Riri, Rhodey and Re-Skinning: How Marvel is Misunderstanding Diversity
(originally posted here)
As most of you in the comic book world know, this week Marvel announced that Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man will be replaced with a young African-American girl named Riri Williams. I applaud Marvel’s efforts to give another black female character her own comic. Riri joins the ranks of Lunella Lafayette of Moongirl and Devil Dinosaur and Anwen Bakian as Nova along with veteran Storm of the X-Men as black female characters recently having their own comic book series. However, I am not as excited as I originally was when I first heard the news, as there are no black women involved with the creation or shaping of this character.
This is going to be a bit long, but I ask you to hear me out.
Riri Williams’ turn as Iron Man will officially begin in October, but since May of this year, she has actually been featured in The Invincible Iron Man Vol 2 starting in Issue #7. She is a young genius attending MIT (just like Tony Stark was) and basically created her own Iron Man suit in her dorm room from scraps she pilfered from MIT’s labs and her own ingenuity. When security finds out what she’s up to she ends up making an escape in said suit. If it sounds familiar, that’s because part of Stark’s origin story is that he originally escaped from Wong-Chu forces in the Mark I made from scraps that he and fellow captive Ho Yinsen cobbled together. Only Riri did it alone, with more time, sans the heart condition and terrorist organization after her. She also manages to save a few lives in the process. (For a detailed explanation of Riri’s origins please see this article by Evan Narcisse). Personally, I think it’s amazing that a little girl who looks like me can now read a comic with a genius, natural-haired, dark-skinned sister in it. That is definitely a step in the right direction for a mainstream company like Marvel, but, I have many questions:
Why does a black man always die or get maimed near the beginning of a Marvel Civil War? In the original Civil War comic it was Goliath (Bill Foster), and this time it’s War Machine (James “Rhodey” Rhodes) in CWII, and even in the MCU Rhodey’s paralyzed. Why was Riri the choice for the “new” Iron Man as opposed to Misty Knight, whose arm was personally created for her by Stark? Or even Rhodes’ genius niece Lila, (I’m referring to the Earth-616 version) who helped maintain Rhodey’s War Machine armor? Clearly she would know something about how the suit works, right?
Why does Marvel keep “re-skinning” original characters like Iron Man, Captain America, Wolverine and Thor? Why not just make new ones? Or at least bring back old ones (Isaiah Bradley, Josiah X or the Patriot?) And how come Riri won’t be called Iron Maiden, or Iron Girl or even Iron Woman (Earth-3490) like Natasha Stark was?
Hey, here’s a thought, call her War Machine. (Since Rhodey clearly won’t be needing the title.)
In addition, most of the current reiterations of characters were brought on when a mainstream character was either dead or depowered (Captain America, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Wolverine), But now both “versions” of the characters are existing in the Marvel lineup. Are they just waiting for Trump to win office so that they can “Rhodey” the POC versions? (that’s a thing now). Or are trying to create multiple characters with the same titles and powers just different ethnicities, orientations and genders to keep everyone happy? Why are there now more black female characters in the Marvel universe than black male ones, but still no black female writers? Why did they go out of their way to include a Korean-American to write Amadeus Cho as the Hulk (Greg Pak), a Muslim woman to write for Muslim female character, Kamala Khan Ms Marvel (G. Willow Wilson) and black men to write both Black Panther (Ta-nehisi Coates) and Power Man and Iron Fist (David Walker) but they couldn’t find a single black woman to write Moongirl, Nova and now Iron Man? While we’re on the subject, why has neither Marvel or DC EVER hired a black female staff writer?
(DC hired freelance writer Felicia D. Henderson to write for several issues of Teen Titans during 2009 and Static Shock – 2011.) Yes, there have been black characters and POC characters in comics for a long time. All of which of which (with the exception of Milestone) were originally created by white men. Even the Black Panther that everyone is so excited about was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I don’t care how many of you were told that Magneto was inspired by Malcolm X, Magneto’s character was never black and neither were its creators (also Lee and Kirby). Social media banter and indie sales dictate that African Americans do buy a lot of comics, but we seem to have a hard time proving that because buyer fragmentation, comic book shop gatekeeping and uneven distribution don’t provide accurate numbers, and Diamond’s not sharing those numbers with us anyway.
And please don’t tell me that black women don’t read comics. Not only do we read them, I talk to fellow blerdgurls ALL THE TIME who are reading, reviewing, tweeting and BUYING them.
The interesting thing about “the whole diversity thing” in comics (and one of the reasons why I started this blog) is that there are plenty of indie artists out there that are creating some amazing diverse characters of color, and have been doing so for YEARS. And in addition to some mainstream titles, that is the work that I like to read and continue to support. What kind of indie comics am I referring to? Feel free to search the comics here on my site, my Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook or IG and you’ll find quite a few.
Please do not take any part of this post as an attack on either Brian Michael Bendis or new Invincible Iron Man artist Stefano Caselli. Bendis might have created Riri’s story, but he is a staff writer, and that’s what he gets paid to do. He’s not in charge of hiring new writers or scouting out new talent. My issue is not with him. But Marvel (and DC) will continue to take our money because they know we’ll give it freely, especially if they create a character that looks like us, because they have the money and the resources to get the images out into the mainstream market faster and more efficiently than the indie comic book creator does. They also know, that the image of a smart black girl will sell as seen with the success of Moongirl and Nova.
Let’s be clear, my idea of diversity does NOT mean asking Marvel to hire black female writers to just write black female characters, just as I can’t expect Marvel to force all the white male writers to just write for white male characters. But there are NO BLACK WOMEN writing at Marvel right now, so that’s not even an issue until they hire some. My mother always used to tell me “When you ask for something, be specific.” So Marvel, listen up, I’m going to be VERY specific here:
Start hiring Black female writers to write for any and all characters at Marvel NOW*. And don’t just hire one either.
And for those of you who don’t believe that there are any black women out there actually writing comics, (I get this question at least once a week) I invite you to check out the list below.
I’ve got over 60 reasons why you’re out of excuses.
Current Indie Black Female Comic and Webcomic Writers
This list is comprised of Black women that I am currently aware of have written comics or webcomics that were printed or released digitally within the past few years. This list does NOT include anyone that is currently working on their first project that is not out yet. I will be adding this list to a larger database that I am putting together so please let me know if I have missed anyone. A BIG thank you to Regine Sawyer of the Women in Comics Collective NY International and Lockett Down Productions Publications for help curating this list!
Ashley A. Woods
C. Spike Trotman
Cheryl Lynn Eaton
Christina Steenz Stewart
Neeka Neeks (Taneka Stotts)
Shauna J. Grant
Shawnee and Shawnelle Gibbs
@theblerdgurl is a commercial film/video editor by day and comic book reading, anime watching, TV live tweeting, K-Pop listening, blog writing, geek gurl by night. She is on a mission to shine a light on indie, female and comic artists of color and highlights them and their work on her blog theblerdgurl. She currently lives in a century old brownstone in Brooklyn with 2 cats who plot her demise daily. You can also find her on twitter, facebook, instagram, tumblr and snapchat.