As we move into the summer, once again the major comic book companies are making a move to try to draw in new readers. At DC Comics, they are currently experiencing what they label “Rebirth” which features among other things, a new Superman and the death of the old one. This “death” as with the other ones, is supposed to be a real and permanent thing. We shall see about that one just like before. Marvel has its own event going which it has labeled “Civil War II” and has its “death” in it as well. As promised, the death is even one of its main supporting characters. The problem with the Marvel death is that once again it is a black character; none other than James “Rhodey” Rhodes, also known as the hero War Machine.
Now death is not a new gimmick when it comes to Marvel events (or DC for that matter). During the Siege of Asgard both Ares and eventually the Sentry met their demise. In Original Sin, none other than Uatu the Watcher met his end. The Wasp bit the dust during the Skrull Invasion, even though she was brought back. Of course when talking about deaths and events the most poignant to stand out is the original Civil War event which pitted Iron Man’s pro registration forces against Captain America’s resistance. This event was major in scope, and saw a division between the two major ideologies of the Marvel universe that lasted for some time. The event is also famous as being the one in which Steve Rogers himself is killed. As imagined, fanboys went ham. The Sentinel of Liberty shot down on the steps of the courthouse. That may have been a major blow to some, but to black comic fans that is reserved for the first death to occur in that event; the death of Bill “Goliath” Foster.
Reginald Hudlin did an excellent job voicing the sentiment we felt through the characterization of Bill Foster’s family. To this day the question persists; “Of all the throwaway heroes in the Marvel Pantheon, why chose one of the few black characters”? To be fair to Marvel though, we didn’t lose the hero Goliath, we just lost the character of Bill Foster, who created in 1966, was only bested by Hank Pym in his knowledge of Biochemistry and surpasses Pym in his knowledge of Pym Particles because he actually worked out the bugs in Pym’s formula. It was Bill Foster who really got sacrificed in the deal and for what? To make the other (white) heroes feel grief over their behavior?
Did he really have to die for them to act like adults? Maybe it was because he was little used. He had a so so solo career as well as a stint with the Champions, but it had been long decided that if the choice is between Bill Foster the scientist and Bill Foster the hero, they would rather settle for Foster in his scientist role. As for his hero alter ego, he was replaced with his nephew, Tommy, who after all these years, has yet to break out in his role as the new Goliath.
In the new iteration of the Civil War, we see what can only be labeled as superhero privilege in action. The event; reminiscent of the movie Minority Report; pits Iron Man against Captain Marvel this time, in the battle of the fate of an Inhuman who can see the future. Captain Marvel advocates using the Inhuman to predict
events/crimes and prevent them from happening while Iron Man thinks that using the boy’s vision are premature because future events can change. In Captain Marvel’s first attempt at a preemptive strike which involves Thanos, War Machine is killed in action. This was not only surprising, but given the circumstances involved with the first Civil War and Bill Foster, just plain old wrong.
Rhodey came on the scene in Iron Man #118 (Jan 1979) and has been in Tony Stark’s supporting cast ever since then. At one point he donned the Iron Man suit while Tony battled alcoholism, and managed to get an invite to the West Coast Avengers as Iron Man. As a matter of fact, Rhodey has been a part of The West Coast Avengers, the regular Avengers, the Secret Avengers, the Ultimate Avengers (Ultimate Universe version) and the Black Avengers, I mean, The Crew (Dwayne McDuffee ‘s “Rule of Three” states that if you have more than three blacks in a group then it is a black group). He has had several solo series with the last one coming in 2014 while wearing the Iron Patriot armor. He has had numerous guest star appearances in various comics. His character has even enjoyed success on the big screen, but even there he was injured and became paralyzed from the waist down in the Captain America: Civil War movie. Maybe that was a precursor. Or maybe that is assurance that he may return in the comics; I mean; Brother Voodoo lost his life while saving the Earth from a serious mystical threat during his short tenure as the sorcerer supreme (We still believe Dr Strange set him up to fail, but that’s for another time) and was brought back, maybe this will happen with Rhodey?
The fact is no matter how much diversity Marvel may tout, and believe me, they have made big strides in that department; they still treat the actual characters lousy. Christopher Priest said it best in the form of a statement made by his character Everett K. Ross when talking about the Black Panther; “He comes here all the time, hangs out at the Avengers Mansion, orders up some ribs”, which has been interpreted as meaning, the guy who hangs in the background cheering, throwing in a shot every now and then, pushed to the front only to be hung out and dried, while everyone else does the hard work. The lives and relationships of black characters are folly for writers. Quick, name the longest lasting black relationship in comics?The characterization, unless seemingly written by a person of color (i.e. a Black writer), remains largely generic and culturally inaccurate, or stereotypical. The characters have the look of a black character, but lack the soul; lack that tie that would bind us to the character.
James “Rhodey” Rhodes was more than just another black character to many comic book fans. He was more than just the guy who hung around Stark tower and brought the ribs. He was definitely more than just an emotional jumping off point for another in a long line of meaningless events geared towards bringing in readers. He was a hero to a community; he was a symbol to his fans. He was a lot more than a red shirt in a Star Trek landing party, and deserved a lot better than what Marvel has just given him. Marvel, just as in the case of Bill Foster, has already hinted at a new War Machine with the introduction of Riri Williams, an MIT student who has put together a suit of armor. We have yet to see if she possesses the same character that James Rhodes displayed over the years. We will see if she is going to become her own person, or just another black character to replace the one that was just killed off.