The New Iron Man Is A Black Girl, And What That Means For Diversity
When I first began writing for this site, I talked about Ms. Marvel and comics’ changing status quo. The merry-go-round of Marvel mantles is still in a state of flux, with young and/or diverse characters filling in for familiar names. Just today, Amazing Spider-Man #15 put long-time supporting player Mary Jane Watson in the Iron Spider suit (Peter’s outfit from the comic Civil War), and by the time this next change comes into effect, the pop culture roll-call of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will be as follows: Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Jane Foster as Thor, Sam Wilson as Captain America, Amadeus Cho as The Hulk, Kate Bishop as Hawkeye, and fifteen-year-old MIT student Riri Williams as ‘Iron Man.’
Brian Michael Bendis, a creative driving force at Marvel for most of the century, is all set to put Riri in the red & yellow after Civil War II – don’t worry, this news doesn’t give anything away, as he reiterates to Time – and she’s sure to bring all the usual conversations with her. She’s already a presence in Invincible Iron Man, having built her own version of Tony’s armour, so we’ll have plenty of time to ignore all the usual racism and sexism. However, there’s perhaps a more nuanced conversation to be had about the merits and demerits of this sort of decision-making, if only to wonder how long these changes will last.
For that, we obviously need to start with the assumption that diversity is good (it’s honest, it’s fair, and it’s about damn time), but at what point does this specific path to diversity fall on the side of gimmickry? Don’t get me wrong, the new Ms. Marvel was my big superhero diversity moment, as I’m sure this will be for so many others. But the difference between Ms. Marvel and Riri (along with Cap, Thor and Hulk) is whether or not this is a long-term change. It’s certainly a big step, especially given Iron Man’s mainstream popularity, and it’s going to be notable for representing black women in STEM fields, but what happens when Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner and Man-Thor take back their titles full time? (Riri won’t be called “Iron Man,” but you get the idea)
Granted, we’ve been okay with two Spider-Men and two Captain Americas for a few months, so changing the mechanics of these identities isn’t the real issue. In fact, the issue isn’t even the change to begin with. It’s great! More people are seeing themselves in comics, and superhero stories have brand new dimensions. The main question it seems to bring up however, is what comes next? Are we to expect the new status quo to involve temporary or semi-permanent usurping of white and/or male identities? They do make for interesting explorations of iconography, but how long will it be before a non-white, non-male or non-straight character gets a push on their own?
This sounds an awful lot like complaining, but I can’t re-iterate enough how cool it is that a black man has Cap’s shield, a woman has Thor’s hammer and a South Asian Muslim girl has Marvel in her name. That being said, I don’t think any of us want progress to plateau, so perhaps it’s fair to call this new cycle a necessary step towards equality. Superhero comics are incredibly IP-driven, and attempts to diversify sans platform have failed in the past. Marvel’s Runaways have all but faded into obscurity, and even the Young Avengers needed to be Avengers-adjacent before a new set of characters came in. The list of non-white Marvel heroes is actually fairly lengthy (no, not lengthy enough), but half the popular ones have movies or shows in the works, and that’s not all that many.
Allowing women, people of colour and LGBTQ folks to wield familiar symbols was inevitable in that sense, because there’s little else you can do to convince people – those both for and against it – that superhero comics are for everyone. There are, of course, certain exceptions. DC’s Midnighter is getting a new title with his boyfriend Apollo, but when we’re talking about switching up the status quo, we’re also looking for non traditional characters making it as big as the big guns. Can an outsider like Midnighter make it as big as Batman? Or at the very least, a Green Lantern? I certainly hope so, although Marvel’s model seems to be aiming for the reverse - popularity of predecessors outside the comics, leading to immediate A-list status on the page. That’s fine in my book, at least until a different kind of change is viable, but the unspoken truth is that we readers have to do our part.
Comics are a business, plain and simple. Insidious notions aside, there’s little way to tell the industry what we want unless we start paying for it. Sure, social media campaigns can tell companies how to test the water, but things won’t progress if we don’t go beyond Riri Williams. She and others like her are going to get more people into comic shops (or online spaces, or what have you), but until and unless we start buying and recommending the black girls on the smaller shelves, the likes of Riri are destined to be stuck in a cycle. I have no doubt she’ll be embraced, and a loyal following will stick with her adventures if and when she leaves the suit behind. But will that subset be enough to keep her afloat, especially when the likes of She-Hulk got cancelled? These are the things that keep me up at night (what if Miles Morales stops being Spider-Man? Will people still buy his comic en masse?), and this admittedly big step is perhaps the wrong place to critique the overall culture, but like with diversity itself, we gotta start somewhere.
To be less of a downer, I’ve come up with a best-case-scenario. People will buy Riri’s book because of the Iron Man name, but new and old readers alike will be so captivated by her story, her perspective and everything about her, that no longer being ‘Iron Man’ in a year or two won’t make a difference. I don’t want to have the same fears I have about Miles when it comes to every one of these characters. I want them to transcend these adopted identities, as crazy as it sounds, but the one thing putting my mind at ease is the fact it’s already happened. Ms. Marvel is currently the outlier in that regard, and people will stick with her story no matter what logo she wears. Who knows, maybe I’m being overly pessimistic, or even completely wrong. Maybe the same thing will happen with Sam Wilson. And Jane Foster. And Miles. And Amadeus. Maybe they’ll soon be household names, the same as Bruce Banner and Peter Parker. Maybe comic fandom has progressed in such a way that this is what’s in store for Riri Williams.
Tell you what. Why don't we bet $3.99 on it?