Ever since Bane generously granted Batman a free vacation, there’s been a loose formula for hero-replacement storylines. Some would say the formula’s classic, while I’d drift closer to the word tired. Nonetheless, I found myself enjoying Riri’s story. However back-and-forth Bendis’s ranking among the fans might be (a portion of the Civil War II audience burns him in effigy once a week or so), I think he’s always had a way with books centered on a single character. Ironheart: Riri Williams (collecting eleven Iron Man issues) keeps that record strong.
This time around, our absentee hero is Tony Stark. With legacy heroes, the writer typically chooses a character with either the same core personality (think Miles Morales, since we’re talking about Bendis today) or an interesting divergence (Azrael’s ruthlessness, Bucky’s less-than-rosy history, Dick Grayson’s abs). What drew me to Riri was that Bendis got creative and chose a middle path. Riri has all of Tony’s watching-mankind-from-above futurism and talent for creating her own problems, but little in the way of Tony’s playboy swagger, jet-set lifestyle, or experience. A strong foundation for a coming-of-age story.
The first issue’s something of a slow start. Riri’s one of those characters where the backstory is the least interesting thing about them. There’s a bit of self-conscious fumbling over the issue of gun violence in Chicago, which shapes Riri’s journey as a hero by fulfilling her dead-parent quota. The problem isn’t handled insensitively or heavy-handedly, but rather in a way that feels rote. It doesn’t reach as deeply into the issue as, say, Christopher Priest’s recent Deathstroke story arc. In fact, the element of street level crime pretty much falls out of the story after the first two issues.
I suspect that the creative team might have felt nervous about saying the wrong thing, given Marvel’s efforts to artfully represent minority experiences. Efforts that are, for the record, admirable. There aren’t a lot of competing solo books about black women. It’s fine that Ironheart doesn’t focus on the mean streets, since the black bourgeoisie exists (I’m writing this from an ad agency laptop). Starting there just felt a bit off. Luke Cage is fun, but I enjoyed seeing someone with a different flavor.
That said, once Bendis has all his toys in place, it becomes a fun read. Walking ego Tony Stark left a digital version of himself behind to guide Riri, having learned none of the lessons about unregulated A.I. taught by science fiction, Stephen Hawking, or his own life (check out Iron Man: Hypervelocity). Nonetheless, the relationship between CyberTony and Riri has teeth, vacillating between earnest mentordom and CyberTony acting like an alcoholic version of Clippy. Something that I, in Riri’s defense, wouldn’t want to contend with while fighting ninjas either.
Riri’s problems scale up from ninjas to international relations before she’s old enough to vote. Bendis is an old hand at the superhero coming-of-age story, and the experience from Ultimate Spider-Man shows here. The inexperienced prodigy balancing act is an easy one to screw up, but Ironheart lands without face-planting. Specifically, without spoiling too much, after nine issues focused on Engineering 203, Riri’s Political Science aptitude is put to the test.
For all the ink (pixels, whatever) I spent on the first issue, it’s the last one that loses me a bit. It’s a set of flashbacks memorializing the life of Tony Stark, likely inhabiting the overlap between his 616 coma and MCU death. Which isn’t a bad idea, but it takes a bit of momentum out of a story where the main character just (Spoiler warning for the weak-hearted) took over Latveria for a week.