by Taylor Anderson and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Taylor: The future is going to be weird, man. How do I know? Every day I stand before 25 middle schoolers and attempt to teach them important stuff about books. Frequently, I’ll make analogies that are too out of date for them to get or, more embarrassingly, I’ll pull a “back in my day” story out of the playbook. Thinking about the difference from when I was in middle school to the kids I teach today is a lesson in how fast things change. These kids (see, I’m already so old I can’t help it!) have never known a world without cell phones, the internet, and Justin Bieber. Generations: Iron Man and Ironheart 1 understands that change happens quickly, just as I do, but the world that the issue imagines is beyond anything I thought imaginable.
Like numerous other super heroes in the Generations event, Riri Williams suddenly finds herself transported to a strange new place and time. In this case, our hero happens to find herself in the world of tomorrow, which is run by 126 year Tony Stark and which is practically a utopia. Riri spends her time in this world marveling at its wonders, it differences, and of course her mentor Tony. It isn’t before too long that she is sent back to her own time, only so she can carry the visions of tomorrow to inspire her plans for the future.
Aside from Riri’s transportation to the future, there is little propelling the egg-shell plot forward. Mostly, the narrative thread follows Tony’s ramblings about how great the future is compared to the past. There’s the scarcest hint of conflict when Morgan Le Fay shows up to try and take over the planet, but this is resolved in the span of a couple panels.
Of course, the reason Tony is able to dispatch Le Fay so easily is because he’s also the Sorcerer Supreme and controls the Stone of Odinsdottir. This little side fact, that Tony controls magic now, is far more interesting than any contrived conflict with Morgan Le Fay. While I appreciate that Bendis is only throwing out hints about Tony’s backstory, I can’t help but feel that more details would have provided a far richer story to draw from for this issue. Imagining Riri and Tony working together to defeat Dormamu just sounds like so much damn fun.
However, I get the feeling that Bendis isn’t really worried about typical plot structure in this issue. Instead, he seems content letting his words set the stage for Marco Rudy’s art. Indeed, it only takes a few pages to realize that Bendis was all too happy to let Rudy have a lot of fun in this issue. This works out in great ways, such as this page when Tony reveals himself to Riri for the first time.
At this point in the issue, Riri is still feeling totally disoriented in the new time she finds herself in. She’s not sure if it’s a dream, if she’s been drugged, or if it’s real. Rudy’s unique, and frankly weird, paneling on this page helps convey this sense confusion with oblong shaped panels that seem to distort the page. There is some order to this layout though, as all the panels point to Tony in the upper right hand corner. This not only tells us that Tony is important, but it shows how he is the one thing that Riri can focus on in this world that helps act as an anchor for her.
While I always appreciate bold new art in comics, sometimes in this issue it seems as if Rudy crosses the line from weird to something less flattering. Later in the conversation between Riri and Tony Rudy delivers this full page spread.
I’m torn between hating this page and loving it, but that love would only be ironic, so maybe I do just hate it. There’s just too much happening on this one page for it to really be pleasing to the eye. While I appreciate the inventiveness of the paneling coming off of Tony’s cape, the hard red lines which define it are intolerable given that they aren’t the same color as the cape and because they don’t blend into their source at all. More, the half portrait of Riri on the right smacks of vintage sci-fi posters. While Rudy might be trying to poke fun at these sometimes questionable marketing tools, it’s not clear enough if its supposed to be funny for me to really enjoy ironically or simply hate it for being so dated.
Patrick, this is a weird issue and I love the idea of a future so bizarre that Riri can hardly recognize it. However, once I get passed that, the issue just seems a bit hollow and leaves me wanting more substance. What are your thoughts? Do you buy the idea that the issue works as a way of motivating Riri for the future? Did you enjoy the Mighty Avengers cameo? Lastly, do you think our future will be anything like the one Bendis and Rudy showed us here?
Patrick: Oh, that our future would look anything like this! Clean air that tastes great in Chicago? A fantasy! But the world of the Marvel Universe is in a weird present as it is: the existence of (and widespread belief in) magic and aliens makes their starting point sooo much different from our own. At one point in this issue, Tony tells Riri that she already understands that technology and magic are, in fact, the same thing, calling to mind the Arthur C. Clark axiom: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But we don’t have anything that looks like magic in our real world, nor do we have extra-terrestrial plants that we can import to make our city’s super clean.
Though, the future presented by Generations: Iron Man & Iron Heart does put the power to better the world in the hands of two men: Tony Stark and Franklin Richards. They end up being benevolent, but that’s still a shocking narrow distribution of power — even the Mighty Avengers seem like they’re more figureheads than anything else. Tony remarks that the “like to dress up,” all but dismissing their contributions to keeping the peace in Chicago. It may be a Utopia, but its a totalitarian Utopia. That rings true to my glum-ass vision of the future.
I guess the teases from the future that intrigue me the most — and are also the most meaningful to Riri — are developments that we don’t get to see explicitly. That development with Morgana Le Fey is pretty quickly swept under the rug, but it’s just weird enough to trigger a “hey what’s really going on here?” Or like, those little half-robots that are buzzing around everywhere in the future (and which Riri develops in the present like the second she gets back) — that’s a cool detail evocative of something bigger than it actually illustrates. The same can be said for the little moment Tony lets slip that Riri is known to be… something… to “everyone in the galaxy,” which Riri smartly picks up. Much of this issue (and much of Bendis’ output) is a jumble of fast-talkin’ speech-balloon-jumbles, so it’s nice to see this moment given the space it needs t properly land.
Actually, can we talk about the lettering in this issue for a little bit? Clayton Cowles does the dialogue-wrangling for this issue, and he’s got one hell of a job on his hands here. Taylor’s right to praise Rudy’s layouts (layouts which seem to get an extra boost of crazy from co-penciler and inker Szymon Kudranski), but it is often unclear what order panels should be read in, and any sense of timing and motion go right out the window. You see all of these pages all at once — unfortunately, that also means you see all of the copy all at once. Frequently, that leads to these grotesque-snowman-esque piles of speech balloons encroaching on Rudy and Kudranski’s mind-blowing art. Here’s an example from early in the issue:
This word-salad maintains Bendis’ commitment to two things. First is the realism in his dialogue, complete with incomplete sentences and half-formed ideas. And the second is his insistence on the character’s actual voice. What we don’t see is any narration, and the audience is never treated to the character’s thoughts unless filtered to through their own voices. Ultimately, that’s more illustrative of who the characters are — what does it mean that Riri rattles off all possible scenarios aloud to herself? — but man, can it muck up a page.
Cowles uses surprisingly little variety in his speech balloons and fonts throughout the issue. Outside of some very sparsely deployed Asgardian font, and the eventual appearance of Iron Heart’s square orange and yellow balloons (16 pages into the issue), all the dialogue in this issue looks exactly the same. That becomes problematic when these identical balloons start knotting over each other.
Look at how Franklin’s last “No kidding.” balloon is situated right in front of Riri’s mouth. It’s also insane to me that the conversation between Franklin and Tony is placed between Tony and Riri. Arguably Riri doesn’t even belong in this panel. Bendis’ commitment to no narration boxes means that Riri has to be in the panel to register her confusion at the mention of “Doctor Riri Williams.” First of all, I don’t know that that confusion is even necessary: was there any doubt that Riri would get her doctorate someday? She’s one of the smartest characters in a universe full of “smartest characters.” But even if we needed a befuddled “Doctor?” this panel would have served the story much better without Riri in it — just Franklin and Tony discussing her with a Riri narration box interjecting with her surprise.
This lack of clarity is obviously what allows Bendis to pack in so many ideas, and what allows his collaborators to deliver such freely expressive pages. But there’s a weird friction between writer and artist present here, and editor Tom Brevoort might have done more to reign in one of these virtuosos for the benefit of the reader.
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Cowles is a very knowledgable letterer, but the amount of dialogue Bendis crams into these panels forces him to break some cardinal rules of lettering, including not putting balloons between characters heads. In breaking up the art in this way, we lose the continuity of the scene, no longer able to follow each character’s eye-line to the other characters’ faces. The effect (possibly intentional) is that these characters can’t see each other for all of the words they’re saying. That maybe works for characters as cerebral as Riri and Tony, but makes way less sense for someone like Franklin Richards. I’ve always felt like tightening up Bendis’ dialogue would serve the dialogue better, but it’s increasingly clear that it would also serve the artwork and storytelling better, too.
Hawkeye was probably a Generations book, but this is my favourite. It is by far the most interesting.
Though that is this book in a nutshell? I am amazed just how much I love Riri Williams’ adventures. Bendis so often struggles with superheroes in a way he doesn’t with his creator owned work, like he really should move on. But with Riri Williams, he really is spinning some magic I just never would have expected. Before we dig into this issue, let’s just recap what he has done so far.
For his first arc, he provided a modern update to the superhero origin, working out how to tell the story of an ordinary person becoming extraordinary in a world where superheroes are ordinary. Instead of doing what Ms Marvel did, and leaning heavily into the well of intertextuality (this isn’t saying that Ms Marvel’s origin is bad. It is fantastic, but intertextuality is a limited well and we can’t have everyone use the same tool). But the clever combination of two different story styles creates a wonderful alchemy that creates THE modern origin story. After already bringing superheroes into the 21st century with Ultimate Spiderman, he seems to revolutionise things again with Riri’s pitch perfect origin.
Then he dives deep into the most complex story he could with Riri’s second arc. An actual, honest to god attempt to grapple with the inherently fascist nature of superheroes properly. But not in the obvious deconstruction angle, but an attempt to grapple with the topic while keeping their status as moral agents. After reconstructing the superhero origin, he’s trying to reconstruct the fundamental nature of superheroes as moral agents. I’m still not entirely sure how well he accomplished it – it will all come down to the fallout of the arc. The perfect way it balanced Riri’s good intentions and ability to use those good intentions to achieve good ends with the greater implications of what her actions means created one of the most thought provoking issues I’ve read. Honestly, Bendis has turned what looks to be your ordinary superhero comic into one of the most quietly revolutionary books out there. Handling complexity in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, but either elevate the story to new, incredible levels or challenge the reader in ways we don’t expect. Hell, I’d say the second arc feels more challenging than, say, the best of King because it is uncertain and ambiguous.
So is it any surprise that he does such a fantastic job with Generations?
The many ways he subverts the very structure is incredible. Naturally, any character in the Iron Man franchise can’t truly go to the past to learn a lesson. They are all about the future. So Bendis twists the premise to send Riri in the future. But then twists it again. Because the Iron man people don’t learn lessons (and not just because Tony Stark is incapable of fixing his laundry list of problems). They build the future. The meaningful thing is Inspiration. And so, that’s the story. Riri sees the future and is inspired. Hell, Riri sees a future she built herself (I think it is very unfair to say that the world is in the hands of two men, when Franklin Richards is shown to have very little influence in the world. He is only important because he might have access to one of Doom’s time machines. Hell, he is specifically called the third best thing the Reed and Sue ever did, which suggests that Valeria is better/more important. And for all of his power, the implications is that Tony is part of a world Riri built. He’s mostly retired, and surrounded by Riri’s inventions. Still important, but not the guy who is building the future. Just securing it).
Hell, even the usual ‘here’s a bad guy’ thing is thrown out the window, for a more philosophical approach. Bendis understands his ideas enough to know their is no need for a real antagonist. Just a story about the future
And then there is the art. I’ve generally been pretty disappointed with the art. No book so far has had art that is really noteworthy. It is kind of obvious that because these are one shots and all the important artists are busy on ongoings, things are a bit second strong. But whatever you say about the art, the sheer effort put into layouts, designs, colours… literally everything is amazing. THe art itself is reflective of the setting – something that pushes the boundaries of our current thought. Maybe some of the individual panels don’t work, but then there are so many panels that are truly beautiful. Whether it is sci fi paradise, mysticism or human expression, there are a couple of panels for every idea.
There is of course a major problem. Bendis’ focus on ‘realistic’ dialogue means that it often undercuts the grandeur of the setting. Showing Riri’s process to understand, while a wonderful reflection of her voice in the main book, undercuts the ideas of the book. Quite simply, in a setting, a story, this out of the ordinary, Bendis ‘ordinary’ dialogue is out of place.
But in all honesty, this issue put me in awe. It inspired me. THere is an argument of how effective it is to have characters go through arcs. Does it really impact the audience? Or do they use their distance to pretend that they already know the lesson. Is it better to put the audience through the arc. Make them grapple with the ideas, instead of assuming they’ll see the need to do the same thing as the lead. And honestly, I felt like I did go through my own arc. Like I got that same inspiration that Riri got. This issue was magical