There’s more than one kind of nerd. Now that we live in a time when the word nerd is no longer used as a slur or an insult, I think it’s about time we properly got into the nuances of the label “nerd”. It describes more than just one kind of person. It’s a community, and I am a proud member.
Nerd subcategories go like this: there is the comic book nerd, the gaming nerd, the history nerd, the science nerd, the art nerd, the math nerd, the literature nerd, and me. I am a poetry nerd. We are all different, we all know different things. We’re not all “know-it-alls” and sure, I’d love to be on Hermione Granger’s level but there’s only one Hermione.
My introduction to all things Marvel was Tobey Maguire’s 2002 portrayal of Spiderman. Jump forward 15 years to one week before the “Infinity Wars” movie debut. My very thorough research led me to discover Ironheart, who first appeared in “Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2 #7” when she made herself an Iron Man-like suit from scraps. What got my attention was that Marvel named Eve Ewing as the author for the new Ironheart comics. I’ve never read a Marvel comic in my life but I would read anything Chicago poet/artist/professor/overall badass Eve Ewing writes. My poetry hero was writing a superhero!
Disclaimer: I am a poetry nerd. Not a comic book nerd. Which means I do not know everything there is to know about Marvel or Riri Williams. I might get something wrong. So feel free to correct me if you spot errors.
I finished reading “Ironheart #1” in less than 30 minutes, and when I finished my first reaction was that this 35-page expanded comic is just not fair! I wanted more. Riri Williams is like the Young Adult (YA) version of Iron Man, but smarter and much more interesting. She is smart, confident, hilarious, nerdy and cracks alliteration jokes. Mid-fight with the villain, she stops to correct her opponent who calls her Irongirl (It’s Ironheart, bro) and then considers his threats, to then change her plan of action. She is also not a happy character, and the question of “Why am I a hero?” is more relevant now than ever before. Ironheart is a superhero for a more modern and hopeful era. Riri Williams is the new superhero we deserve.
A black woman from South Side, Chicago, Riri Williams is an MIT engineer who introspects in poetry. She has all the antisocial tendencies of our beloved Sherlock and Iron Man with a penchant for the defiant “see if I care” demeanor. But she cares. And she hurts. Like almost all superhero stories, “Ironheart #” also touches on the tragedy in Riri’s past. But this time around, it’s written in a way that’s not fantastical or superheroic. It is a realistically devastating depiction of a life altered by gun violence.
There’s a little bit of Tony Stark and quite a bit of Peter Parker in Riri Williams. She is awkward and socially inept in her lab but put her in the armor and she comes alive with confidence and humor. The new armor has everything Iron Man’s armor does — camera and radar sensors, defense and offense mechanisms like enhanced strength and repulsor grenades, energy shields and emergency stabilizers that Riri can control remotely through a bracelet. Trust Ewing to combine a science nerd with a poetry nerd. She’d rather tinker with her 3D printer and forensic data analysis than go out for food with her friends. She forgets to eat when she is in her newly acquired lab at MIT. She does not patent new inventions because she doesn’t like their names (semiautonomous electromagnetic power micro nodes). She fights villains and rescues people — this time from a villain called Clash.
But she also thinks about what turns a man from a scientist to a villain. She is not exempt from self-doubt and nightmares of her traumatic past. She has a lot of quirks. She isn’t the smooth-talking, flashy character fighting for short term justice. She wants to confront real justice. She is a human being. She’s not a larger-than-life superhero. She is uniquely her own person.
Something else that makes the comic fun are Riri’s technological solutions to her problems. Riri utilizes her smarts and her inventions to solve problems. It’s not because she’s Ironheart that she saves the day but because she’s Riri Williams. This is a character with agency over herself. She is a control freak who designed her own suit and she keeps enhancing her abilities and her powers on her own terms. She has no mentors who tell her how to be a superhero. Riri informs her own powers, not the other way round.
In an Instagram Q&A, Ewing, who was given free rein over “Ironheart #1” remarks on similarities between Riri and herself saying, “We are both black nerdy girls from Chicago who got labeled ‘smart’ at a young age. She finds herself in a prestigious institution that is awesome in some ways and alienating in others. A little cynical, a little defiant, a lot awkward with a tendency to take on too much and try to fix everything.” This is a black character from Chicago written by a black girl from Chicago. Whether it’s quoting Maya Angelou or using African-American Vernacular English in conversation or mid-battle, this shift is apparent. And important. Riri feels more inviting, more inclusive like she lives on my street. She speaks the language the South Side speaks. Riri does not speak white-scholar-language.
Marvel has tried to expand diversity within its range of characters. Adding Eve Ewing is definitely another step on this path. In an interview published by Marvel, she emphasizes how Riri is shaped by her identity. “Riri’s identity and the place where she comes from means she sometimes has a different perspective than some of her peers on how to deal with people who are doing wrong.” There is little to complain about, to be honest. If anything, I’d say I would have loved to see Ewing delve deeper into some of the social issues she hints at throughout this book. But this is the first issue in an ongoing series, so there are plenty of chances to explore Riri, her story, and the city of Chicago.
Science nerds, poetry nerds, comic book nerds rejoice! Chicagoans and women of color rejoice! We have finally a superhero not written by a middle-aged white guy!