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Single Black Female Iron Man, and the Competing Narratives

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Single Black Female Iron Man, and the Competing Narratives

Marvel Comics revealed this week that the next Iron Man will be a young, Black teenage girl.

As the writer of Marvel’s monthly title “Invincible Iron Man” with the now-globally-known superhero, Brian Michael Bendis has been introducing the character of Riri Williams, a teenage student at M.I.T., over the course of months. Riri’s adventures in reverse-engineering Iron Man technology and taking her makeshift suit out for a spin, have served as the breadcrumbs for the path leading Marvel’s newest hero of color to adopt the identity of one of the publisher’s most popular characters.

Once the news broke, outlet after outlet shared the tidbit, fans went to social media and gave it a seal of approval, a questioning dismissal, or a discerning eye. Riri Williams, the next Iron Man (possibly, name-wise), is Marvel’s newest cog in a developing mechanism called “The Newer, More Progressive, Marvel Comics Universe.” This mechanism is being constructed and refined with tactical precision to yield the perfect mixture of media attention, profit, social relevance and authenticity of message.

“The Newer, More Progressive, Marvel Comics Universe” has more people of color on staff than ever before; has more Black writers working on projects than ever before; has more women in their editorial staff than ever before; has more female character-led titles in publication than ever before; has more characters of color being profiled than ever before; has more of a presence in real-world arenas ranging from late night talk shows to The White House than ever before.

With all of that, within the perfect armor which surrounds Iron Riri, covering her body in the positive publicity and the beautiful artwork and the viability of the “Iron Man” name and the timeliness of subject with a young Black girl adept in the STEM fields… there is a crack. This crack threatens to become a chasm. The one which so-called progressives who only care about “a good story” and “have Black friends” and are trying to save the comic book industry (and Planet Earth, in general) from “pandering” and “PC behavior” will undoubtedly have a problem with.

Because the writer behind Riri Williams, possibly one of the most important characters to emerge this year from the womb of “The Newer, More Progressive, Marvel Comics Universe,” is Brian Michael Bendis. He is one of the most impactful writers in American superhero comic books of the last fifteen years, by virtue of his talent, range, multimedia visibility and his goal to create a more diverse fictional landscape of superheroes. Bendis is the sure thing Marvel Comics needs, from a business perspective, to create, introduce, and plant Iron Riri into our collective fan mindscape in such a way that she will stick.

But Riri Williams, Iron Riri, the next “Iron Man,” is mostly representative of a creative community which has been (to public knowledge) ignored by the character’s publisher for its entire publishing history.

The Black Woman. Black Women. Black Girls.

Bendis is the co-creator of the popular Afro-Latino Spider-Man Miles Morales. He is the co-creator of Jessica Jones, the superpowered private investigator from comic books and the Netflix live-action series of the same name.

His desire and ability to create characters of variety and make them compelling characters who make an impression on you, his body of work and his writing acumen — all of those things are a separate matter from the issue of Bendis being a part of the “Men writing stories of young, teenage, female superheroes” narrative, which is decades old and yet quite vibrant in today’s American superhero comic book industry.

This narrative, despite how brightly it shines, how the sound of it reverberates through our ears as a sign of “the way things are,” despite how many outlets of visibility reinforce it, is a tired narrative. An anachronistic narrative. A narrative that needs to arrive at its end of life. We know this.

A short while ago, on a day celebrating national independence, a New York Times book review was published in which a White male novelist was praised for his courage on writing about slavery in a science fiction story, a review that failed to mention the deceased Black female science fiction writer Octavia Butler.

Octavia Butler, the multiple recipient of the Hugo and Nebula awards, recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, and among many other things author of the novel “Kindred,” a story about slavery wrapped in the genre of science fiction, published in 1979. The absence of a groundbreaking Black female writer in such a discussion that praises a male White author on a subject said Black female author tackled almost 40 years ago, that absence is an indicator of the exclusion narrative. The same exclusion narrative running throughout the origin and revelation of Riri Williams, the next Iron Man.

Now, unlike some writers and institutions harboring the belief that Marvel Comics can manifest and change content on the drop of a dime, pivoting with the speed of The Flash, most of us know that’s not how comic books work. A publisher like Marvel Comics plans their content anywhere from 12 to 24 months in advance.

Not only may Riri Williams be two years-old, but six months from now (or even less), Marvel Comics could reveal a Black female writer as the author of Riri’s heroic story. Those stories could be in the writing stage as you read this.

If that is true, the Black Girl Magic of Riri Williams will be more than aesthetic. It will be profoundly intrinsic. It will be historic. It will shatter today’s exclusion narrative for the American superhero comic book industry. But it will not be enough.

It will not be enough for Marvel to be the Sojourner Truth of the comic book industry, using their collective business acumen to smuggle Black female writers from the slavery of mainstream comic book industry anonymity into the bright and beautiful light of visibility, media attention, and creative opportunity. It will not be enough for Marvel’s peers to do the same.

The exclusion narrative will have to be put to its grave by the collection of creators, fans, and businesspersons within and outside of the comic book industry. A unification of separate efforts, all working in the same direction. The Inclusion Narrative must take root. It must choke the last vestige of life from its predecessor without mercy, compassion, or pause. It must do this, and remain ever vigilant and strong.

The Inclusion Narrative is in the progress of being crafted, whether or not the most prominent publishers in any given industry will help write that narrative in the near-future. When there is ample opportunity given to the various people who grew up knowing or being a Riri Williams to telling the stories that chronicle her growth, maturation and personal trials, then it will begin to be enough.

Soon, Riri Williams will be able to say “I am Iron Man.” I am waiting for the day to hear a Black woman say “I write Iron Man.”


Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by The New York Times, CNN Money, the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, The School of Visual Arts, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.

Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels and web-based entertainment.

His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.

Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.

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