by Drew Baumgartner and Michael DeLaney
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Drew: My favorite scene of Eve Ewing, Kevin Libranda, and Luciano Vecchio’s Ironheart 1 takes up most of the third act. Riri, exhausted from a day of inventing, superheroing, and unexpected tour-guiding, is rudely woken by her phone. The call is from Riri’s old neighbor, Xavier, whose out-of-the-blue call makes her suspicious. Sure enough, the call was Riri’s mom’s idea — exactly the kind of thoughtful meddling a teen would resent. In spite of this the two find some common ground with their shared enthusiasm for sci-fi and Hip-Hop. But then the other shoe drops, and Xavier blurts out the breathless question quoted above. In many ways, Xavier is articulating the central question of this series: Why is Riri Williams Ironheart?
Superherodom is littered with motivations, some more inspiring than others. Many are compelled by grief, others by the responsibilities their powers bestow upon them, and still others are motivated by a combination of the two. Riri certainly seemed to fit into that mold — she built her first suit after the deaths of her step-father and best friend and she’s a brilliant scientist who managed to reverse-engineer the Iron Man suit at the age of 13, so may have a duty to help humanity. So she offers up as much when Xavier asks, suggesting that she did it because she “could,” but that doesn’t satisfy him. There are countless ways her brilliant mind could help in ending gang violence, so why did she pick such an unusual and dangerous one?
So Riri offers a more satisfying answer in the form of a quote from her grandmother (by way of her father): “Those who move with courage make the path for those who live in fear.” The quote itself doesn’t necessarily justify Riri’s choice to suit up, but her relationship to it certainly does; she’s doing this because it scares her. Sure, drafting public policy or stamping out the black market gun trade in Chicago might be causes she believes in, but they don’t require the kind of courage she values — she needs to literally stand in harms way so that others don’t have to. That’s a motivation I can get behind, especially as Ewing seems poised to complicate it in future issues.
And honestly, that’s the only essential part of this issue for me. Riri’s other conflicts — first with her dean at MIT, then with a supervillain — are fine, but lack the emotional resonance that makes her conversation with Xavier so compelling. Even so, Ewing has a fascinating approach to Riri’s suit, allowing her to hack together novel solutions to common superhero problems.
However, basically every sequence — even the most action-packed ones — are bogged down with too much text. It’s a common enough problem for writers coming from a medium outside of comics that I have confidence Ewing will get the hang of it sooner rather than later, but it kind of stepped on the art throughout the issue.
Which may be why I’m so enamored of that conversation sequence. A phone conversation doesn’t need a lot of room for complicated blocking, which gives Ewing’s words the space they need to feel right. She has a great command of Riri and Xavier’s voices — these definitely sound like real teens — and I suspect that relationship is going to be central to this series. I’d happily read a series of just Riri’s non-superhero adventures as a teen navigating her own lack of social graces. But I’m confident this series will find a balance as Ewing gets more comfortable writing for comics.
Michael, I’m historically pretty bad at evaluating first issues, but I take it as a good sign that I didn’t hate this. There are some intriguing pieces here, and I’m comfortable writing off the weakest bits as first-time jitters. Am I being too charitable?
Michael: Drew I don’t think you’re being too charitable. I think that are right on the money as far as dialogue goes. That last series of panels is loaded with dialogue – well, technically monologue – as Riri is talking aloud trying to science her way out of her dilemma with Clash. This isn’t a new concept by any means, superheroes often talk themselves through their fights – especially the wiz kids like Ironheart and Spider-Man.
Ewing sets a precedent for Riri talking to herself outside of the Ironheart suit earlier in the issue while she’s at MIT. This got me thinking about me thinking about the nature of the superhero monologue in general. Unless they are part of a team superheroes are usually by themselves, so the writer needs to move the story along by A) internal monologue or B) having the hero literally talking to themselves.
The thought bubble pretty much a thing of the past in the realm of comicdom, and Ironheart is a hero of the modern day. I will also echo what Drew said about the authenticity of Riri and Xavier’s voices. Riri Wiliams was created by Brian Michael Bendis, and while I haven’t read much of his work on the character I have to imagine that Eve Ewing – a younger woman of color – would have a better handle on the social morays of teens like Riri and Xavier than Bendis. (I love you Bendis, keep up the good work on Superman!)
However much like Bendis, Ewing gives Riri a sharp wit and a well of pop cultural knowledge. As long as they don’t eat up too many pages, I do enjoy conversations like this one every now and then:
DS9 is overrated by the way. This was a great back and forth that these two accidentally stumbled into: what started off as a courtesy call from Xavier actually turned into a delightful back and forth. Then of course he blew it by asking her that question. Men!
Finally I want to touch on Clash’s lingering effect on Riri. Disclaimer: I haaaaate the tired trope of a villain saying something to the effect of “we’re not so different you and I.” But the way that Ewing presents Riri at the beginning and end of Ironheart 1 lends more credence to Clash’s claims of similarity.
I think we can all relate to feeling unseen in one way or another, but I find this particularly true for artists – whatever that art may be. I been an improvisor in Chicago for a few years but I still get those aunts and uncles asking “when are we gonna see you on Saturday Night Live?” It’s difficult when you are trying to express yourself and your talents but the people around you aren’t getting the right message you are trying to send. Everyone sees Riri for the genius she is, but she doesn’t feel like much more than a tool for a larger machine.
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I liked this issue a lot more than I expected to, honestly. Ewing made a good case for why Riri talks to herself so much, and the majority of the dialogue really sings. There’s a lot of talking throughout the entire issue, but it doesn’t bog down the first or third acts at all. It’s that middle sequence, the fight against Clash, that’s hurt by the dialogue. There’s too much of it, and too much of it feels inelegant and expository.
I think it’s something Ewing will grow out of, though, and in general this book looks great, and I love her take on Riri as the lonely engineer. There’s a lot to appreciate here.
Well, this was fucking brilliant.
Marvel have really improved in importing writers from other mediums. Coates took his time, Gay was unfortunately disappointing and Rivera was even more unfortunately a disaster. But wow. We have Rowell on Runaways, McGuire on Spider-Gwen* and now Ewing on Ironheart. THey haven’t yet got a perfect match like DC did when DC got Valentine, but they are getting close (Chelsea Cain may have been the closest).
I was really nervous about this, because Bendis did such a great job with Riri until the awful Search for Iron Man series, and Riri quickly became a new favourite character. Bendis was right to leave Marvel, he’d obviously come to the end of his time with superheroes and it was time to move onto the next, non-superhero phase of his career (his upcoming Young Justice looks to be a combination of Bendis’ worst traits and Rebirth’s worst non-bigoted traits, and what his SUperman has done with Lois really does reflect DC’s giant hatred of women problem. Lois Lane is one of the best characters ever when not reduced to just being Superman’s love interest and Bendis’ solution to her is to find an excuse to write as little of her as possible. DC just isn’t willing to actually have strong female characters in their universe. Combine that with ruining over his best work, Scarlet, and the DC move has already proved to be a bad idea).
But despite Bendis clearly being at the end of his superhero career, Riri was an amazing creation. The perfect encapsulation of everything great about late era Bendis style. What really struck out about Riri was her complexity. Bendis gave her layers and layers and depth. He set a hard challenge to follow.
And Ewing, in one fucking (admittedly oversized) issue, manages to do it all. It is all there. The clumsy dialogue just doesn’t matter when every sequence is so perfectly on point that the execution can’t be called anything but perfect. It ends up having the same sort of effect as a film whose obviously low budget nature doesn’t detract from its brilliance. Hell, considering some of the even more clunky dialogue of truly classics runs, Ironheart feels a bit like a throwback to those classics.
There’s so much to love. It is hard to say what is the best part, though let’s bring attention to the way every element is interwoven throughout the issue. The first two page spread sets up literally everything about the story, the subtext that runs under everything.
And while the first act isn’t the strongest (that comes later), it sets up everything perfectly. Every plot element is set up, alongside the important characterisation points like Riri’s struggles with socialisation as she keeps accidentally horrifying the guests and her feelings of alienation – including the important beat where at the end where her colleagues try and invite her to lunch but are fundamentally unable to cross that barrier (and they contrast so well with both Xavier later in the comic and with Natalie’s introduction in Bendis’ original work). And while we talk about lunch, Riri’s habit of skipping meals because she’s caught up in work.
Oh, and that killer mission statement. ‘Ironheart is not a weapon. Ironheart is an engineer who uses many tools’. A line that, especially backed up with the rest of the issue, makes Ewing the best Iron Man creator since Shane Black made Iron Man Three.
Because damn, let’s talk about the science. Riri’s intelligence is foregrounded in every situation. The example inventions she presents are specific in purpose and feel designed, not magic. There is no easy invention like a forcefield that makes you immune to everything. Instead, it is a pressure suit designed to better handle a specific challenge better than other solutions. It feels like something that someone would invent.
And then we get to the action. The solution to the soundwave field could so easily have been meaningless technobabble, but it feels like legitimate superscience in the best way. The entire fight is an engineering challenge.Straight combat is ignored for problems like How do I get past the forcefield? How do I get the translators off the dignitaries? How do I disable the forcefield? It sin’t even just science stuff. Her hacking into the translators is a wonderful display of intelligence by having her identify that those translators would be identifiable from every other device by the fact that they would not be able to be matched with identifiers from historic data. I literally read this comic, returned to my desk at work and continued working on doing that exact thing.
Quite simply, that mission statement? It is at the forefront of every moment of the fight. Riri’s heroism isn’t flying around in a giant gun, it is her ability to think through problems and solve them. The suit just provides her with a swiss army knife of tools that can be used once she has developed a solution. One of the best fight sequences of the year, because it is so much mroe character focused than nearly any book you could name.
Which then comes to the ending. Though let’s draw attention to the stuff with Natalie. This comic is incredibly well down for a new reader, but it really becomes stronger is you have read the first Riri arc. Because Natalie is threaded throughout this issue. And while Ewing threads this in obvious ways to prime new readers, the best use of Natalie are the subtle ways she is interwoven in the issue.
For example, the blocking when her colleagues invite Riri to lunch is almost exactly the same as Natalie’s introduction in Invincible Iron Man 1. Except they are rebuffed by Riri. Which leaves her alone after the fight, with her isolation at its worst (especially after Clash’s line). And Xavier is so unsuccessful with Riri because Xavier does exactly what Riri’s mother tried to do to get Riri to engage. It is only when Xavier does what Natalie did all those years ago that they bond. Xavier doesn’t do what everyone thinks is best for Riri. He instead expresses interest in who Riri actually is (until Star Trek Beyond, Deep Space Nine is the only Star Trek I have seen that didn’t bore me to death). And it is only because of that that Riri is able to engage, and in doing so they manage to bond. Not only is this rich emotional content that makes Riri a dynamic and compelling character. But the subtext is clear. Riri needs Natalie** .
Though let’s put that aside for a moment and talk about that last part with Xavier. Because while the way that the scene subtextually recalls Natalie befriending Riri is brilliant, the last part of the conversation is also so important.
Because Ewing had two key themes in her issue so far. ‘Riri needs Natalie’ and ‘Ironheart is an engineer’. She executed them perfectly, but it is worth bringing up that ‘Ironheart is an engineer’ is just a restatement of “You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys, but one thing you can’t take away – I am Iron Man”, while ‘Riri needs Natalie’ is just building on Bendis’ work. And honestly, a key theme of Iron Man Three was ‘Pepper saves Tony’. Which means that Ewing has done an exceptional job making Black Girl Iron Man Three. Which isn’t a bad thign at all. It is actually great.
But the fact that after writing Black Girl Iron Man Three, she was also able to add something new. Something uniquely of her own perspective. Ewing basically campaigned for this job, and you can see why. The comparisons are obvious. Ewing had already developed a reputation for brilliance and she basically looks like an older Riri, right down to haircut and fashion sense. But I think the key part is their shared heritage as a Chicago native. Bendis was inspired by what he read about Chicago to make Riri, but Eve knows it. Understands it. And can go deeper than Bendis ever could. She understands the pain, and with that understanding is the ability to find a truth in what Riri gets out of being Ironheart and what Riri’s impact on the world is outside the procedural. And gives us the second, equally important mission statement. A mission of inspiration. Eve Ewing hasn’t just perfectly synthesised what came before, she has added her own addition that is just as powerful.
But I said we will come back to Natalie, and we will. Because that was astonishing. As I’ve said before, I am a big follower of Brandon Sanderson’s idea that a twist should be surprising, yet inevitable. And the ending really was a fantastic example of that philosophy. Not only is Natalie threaded through both the text and subtext of the issue, it is basically spelt out that the AI will do that. Riri says she is running an analytics program to find the perfect complement (another example of the great way intelligence is handled in this book to be specific and not just magic. And another example of something that is literally my job). It truly is the perfect thematic capstone of the entire issue. There is no other satisfying payoff to the issue than that wonderful moment. The only answer to the question of Riri’s perfect complement is Natalie. And let’s be clear. It isn’t just because the twist was surprising, yet inevitable. Because the reason is it was inevitable is that it speaks to the character so well. With that twist, the final puzzle piece falls into place and makes clear that not only can Ewing write Riri well but that Ewing fundamentally gets Riri. That Ewing’s Ironheart book will have an deep, complex psychology at the heart of it.
And that heart is essential. There is a reason that she is called Ironheart
*If you aren’t reading the current Spider-Gwen, correct that. Despite being a Spidergeddon tie in, Spidergeddon is essentially irrelevant. And ti is brilliant, a wonderful follow up to Latour’s all time great run and whose biggest problem is the fact that the second issue so brilliantly created another new universe that you want another alternate Gwen Stacy spinoff. There is a little of the novelist in a new medium problems, primarily from how McGuire is still learning how to ensure the subtext of the scenes are clear while not relying on internal monologue. But is almost as great as Ironheart
**I wonder what Xavier’s role will be going forward now that Natalie is back