Why I Needed To Confront The Illustrator Behind Ironheart

Photo: Courtesy of Marvel.
Imagine, a Black girl scientist, beating down bad guys in Iron Man’s armor. Marvel caught my nerdy, girly-girl attention months ago when it revealed its new superhero, Riri Williams/Ironheart. The 15-year-old genius is an MIT student and Tony Stark’s successor. The first image of Riri by artist Jeff Dekal shows her rocking a large ‘fro, big silver hoop earrings, a halter-top, and dark-brown skin. I liked the art but thought she looked much older than 15. My intrigue turned to disappointment when I learned neither Riri’s writer nor artists were Black women. That’s not to say artists can’t successfully write or draw people of different races and genders. The X-Men’s Storm is one of my favorite characters, and her writers are men. In an industry dominated by white men, Marvel is making efforts to reach more diverse audiences, but it would’ve been even more progressive to get Black women involved in Riri’s story. Recently, social media exploded when fans became upset with artist J. Scott Campbell’s variant cover of Riri. It’s drastically different from Dekal’s version. She has larger breasts, and her pants hang way too low in the front. Riri’s complexion is much lighter, her hair texture less kinky. She looks older than 15 on both covers. Campbell's Riri is less risqué than his other depictions of women, but still concerning.
Although I was more disappointed than disgusted, I understood why many Black women were outraged. Here we go again: another instance where Black girls were misrepresented, and women are tired of our over-sexualization in comic books. I became frustrated when Campbell dismissed people’s concerns and tweeted that this was a “faux controversy.” As a writer, I feel it’s important to know about the culture of the people you’re covering — especially if they’re major characters in your work. At least have some knowledge of their background. I had to wonder: Is there anyone working on this comic about a Black girl superhero who understands Black girls and women? If the creators knew about Black women’s history with sexuality and colorism, they could have prevented this outrage. As a result, Marvel canceled the cover, and tweeted images of a younger-looking Riri in sneakers, leggings, and a hoodie. Representation of Black female sexuality is a serious issue for Black women — especially when the people creating our images aren't themselves Black woman. I explained to Campbell, whom I appreciate for having a respectful dialogue with me on Twitter, that Black women have been dealing with these concerns for centuries. During and after slavery, hypersexual stereotypes of Black women were used to justify rape. Yes, that happened long ago, but we still carry the weight of it today. According to a study by Black Women’s Blueprint, 60% of Black girls are sexually assaulted before they reach 18. The Department of Justice reported in 2010 that 40% of sex trafficking victims were Black — another crisis in our community. We’re sexualized in hip-hop music, another male-dominated industry. And don’t get me started on street harassment. These issues come up for some Black women when they feel our image is hypersexualized. I also understand those Black women and girls who argue they were curvy at 15 and don’t have a problem with Riri’s body in Campbell’s version. This crossed my mind when I looked at the cover. Still, a curvy Riri could’ve been drawn that didn’t appear targeting a male gaze.
Colorism comes into play with Riri’s lighter complexion (Campbell was not the colorist). When creating images of Black women for mass media or consumption, lighter skin and wavier hair are sometimes given preference. They look closer to a white standard of beauty. I’ve noticed this with Storm and DC Comics’ Vixen. These two characters started off dark in the comic books. Onscreen they’re portrayed as having fairer complexions. Colorism is why Hollywood actresses who look like Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis are rare. Those of us excited to see Riri with a darker complexion, which then became shades lighter, felt darker-skinned Black women were being slighted and erased again. Still, I know that Marvel has made major moves to diversify its audience. My girl Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, is the publisher’s first Muslim-American superhero with a series. The new Spiderman is half-Black and half-Latino. Ta-Nehisi Coates authors Black Panther. Feminist scholar Roxane Gay became the first African-American woman writer for Marvel this year. Her series World of Wakanda is about a lesbian couple from Black Panther’s security force. The creative team includes Black women writers and illustrators.
Do I think Campbell and Marvel intentionally disrespected Black girls? No. Campbell seemed receptive when I suggested that in the future, he and Marvel consult with Black female fans about what they want to see. "That’s not a bad idea at all," he tweeted. "But bare in mind, these are typically drawn very quickly without a lot of research. Not an excuse." As Marvel goes forward with diversifying its audience, I hope it does undertake some research, to learn more about this audience it's trying to reach. Step one: Bring diversity to the Marvel Universe and the Marvel mastheads. There’s a lesson in this Riri Williams/Ironheart controversy. When Black women, and women in general, feel misrepresented, we remember we have superpowers — in our voice and our spending.

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