This week’s New Comic Book Day brings two major Marvel milestones. The first, Tony Stark returns to active duty as the Armored Avenger, shaking off the coma that’s sidelined him since the end of Civil War II. The second, The Invincible Iron Man #600 marks Brian Michael Bendis’s final Marvel comic. There’s lots to reflect on with Bendis’s move to DC, to be sure. However, as someone who writes often of the vital importance of Legacy Characters on this site, I’d rather discuss something else. What does it mean for Riri Williams – for Ironheart – to have Tony return?
To my mind, it’s not so much the return of Tony Stark as Iron Man that has significance for Riri Williams’s Ironheart. Rather, it’s the question of what happens to her now? This is the moment – following the return of their namesake – that shapes the future of the Legacy Character.
I know there are some who will champion this move (as they did with Steve Rogers and Thor Odinson’s returns) as proof that Riri Williams “never worked” and praise Marvel for giving up the “forced diversity” of their “SJW crusade” over the past few years. Blah, blah, close-minded/ignorant bull$#!t, blah. These people are wrong. This cycle from namesake to Legacy Character and back again has happened for ages in comics. With a genre that needs to constantly generate new stories every month for decades, the mantle changing hands is just another handy trope to keep things fresh. The fact that Sam Wilson is Falcon once more, Tony Stark’s stepping back in the Iron Man armor, and Jane Foster has…(well, that’s the story for another post) is no more a condemnation of their character or importance than it was of Bucky Barnes, Rhodey, and Beta Rey Bill when they returned their shield, armor, and hammer (respectively) after their time in the spotlight. In other words, almost every Legacy Character eventually steps to the side to allow their namesake to return to active superheroing. It’s how the trope works.
When we think of Tony Stark returning to being Iron Man and retaking his title, it doesn’t mean Riri Williams didn’t work nor does it mean she is no longer relevant. It just means Tony’s back and Riri’s story will continue in a different way. I’d still argue, regardless of who the star of The Invincible Iron Man is, that Riri carries far more cultural importance now, in 2018, than Tony Stark ever could. As much as I love Tony, he’s still a character underscoring a problematic narrative – the rich, white man with all the power, control, and influence. Riri, on the other hand, is a young black girl from Chicago, a fifteen-year-old genius, who rises from the tragedy of gun violence to use her mind to reverse-engineer her own armor to make sure what happened to her doesn’t happen to others. She shows us that intelligence and power aren’t the express prerogative of the rich anymore than they are of those who are white and male. None of this changes with Iron Man returning to The Invincible Iron Man and they still underscore why Ironheart is so important, no matter what title(s) she’s showing up in.
So again I ask, what happens to Riri Williams now? If handled correctly, she can join the ranks of the other Legacy Characters Marvel’s had who have transcended their time filling in on someone else’s title.
Carol Danvers is Marvel’s shining example here. We’re long past the point when comic readers associate the name “Captain Marvel” with Mar-Vell before Carol Danvers. I think that’s great! As I’ve written before, I feel anything we may’ve lost with Mar-Vell has been more than made up for with all we’ve gained in Carol. They are both wonderful characters, but (as with Riri and Tony) she matters in a way he can’t.
Another solid example is Miles Morales as Spider-Man. As Bendis himself wrote in his final issue of Spider-Man (#240), “I’ve said this so many times and people think I’m being coy, but I’m really not – Miles should not have worked…Peter Parker wasn’t broken. Spider-Man never needed ‘fixing’ The world wasn’t clamoring for someone to come along and fix Spider-Man already.” Yet people responded to Miles. He struck a chord. He became more than an isolated story arc. Here though, unlike with Captain Marvel, Peter Parker is still very much active as Spider-Man while Miles Morales carries the title too. With Tony returning, this will be the path for Riri’s character to walk. Miles perfectly illustrates we can have two Spider-Men, carrying two different types of cultural significance, side-by-side without one diminishing the other. Ironheart and Iron Man can just as easily coexist.
To lose Riri would be to lose someone who not only makes Marvel’s comic scene more relevant, but more interesting too – a fact the Guinness Book of World Record’s title holder for World’s Largest Comic Collection would agree with. Jordan Zakarin, of SCYFY Wire, recently interviewed Bob Bretall, the man with over 105,000 comics in his collection and who’s held the Guinness record since 9 September 2014. Speaking of Legacy Characters with Bretall, Zakarin writes,
That may be why, unlike a lot of old-school fans, Bretall isn’t resistant to change — when you read that many comics, heroes and villains who never really die start to get real old, real fast. So instead of offending any tightly held personal ideal of a superhero, Bretall is all for new characters assuming the capes, cowls, and armors of his favorite icons. He blogs about them at his site, Comic Spectrum, but avoids being part of any kind of typical backlash.
“Some of my favorite books are the ones that have really pissed off a lot of other grey-bearded, old-timey comic book collectors,” he says, laughing. “I love Riri Williams as Ironheart. I love Squirrel Girl. I love Jane Foster as Thor. And I am really, really happy whenever I open up the letters page and I see little girls or little boys with a picture of themselves in a Squirrel Girl costume. I love that they’re doing something that gets kids excited about reading comics and growing new fans.”
Nostalgia is less seductive when you’re always focusing on what’s next — and even less so when the past is indexed in your garage. “I don’t sit back and say ‘Gee, in my day, Iron Man was a white guy,'” Bretall says. “I’ve got probably a thousand Tony Stark Iron Man comic books. I don’t need to have them print another one of those for me.”
While I have faaaaaaar fewer comics than Bretall (like thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands less), I get what he’s saying. I was away from reading comics for almost twenty years. What brought me back was Jane Foster, Kamala Khan, Miles Morales, Sam Wilson, and Carol Danvers. And in all the years I’ve read comics, it wasn’t until Riri Williams stepped into her Ironheart armor that I ever had The Invincible Iron Man on my pull list. This was new. This was important. As a result, I wanted to be a part of it.
In addition to adding a very real freshness to the narratives, Legacy Characters, more than anything else, show all of us it is possible to follow in the footsteps of our heroes. Miles has become Spider-Man. Kamala has taken on the mantle of Ms. Marvel. Riri has reversed-engineered her own armor. In literally becoming their own version of the heroes who inspired them, they’re actively doing something we should all aspire to do. Sure, I can’t stick to walls or build an A.I.-run suit of armor. But I can take responsibility for my actions and do my best to help carry the burdens of those around me. This is part of what comic books should be teaching us.
As a white, heterosexual male, I’ve always been able to easily see myself reflected back to me in my heroes and, as such, to connect to those lessons in a personal way. Everyone should be so lucky. By intentionally bringing a wider range of genders, ethnicities, and sexualities to the costume, characters like Riri Williams, Carol Danvers, Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, Jane Foster, and Sam Wilson help do just that. They expand the reach of the myth those costumes and names represent and allow a wider group of people to more easily see themselves reflected in those costumes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to see what Dan Slott has in store for The Invincible Iron Man. His epic run on The Amazing Spider-Man shows he is an author who knows and loves comics. He’s a great choice to bring Tony Stark back into the land of the living. However, as I said above, I’m not going to forget about Riri Williams. I’m overjoyed that she’s now a regular part of Champions and any book she’s a part of, I’ll check out. I’ll do this both in the name of enjoying a great character I’ve fallen in love with as well as in the service of allowing my sense of social justice to help shape the comics I read.
It is widely documented that companies like Marvel and DC make much of their decisions as to which titles they keep and which they cut based on advanced orders and sales of their month-to-month single issues. We are not yet to a place where they give graphic novel and trade paperback collections the weight they deserve. With that in mind, and with the desire to make certain what I read (both for fun and for my own intellectual and spiritual growth) isn’t exclusively channeled through my own preexisting lens, I take this into account with my file. When picking or switching the titles I read regularly each month, it is a personal standard I have that less than half of them can be titles featuring white, male characters written by white men.
I have boxes and boxes in my closets filled with comic books from my youth, the overwhelming number featuring white, male leads and written by white men. I don’t need a whole lot more of that. Nor do we need that in the comics that are being published. I want to read comics as diverse as the world we live in – both in characters and creative talent. It’s what we, as a culture need too and what kids growing up deserve in their comics. So that’s what I need to buy to do my part to ensure those comics keep rolling. They are the future.
So let’s celebrate Iron Man’s return! But let’s remember to continue to celebrate Ironheart too. Again, if we’re being honest, she’s the one who’s more important to our collective future. Tony Stark will always be exciting. But the white, male, billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist (a character that, in many ways, reasserts the idea of white, male dominance (as few are as rich, intelligent, or powerful as Tony Stark)) sorely lacks the relevance of a fifteen-year-old black girl, raised in Chicago, who lost her father and best friend to gun violence and then decided to use her genius mind to become a superhero and make the world a better place. For all the fun and adventure he brings, Tony Stark still reminds us that our world is moved and shaped by white men. Riri Williams reminds us that it doesn’t have to be.