Monday, April 03, 2017

Real Name: Riri Williams
First Appearance: Invincible Iron Man #7 (May, 2016)
Fight Club Ranking: #DNR

Featured Fights:
- Yet To Be Featured on Secret Wars on Infinite Earths.

Controversy has gripped Marvel Comics this week amidst claims "diversity" is killing comic book sales. Marvel VP of Sales, David Gabriel, made the reference during an interview with ICv2, where isolated quotes dinged female super-heroines in particular, to the sizzle of headlines everywhere.

In truth, the references were more broadly damning, yet simultaneously far less salacious when fully unpacked. In full, the most popularly sourced quote sweeps a general survey of the market, without actually damning specific content: "What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity. They didn't want female characters out there. That's what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don't know that that's really true, but that's what we saw in sales."

Clearly conscious of the impending firestorm, Gabriel elaborated: "We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked."

Long time comics readers won't be surprised.

We stopped short of predicting this outcome last July, while discussing the Victor Von Doom half of Marvel's two-prong Iron Man brand relaunch. There, in a nutshell, exists one of Marvel's biggest obstacles to being taken seriously when it comes to "diversity". The "New Coke" of comic books, selling ill fated formula with a name that already means something else to consumers.

Last year, we didn't yet have a superhero identity for today's Hero of the Week, much less the circumstances of how she would come to be one of two replacements for the Iron Man that fans know and love. The presumption that this MIT whiz kid would actually go by the moniker "Iron Man" went unchallenged, even if an eventual name change was inevitable. Ironheart put a much needed name to the new face, but couldn't rescue Marvel from their growing, self-imposed identity crisis.

Riri Williams was sold as an iconic image before she was an actual comic book character. TIME boldly proclaimed in one headline, "Marvel's New Iron Man Is a Black Woman". A thundering contradiction directed at American social conscience and deeply cynical commerce.

Indeed, gender and racial politics has been in Marvel (and DC)'s press release arsenal for around a decade now. Many of their past headlines have addressed characters and concepts forgotten, or relegated, after just a short period of investment. Death and resurrection: the other well known tools for supplying news outlets with ready-made content, and eye-grabbing headlines. (Or is that eye-rolling?)

In 2006, BBC News told the world that Spider-man's secret identity of Peter Parker was about to be exposed in Civil War. A year later, ABC News covered the impending assassination of Captain America. Not about to be outdone by the competition: DC made sure BBC and ABC got hot under the collar over the announcement of their starring lesbian hero: Batwoman.

It's tough to deny the benefit this mainstream coverage had on interest, sales, and foot traffic to comic book stores a decade ago. The benefits can still be seen in Marvel's various returns to Civil War, both in the loosely adapted big screen version (Captain America: Civil War) and 2016 sequel comic, as well as a litany of references in comics, merchandise, and multimedia.

Of course, comics readers know Peter Parker's secret identity was quickly tucked back in. Captain America never actually died: bumming around in time, before returning in Reborn (only to flirt with faux death a few more times). Batwoman eventually took a starring role in Detective Comics, but was shunted back into obscurity when Batman's version of the deadman's time warp was over.

It's the nature of the medium's continuing serial to temporarily alter the state of heroes before returning them to a version of the well-known icon. It's a staple of the genre, and there's nothing wrong with it. Unless, of course, you've been peddling a "change the status quo forever" byline for ten long years, extending the length of these temporary stays a few years in order to sustain their reality, simultaneously distancing yourself from your core readership, while also eroding the trust of new markets. It's a strategy of short-term excess comparable to the collector boom chromium covers of the 1990s, which inevitably thrive at the long-term expense of your once trusted tent poles.

These tent-poles have been under attack for a long time now through a careful cultivation of irrelevance. Every hero exists in multiple iterations, every team filled with crossover membership. In 2017, the mantra of comics seems to be nothing really matters enough to take solid form. It's little wonder a wave of replacement heroes, including Riri Williams, have been negatively impacted as a result. Readers have good reason to feel jaded.

These stunts, and the courting of headlines, might be justified by the supposed competition of other popular mediums: video games, streaming, etc. That forgets that those mediums still can't equal the one unique sales pitch that the comics publisher has been working so hard to avoid: history.

None of this criticism should ever be perceived as directed towards so-called "diversity".

It's a crying shame that Marvel's indelicate approach could ever inadvertently cast "diversity" as the villain. One would argue the negative in David Gabriel's quotes are the harm Marvel has done by taking a defeatist approach to creating new characters. Theirs is a predicament caused by a great many small mistakes, of which the sweeping substitution of iconic mainstays is just the latest. The backstory, or on-the-page coloring of new characters, simply isn't the problem.

The nature of the super-hero is to do good for all. Malice towards those of different skin tone, gender, or minority is antithetical to this medium many of us love. The ethos of the hero is to defend the vulnerable, and protect the innocent. In this respect, they are universal examples, no matter how they may differ from you, or I. My personal beliefs aren't really part of this article, but in my own heart, I hope perceiving equality in other human beings isn't aspirational. It doesn't bare second thought.

Indeed, I'm not all together turned off by Marvel's new characters. If you were here last year, you know I found a particular fondness for Robbie Reyes - the All-New Ghost Rider. When I first started reading about the coming of Riri Williams, there were indeed aspects that piqued by interest even if the first impression wasn't strong as Ghost Rder's.

When it became clear the naturally gifted MIT student would develop her own suit of hi-tech armor before graduating to the red and gold of Tony Stark - an image began to form. I saw something less typical. Bigger in design, more raw in palette. Something more akin to the mech suits of Japanese series like Patlabor or AD Police. I pictured armor that was grey, or maybe off-green. Large, squared sections to house the mechanics of the human body.

It was a vivid image informed by what little we knew of the new character, and various cartoon and comic book reference points. Imagine my surprise when artwork finally started emerging showing the character in exactly that kind of design [pictured above]!

I really can't stress how similar what I had imagined - and what eventuated - actually are! Not in an effort to self-aggrandize, but to highlight that there is something about this character that evokes a truth that is unique in the Marvel Universe. A character who would inevitably reference Tony Stark and Iron Man, but never really needed the pressure of becoming him.

I can't help but notice that War Machine was unsubtly killed off right around the time Riri Williams was gearing up to debut. Not something I would've endorsed, but perhaps a safer choice if the character was going to assume an existing identity in Iron Man's world. It would be a tad cliché, but perhaps some sort of relation to James Rhodes could've been established to more organically provide an entry point for the character. These aren't guarantees for success, but present better odds.

I'm of the opinion that Riri Williams will probably endure. The character out of the armor is a great visual, and an interesting injection of perspective into the Marvel Universe. I don't know if she'll remain in the red and gold. We know Tony Stark is coming back some time in the not too distant future. I tend to think eventually somebody will get wise and we'll finally get the Ironheart that stands strongly on her own. Perhaps now that she's been Iron Man, she'll reject that path in order to find one of her own. Preferably with some version of that MIT armor, because it looks really cool!

Why didn't we just get that from the very start? There may be more to the story than we know.
Hollywood's influence has had a strange effect on comic books since establishing their dominion with the move from New York to Burbank. Robert Downey Jr has always given the impression of being a precariously placed player in the Marvel movie empire. Who knows if the same kind of mandate that decimated the Fantastic Four could've been responsible for kicking out the tent-pole heroes?

What's clear is that Marvel Comics have always been stronger when a reader can pick up the latest adventures of their mainstay heroes. To add new characters around these pillars is a good thing, and it makes a lot of sense to try to reflect new cultural touchstones, and find audiences that haven't been well served. There are many ways this can be done, and if there's a positive from Gabriel's comments, perhaps it's that Marvel will get a chance to try some less bullish methods. These comics have been around a long time, and really should start acting like it.

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