The adolescent heroes of the Marvel Universe are routinely called upon to save the world from the schemes of vile villains. That may seem like a Herculean task, but for many of them it’s a relief and distraction from an even bigger burden: making the choices that will shape their future and the person they’ll become. That’s an especially difficult task for teen prodigy Riri Williams, a.k.a. the armored hero known as Ironheart, the star of writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Stefano Caselli’s Invincible Iron Man series.
That’s because all the hard work Riri has done is beginning to pay off, and she’s found herself with an abundance of choices. She’s been given the chance to serve as the Stark estate’s official heir to the Iron Man mantle, and work with an A.I. version of the now-comatose Tony Stark. Her old college MIT wants her back, and the teen superteam known as the Champions want her to join their ranks. On top of that, she’ll soon be forced to confront a burgeoning crisis in the nation of Latveria and the ruthless cybernetic terrorist, Lucia von Bardas.
CBR spoke with Bendis about the choices and crises faced by Riri, the positive reaction to her introduction and the fact that even though Ironheart’s adventures will take her around the globe, her hometown of Chicago will always be a vibrant part of the book. Plus, exclusive art from June’s Invincible Iron Man #8 by series artist Stefano Caselli.
CBR: Brian, Riri Williams has been Ironheart for several months now and both the comic and outside worlds seem to have embraced her. MIT even made a recruiting video featuring the character. So how has it been seeing that kind of reaction to Riri?
Brian Michael Bendis: That was one of those great moments of my life. I did not ask MIT if Riri could come. I don’t know anyone at MIT. I just knew that’s where she had been. So I don’t know how they feel about this kind of stuff. I had no idea this was happening.
Then one morning, I literally woke up to -mails from the faculty and staff saying, “We were so excited to surprise you with this. This is our recruitment video. We love Riri, and thank you for bringing her to us. We hope you like this.” It was such a lovely surprise. And the video was adorable. It’s great and totally within the mindset of which she was created. I was so charmed and happy about it.
Riri debuted the day after the election where it was really hard to get anyone to focus on anything regardless of leanings. So once the dust settled it was very nice that she was there with hope and a celebration of intellect. That’s also something I’ve been horrified about that’s been going on lately; this subtle demonization of intelligence. So I like that her book is a celebration of intellect and study.
The response to her has been overwhelming too. It’s almost identical to how things went with the first few issues of Ultimate Spider-Man. And it’s just been lovely.
The current storylines in Invincible Iron Man involve Riri dealing with a lot of opportunities coming her way and an increased spotlight on her heroic activities. It seems like she’s being asked to make a lot of big choices about her future all at once. What’s that like for her?
She’s a prodigy and there’s value in that. People want it. If you’re a figure of sports, the high arts, or intellect people come for you. They want you on their team. When I was listing things that would happen to her, I wanted them to be unique to this story and her character. I wanted them to be things that you haven’t seen in the lives of other Marvel characters. What I think people like about characters like Miles Morales and Kamala Khan in particular are the things that are unique about them. Like the fact that Miles goes to a school different from any other school we’ve seen in a comic book. As simple as that is, that’s the kind of stuff that people gravitate to.
So I thought the fact that the world would come for Riri much like colleges would come for a promising player would be something unique to her character and world. Let’s let her make choices, because choice defines character.
Assisting her with and sometimes complicating these choices is her advisor, the A.I. version of Tony Stark. What’s it like writing this version of Tony?
I love A.I. Tony. When he pops up in a script he really sneaks up on me and it’s fun to write.
If you study the works of the people doing the most work in virtual reality and artificial intelligence, they talk about the difference between how the human brain works and how an artificial intelligence’s brain works. They talk about how information is processed and choices are made. They talk about the ego of the human brain. In a normative way there are many, many examples against this idea, but as a generality the ego of the human brain is tempered by the frailty of the human body; the hairy, smelly, disgusting human body. [Laughs]
So no matter how ripped you are or youthful you feel, there’s always a part of us that feels a little shitty about yourself. There’s always something you don’t like and it tempers your ego. So with A.I. Tony we have a Tony Stark without the confines of human frailty, which begs the question of what is that ego like?
[Laughs] Right. While Riri is making these big choices big events are going on in Latveria including the return of a villain we haven’t seen in a while, Lucia von Bardas. What made you want to bring Lucia back?
This is one of those great instances where Tom Brevoort just said, “You know who’s someone we’d like to bring back? She’s one of yours, Lucia von Bardas. Do you want to take a crack at her?”
That was a character I felt I had read more notes about who she was than was actually revealed, and I was literally saying that day, “What Riri needs is a big bad villain.” So if it’s one that I’ve already put in the toy box that’s great. I’m happy for the opportunity to develop their conflict into something as big as it could be. Riri is in uncharted territory getting right in the face of a villain with a very terrorist mentality.
What made you want to tackle a big Latveria story in Invincible Iron Man instead of Infamous Iron Man, where your title character has a connection to that country?
There’s going to be a little bit of crossover. The upheaval in Latveria was established in Infamous Iron Man. We showed what happens when a dictator just bails and no one is there to pick up the gauntlet. So we established that the country is in disarray and is being run by militias. Now in comes Lucia von Bardas and the question is raised, “What will it take to take over Latveria?” In the script a person answers, “Open the schools and turn on the lights and I’m pretty sure they’ll give it to you.” That is kind of what happened.
In issue #6 the Champions introduced themselves to Riri and invited her to join their ranks. How will that invitation and the other choices Riri is facing effect the book moving forward?
I was so excited that I had already written this Champions stuff before people started really harassing me about her joining the team. As soon as people found out that they didn’t hate her they wanted her on the Champions. That was very flattering and I had already gotten there with my scripts.
So she’s got all these choices and things to deal with like MIT, the Champions, and Tony Stark. All of these things are on her plate to help her get to that next step, and with a character like Riri there should be a state of constant evolution. She’s just at phase one when it comes to her armor and what she’s building. Her phase one was Tony’s phase 42, or whatever phase he was on. I know someone knows the real number. I do too. I just can’t recall it right now. So please don’t write me! [Laughs] It’s interesting to think about that.
She’s standing on his shoulders. So if Tony starts diving into maybe the spiritual with his technology, but she goes straight technology, where is she going to take things? Will there even be a suit of armor by the time we’re done with the series?
You’re working with Stefano Caselli and I’ve been a fan of his character designs and acting going back as far as his work on Hack/Slash. What are some of the things you enjoy most about Stefano’s style?
Stefano is someone I’ve liked for a long time. I was becoming envious when he and Kelly Sue [DeConnick] were working together on Avengers. Those pages would come in and I would be, “Oh, that’s good acting!” Any writer will tell you that when you see acting like that it’s amazing. Who wouldn’t want to write that?
So Stefano was always on my “I hope one day I get to work with” list. I told Tom [Brevoort] about that years ago, and I was surprised that he remembered. He did remember though and said, “I think Stefano would be perfect for this.” He was right too in that in his own way Stefano has all the strengths of Mark Bagley. There’s no hiding in his work and there’s nothing he can’t draw perfectly from the smallest moment to the biggest. The subtext in his faces melts my heart. I can tell him in the script, “Her feelings are hurt, but she’s not going to say anything.” Then you can see it on that character’s face without any overacting. It’s the best in the world. So yeah. Those are my favorite moments with Stefano.
We don’t know each other, so it’s been a whole discovery process, and it’s been absolutely wonderful. I’m very, very spoiled in this area. Every single person I work with is at the top of their game and they’re lovely to work with. We’re having a great time making comics that we’re really proud of. Some of my collaborators are very close friends and some are people we just have a working relationship with and they’re all kicking ass. So I’m insanely grateful
Finally, Riri is a hero that can go anywhere in the world, but her hometown is a very interesting one, Chicago. Will we see more of it explored in Invincible Iron Man? Might she encounter Chicago’s brutal, resident vigilante, Nighthawk?
[Laughs] Everyone has been asking for that, and by everyone I mean [Nighthawk writer] David Walker.
She lives in Chicago. Chicago is an important American city with a very specific history and world view. That’s going to inform just about every decision that she makes, no matter how big the decision gets. Let’s not forget she’s a Chicago girl. So that part of her is going to pop up almost everywhere we go.
I wrote her origin being one with a tragic element like so many heroes before her. It’s based on stuff that was really going on in Chicago when I was staying there filming the Powers pilot. That’s what inspired it, and when I read about the death toll in that city it breaks my heart. It also makes me feel like what I can do from my little basement in Portland is write a valentine to Chicago through her that hopefully helps people see hope if they’re not seeing any.
I feel weird because that violence inspired her and I would like it to be a distant fact. It’s still going on though, and it breaks my heart. Chicago is an amazing city. I love going there.
I know I like to end these interviews on a grateful note, but introducing a character like Riri is a minefield. So I wanted to thank the fans who supported her from the first time they saw her. The weekend we announced her people showed up as conventions cosplaying as her. Love doesn’t quite cover how I feel about that. That is amazing expression that I do not take lightly. It returns to me with a feeling of “Don’t fuck this up.” [Laughs] Clearly, this is supposed to be written and written well. So thank you for inspiring me to do the best I can.
Invincible Iron Man #8, the next new issue of the series, is scheduled for release on June 21.