…but it’s what they do with the setting that matters. So far in 2016, Chicago has seen more homicides and shooting victims than New York and Los Angeles combined. Tragically, gun violence has become a large, dark, twisted part of the day to day life of Chicago. It is in this culture of deadly and daily gun violence where we find the genesis of Riri Williams’ hero’s journey. It is topical, yes. But it also has mythological/symbolic importance too. Using this as a formative experience for the newly minted Ironheart we find a message saying from the violence in our world we can rise up. We can become so much more than we ever imagine. We can even learn how to protect those who need it while we inspire others as well.
Also secondly, to be as direct as possible, the fact that a young black girl has assumed the mantle of the superhero identity of a white man is important too…especially this week. While there was no way it could have been planned, I think the fact that this comic was released the day after the presidential election was a little dose of kismet. The results of this year’s election were a shock to just about everyone, regardless of who they were for or against. I think history will be struggling to make sense of this for some time. There is also a great deal of sadness, frustration, despondency, and even anger and rage on the liberal and/or progressive side. Regardless of all of that, we must keep moving forward. Bitterness, recriminations, and anger are toxic – for those who it’s directed at as well as for those who direct it. We can’t let that claim us. Rather we love. We listen. We figure out how to embrace the best America has to offer and to never stop fighting for that. We don’t wallow in darkness, we move forward into the light.
So how is Riri Williams taking over for Tony Stark helpful? Well, at its most basic level this story arc represents the best of America. Here is a bright, fun, hopeful tale (free of politics which we all kind of need right now) representing not a progressive ideal but rather the American ideal, that ANYONE can be ANYTHING in this country. Riri Williams, a young girl growing up in a middle class situation in Chicago is stepping into the shoes of Tony Stark…and he not only approves but he hand-picked her for the job! A rich white American male (the top of the privilege/oppressive food chain, should one choose to be oppressive) is passing his title down to a young black woman and helping her on her journey. In Tony’s willing mentoring of Riri, Iron Man’s experiencing a gender change, race change, age change all while honoring what the character stands for. Nothing is lost but so much is gained. That’s a pretty good example of what American can be. We lift each other up, regardless of who we are and where we come from. We work together. We acknowledge that everyone is equal and there’s nothing someone can’t do – especially because of arbitrary reasons. I think the comic hit shelves at an important time to remind us of the best of this country and what can happen when we work together, across the presumed divides of ethnicity, gender, and wealth.
I couldn’t be more excited for Bendis and Caselli’s new Invincible Iron Man run. Like the best of the comics I read, it looks like it will simultaneously be a fantastic, exciting superhero story while also elevating the hearts and minds of those who read it. It’s hopeful. It’s happy. And it reminds us – at least it reminded me, reading it Wednesday night – of what we can be when we operate at our best.
I know that not everyone will see this as I do. Yes, there are some people who will hate this simply because it’s different or because they feel threatened by the fact that a once-white male superhero’s mantle is now being worn by a young black woman. They will try and write it off as a lack of creativity (“Just make a new character!” they’ll wail) or a p.c. diversity publicity stunt (“It’s all a liberal agenda and it’s ruining comics!” they’ll grumble). But, for those of us who read this comic book with an open mind and an open heart, we’ve just met an engaging, exciting, and important new hero for 2016. We all know Tony Stark will be back as Iron Man eventually. But, in his absence, we’ve gained Riri Williams as Ironheart. And we’re all the better for her too.
Thank you Riri Williams, for being just what I needed to other night. You came into my life at the perfect moment and you can rest assured I’m all too happy to come along for your story. Welcome to the Marvel Universe – I can’t wait for issue #2!