On the Death of James Rhodes — War Machine
‘Making America White Again’ one page at a time
I had refused to make much commentary about the death of James Rhodes in the recent Civil War II series because I recognize a truth about being Black in America that comics merely reflect what People of Color already know to be true:
White people don’t care about effective representation of People of Color. They just don’t give a fuck. Why should I bother to have any feelings at all about something I know doesn’t make a difference wherever the hell @Marvel is headquartered these days?
And I was perfectly prepared to let James Rhodes go of into comic oblivion where Black heroes go and rarely ever return. Until I remembered this:
If you’re Black, you know this image and it sits poorly with you. I know it did with me.
I didn’t say anything when the first Civil War had this travesty. I wasn’t happy with it, but I figured Marvel wasn’t doing anything good with the character so it was only a matter of time before his ticket got punched. I accepted this travesty and seethed inside, quietly.
Then when they killed Rhodes, I could not let it happen a second time without speaking my True Mind. Then I hesitated. What if I ever wanted to work in comics or at Marvel in the future? How could they let someone who was going to be as critical of them in the next few minutes ever be a part of their bullpen?
Before I could close the window and just seethe again on the inside, repressing more unhealthy rage, a news article posted this right in my Twitter feed:
So, without further ado:
A couple of quotes from an interview with Brian Michael Bendis
The one hurdle I had was the idea that [Iron Man and Captain Marvel] are both smart, good people and they’ve been through Civil War. What would make [these characters] throw the gauntlet down again? It was really what other writers had gifted me — that Rhodey was Tony’s best friend and also romantically connected to Carol — and then I said out loud [his death] is something they would fight for.
Bendis: The fear is that there won’t be any drama. Like if nothing bad is going to happen to Miles Morales, then why would you buy Miles Morales? You’re buying it for the events and the drama and for stuff to happen. I used to get crap like this when I was writing Daredevil.
They said, “Man you hate Daredevil. You never give him a break.” I said, “You wouldn’t buy the ‘I’m giving him a break book?’” You wouldn’t buy it. I know you wouldn’t. So that went into the equation when thinking about it. If the story is going this way… cannot do something. Any other reason just seemed false and bullshitty.
My biggest problem was, after losing Bill in the first one, it’s such a well-worn annoying trope when it comes to black characters in pop culture and genre fiction. It’s like, “Okay, yeah, we can lose him because whatever imagined numbers for our audience won’t care about him.”
Bendis: May I say you’re completely right. I’m not colorblind and please understand, I’m not whitesplaining or mansplaining. Ask me questions and I’ll tell you what I was feeling about it. I’m not saying it’s the only way to feel or that this is the last statement on the subject, because I don’t think it is at all.
Yes, I wanted to pull the whole quote so you can see why this sits so poorly with me. Like a body on a slab.
Comic fans want to think writers aren’t bastards and don’t look at the characters as disposable. But in this case, that is exactly what he did. In his own words: he considered Rhodes to be nothing more than a thing to be disposed of so two White Characters could have feelings?
Are you fucking kidding me?
(Sorry kids, you might want to leave the room for this one. I will write something family-friendly again tomorrow, I promise.)
Brian Bendis felt the need to “white-man-splain” how it was necessary for James Rhodes, one of the longest running Black male protagonists of the Marvel Universe to die in order to make the stakes of Civil War II seem worthwhile.
What? We couldn’t imperil the Universe one more time?
You have so many Black characters you can just kill one ’cause you want folks to feel something?
Let me explain to you why this is a problem for me. It may take away from the initial article but it makes the personal affront just a bit more meaningful.
Like Rhodes, I am a military veteran, who has spent the last thirty years working with computer technology in a variety of industries and in a number of capacities.
As a Black man, it had always been my unfortunate lot, at least in Northern California to find I was invariably the only Black man working in a technical capacity in most companies that I worked for.
In some companies where I was a leading executive, I found I was only Black man to have EVER worked with that company, at that level, in its forty year history.
Why is that important?
Because James Rhodes as a character, was part of the iconic roster of characters who guided my choices growing up, a part of the ideals I aspired to being a child of the late 70s when his character first came into existence. I remember being excited to see him in the pages of Iron Man however infrequently he was allowed to grace the pages.
When James Rhodes became Iron Man, it was a momentous occasion to me, a confirmation that a Black man could have been doing that job quite well. The only failure of the character was that he did not invent the technology himself.
I came to grips with that when I remembered Green Lanterns didn’t create their rings, Captain Marvel didn’t create the Nega Bands which augmented his skills, and that Captain America didn’t create his amazing shield. I accepted that Rhodey would be forever linked to the annoyance that was often Tony Stark and I could be okay with it.
Using this as a personal cautionary tale, I would do better than Rhodey. I would master the technology I controlled. Even in my emulation of the character, I learned from him. But there was another aspect Marvel and the real world never addressed.
Where were all the other Black and Brown people in the company?
Stark had no other Black employees, and when I went to work, I never passed a Black man in the corridors, I never passed one on the street at lunchtime, I barely saw one at the technical conventions I attended where 50,000 to 100,000 people might attend.
When I did see one at a conference, I felt compelled to stop and chat, as if I were finding a long lost friend I hadn’t seen for years, an oasis in a desert of White, parched for Color of any kind. Parched for a sense of someone who knew my struggle, who didn’t overlook me as if I were nothing more than an impediment to their success.
And in their eyes, I saw they felt the same damn way. Where were all the people of color in the world?
Most Black men won’t ever say these things. They don’t want you to know how alone they feel. How out of place some of the things they hear in the office are and how hurtful some of the things that are said can be. They need that job.
Especially if it was a job of some significance, a job that was hard for anyone to get, let alone a Black man fighting against systemic racism, a mad cultural bias which says:
Black men are the worst thing to happen to America. Lazy, sexual predators, taking advantage of the system, using drugs and violence to control their urban hellholes held in check only with the valiant efforts of a hyper-vigilant police force.
Ask Bill O’Reilly, he will let you know that any day of the week.
When Marvel’s leadership decided James Rhodes had to die for the White characters of the Marvel Universe to give a damn and push the story along, I had to say, stop. Just stahp!
You see, Marvel writers and editors:
You don’t care about Black characters. You don’t care about Brown characters. You honestly don’t care about People of Color in any way shape or form. You know how I figured this out?
You hadn’t hired People of Color (for the longest time) and never in representational quantities.
Yes, I know about your recent hires. Nice, but a long way to go before you start looking like the population of the nation you draw your income from…
I am going to let my friend Hannibal Tabu take the floor for a second:
“Let’s run some numbers here. The last Black writer at Marvel was Reginald Hudlin, who left without fanfare in August 2009. The last Black writers at DC were Eric Wallace and Marc Bernardin, two television writers who were unceremoniously dropped in a slate of cancellations (Bernardin even commented on the struggles of Black writers in comics). Before Hudlin, screenwriter and actor Kevin Grevioux contributed The Blue Marvel to the canon, a character so ridiculously powerful that it’s hilarious to have him on the sidelines through most of Marvel history, and then … years of nothing.
DC briefly had screenwriters Felicia Henderson and Angela Robinson, but neither lasted very long. These numbers may seem spurious, but luckily there’s always hard data, thanks to this Google document showing that only twenty Black people have ever written more than one issue for, again, seventy percent of the marketplace.
Not “twenty Black people in the last ten years.” Not even “twenty Black people in the last twenty years.” That’s twenty Black people ever. Sure, you can bring up segregation for part of that period, but still. Even the ones who have gotten hired have not exactly had the best experience.”
You [Marvel] haven’t hired them as a significant part of your staff in over 40 years. You have hired no-talent Whites whose skills were barely nascent when there were highly skilled writers and artists of Color all over world.
And the recent hiring of talent of a diverse nature may be your way of making up for your failings but for at least 40 years, when you created Black characters they were never venerated, never esteemed, if they had powers at all, they were from the bottom of the basket in the superpower department.
Though I love the character to death, Luke Cage is an epic cultural train-wreck no Black writer would have let you get away with. His origin is straight out of the Tuskegee Experiments, couple with being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. After being imprisoned he is then forced to participate in criminal experimentation upon his person.
After all of these indignities was he gifted with amazing ability? Amazing reflexes, superhuman speed, strength, stamina, regeneration, wall-crawling and a preternatural sense of danger? Who would have started their career with all of those powers?
No. Luke Cage gets steel-hard skin, to protect him from bullets and a smattering of barely defined super-strength. I’m surprised he didn’t end up being called ‘Black Power’ Man.
He would go on to have to be hired for his services, and without appreciable education, he would never be inducted into the likes of SHIELD or any other agency and would take at least thirty years before he would become an Avenger.
His most famous feat was showing up in Doom’s castle and demanding he get paid the $200 he was owed. (Seriously, I kid you not.) He gets Doom to pay up.
Meanwhile Captain Britain would appear in 1976 with a similarly modest set of powers but would in time come to rival the heaviest hitters of the Marvel Universe.
He would travel through space and time, visit alternate realities and find White people controlling entire realities throughout the Multiverse. An entire legion of heroes just like him.
You are not slick, Marvel.
Your viewpoint is exactly the same as the world you reflect. White heroes reflect the best humanity has to offer, the best the species can be. Exploring, commanding, taking control of how things work everywhere.
Black heroes exist only to make White heroes look good. Luke Cage highlights his White super-rich partner who stumbles into a Chinese temple and walks away with one of the most formidable powers in the Marvel Universe, the Iron Fist.
War Machine, highlights Tony Stark, the creator of the War Machine suit which had gotten LONG in the tooth while Tony was upgrading his armor every time he got his hair coiffed.
In the real world, being a Person of Color often means holding your tongue when racist shit goes down. When a White man guns down an entire nightclub, he gets to be mentally ill, not a racist, white, bigot who shouldn’t be allowed to own firearms. Because no white man represents anything other than himself, unless he is a paragon of virtue, then any White man could be Superman.
But a Black or minority person has to represent their entire race.
- They have to be the best of the best to be allowed to show up at the table with Whites. See Men in Black.
- They have to be amazing and yet understated.
- They have to outperform everyone at the table, but never let it actually be known.
- They have to maintain a sense of supreme confidence, perfect poise, and a state of immeasurable mental fortitude that can never crack or show emotion.
- Because if it does, they are out of a job — considered too temperamental.
When Brian Bendis had the nerve to say, we killed Rhodey because we knew the characters cared about him, what he effectively said was: We DIDN’T care about the effect it would have on the community who enjoyed that character. Which while unspoken reveals, the same way we didn’t care about Bill Foster, the last Black male to be killed in the previous Civil War series.
And don’t think the irony is lost in the story titles killing these Black Characters. Civil War? Really? Are you still chafing over that?
In case no one has said this to you Marvel, let me be the first to say:
What you did was a travesty. It was a statement as sure as if James Rhodes actually existed and you decided he offered too much hope, too much representation to Black men at a time when they are NOT in the workplace, due to racially-motivated fears, when they are unable to care for their families at the same capacity as White men.
White unemployment in the US is about 4.9% but Black male unemployment in some parts of the country are as high as 25%. While the nation cries and says we realize something is wrong but nothing changes, we all know the truth behind it.
White America simply doesn’t give a damn.
Just like you, Marvel. And to add to your sins, you have decided to make a young Black woman, your War Machine replacement. I know you probably won’t call her that, but the end result is the same. Will she get the same press and push as Spider-Gwen and Silk? I think not.
You created her to cast further disparagement upon Black men in the Marvel Universe. No, you won’t see it that way, and most people won’t be able to hear what I am saying because they will consider it too extreme and that your company couldn’t be thinking like that. In the end, that is exactly what it does, like it or not. Know it or not.
You could do it without knowing. This is the greatest benefit of White Privilege. You can create things, do things, terrible things and say, we didn’t know. Honestly, it could be true.
But the truth is more insidious than that.
You just didn’t care. You couldn’t be bothered. You were warned and just didn’t give a fuck. In a different interview it was admitted you had even talked to Ta Nehisi Coates (who is on assignment at Marvel writing Black Panther) who suggested this wouldn’t be a wise thing to do — killing Rhodes, such a step could send the wrong message.
James Rhodes was just a thing to you. Something to be disposed of when the time was necessary to get some White feels to hit the table. Tony Stark cared about Rhodes, you say. Carol Danvers cared about Rhodes, you say.
But the truth is borne out that YOU don’t care about Rhodes or any other Black characters you have kept under-powered in your universe to remind readers of comics that Black and brown characters are subservient and designed to cause division in the Marvel Universe. This is why they don’t have significant powers or abilities in comparison to White characters.
Name a Black character with reality-alteration powers in the MU. I’ll wait. (Really, name one, cause I can name three White characters who can alter reality like I can put on my pants in the morning.)
Now name a Black Character with NO POWERS. (Nick Fury, Night Thrasher, the Prowler.)
Name a Black Character with intermittent or barely defined or described powers. (Cloak, who has a complete dependence upon his White counterpart, Dagger. He literally has no powers without her. Rage, whose powers of super-strength fall into the category of no other powers in the grab-bag.)
Name a Black Character how has inherited his powers, name or legacy from a previously established White Character. Bucky, er… Battlestar, (Captain America — Sam Wilson, and the Prowler when he is dressing up as Spider-Man…shameful — Oh, yes, you did have a Nova for a time who was a Black woman and her family. Whatever happened to them, I wonder…)
Name a Black character who you will admit could handily put Thor on the ropes. (I can only think of one and a Black writer created him.)
And you will say there are plenty of white characters who fail within those categories. But I will refute with one vital difference: They are not the only characters in your universe. There are thousands of others who don’t.
Tell me again how progressive the Marvel Universe is and how supportive you are of minority characters and how integral they are to the Marvel Universe.
You killed James Rhodes, you replaced him with a younger, Black woman only adding fuel to the diversity fire because she will create her own technology, displacing Rhodes who could not. Thus ensuring the quota of Black heroes remains unchanged except we now get to add a Black woman to the roster. And maybe she will be here two years from now and maybe she won’t.
(Almost like what happened to John Henry Irons over in the DC Universe, except he created his own technology and STILL got replaced by his niece…)
Just like in the corporate world, Black women replace Black men because they fill two slots on the diversity play-card: female and Black. Let’s find out in a few months, whether Riri (the new War Machine) is gay and she will be a trifecta.
I admit to having an unnatural love of comics and an awareness of how poorly Blacks have been portrayed in comics. I can recognize attempts at creating some degree of diversity in the Marvel Universe recently with the additions of Miles Morales (a legacy Spider-Man), Ms. America (the Ultimates), Jane Foster as Thor, Captain Marvel getting a big girl’s costume and the option of a larger, more prominent role in the Marvel Universe and maybe even a movie; Spectrum getting her powers adjusted so she can return to being a contender in the Marvel Universe, the young Latino, Nova, and other tiny actions of diversity you promote as the changing of the guard and the like.
But like most things done by White people, they are done over the bodies of other Black people. A reminder to know your place. A definer of the relationship between Blacks and Whites.
I know no one has said this to your face writers, publishers and editors of Marvel and I doubt you would ever give me the opportunity. So I say to thee with all due humility to the vastness of the Marvel Universe and for any Black fan who would let you know what they think if they didn’t want to work for you so badly.
Fuck you. Very much.
You think because we buy your comics, we don’t see your shit.
You think we aren’t capable of seeing that we are second-class citizens in your fictitious universe. We see your White Superiority showing up in the aggrandizement of White heroes and the denigration of minority ones. We read comics but we live the lives of People of Color. If you hired some of us to work with you, you would actually be aware of just how fucked up many of your Black stereotypes really are.
The one thing you can’t try and push off on us is racial disparity, piss on our heads and tell us it’s just rain.
You have pissed on characters of color in your works for decades and the death of James Rhodes was just one more way to remind us, we don’t matter, no matter how prominent, no matter how powerful, no matter how beloved, we can be undone with the stroke of a pen, a cup of coffee and a scone; with the bullshit conversation about how it will be meaningful and necessary.
Just stop. If you are a creator of comics and you have minority characters who have never had a minority writer on the staff that wrote for that character:
Fuck you, too.
That is as polite as I think it needs to be.
You can’t say to me: We are producing comics, we are producing the legends, the dreams the aspirations of a generation if the only people in your worlds to aspire to power and acquire it, are White.
Now a friend pointed out to me that I shouldn’t feel this way. That things are changing and we need to hold you accountable for what you produce. That if we hang out and hang on long enough you will get your act together. I don’t happen to agree.
You have no interest in the experiences of people of color. You have no friends of color. You have few if any employees of color. And if you are like most Whites in America, 75% of you have never known a person of color at more than a passing level, EVER.
To you, we are nothing more than scenery to be replaced at will. Able to die so that others might live (the Sacrificial Negro) to offer our advice which will keep White heroes moral and upright (the Moral Negro), and with the use of native and spiritual magic redeem the White man so he may achieve his apotheosis (the Magical Negro).
America’s shame is often written in the mythology of comics, shared with youth to perpetuate the same ideals in the future. But I didn’t always believe this was the way.
Once upon a time, I believed that comics could save us all.
I thought the aspirations of the heroes in comics could improve our relationships with each other as we struggled with our legendary challenges, our mythic tales writ large, our emotional and cultural challenges presented in a fantastic format with one vital difference.
Comic and their heroes would right those wrongs. They would address inequality, not foment it. They would give hope to children of all colors and all creeds, no matter where they were in society, anyone could aspire to be an Avenger.
I was wrong.
The same petty shit we fight over in our real world is still part of what we see, with pretty four-color splendor reflected in our modern mythology.
White men get to rule the Universe.
Black men and women get to take out the trash.
Or occasionally become the trash upon which the legend of White heroes will rest.
Writers and leaders at Marvel: Say whatever helps you sleep at night.
But I want you to know there are comic companies out there aborning right now. They will force you to be better, more inclusive, to do better, and acknowledge a world that is really outside your door.
A diverse and magnificent world you are too fearful to show. A world where you are not as significant as you like to think you are. A world where other people can create the Universe and participate in it at the same level you do.
My friends say it’s wrong to expect that Marvel or any other White-run comic company will ever create characters that could challenge the nature of the White Metamyth of Superiority.
Why would they create legends for their kids to look up to that look like you, he says?
Fine. Then the best I can hope for is to watch a new generation take a stab at bringing down the beast that is Marvel or DC or whatever companies still treat anyone who isn’t White like they are an incidental part of the world at large.
These new talents are very good. I hope they keep you up at night. I plan to help them do exactly that. Do better or I will lead the group that will destroy you. I will make it my life’s work.
James Rhodes, 1979 -2016
I know you were a clone body of the original James Rhodes, (but presumably with a completely downloaded mind) but in a comic universe, that didn’t make you any less special.
You deserved better than to be used as a pawn in a story that should have had nothing to do with you.
You served with distinction, valor and honor. No Marine has ever done more for the imaginations of young Black men. You will be missed.
Semper Fi, my brother.
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Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.