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Marvel Comics’ Ironheart writer Eve L. Ewing is ultimate Chicago sports homer

The University of Chicago assistant professor and activist on Riri Williams, dismissing trolls and why she won’t choose between Cubs and White Sox

Eve L. Ewing’s fangirl credentials go all the way back to her days as a kid growing up on the North Side of Chicago.

While some young ladies in her neighborhood had dreams of becoming a ballerina, she was obsessed with joining the Power Rangers, TV’s unapologetically cheesy and butt-kicking superhero squad. “This was my crisis as a black nerd,” the University of Chicago professor and social activist who is receiving raves as the writer of 2018’s most anticipated comic debut, Marvel’s Ironheart, said, laughing. “I remember playing Power Rangers and thinking, ‘OK, I could be the black dude or I could be the white girl in the Pink Ranger suit.’ But I knew I wasn’t white and I wasn’t a black boy, so the Asian girl was as close as I could get.”

“I feel like for years a lot of black kids in fantasy culture have had to compromise, so it was important to show them they can be the hero.”

That lingering feeling of exclusion is why Ewing jumped at the chance to pen the adventures of technological genius Riri Williams, also known as Ironheart. When the young, gifted and black hero isn’t displaying her brilliance as a student at MIT, awkwardly FaceTiming a crush or embracing her inner geek as a Star Trek fanatic, she’s saving the world in her own specially designed Ironheart suit.

“I feel like for years a lot of black kids in fantasy culture have had to compromise, so it was important to show them they can be the hero,” Ewing said. The sociologist, educator and author of the critically acclaimed Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side joins Nnedi Okorafor (Shuri) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther) as part of an expanding group of high-profile black writers who are diversifying Marvel Comics’ still predominantly white roster of visionaries.

It’s all part of Marvel’s move to expand its cultural footprint beyond Captain America. There’s Miles Morales, the black and Puerto Rican teen Spider-Man who currently headlines the hit animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. There’s also the aforementioned princess of Wakanda and tech genius Shuri, powerful Latina LGBTQ heroine Miss America and the shape-shifting Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own book.

In Ironheart, Ewing manages to boldly throw curveball after curveball. Not only is Williams co-signed by Tony Stark (Iron Man) and has battled Thanos, she casually recites Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise while soaring through the air at one point. The Chicago-born adventurer is also haunted by survivor’s guilt, scarred by the deaths of her stepfather and best friend, who were victims of gun violence back home.

Ewing doesn’t give much credence to the loud and wrong usual suspects claiming that Ironheart is pandering to political correctness. “The thing about being a black woman in America is I’m new to Marvel, but I’m not new to people believing that I don’t belong or that I’m unqualified,” Ewing said. “Let them stay mad. Because the vast majority of fans have been nothing but supportive and excited.”

She has plenty more to say, from how Riri Williams fits into the late Stan Lee’s beloved Marvel Universe to why she still believes in the embattled Chicago school system and the stress of being both a Chicago Cubs and White Sox fan.

When it was announced that you would be writing the Ironheart book, a lot of comic book fans were pretty much shocked.

(Ewing jumps in.) I was shocked too! Every day I’m like, ‘Oh, wow … this has to be a joke!’ (Laughs.)

So how are you approaching teenage genius Riri Williams, who is such a technological badass that even Tony Stark is impressed?

For me, there’s so much that has already been given to me by other writers, because Riri has already appeared in Invincible Iron Man and Champions. You mentioned Riri being a teen genius. I love that element. I’ve always been interested in teen superheroes. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in education, I love kids, and, for me, adolescence was so tumultuous. As if it wasn’t enough to say I’m going to put on a suit of armor, fight crime and risk my life, but I also have to be a teenager while I’m doing it.

That sounds vastly more complicated than worrying about a biology exam, right?

It really does. That’s why I felt like my place in this narrative was to try to figure out that aspect of her life. We know what Riri’s powers are. We know a little bit about her past, but I wanted to figure out who is she as a person. What are her anxieties? What are her weaknesses? What is her purpose? And what is her relationship like with her mother given that she has already lost family members? Riri goes out and risks her life all the time knowing that she can leave her mother with nobody.

“I’ve always been interested in teen superheroes. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in education, I love kids, and, for me, adolescence was so tumultuous.”

What’s the most Chicago thing you have ever done?

I once ordered Harold’s Chicken right after my wedding.

OK, that’s peak Chi.

And I went to Harold’s in my wedding dress! Just me and my husband. I want to sell a T-shirt that says ‘Which Harold’s’ on it. I’ve had that idea for a long time.

What did you discover about the Chicago school system, beyond your time as a teacher, when you were writing Ghosts in the Schoolyard?

Obviously, there are a lot of things about the book that I understood in general terms before I started my research, but some things really surprised me when I went really far back. I set out to tell the story about 2013, and I ended up writing a book that began in 1900. I realized that in order to understand school closings [in Chicago], I had to understand racism and segregation in the city. And in order to do that, I had to go back all the way to migration. Once I started reading about the struggles that black folks in Chicago faced at the beginning of the 20th century, it was just amazing how many uncanny parallels there were to the 21st century.

There have been many debates people have had about Chicago schools on the South and West Side — that they are in horrible shape and do a disservice for the students. And yet despite such issues, the community continues to passionately fight for these schools to stay open. That speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

You know, I think what it really comes down to is that people have different definitions of what constitutes a good school. For some people, goodness means test scores, and for other people, goodness means providing a stable and meaningful institution in the community. So a lot of these schools have very real problems, but they also might be places where kids are going to school where their parents, aunties and cousins went to that school. A lot of folks have real attachments to these schools that seem from the outside that there is nothing good about them.

You have been on the other end of repugnant, racist attacks from some white male comic book fans on social media. What’s your response?

When it was first announced that I would be writing Ironheart, there was a guy on Twitter that sent me a picture of his daughter dressed in an Iron Man costume. He said, ‘We are so proud of you.’ I put that picture in my phone because I really say to myself that if this one kid gets to look at a comic book and see somebody that looks like her — that’s brave, and capable and a hero — then I will fight any number of trolls and any number of harassing comments for that kid.

“I came of age during the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run race. … I was all about Sammy. But really, my answer to all Chicago sports questions is ‘Go Bulls!'”

OK, are we going to see an epic crossover featuring Riri and Shuri from the Black Panther, given that they are two of the smartest teenagers in the Marvel Universe (alongside the most intelligent hero: 9-year-old Luna “Moon Girl” Lafayette)?

Yeah … that would be pretty dope! I cannot comment on whether such a team-up is imminent. But I will say there’s going to be some cool team-ups in the very near future.

I have to ask. Cubs or White Sox?

(Laughs.) OK … can I be honest? I’m a fair-weather fan. So the answer is both.

OK, Eve. That’s just not possible.

But it’s the truth! I came of age during the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run race. I was like 12 when that was happening. I was all about Sammy. But really, my answer to all Chicago sports questions is ‘Go Bulls!’

Keith "Murph" Murphy is a senior editor at VIBE Magazine and frequent contributor at Billboard, AOL, and CBS Local. The veteran journalist has appeared on CNN, FOX News and A&E Biography and is also the author of the men’s lifestyle book "Manifest XO."