Monday, February 6, 2023

Black Superheroes: Ironheart

And lo, did the tears of a thousand fanboys flood the streets

Name: Riri Williams 

First Appearance:  Invincible Iron Man Vol. 3 #7 (2016) 

History: Riri Williams, a genius teenage MIT student, built a working suit of power armor based on Iron Man from stolen spare parts around her school just to see if she could. Upon completion she took it out into the world and ended up stopping two escaped convicts, but the still-not-quite right suit was destroyed in the process. The event caught the eye of Tony Stark himself, who personally came to Riri to offer guidance and support on her path to becoming a superhero. Some time later Stark is rendered comatose after the events of Civil War II, but apparently he saved his personality into an Artificial Intelligence housed in a holographic construct with the purpose of being shipped to Riri in the event of his death. Now directly working with an A.I. with the personality with intellect of the world famous Iron Man, Riri is able to fully complete her armor. On the A.I.’s suggestion she adopts the name “Ironheart” and sets forth to try to fill the gap that Iron Man left in his wake.

Beta Says: Riri Williams is something of a pariah amongst a certain percentage of the superhero comic fandom. As I understand it, some of it is backlash from her early stories not actually being very good considering how hard Marvel Comics was pushing her as this cool new superhero. However I’d argue a huge portion of it comes form a dark corner of modern comic fandom who rejected Ironheart not simply because of quality of stories but because she became their poster child for a then big mandate from Marvel to push diversity amongst their characters. In her case, Marvel probably unwisely had her temporary take over Invincible Iron Man. Replacing a high profile character with a very new character and telling everyone how cool they are is never the safest bet in the best of times but it becomes worse when that character is black and a portion of your fanbase have decided to be “Anti-Woke.” Oh yes, it’s one of these things. 

More on the “Ironheart Controversy” after the jump.

To be fair, if you dress her like this people will get confused.

Back in the mid-to-late 2010s, someone at Marvel Comics realized something that many fans and creators have been pointing out for years; that there simply isn’t enough diversity in superhero comics. Marvel chose to tackle this decades-old issue by introducing a bunch of new, high profile non-white and non-male characters one after the other over the course of a couple of years, and Riri was included in that bunch. Some of them were new characters, a lot of them were minority replacements. Now Riri was not really a minatory replacement (certainly not like War Machine or Monic Rambeau were) because she was never properly promoted as a new Iron Man, but I think what Marvel wanted to happen was have this new character who was IM-adjacent take over his book for a short while, dazzle readers with how cool and modern she is, then bring Tony back and slide the now mega-popular Ironheart into her own book.

The problem came for the fact that readers didn’t really click with her on mass, so in a bubble she likely would have faded into the background eventually, ala replacements like Thunderstrike and US Agent. However, a small but vocal contingent of readers absolutely fucking HATED her, not just for her but her as the poster child for the direction Marvel was heading that they really didn’t like; more and more diversity in the titles. Now, I don’t want to touch on Comicsgate too much, partially because it deserves its own well researched article and partially because 100% of the time when I mention them on Twitter several angry white strangers start yelling at me. The short version though is that Comicsgate, which spun out of Gamergate (look that one up), is a right-wing movement partially developed as a response to a perceived "forced diversity" in comics that caters to a "liberal minority" that messes too much with the status quo of beloved classic comic concepts. While some of those folks can make good points, and I will argue that Marvel absolute was forcing diversity during this time period (though I would also argue that they had to because of just how dang white their top comic heroes were), the fact is that many, many people on that side devolved their arguments into things like “Marvel hates white men,” or “Social Warrior Justices trying to ruin comics with [insert slur here]” or “female superheroes not dressed and posed in a way that I can easily masturbate to is killing America and Stan Lee!” Again, not everyone on that side, but enough that it was honestly a little scary. 

And, unsurprisingly, folks spinning out of this mindset decided that Ironheart was the worst offender.

I must be old, 'cause this seems needless unsafe.

Why was Ironheart targeted? I assume it’s because she was a female/black perceived replacement for their beloved Tony Stark, a character who way too many cis white conservative nerds seem to think is the best comic book hero of all time (where were this guys before 2008?). Also, unlike Kamala Kahn/Ms. Marvel or Miles Morales/Spider-Man, Riri hadn’t produced nearly enough goodwill to balance out the hate over time (though Miles still gets plenty of shit). For years, a loud section of Marvel fans have been decrying the character anytime Marvel does anything with her, which results in other comic fans annoyed at the bad faith argument snapping back and the whole thing probably kept her relevant enough maintain a presence in the comics longer than she would have otherwise. I am convinced that if the haters hadn’t made such a big deal about her then Marvel would have pushed her into he background. Now I feel like Marvel wants to make a point and not let the trolls win. A such she has continued to appear, both in a solo series and a member of the new version of the team The Champions.

How did I feel about Ironheart? Completely neutral. I don’t like Iron Man so a teenage Iron Man protégé wasn’t exactly a comic I was all that interested in reading. That said, I sure was grossed out by the bunch of weirdos saying “I’m not racist or sexist, but…” before saying some of the most racist and sexist shit I’d heard all day about the character. But to me, Ironheart didn’t seem like a character who had much staying power. At least she didn’t at first…

Once again, Wakanda makes everything better.

The real reason we’re talking about Riri today is because she recently received her biggest spotlight in the mainstream as she was a supporting character in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, played by Dominique Thorne and will star in her own TV series (assuming it doesn’t get canceled for tax purposes, but that’s more of a Warner Bros. move). Interestingly, the version of Riri in the film is actually pretty cool and she has literally nothing to do with Iron Man, which already makes her more interesting in my eyes. The way she has been portrayed in the MCU so far makes me feel like this she can be the right kind of diversity and allow little black girls to see a hero who looks like them, free of all the baggage she came with in the comic that sort of sabotaged that.

At this point Riri’s days as a forefront character are far from over, and so as long as Marvel Studios still wants to use her expect the teen genius to be at least a semi-major player in the comics for years to come. If you don’t like that because you think she’s a boring character or hasn’t been in enough good stories I would consider that to be valid criticism. However, if you’re argument against her includes the words “forced diversity,” “SJW,” “Woke,” “Critical Race Theory,” or just a picture of oddly proportioned female superheroes from an edgy 1990s comic while saying “this is what a real woman looks like” then kindly keep that mess to yourself.

Little black girl comic fans are eating well these days!

 Next time we will look at anther female superhero who is known for donning high tech suits of armor but is a rare “Minority Replacement’s Minority Replacement.”

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