Writer: Brian Michael Bendis / Artist: Stefano Caselli / Marvel Comics
I feel like we’ve been doing this thing a lot recently, where we get a large announcement about a comic book writer or a comic book character (often both) that incorporates a story we should be interested in with a lot of excitement behind it. There’s always some caveat, however. The Black Panther/Ta-Nehisi Coates announcement was met with an overwhelming anticipation with just a smattering of skepticism regarding Coates newness to writing comics. I think it’s safe to say that any fears that people had about that pairing have been assessed. The prospect of Riri Williams has been a complex one, one that has brought excitement, caution, and pushback on the concept and delivery.
In theory, the prospect of a Black 15 year old teenager named Riri Williams becoming Iron Man is one that should make your chest swell with intrigue and anticipation. Joining Moon Girl on Marvel’s roster, we get another entry of a Black girl super genius with their own book and story, that’s never a bad thing. Black Girl Magic is not a finite resource, we could always use more. But it’s also fair to question the motivations of “why?” all of this diversity so quickly. You’ll pardon our cynicism, but we’ve been the crux of business initiatives that have little to do with how we are represented before. Throw in the controversial variant covers, the often impractical depictions of Riri’s hair, and the fact that Bendis himself has been under some legit and consistent criticism of late concerning his usage of Black characters, its been really tough to see which way this was going to swing.
I don’t normally spoil comic book reviews, but it’s difficult to talk about what works and what doesn’t in this book, without revealing some real plot details, so if you don’t want spoilers, please skip down to my wrap up and score.
What works for the book: Riri is instantly likable. The first pages of the book work to identify Riri as a Super genius at the age of five, stating that she’s just going to get bored with everyday life. And the moniker of super genius aside, it’s an astute awareness of the challenge of raising and managing a gifted child in a way that doesn’t feel like isolation or objectification of her talent. As she grows older, Riri has some stereotypical tropes of child genius, but she doesn’t feel unapproachable or disassociated from people. She’s just an enthusiastic kid that creates next gen inventions in her garage and occasionally forgets to eat.
At her current age of 15, and actually doing battle, Riri is a could be a fan favorite. She’s clearly in the mold of Tony Stark as far as her wit and quick uptake, but definitely suited for a young girl with growing confidence. Regardless of where the story takes her, her attitude, and resourcefulness will most likely be the highlight of this book if Bendis can keep the pace.
What I also like is Riri’s relationship to her mother. It’s one of understanding and respect. Riri might hit a rebellious stage in this book, but the fact that Riri’s mother knows what she is up to and approves it is a good sign to see. I really didn’t want to see another teenager sneaking around and living a double life to their parents regarding their superhero inclinations, even if some of those books are very good.
So what is an issue: The art I thought is mostly great, whether using interiors or the fight sequences. Riri’s hair is probably always going to be an issue though. It just is. When you give a Black female character natural hair, you’re putting yourself under a pretty specific microscope, one that I myself can often recognize when something doesn’t seem right, but aren’t fully authorized to articulate to the fullest. But Riri’s hair usually appearing as “black mass with some straggling hairs on the the edges” may not be doing enough. You’re own investment in that specific detail will determine just how important that issue is for you.
The larger question mark of course, is how Riri starts her hero’s quest. Riri is from Chicago and watches her stepdad and best friend Kelly killed in a shooting at a cookout. Prior to the shooting, Riri expresses to Kelly how annoying her stepfather was, to which Kelly responds that she herself would trade because she doesn’t have a father.
There’s A LOT to unpack there. Show me a story about a Black character rising from tragedy and I’ll show you the shooting death of an innocent and fatherless Black girl. To say that Bendis has been at the focal point of race related phrasing, topics and stories in comics recently is to say that a lot of people woke up on Wednesday after the election with some mild concerns. He has had an aggressive push for visibility on racial interactions and ideologies in Spider-Man, but not necessarily taking the route that Black people themselves would typically side with. Then there was the death of James Rhodes aka War Machine. A long standing Marvel character and POC whose death basically elevated a plot for the two lead White characters of Civil War II. So this brings the question of agency. Of license. In your fiction where any scenario can be created, what are the effects of scripting out Black people killing Black people on a summer day in Chicago? Its obviously not an impossible scenario, but I’m not convinced it was a necessary one either to move our hero from super genius girl doing experiments to the guardian we need in the power armor.
With those caveats, how does the overall book play out? I still like it. I didn’t like the shooting. At all. But I liked everything else a great deal. If Bendis avoids dipping into scenarios of the fragile Black life experience and can stay in a lane that shows Riri for the likable badass she can be, I’m all aboard. Only time will tell.