COMICS: Riri Williams and the Limits of Representation

Like most mainstream entertainment companies, Marvel has long had a diversity problem. From the publisher’s prioritization of white, male characters in its comics to its favoritism of white, male creators on its staff, it feels almost redundant to list the many ways Marvel has historically failed to reflect the multicultural realities of the world – and most importantly, its loyal readers and fans.

However, also like many mainstream companies realizing how profitable it is to offer audiences diversified casts and characters, Marvel has taken numerous steps to rectify the problem. The most recent attempts include “Marvel NOW!” and “All-New, All-Different Marvel,” two recent brand relaunches that brought characters from an array of racial, religious, socioeconomic and sexual backgrounds to the forefront of its comic book rosters with the help of new and diverse writers.

Today, we have Muslim teen Kamala Khan shining in G. Willow Wilson’s run of Ms. Marvel; Ta-Nehisi Coates enriching Black Panther with ruminations on black life; Greg Pak bringing us a hilarious and Korean Totally Awesome Hulk; and Gabby Rivera debuting with a stellar interpretation of America Chavez in the new America series. Despite some executives not fully supporting these changes, it’s clear that fans consider these titles to be triumphs that offer the nuanced and groundbreaking representation they have long called for.

Unfortunately, not all of Marvel’s new titles have been successful in the representation of its diverse main characters. While I’m sure there are many examples that need to be taken to task for their poor attempts, right now the most egregious example continues to be Invincible Iron Man, a series written by Brian Michael Bendis that introduced the world to a new Iron Man – a young black teen by the name of Riri Williams.

Pic 1 - Riri Williams
Source: Marvel Comics, Mike McKone Steam Variant Cover for Issue #1

The series has been through a baptism by fire literally since its conception. Some fans were skeptical of Bendis writing the experiences of a young black girl, especially since Marvel had no black women writers on its staff when the series was first announced. The lack of black female input in Riri’s creation was quickly evident as, despite being fifteen years old, an early variant cover by J. Scott Campbell sexualized her and made her appear more mature for her young age. It drew such intense backlash, and a viral hashtag #TeensThatLookLikeTeens, that Marvel pulled the cover.

While I was initially excited about the series, these multiple early follies turned me off before the first issue even came out. In the past few months I haven’t seen or heard any additional criticism, so I just assumed Bendis had learned his lesson and was writing a pretty standard superhero story with no further controversy. But then Invincible Iron Man #8 came out on Wednesday, and Twitter let me know that once again Bendis was messing up:

So, based on this poster’s accurate assessment of this scene, I had to read the entire series thus far to try and find some reason behind this writing. It makes no sense out of context, but surely this is part of some larger theme in the story? There’s no way Bendis really thinks that black kids act like this, I thought. There’s no way he can misunderstand black experiences so horribly, right?

Well… it’s a bit complicated.

There is a diversity problem in this series, but it may not be one that we are typically used to seeing. It’s not like Bendis is totally ignorant of black life and the experiences of black women in particular – he said as much last year in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

INTERVIEWER: There was some controversy when Riri was announced, and some of that pushback was about the fact that you as a white man are writing an African American girl as a character. As a writer, do you worry about not being able to capture that part of a character’s identity?

BENDIS: This is a very complicated question to me, personally. I’m the father of four children, two of whom are an African girl and an African American girl. I don’t say that to throw my kids as a shield in front of any critique. I say that as, “You see a white man [but] actually I’m a Jewish man and I have a multiracial family…”

INTERVIEWER: You mention writing other perspectives. What has writing Riri, and even Miles, taught you about writing from the perspective of a young person of color?

BENDIS: Just empathy. You talk to enough people and do enough research. Almost everyone I write is based on someone I know and someone I feel an empathy towards a great deal. It’s even beyond skin color and experience.

And if we were just looking at the aesthetics of the series, I would say his research has been successful. It’s clear Bendis and his team have taken to heart initial criticism about their handling of Riri Williams. Throughout their eight-issue run Riri now looks like an average fifteen-year-old black girl, and props need to be given specifically for artist Stefano Caselli’s depiction of black hair. Not only is there diversity of hair among the black cast – featuring afros, fades, braids and what I assume to be a perm – but it’s also drawn well for once. Riri is even seen waking up with her silk bonnet on, a feat that most network shows still can’t get right (looking at you Scandal and The Flash).

Riri 2
Source: Marvel Comics, Invincible Iron Man Issue #7

Things get a little trickier when it comes to the actual plot of the story. Riri’s transformation into new superhero Ironheart is definitely cliché for a black protagonist – via Marvel’s official description she grew up on the “violent streets” of Chi-town, and we see that violence play out in the first issue as her best friend Natalie as well as her stepfather are the accidental casualties of a drive-by shooting – but I could almost forgive it considering many heroes have suffered through violent origin stories as well.

Further, it is not as if Bendis is necessarily failing in his depiction of how these negative experiences have affected her and her loved ones. Pain and trauma are given substantial enough weight in the series – Riri continues to be devastated by her friend’s death and seems to have been inspired to become a superhero to avenge her. Her mother, now a double widow, is given numerous pages to lament the deaths of her husbands and worry about Riri’s safety following these losses. Both characters are dealing with such serious issues that several characters have also discussed it, such as an AI version of Tony Stark training Riri in the art of saving the world. Bendis shows how deeply loss colors Riri’s world in these distinct instances which, whether based on research or his personal experiences around black people, is a talent that should be acknowledged.

Unfortunately, this knowledge is the overall problem Bendis has in his depiction of Riri Williams. He knows about black pain and the various micro- and macro- aggressions that black people face every day, especially during these particularly fraught times of racial hostility. He shows SHIELD agents questioning the legitimacy of Riri’s name – “is it short for something, is that name really what’s written on her birth certificate?” they ask. He shows the insensitivity of neighborhood institutions whose staffs have lost their compassion towards the black communities they serve: we see this when hospital workers refuse to tell Riri about Natalie’s condition after the shooting and roughly drag her away from her friend’s body, as well as when the police try to pry too much information too quickly from her and her grieving mother.

Riri 4.PNG
Source: Marvel Comics, Invincible Iron Man Issue #2

But at the same time, Bendis shows readers a glossy spread of Natalie’s dead body and lifeless eyes, which haunt Riri for several panels. He shows us AI Tony Stark interrogating RiRi about isolating herself after Natalie’s death and then, from her pain, callously carve out the name of Ironheart to memorialize Natalie’s death as Riri cries from his questions. And now, in this latest issue, he shows Riri all but begging for the perfect instance of marginalization to fight against and motivate her success, as she states it has motivated so many great black people before her.

Basically, Bendis is like your white classmate that took one (1) Africana class and now believes himself to be the purveyor of all knowledge on black life. However, because he acquired his knowledge as an outsider to the culture, the only way he really knows how to depict blackness is through identifiable aspects of The Struggle – all the negative social realities of being black that you see reported on TV, lambasted on Twitter, and through quickly cruising through activist circles in search of easily transferable knowledge about racism without any nuanced understanding of how black people deal with it.

Never in my wildest nightmares would I imagine a black child seeking out racism to fight against in the pursuit of their dreams. Racism isn’t a Sailor Moon villain that waits for us to level up before trying to kick our ass; we are always aware of it and are always affected by it, but one of the best traits that black people have is our ability to bypass that negativity and live our lives despite it, not to specifically spite it.

Basically, we experience The Struggle but we don’t let it consume us. That’s why you see so many black people in the diaspora bond over the strange and funny shit of our childhoods, our food, our cultures – and yes, the bad things that have happened to our kinfolk. We revel and rise up together from this communal bond. When we strive to achieve greatness, our motivations in life come primarily from a place of purposeful positivity and support. Even when something negative does trigger a reaction in us, that pain also lends itself to hope – this event was awful and hurt me, so now I want to make sure it doesn’t hurt me or anyone else like me again. This nuanced duality is what many outside of black and brown cultures fail to see.

So, the result of Bendis’ shallow understanding of black experiences is the current state of Invincible Iron Man. Bendis has black pain down pat, but in turn the series lacks a nuanced respect for that pain and overestimates its importance to the overall creation of a black identity. It doesn’t help that Riri is isolated from any vestige of the vibrant black influences around her, from the city of Chicago to even her own mother. Of course, this could be explained by her introverted personality… but even in her superheroics within the series she is never around heroes of color who can help her embrace her journey, something that even Gabby Rivera’s America has mastered by bringing in such heavy hitters like Storm, Prodigy and non-super Latino communities to help America be a better hero.

Riri 3 - America Chavez
Source: Marvel Comics, America Issue #3

With no other black characters to support Riri, and with Bendis showing an almost voyeuristic depiction of black pain, the series is totally lacking in any positive representation of blackness. There is no joy in this series, no understanding as to how black people experience their lives and develop their goals and dreams for the future. For Riri, to be a black superhero is to live in an endless cycle of pain, suffering and loneliness. Her story is not inspiring like many superhero tales are. It’s just sad.

I don’t know how Bendis can rectify the serious missteps he’s made with Riri Williams. He could certainly add more black characters and enrich Riri’s non-superhero life more, especially since the story is starting to focus heavily on SHIELD and the internal drama in Stark Industries. It would be great to see Riri and her mother actually interact too, since it’s surprising to see how little character development these two have around one another after all this time.

However, at this point I might actually agree with critics who have rallied against Invincible Iron Man since the beginning. Bendis does have a problem with black representation, and it’s time for a black female creative to write Riri Williams and her story. Now, I’ve never wholly been against nonblack creators writing black characters, but in this case it is clear that there are certain limits to cultural representation that even the most talented of writers have difficulty overcoming.

And honestly? I want to see some black girl magic. I want to see Riri develop into the confident young black woman I know she can be. I want to see how she grapples with the rough childhood she’s experienced, receive the help she needs to understand it and start to heal. I want to see how she embraces her identity and the importance she knows that comes with being a super smart black girl fighting for a brighter future. I want to see Riri shine, in that particular way that only a black female writer can achieve.

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