Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Black Superheroes: War Machine


No, he doesn't need two back mounted cannons
But damn if he ain't about to use 'em
Name: James “Rhodey” Rhodes
First Appearance: Iron Man #118(As Rhodes, 1979), Iron Man #170 (As Iron Man II, 1983), Iron Man #282 (As War Machine, 1992)
History: A pilot in the US Marine Corps James Rhodes met Iron Man while stationed in Southeast Asia.  Impressed with his skills Iron Man’s “employer” Tony Stark (Actually Iron Man himself) offered Rhodes a position as his personal pilot.  Since then the two became best friends but when Stark fell into alcoholism during Obadiah Stane’s attack on his company he passed on the mantle of Iron Man to Rhodes.  However it later turned out that the suit wasn’t compatible with his brainwaves and Rhodes became dangerously paranoid and aggressive and suffered from severe headaches.  This combined with injuries forced him to vacate the superhero identity for the most part.  However one day, during a crisis, Rhodes again was forced to become Iron Man, donning Stark’s latest designs the “Variable Threat Response Battle Suit, Model XVI, Mark I”, a suit built for all out-combat.  Afterwards he decided to keep the armor and continued to fight the forces of evil as War Machine.
Beta Says: Created by David Michelinie and Bob Layton James Rhodes, better known as “War Machine”, is probably one of Marvel’s most successful African American superheroes.  He’s one of the company's few black heroes, along with Blade and Storm, to be featured in a major motion picture (Performed by Terrence Howard and then later by Don Cheadle as War Machine proper) meaning that he may be among the most high profile minority characters in comic books today.  That all said Rhodey has had the unfortunate luck of being known as “Tony Stark’s Black Friend” since day one.  Despite what they originally had planned for him his long association with Iron Man as a supporting character has likely locked him in that position.  Never mind he’s had several solo titles or that he was a founding member of the West Coast Avengers.  With rumors of a possible War Machine spin-off film it is possible that this might change.  But I doubt it.  In fact I’d bet money that it wouldn’t.
More thoughts on War Machine after the jump.

James Rhodes is a character that utilizes two trends in comic books that I am not a fan of.  The first is his role as a “Minority Replacement” where a white superhero with his own history is replaced with someone of color.  Now it’s not the replacing that I’m bothered by exactly (Unless it’s a character I’m attached to, of course) but it often kind of seems like a lazy way to sneak diversity into comics.  It’s often not very subtle or natural and can be jarring for some people.  But even that’s not really all that negative because it’s not universal law the story introducing the the new character will be bad; it can be quite good, unique and compelling.  And the character themselves can be awesome; just look at the new Blue Beetle.  More disheartening is that editors and writers often grow bored with the change and soon switch back to the original white character or a new white version with even less natural progression than the original change…and the poor minatory character often gets killed in the process.
I'm not sure what's going on here but it screams "1990s"
The most recent example is probably poor Ryan Choi, the fourth man to be called The Atom and one of the few Asian superheroes active in the DCU.  After replacing Ray Palmer, the Silver Age Atom and the person most associated with that name, he starred in his own book and gained a vocal, if small, fan base.  Well just last year Palmer reclaimed the Atom mantle and Choi was soon brutally murdered by Deathstroke the Terminator.   Great.  An older example would be the second Doctor Mid-Nite (Or Doctor Midnight, as it was spelled for her) Doctor Beth Chapel, an African American surgeon who actually seemed like a pretty interesting character-Oh wait they killed her off too then about six years later brought in a white dude to take her place.  Fantastic.  Not everyone dies, of course.  Just ask Monica Rambeau, the second Fake-Captain Marvel (The One True Captain Marvel is, of course, the Big Red Cheese), who just fell into obscure third-tier token status.
War Machine was Iron Man for about two years before he was demoted back to Tony Stark’s sidekick and it would be another SEVEN years before was allowed to be a superhero in his own right separate from Iron Man.  That’s a long time to go without pulling the trigger, Marvel.  Nevertheless Rhodey did manage to escape the trap so many other minority characters have fallen into managing nearly two decades of life after taking up the War Machine name and, though he’s sometimes in the background, he seems to play a larger role than most black superheroes, even Black Panther shockingly, in the overall Marvel Universe.
Unfortunately the other trend associated with him is also the reason he’ll never be considered one of the Marvel’s top characters.
One of the most annoying things Marvel tended to do during the Dark Age of Comics was briefly replace a major superhero with a new character , sometimes a young , hipper counterpart and then have the original return and have both guys operate as heroes.  Sometimes this worked out pretty well such as with Beta Ray Bill for Thor, but most of these characters are now either dead or generally not really cared about by comic book fandom (US Agent for Captain America, The Scarlet Spider for Spider-Man, Thunderstrike for Thor, Azrael for Batman for a DC example…by the way the dead, white Azrael has a black successor running around these days.  Any bets as to when that dude bites the dust?).  Being among the first Rhodey is a successful version of this trope, he is after all still relevant and still alive , but that doesn’t change the fact that he and his compatriots are always going to be seen as lesser versions of their more well know counterparts.  Anytime you see War Machine you’ll always think about Iron Man; its nearly impossible not to since they are so tied together in comic book history.  Hell, if you don’t know anything about James you’d probably just think it was a strangely well armed Iron Man on the cover of that book.
I guess we know where Rhodey stands on gun control...
That’s not to say that Rhodey isn’t a good character; he is, and is probably a little underused.  There are plenty of stories waiting to be written for him and he can, and hopefully one day will, be used in major storylines in role other than supporting.  But at the end of the day he wears armor either created by Iron Man or based off of his designs, he is in Iron Man’s supporting cast and, frankly, he just looks like a grey version of Iron Man.  He just doesn’t come off as an original idea.  It won’t matter how many solo series they give him nor would it matter if a spin-off film starring Don Cheadle made millions upon millions at the Box Office; unless Tony Stark either permanently dies or permanently retires War Machine will never be able to stand on his own as a character outside of his best friend’s shadow.
But hey, at least he’s not a drunk!  Anyway next time we’ll check out a hero who was supposed to make comic book history but was screwed over before they got the chance.
War Machine taking a bite out of alcohol abuse
 For more on War Machine click here.  For a much, much larger database of black superheroes check out BLACKSUPERHERO.COM.

1 comment:

  1. Comic book companies seem to be much happier making characters that are totally derivative, so that they can recapture at least part of the audience from the original, which just dooms the character to always be second class. Which, I agree, isn't a good way to send a message about racial equality that doesn't choke on it's own irony.

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