I'm a neuroscientist, author, and martial artist. Comic books got me into martial arts, martial arts got me into science. In my day job my research helps to improve function and empower people with stroke and spinal cord injury. I want to empower everyone with knowledge so I also write about science and superheroes. My first 3 books are "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero", "Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine", and "Project Superhero". My 4th book, "Creating Captain America" will be out in 2018. I live in Victoria, BC, Canada, where I work at the University of Victoria and teach martial arts.
Ironheart is at the centre of the new generation of Marvel stories. Here our Dr. Paul Zehr takes a closer look at the character and the technology that surrounds her.
Ironheart And The Invincible Equity Of Technology
Issue #1 of the new “Invincible Iron Man” highlights Riri Williams taking over the Iron Man mantle as Ironheart. This represents a great example of how technology—and what represents that better than Stark Industries’ armor—can enable us all. Of course, it isn’t the first time we’ve had a woman distinguish herself in armor and clearly the backstory will lack a critical issue—training time.
In “Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine” I argued that if the Iron Man armor existed, the only way it could be used was as a brain-machine interface. Literally connected to the brain and spinal cord receiving commands and sending feedback just like our human bodies already do. The best example in the comics is the “Extremis” concept of Warren Ellis.
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Extremis was illustrated by the amazing Adi Granov in a 6 part arc written by Ellis in Invincible Iron Man in 2005 and 2006. Ellis took the integrated armor concept to it’s only physiological plausible place—becoming part of the user’s body and allowing direct connection with the nervous system. Although this isn’t the way the armor is always shown as working in the comics (though another great example of an advanced nanotech neural interface can be seen in Matt Fraction’s run), technology is the ultimate leveller. No matter your gender, sex, skin color, race, favorite color, or football team preference, your nervous system is the same. So Extremis really is all about equity.
Of course Riri Williams isn’t the first woman to wear and apply an armor in action. That was instead Tony’s trusted assistant Pepper Potts. In the 2009 Invincible Iron Man (issue 14) story “World’s Most Wanted, Part 7: The Shape of the World These Days” by Matt Fraction with art from Salvador Larocca, Pepper uses a suit of armor designed for her. It’s (unfortunately) a little toned down on the armament front and is mostly an armor aimed at aiding others. Hence the name “Rescue”. Pepper has one of the greatest lines in the Iron Man comics when she comments on what it’s really like to stay in the suit for prolonged periods: “it’s been nine hours in this suit…if I don’t get to get out and take a shower soon, I’m going to start screaming.”
While I enjoyed seeing her introduced in Invincible Iron Man #9 back in May 2016 and look forward to reading about Riri’s exploits as Ironheart, I’m not too keen on the way critical training time will be omitted. Throughout Inventing Iron Man I outline what is needed for an Iron Man suit of armor to be controlled by a human operator—there aren’t really any special limitations on who could be the operator but it would take a lot of training.
But can anybody just pull on an armored, cybernetic, exoskeletal suit and use it skillfully?
The answer no. A user—like Riri Williams—would need practice at learning to operate the system well enough to do something useful. That training would take a lot of time and skill and would be enhanced by other skills and abilities a user might have already had. While technology and training really are the great levellers, work is still needed.
Which brings us to James Rhodes and War Machine in the many versions seen in the comics over the years and in the more recent Marvel movies. Tony Stark created the War Machine armor in order to take down the “Masters of Silence”. Rhodey tells us in Invincible Iron Man #281 that these guys are “hi-tech samurai/ninja/kung-fu type hitters.” To go about against “samurai/ninja/kung fu” hi tech guys a more “armed” armor was needed and War Machine was the solution in the 1992 Invincible Iron Man #282 story “War Machine.” We had to wait a few issues for Jim Rhodes action debut in “Legacy of Iron” (Iron Man #284, 1992).
Rhodes is asked to take over as Iron Man (using War Machine armor) because Tony Stark is thought to be dead (spoiler alert—he wasn’t dead but merely in cryogenic suspension). The executor for Tony’s will makes Rhody head of Stark Industries and shows him a video of Tony explaining his last will and testament. Ish.
Tony tells Rhodes that “I’ve designed the last suit of armor specifically for you—to work with your own individual attributes rather than mine.” And some of those attributes include being a pilot! Kind of an important one if you’re going to suddenly have to pilot an armored missile.
But I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself here. That’s because the first time Jim Rhodes ever used a suit of armor, he actually tried Tony’s on for size in the Invincible Iron Man #169 and #170 (1983) stories called “Blackout!” and “And Who Shall Clothe Himself in Iron?”
These stories take place back when Tony was shown as drinking and piloting the armor.
After a bad dust up, Tony returns to Stark Industries to regroup, meets up with Rhodey, and admits that he is Iron Man (something Rhodes guessed anyway). Then he has another drink (or two) and falls into a kind of fatigue and alcohol-induced stupor.
Jim Rhodes decides to don the Iron Man suit and save the day. But there’s a problem highlighted in the first panel of the next issue (“And Who Shall Clothe Himself in Iron?” ) where Rhodey says, “I’ve watched Tony Stark use this suit a million times, but I have no idea how it works.” It really isn’t just like pulling on clothes. In fact his very first action in the armor is to demolish a wall accidentally when tries to simply move his arm which is not surprising since he notices “weird . . . every slight twitch becomes a great big gesture—and if I even think about moving, I do!”
The bottom line is it is really very difficult to use any powered exoskeletons and the Iron Man / Ironheart suit is no different. A lot of time, training, and practice are needed.
Perhaps that’s where Brian Michael Bendis will take us on Riri Williams evolution as Ironheart. And perhaps not. Also, do we really have to restart the issue numbering to 1, again?
But that’s a question for another day.
Ciao for now.
Dr. Paul Zehr is a a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @E_PaulZehr
© E. Paul Zehr (2016)