Today, Drew and Taylor are discussing Invincible Iron Man 3, originally released January 18th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Drew: Brian Michael Bendis is a polarizing figure in comics. I know plenty of people who consider him to be one of the best writers working today, but I know just as many who find his writing to be aimless and self-indulgent. I tend to think that he’s a very good writer with some very bad habits — I think he writes charming dialogue, but tends to write too much of it, for example — but I had been impressed at how well Bendis had curbed those habits in Invincible Iron Man, keeping scenes tight and efficient, and staying very close to the perspective of his protagonist, Riri Williams. That last piece really played to Bendis’ strengths, keeping the focus on his charming and well-written lead, avoiding the kind of wandering perspective that so often bogs his narratives down. Unfortunately, issue 3 loses some of that momentum, opening with a corporate power play between characters Riri has never met.
It’s not that I can’t understand how the goings on at Stark Headquarters might eventually affect Riri, but devoting eight pages of a 20-page issue to characters who aren’t Riri feels like a big change for this series, which has rarely deviated from her presence. Without Riri — indeed, without any characters familiar to this series before — this opening can’t help but lose the identity of this series. It’s no longer about Riri, but about the world she lives in. And again, I get that omniscient narrators are valuable for storytelling, which is why I haven’t begrudged the shorter scenes we’ve seen in previous issues of the world outside of Riri’s scope. But eight pages is a lot of time to not be spending with a protagonist we’re still getting to know.
Maybe the reason this scene bothers me so much is that its accompanied with the loss of the flashback structure that gave Riri’s actions in the present so much emotional weight. Bendis keeps those memories fresh in our minds, having Tony directly address Riri’s emotional health.
It’s a smart way to catch those flashbacks up with Riri’s present day, but I can’t help but wonder if it would be more effective to see Riri withdrawing from the world, rather than having Tony tell us about it.
Losing the flashbacks also robs the series of one of its key structures, which had artfully broken up the narrative into shorter, punchier scenes. Without them, scenes are much longer, so there are simply fewer of them. Bendis manages to subvert this a bit in that second scene, where Riri and Tony’s conversation takes place across a montage of fight scenes. It adds some variety to an issue that could have otherwise been talking heads, though the action adds no meaning to the conversations. It’s a classic all-talking Bendis issue, though it’s wearing a bit of a disguise.
The final scene doesn’t tie the first two together, but introduces another character we haven’t seen in this series before: Pepper Pots. A relative newcomer to Iron Man (and even then, only a sporadic follower), I only know Pepper from the movies, so I don’t have the most context for what she’s doing here. I have enough to understand her history with Tony (even if I don’t get the specifics), but I don’t have nearly enough to understand why she’s zipping around the country in her own armored suit, looking out for young superheroes who might not know what they’re getting into. How does she know? How long has she been an authority on what superheroing is? What motivates her to be a superhero in the first place? I don’t doubt that this will be explained later, but as far as this scene goes, our lack of context makes Pepper an odd choice to deliver this message. Literally any Marvel hero might have felt more appropriate.
This is an issue that sets up a lot of conflicts and relationships for future issues — the kind of “putting the pieces in place” setup that we have to expect from time to time — but feels like a big step backwards for a series that had heretofore been so tightly focused on the experiences of its protagonist. I don’t know, Taylor, maybe I’m too quick to identify missteps as Bendisisms, but this issue felt familiarly unlike the series I was cautiously enjoying. Am I being too hard on it?
Taylor: I don’t think so. Like you said, we’re still getting to know Riri at this point and it only makes sense for every issue right now to be focusing on her. Had the eight page scene at Stark headquarters that you spoke about come later in the series, say, after the completion of the first story arc, it would be fine. Having it at the at the start of the third issue is a curious choice and one that’s hard to feel good about.
Going into the particulars of this scene, there are things here that make it problematic, as well. The primary role of this scene is to set up plot points for later issues, but the secondary role is to establish the role of women in this series. As the scene opens Mary Jane and Friday, the holographic AI for Stark Industries, are accosted by Mr. Lynch, the CEO of the company. The man is rude and demonstrates casual sexism to a degree that should probably get him sued, but he is soon put in his place when he meets the new owner of Stark Industries, Amanda Armstrong — famous singer and Tony Stark’s biological mother.
The telling off of a sexist man like Lynch by professional, capable women taking place in a series featuring a female lead would suggest a female friendly agenda, but Stefano Caselli’s artwork speaks otherwise. Throughout the issue Caselli has the chance to draw diverse body types, portraying a more accurate and positive image of women, but instead he draws all the female characters with hourglass figures. This goes not only for Mary Jane, but for Friday who doesn’t even really need a body because she’s an AI, and even for Amanda Armstrong who is elderly.
This pattern continues later in the issue when Riri reveals her new Iron-Man armor. Unlike her previous suit, which was big, bulky, and generally genderless, this suit is unquestionably built for a woman. The armor is needlessly hourglass shaped and has “feminine” contours and coloring that ostensibly have nothing to do with helping Riri fight crime. It makes sense that Riri’s new chassis would be more sleek and aerodynamic than her prototype but it’s unclear why the new suit looks like this for any other than it looks sexier. Since we’re talking about battle armor here, it seems a questionable move on Caselli’s part to draw the armor this way. Last I checked, real armor, regardless of who’s wearing it is big, bulky, and anything but attractive.
This latent objectification is troublesome and takes away from a series that seems to be positing itself around the idea that women are just as capable of doing great things as men. But haven’t we as a society come to accept that the traditional idea of beauty a) is a bunch of bullshit and b) not a marker of goodness or ability? That being the case, Caselli would do well to recognize that all women can do great things, not just those who meet the traditional standard of beauty. Lastly, this is frustrating because Caselli is too good to let his art go to waste on stuff like this. Just look at the beautiful panel below. It’s a great shot and only accentuates that Caselli is a great artist. Now, if only he could capture beauty in all its forms.
The artwork wasn’t the only thing that had some problems in this issue. This issue lacks a natural plot structure and, as you said Drew, makes things feel very much like they are being put into place for later events. Disregarding those first eight pages — which have nothing to do with the rest of the issue — the main focus of this book is Riri and Tony trying to come up with an appropriate superhero name for her, since she doesn’t want a gendered pronoun in her name. They argue about this for the entire issue until AI Tony hits on the idea of “Ironheart” which Riri seems to like. Later, when she has the chance the introduce herself using this name, she does not.
Pepper even warns Riri that she shouldn’t use her real name, but she does anyway. Here is perfect chance for Riri to try out her new name but she opts out of doing it. Maybe she’s trying to connect with Pepper or maybe she’s still unsure or the “Ironheart” name, but it seems like a missed opportunity for both Riri and for Bendis. Had Riri used her real name the issue would have had a nice little arc about Riri finding her name. Instead, we’re left with this ending which isn’t satisfying, just like a lot of this issue.
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