Reading reactions to TIME magazine’s recent article on Riri Williams taking the mantle of Iron Man from Tony Stark made me incredibly sad. I’m not going to pretend that hardcore fandom doesn’t exist in other media because it does, but experience has proven to me that comic book fans are some of the most vitriolic in entertainment culture today, the kind ready to find any excuse to not like something, the kind with a narrow perspective on change, the kind that gives the entire medium a bad name.
Obviously, not every single comic book fan in the world is a negative jackass, and I understand that the loudest and most vocal of us are usually the most perturbed and disappointed, so I don’t want to sound like I’m pigeonholing the entirety of comic book fandom in one fell swoop. I’m also not advocating for censorship of opinion or constant optimism – I’m still smarting over how DC’s handled Kyle Rayner since Flashpoint (sans Tom King’s The Omega Men), so I believe me when I say that I understand feeling disconnected from beloved characters due to editorial decisions. What I am saying is that change is inevitable, change is necessary, and change is good.
Yes, the new Iron Man will be a Black female teenager named Riri Williams. And unlike other changes to traditional characters in recent years (Sam Wilson as Captain America, Jane Foster as Thor, Amadeus Cho as the Hulk, etc.), creator Brian Michael Bendis has huge influence at Marvel which means Riri will most likely be sticking around for the foreseeable future. Does this mean Tony Stark is going away? Probably not. Does this mean Tony will never don his armor again? Not a chance.
With the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the House of Ideas has the opportunity to play around with the comic books in a sandbox they just renovated with Secret Wars. This is the perfect time to introduce new legacy characters, and while I don’t understand why established younger characters like the Young Avengers, the Runaways, or any number of Avengers: The Initiative students haven’t been used, I can still give Riri Williams a chance because why not?
The prevailing argument against Riri Williams is that Tony Stark is synonymous with the Iron Man name, and that replacing him with brand new character so drastically different is obviously just diversity for its own sake, which is bad. There are so many flaws in this argument that it would be futile to try and cover them all, so I’ll stick to the big ones. Here are some of the more prevalent points made when this basic stance is brought up:
Why does Marvel keep replacing established characters with new faces instead of creating and encouraging brand new characters?
There are two incredibly obvious answers to this question. First, legacy characters are nothing new, as DC has been doing it for literally decades; the title of Green Lantern has been worn by no fewer than eight characters (most of which carried the ongoing series), the Barry Allen died in Crisis on Infinite Earths and was replaced by former Kid Flash, who then disappeared only to be replaced by a time-displaced Bart Allen, Dick Grayson wore the mantle of Batman when Bruce Wayne was presumed dead, and there have been five Robins since the 1930s. Second, new characters rarely sell well let alone last long enough to become fan favorites. Less than 40 original characters in the Marvel universe since the mid-80s (that’s a rough, if liberal guess, so correct me if I’m wrong) lead ongoing series. Why replace existing heroes with new characters from time to time? Because it’s part of superhero tradition and it’s not going to stop.
Marvel pandering to SJWs with diversity-grabs
A desire to promote diversity and bring more relatable characters into the mix to reflect a growing audience both in size and cultural variety is not bad – it’s commendable. Just because you personally do not want anyone but Tony Stark to wear the Iron Man armor doesn’t mean no one else will. Very obvious analogies can be drawn between Riri Williams and Kyle Rayner, a brand new character in 1994 who took over a decades-old franchise from a character synonymous with the Green Lantern name: Hal Jordan. Even less so than Riri (who’s at least had some quick sequences in Invincible Iron Man issues recently), readers had no idea who Kyle was even though he was had become the only Green Lantern in the entire universe. Oh, and Kyle is part Mexican – was that an SJW diversity play, too? We could even go back to John Stewart replacing Hal Jordan in the 1970s. This is nothing new, and it’s really a shame that in 2016, a fanbase that is primarily white males (though that is steadily changing) gets so bent out of shape over their perceived entitlement to specific characters with little more than “That’s not my [insert whatever superhero]”.
Tony Stark is the ONLY Iron Man
First of all, not true. James Rhodes was Iron Man in the 80s. So that argument caves in immediately. But we can go deeper. The new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, has been used as a prime example of how to introduce a new, diverse character in an iconic role that speaks to new readers without offending longtime fans. And while I agree that Kamala’s popularity across the aisle has been inspiring, it’s also not that straightforward. Carol Danvers was never incredibly popular as Ms. Marvel; she was largely absent from the Marvel comic book universe for years, showing up sporadically from the late 80s through the mid-2000s until she got her own ongoing series again in 2006. That series ended in 2010 and Carol’s debut as Captain Marvel didn’t come until 2012. Kamala Khan made her first appearance in 2013, but her series didn’t begin until 2014 – that’s a full four years between Carol’s tenure as Ms. Marvel and Kamala’s start. The title ‘Ms. Marvel’ had already gone somewhat defunct, and Marvel simply allowed a new character the room the breath that led her to becoming so popular. Kamala Khan as the new Ms. Marvel is very different than Riri Williams as the new Iron Man. Yes, they are both young, non-white characters taking over established titles from longtime heroes, but Kamala had the space and time to grow into the beloved character she is today, despite fans spouting off the same crap about diversity pandering when she was first announced. Riri will be Iron Man this fall and Tony Stark’s status quo is still a mystery until the end of Civil War II. There’s no context yet for why Riri takes the mantle, and it’s foolish to dismiss her so quickly without giving her a chance.
Brian Michael Bendis just does whatever he wants regardless of continuity or how it affects longtime characters.
Yes, both of these statements are absolutely true. But get this: SO F*CKING WHAT??!?! Brian Michael Bendis has affected Marvel comics unlike any other modern writer. He disassembled the original Avengers at issue 500 (I’m sure to the chagrin of some fans still holding onto that grudge), re-established Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for a new generation, fundamentally altered the mutant status quo in the Marvel universe with House of M, built on the paranoia and resentment established by the original Civil War while simultaneously constructing a retconned dream of secret Skrull insurgency for Secret Invasion, wrote one of Marvel’s most critically acclaimed series in the modern age (Ultimate Spider-Man), created fan-favorite characters Miles Morales and Jessica Jones, and wrote one of the definitive runs of Daredevil amongst many, many other accomplishments in and out of the comic book world. His recent track record hasn’t been the best – his time on the X-Men titles was a total drag, Age of Ultron was underwhelming, Guardians of the Galaxy still hasn’t found its footing under his pen, and Civil War II is just inane – but what I am saying is that Marvel puts a lot of faith in Bendis that he can pull out another win with Riri even after a stint of misses because he’s earned that faith.
|Image from Comic Book Resources|
I know what I’m saying is going to piss off a large portion of the comic book fanbase. I understand that I stand at odds with the prevailing opinion on Riri Williams as Iron Man. I get that people are hurt and offended and upset because change can be scary. What I can’t wrap my head around is how opinions so quickly become hard-lined beliefs, how a first impression with little context can set off such malicious fervor. I get incredibly frustrated seeing a medium I love so much getting weighed down by the doubt and insecurity over losing something that was never ours to begin with. All superhero fans have a special connection to the characters they love, but we are not owed anything, nor are we entitled to our favorite heroes remaining static for our entire lifetimes – that viewpoint is so incredibly self-absorbed and egotistical that I have trouble even sympathizing, let alone empathizing. Thor Odinson will always be the God of Thunder in Norse mythology, but the Marvel universe isn’t stone-carved legend from ancient times – Thor can be a different character than a blue-eyed, blonde-haired image of masculinity because it’s comic books and comics are all about change. Change is a core tenet of how the industry has grown and evolved. Without change there would never have been a Silver Age that I’m sure resulted in longtime readers of Golden Age DC Comics swearing off the company for good because THEY CHANGED MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS, WTF?!?!? (Okay, they definitely didn’t say ‘wtf’ in 1956, but the sentiment remains).
It’s quite telling that a fanbase who ran to defend and shield (pun intended) Captain America over the “Hail Hydra” controversy when perceived outsiders claimed the move was anti-Semitic and/or disrespectful to Cap’s creators is the same one that time and time again gets butt-hurt by young, diverse characters stepping into roles held by white males (usually with blue eyes and blonde hair) since at least the 1950s, if not earlier. When Steve Rogers stated “Hail Hydra”, comic fans were at the ready to justify the move with “This is comics; it’ll be retconned or changed back at some point. Why are you getting so angry?”, yet won’t shut the f*ck up about how they can’t accept Riri Williams as Iron Man because it’s disrespectful to Tony Stark (a fiction character who has no bearing on the real world outside whatever meaning we give him, let’s remember) or some devious, spiteful, nefarious plan by Marvel to destroy everyone’s childhood by reflecting the modern world to a more accurate degree. HOW DARE THEY??!?
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I will never argue otherwise. Every comic book fan is free to complain or bitch or rant or spew nonsense about diversity as a negative or tradition being more important than inclusion, able to take to the Internet and write or record any level of diatribe that compounds already-pessimistic attitudes and makes plain the ignorance of knee-jerk reactions.
We are also free to be optimistic, to wait and form opinions based on the material written instead of the press material designed to shock and awe. Of course Marvel is going to promote Riri Williams and the diversity she represents because that’s important to the company for social and financial reasons; these two factors don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and it’s painful to see comic book fans so intent on believing they must. Give Riri Williams a chance because there’s no reason not to, enjoy Jane Foster as Thor (if that’s your thing) while it lasts because it won’t be forever, keep in mind that tradition is personal, don’t let your opinions be unmovable, and remember to appreciate that change is an inevitability so spending your time holding a grudge against an entertainment corporation for taking liberties with characters you’ve enjoyed is only going to affect you because Marvel is moving forward with Riri Williams as Iron Man whether you like it or not.