Why James Rhodes Is Comics' Ideal Black Hero

Image for article titled Why James Rhodes Is Comics' Ideal Black Hero

When it comes to superhero fiction, there are certain iconic archetypes; Superman is the iconic whitebread hero, Batman the iconic OCD loner. But did you realize that Iron Man's James Rhodes is the accidental iconic black superhero? We'll explain.


By accident more than design, Rhodes has ended up possessing multiple characteristics that sum up the black superhero experience. Sure, he may not have the word "Black" in his superhero name (See: Black Panther, Black Lightning, Black Goliath, the Black Racer or even the Black Musketeers. Yes, that's right; I said The Black Musketeers), and he may not ride a skateboard - Or not that we've seen, at least, who knows what he does in his spare time? - but look how many other checkboxes he's managed to tick:

He's A Sidekick At Heart

Image for article titled Why James Rhodes Is Comics' Ideal Black Hero

If there's one rule for black superheroes, it's that they're never the stars of the show (Or, at least, not for very long; attempts like Black Lightning or the Milestone books are always, sadly, done in by falling sales). Yes, you could make an argument that Black Panther contradicts that, but I'd just invoke the "He's the exception that proves the" clause and move on quickly*. Despite headlining his own books twice in his career - something that doesn't really mean anything, no matter how good those books were; remember, Marvel once published Street Poet Ray and Power Pachyderms, so anything goes there - Jim Rhodes is, and always will be, a sidekick to Tony Stark's Iron Man. His armor was created by Tony. His training and experience all came from Tony. Hell, even his reason for becoming a superhero in the first place is Tony and that whole alcoholic breakdown thing. Sure, he never had to deal with the embarrassment of having his name second in the title to a non-existent superhero (Poor Sam Wilson, having to shoulder Captain America And The Falcon during the post-Watergate period when Cap had quit. They couldn't have renamed it The Falcon for those months just to be polite?), but let's not kid ourselves: James Rhodes is defined by Tony Stark.

He's A Replacement
And how did Rhodey get his start as a superhero again? Oh, that's right; he replaced Tony as Iron Man. Just like John Stewart got his start replacing Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. And John Henry Irons, replacing Superman back when he died. Oh, and don't forget Monica Rambeau, Marvel's second Captain Marvel. Or, hell, the Justice Society of America's Mr. Terrific or Johnny/JJ Thunder, the Legion of Superheroes' Computo and Invisible Kid, DC's Mister Miracle (and, for that matter, Manhattan Guardian) or even The Spectre (And, again, who can forget Black Goliath, who replaced Hank Pym's original White Goliath - except, of course, the "White" was silent in his name). Even the characters that aren't actively replacing existing characters somehow manage to be replacing people we haven't seen - DC's Vixen and Marvel's Black Panther are both continuing long lines of heroes. When do we get to see white superheroes picking up the mantle of black characters? Only once - and even that was the result of a retcon to offer political commentary (Captain America, who it turned out was following in the footsteps of an earlier black Cap - who not only never called himself Captain America, but also was unknown to Cap when he took up the shield. So maybe that doesn't count after all).

He's "Edgy"

Image for article titled Why James Rhodes Is Comics' Ideal Black Hero

Let's ignore, for a second, the James Rhodes of the Iron Man movies, and instead look at the comic book version... A hero so edgy that he doesn't uphold the status quo, he takes on corporate interests that are raping and pillaging our planet (as per the current War Machine series). Because, that's what black superheroes do, apparently: they don't join in with everyone else to get the job done like we expect, they see the bigger picture and deal with social injustice (The Falcon, Black Lightning), play the outsider card (Bishop, Black Panther) and/or are willing to step outside the law for the greater good (Hardware, Luke Cage). It's incredibly rare to see a black superhero without some form of characteristic that puts them at odds with the status quo, and even when that does happen - John Stewart, Captain Marvel - they'll find themselves rewritten with completely new personalities at some point to make them stand out and get edgy again (Not that I'm still bitter than the jazz-listening, pacifist architect became an former army sharpshooter with a "get the mission done no matter what" mentality or anything. Oh, okay, I am; I loved Green Lantern: Mosaic).

He's A Cyborg
Yes, James Rhodes is a cyborg these days. Just like DC's Cyborg, from Teen Titans. Or Marvel's Deathlok. Or DC's John Henry Irons**. Or Marvel's Bishop, from the X-Men. Or even Iron Fist's girlfriend, Misty Knight (one of the Heroes For Hire/Daughters of The Dragon). What is it about high-profile black characters finding themselves turned into part-robot? Some kind of clever commentary on black culture being assimiliated into the white corporate machine, or white creators having a fear of a black robotic planet? I have no idea, but it's kind of odd, isn't it?


We're sure that, when James Rhodes was first created, his real-life parents had no idea he'd one day step into this proud and illustrious role. But he's here now, and there's only one way to celebrate the fact - Marvel has to cancel his series, just to underline that whole "sidekick" thing once again. Luckily, they've already taken care of that.

* - Yes, Todd McFarlane's Spawn would, in theory, refute this idea, being just about to make it to its 200th issue. But two things are worth remembering: #1: Yes, its titular hero may be black, but he wears a full-face mask to hide that fact from unsuspecting readers, and #2: Given the writing in Spawn, that whole mask thing and that fact that, even unmasked, his scarred face hides his ethnicity, anyone could make the argument that Spawn is an entirely race-neutral character.


** - At least, in John Henry Irons' case, he actually created the technology used to make himself into a cyborg. In fact, Irons is one of the few completely proactive black heroes in comics who doesn't rely on other characters for his powers/technology/operations. He's like Black Panther, but without the mysticism and ruling a country.


Charlie Jane Anders

I'm probably the only one out there, but I miss "The Crew" by Priest et al... it gave us a really interesting version of Rhodey, and seemed to be going someplace really fascinating when it got (as usual for a Priest title) cancelled too soon.