So this is a thing that’s happening: Marvel comics is turning Iron Man from a grown-up, white, male, billionaire industrialist to a black, female, teenage college student.
Last week Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis unveiled in an interview with Time that a new character, Riri Williams, will be taking over Iron Man from the character of Tony Stark. Riri Williams is a prodigy who started at MIT at the age of fifteen. She will be the new Iron Man. Tony Stark will be off doing . . . something else.
Depending on how closely you follow comic books, this may or may not come as a surprise. Over the last several months Marvel has been turning out long-running white characters and replacing them with diversity hires at a brisk clip: Thor is now a woman; Spider-Man is half African-American and half Puerto Rican; Ms. Marvel is a Muslim teenager; the Hulk is a Korean kid. It’s getting kind of ridiculous.
And offensive. Because Bendis and Marvel aren’t trying to revitalize their lineup and sell comic books. On the contrary, look at the sales numbers for their diversity titles. They are . . . not great. Every single one of the Marvel diversity books is getting beaten in the rankings by dreck such as Scooby Apocalypse and the (unbelievably stupid) Batman / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crossover. The diversity books are lucky to sell 50,000 copies each.
No, Marvel isn’t giving readers what they want. They’re pushing a political program. Bendis says as much to Time: “Some of the comments online… I don’t think people even realize how racist they sound. . . . All I can do is state my case for the character, and maybe they’ll realize over time that that’s not the most progressive thinking.”
Because goodness knows, you shouldn’t be able to enjoy comic books unless you’re onboard with “progressive thinking.”
One of the reasons people recoil from self-conscious diversity programs is that diversity is often presented as a zero-sum game: To celebrate one bit of identity politics it is necessarily to replace, denigrate, or subjugate, another. And that’s precisely what is happening as comic book writers swap out long-standing characters for diversity reboots rather than just coming up with all-new characters.
You can’t have a new lady superhero and the Thor you love—you can only have Lady Thor. You can’t have the Peter Parker you’ve always loved and some new hero named Miles Morales—you can only get black-Hispanic Spider-Man. And you can’t have Tony Stark’s Iron Man. You can only have the genius, 15-year-old, black MIT student Iron Girl.
If you really want to understand how political this project is, and how totally divorced it is from actual concerns about narrative story-telling and character, look at how the street only runs one way. No one ever suggests that maybe the Falcon would be more interesting if he were turned into a thirty-year-old white Army vet. And no is turning villains into minority characters. How about a Muslim Joker? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
If you want diversity in comics without the divisive, zero-sum politics, there are two ways to do it.
1) Figure out ways to revitalize dormant or underwhelming characters.
Harley Quinn was created as an afterthought for an episode of a Batman cartoon. With each passing year the character has become more interesting and higher profile, because writers decided to try to do more with her. By the time Suicide Squad hits theaters in August, she’ll probably be one of the five most beloved characters in the entire DC universe.
The character Gwen Stacy (Peter Parker’s first love interest, before Mary Jane) was killed off in 1973. Marvel resurrected her a few years ago and today she headlines not one, but two popular titles, the kind-of-fantastic Spider-Gwen and the kind-of-bizarre Gwenpool.
A good writer can make almost any character interesting. Heck, Dan Slott made She-Hulk—who was originally conceived as a brazen cash-grab, like Bat-Mite—into a great character. Marvel has done something similar with the character Luke Cage. Created in the seventies as the third-rate hero Power Man, Cage has been reinvigorated in recent years and given much greater depth, complexity, and prominence. Brian Michael Bendis knows this, because he did a lot of that work with the Luke Cage character. Which leads us to . . .
2) Create awesome new characters who happen to be diverse.
Bendis reinvigorated the Luke Cage character in the course of introducing Jessica Jones into the Marvel universe. Jessica Jones was an entirely new character—a failed superhero and junior-varsity alcoholic struggling to make ends meet as a private eye. And Jessica Jones is awesome. But she would have been much, much less awesome if she had been conceived as someone to replace Hank Pym and become the All-New Ant-Girl, because diversity.
What’s exasperating is that in recent years, comic books have been teeming with great new characters who aren’t white guys (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and weren’t brought in as a way to displace existing characters. There’s Abigail Brand, Maria Hill, Ellen Yindel, Kate Bishop, Hisako Ichiki, Renee Montoya, Crispus Allen, the Runaways gang, Tara Chace, Carrie Stetko, Forever Carlyle—and those are just from the books I read. These characters are great. And they didn’t have to push anyone else off the page.
The problem with Riri Williams and Iron Man isn’t diversity or racism. It’s the zero-sum nature of Marvel’s identity politics.