Last week Marvel announced that Tony Stark was going to step down as Iron Man and pass the mantle along to a fifteen-year-old black girl named Remi Williams. This story is brought to you by key Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis.
A number of news outlets picked up the story and some of the people I follow on social media blew up either in praise or incredulity. To all those who think that this is an earth-shattering event, please remember this very important fact:
I do not read Iron Man as I have abandoned most of Marvel Comics at this point. The world they have created is sarcastic and cynical. That isn't to say that Remi Williams is a sarcastic and cynical character. I do not know.
I did read some of the gender-switched Thor comic and I have to say that some of it was quite good. It was a mystery that was teased out over a number of issues. And the reveal was stunning and powerful.
So my comment above is not a remark about the quality of the comic itself.
It is a comment about the impermanence of the change.
This happens every few years where they replace the main hero with someone else, trying to capture the zeitgeist and bring in some new readers. Also, the major comic book companies are very focused on having a more diverse cast regarding sex, race, religion, and orientation (thought interestingly, there doesn't seem to be any desire for political diversity). So I'm sure the question came up, "Why can't Iron Man be a black girl?"
As I said, this will not last. Tony will be Iron Man again. Thor will be Thor again. Their replacements will then be given their own spin-off super-hero names and possibly comic book series. I predict that Remi will become the new War Machine or rename herself Iron Maiden. This happened to Thor and Spider-Man in the 1990's. Captain America has been replaced several times over the years. But they always come back to the originals.
The only time I was ever wrong on this was Ultimate Spider-Man. Brian Michael Bendis wrote one of the best comic book series in Ultimate Spider-Man and then killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales. The Ultimate Universe limped on a little bit after that, but it never recovered. There is nothing really wrong with Miles Morales' storylines. Bendis lost none of his writing powers when switching characters. The problem was very simple:
Peter Parker is Spider-Man.
Miles Morales is not.
No matter how much they push it, he never will be. We will accept a temporary replacement for a time, but not forever.
Marvel's big problem is that they look at their superheroes as brands and not persons. Iron Man or Spider-Man is looked at as a title to hand on. It reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons when Bart told Alan Moore that he was his favorite writer for Radioactive Man. Moore responded, "So you like that I made him a heroin-addicted Jazz critic who's not radioactive?" We already know that Iron Man isn't iron. Now he won't be a man.
Remi Williams might be a great character. But introducing her this way is a cynical cash grab that will have no permanence. Inside of two years, Tony will be back in the Iron Man suit.
And DC certainly has been guilty of this kind of stunt casting in the past with stories like Knightfall, where Batman was replaced by Jean Paul Valley.
But DC is the only comic company where a permanent hand-off worked was with Barry Allen and Wally West. And that took years to gain acceptance and the stellar writing of Mark Waid. Granted Barry Allen did eventually come back. But that was after decades of absolutely no intent of doing so. Thus there was a sincere effort to make the switch, like with Miles Morales. Only in this case it worked.
But what DC has learned, as evidenced by the recent work on Rebirth, is that people look at the super heroes as people and not brands. Let's go back to Wally West. The original Wally West has been missing from Flash comics for a while now. DC introduced another Wally West, this time changing him from a ginger husband and father to an black teen. But DC Rebirth has brought back the original Wally. That is because writer Geoff Johns understands that our years of reading the original Wally West's story have caused us to care about him. You can't take a completely different person and give them the same name and expect the same loyalty.. Strangely, but wisely, Johns has incorporated both Wally Wests into this reborn universe making clear that the DC Universe is wide enough for them all.
DC tends to look at the expansion of its hero base not in terms of brand but legacy. The diversity we encounter here may be ethnic, religious, or what have you. But that comes secondary to the diversity you have in terms of personalities. When I think of the current Green Lanterns of Earth, I don't think of them as the original, the black one, the young one, the ginger, the Muslim, and the Latina. Those are character details that can be used to add depth and dimension, but those qualities do not define WHO they are. I think of them as the fearless one, the no-nonsense one, the artistic one, the wild one, the skeptical one, and the struggling one. And even those don't encapsulate them fully because they are too narrow. But my impressions of them as characters go beyond the superficial and into deeper traits they carry as a person.
This may sound like a digression, but notice: Hal Jordan, John Stewart, Kyle Rayner, Guy Gardner, Simon Baz, and Jessica Cruz are all still Green Lantern. Also Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, and Wally West are all still the Flash. This isn't the case for all heroes. Jean Paul Valley, Dick Grayson, and Jim Gordon have all been Batman, and those don't stick. But Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, and Damian Wayne have all been Robin and they are still part of the extended Bat Family. That is because the changing mantle of Robin revolves around the permanence of Bruce Wayne as Batman. But these Robins remain a part of the larger legacy.
This could have been done with Iron Man. But instead we have to read about a name-brand, short-shelf-life comic hero.
Remi Williams is Iron Man.