Brian Michael Bendis talks Riri Williams, Marvel's new Invincible Iron Man
There’s a new Iron Man in town, and her name is Riri Williams.
As announced by Marvel earlier this year, the 15-year-old super genius will be stepping into current Iron Man Tony Stark’s shoes following the outcome of Marvel’s current Civil War II storyline. However unlike Tony, Riri isn’t forced into becoming a hero, it’s something she chooses to do, with the young girl even going as far as to reverse engineer her own armor in her dorm room at MIT.
A young African American girl, Riri is the latest in the comic book company’s push for a more inclusive slate of heroes. Ironheart, as she will go by, joins a black-Hispanic Spider-Man (Miles Morales), a Muslim American Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), an Asian-American Hulk (Amadeus Cho), and a female Thor (Jane Foster).
With Marvel’s newest hero set to make her solo series debut in Invincible Iron Man #1 this Wednesday, EW caught up with her creator (and series writer) Brian Michael Bendis to talk Riri’s place in the Marvel universe, what she brings to the role of Iron Man, and what it’s like passing on an iconic mantle.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With Riri filling Tony’s shoes, will she be getting in touch with some of his old contacts, and facing his villains, or will there be new characters on that front too?
BENDIS: Well, that’s the best part. It’s a big mixture. She’s living a different life, on a different course than Tony Stark. But her connection to [him] is going to be very, very strong. So it’s a mixture of who she is, who she wants to be, who she was and all of Tony’s baggage as well. [Riri]’s going to meet some people that she really admires and looks up to and she’s also going to be confronted by some people who have issues with all things Tony Stark—including her. So we’re going to get new characters and villains, plus classic characters and villains all kind of revolving around her and seeing what she’s made of.
Is there any reason you decided to make her so young?
I think there’s something really magical about this age. You are in some cultures considered an adult, but there are whole parts of you that are still childlike. You don’t even know what you don’t know yet. That actually becomes one of [Riri]’s mantras because she’s more self-aware than your average teenager. She literally says, “I don’t even know what I don’t know.” That’s exciting and scary, like the real world is. And I really think you can believe that a 15-year-old can make a suit of armor and wear it around, if we let them.
What does having her step into Tony Stark’s shoes add to the Marvel Universe?
This is where there’s a similarity to her and Miles Morales. Because of her perspective of the world, [she’s] creating an entirely different mindset of what this character could represent. Miles, in Spider-Man, is trying to live the code of “with great power comes great responsibility.” But he was raised completely differently than Peter Parker. [So] you examine those words from a completely fresh perspective. For Riri, what the armor means and what being a futurist means, she doesn’t even know yet because she’s so young. But she’s smart enough, and self aware enough to know that this is an important journey and that there has to be a reason why she decided to build this armor. She did this all by herself. No one asked her to. No one forced her to. She wasn’t flown into a cave like Tony and had to find his way out with this armor. She did this in her dorm room. We’re going to find out why in the very first issue.
Having done something like this before with Miles and Spider-Man, what did that experience teach you as you prepared to have Riri take on this mantle?
They’re very different characters with very different themes. But they are new characters stepping into the shoes of an icon that people are familiar with. Miles should not have worked. Spider-Man wasn’t broken. No one was looking to fix it. But it worked because the perspective Miles was bringing and the idea and the visuals were something people were very excited about. People were waiting for that kind of iconic representation. The statement of Miles as Spider-Man or Riri as Iron Man is a big statement—that anyone can be these heroes. It used to be white dudes who were these heroes [but] that’s not the world we live in. Marvel’s always been a mirror reflection of the world we live in and these choices are exciting.
I live in a high trick-or-treating neighborhood. Here comes a Hispanic boy dressed as Ant-Man, and this young African American man dressed as the Flash, and this young woman dressed as Thor. And she didn’t even know Thor was a woman in the comics, she just wanted to be Thor. This did not happen five years ago. This is not what it looked like. This is so exciting to me, to my peers, and to our fellow readers that all of these walls are disappearing. They’re not even being knocked down. Young kids don’t even see them. Anyone could be these heroes.
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?
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.” People go, “Oh that’s not what I thought it was.” I’m like, “See, let’s not be so quick to put labels on everybody,” because you don’t know what everyone’s deal is. Also, we’re writers and there’s this idea that writers should only write what they know or have experienced. [But it] is not how writing has worked since writing began. We are supposed to do research.
I worry about the trap that that means that African American people should only write African American [characters] and Asian Americans should only write Asian Americans. Everyone should write and draw everything. Everyone has a unique perspective and ability. It goes with the perspective unique to a certain way of life. All those voices should be heard. But they should also be able to write whatever they want to write.
I’ve seen [this rumor] online that Marvel came up with the Riri Williams character they shoved a bunch of African American creators to the side to give it to me. That is not what happened. I created the character all by myself and I didn’t ask anyone’s permission. [I created her] with the idea that Tony needs more supporting characters in his world. Out of all the superheroes, he has the tightest group of supporting characters compared to the other characters of his level, like Spider-Man or Batman. I want to open up that world. That’s where she came from. She’s based on research that I’d done about some other things that I’d been interested in, young geniuses [and] kids from Chicago trying to make something of their lives when the streets are literally danger zones.
There absolutely, 100% should be more voices of different ethnicities heard in mainstream comics. I’m thrilled that things are shifting as much as they have in the last two years. But I do know that Riri was not taken from an African American creator. That’s absolutely false.
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?
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.
Invincible Iron Man #1 is currently available for purchase.