Legacy Heroes: Out with the Old, in with the New?

Everyone has his/her favorite comic book superhero. Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man are only a few of the countless characters which have captured the wonder and imagination of millions of fans. Each of these heroes are recognizable by their alter egos, from Peter Parker to Clark Kent. Yet, not all heroes hold the same secret identity forever. Every now and then, the person behind the mask changes, such as the mantle of the Flash shifting from Barry Allen to Wally West. Many refer to new characters taking up certain mantles as “legacy characters”. Changing the character behind a title massively shifts the status quo, sometimes in a much needed manner. Comic books that have gone stale from repetitive storylines are given some fresh material to tell new stories. Over the years, the concept of legacy characters has undergone massive changes. Different types of legacy characters exist, from grown-up sidekicks inheriting their mentors’ identities to brand new characters created to add a sense of diversity to a title. Each type of legacy hero comes with its benefits and drawbacks, both of which highlight the consequences of change within superhero comics.

Passing the torch

Legacy heroes’ tenure in superhero comics vary widely, mainly depending upon each character’s popularity. Some legacy heroes only last for a short story arc, as the creative team intends for the comic to return to the status quo. For example, when Dr. Octopus took over Peter Parker’s body to become “the Superior Spider-Man”, writer Dan Slott knew that the change was only temporary. Soon enough, Slott returned Parker’s mind to his rightful body. Other legacy characters last for a significant period of comic book history, forming a significant fanbase along the way. Such characters include Bucky Barnes as Captain America, or Dick Grayson in the role of Batman. Both characters lasted for several years in their respective titles, amassing an impressive portfolio of well-told stories. Finally, there are legacy heroes who last in their titles for decades, becoming the definitive versions of the character to many readers. Wally West, for example, was the only Flash after Barry Allen died, from 1985 to 2009. Countless adventures of Wally’s were chronicled, as readers grew to become more invested in Wally than they ever were with Barry. The tenures of legacy characters ultimately depend on several factors, such as popularity, editorial mandate, and creative vision. Over time, however, it has become more difficult for legacy characters to retain their titles for very long. There are various types of legacy characters, each of which exhibits benefits and drawbacks that contribute to characters’ staying power.

You are to me, Wally. You are to me…

The first type of legacy hero is the sidekick-turned hero. This type of hero is exemplified by a well-known sidekick who grows up to inherit his/her mentor’s mantle. Once again, Dick Grayson (formerly Robin) becoming Batman or Wally West (formerly Kid Flash) becoming the Flash both serve as excellent examples of sidekick legacy characters. Giving a former sidekick their mentor’s title provides the reader with a familiar face, as well as a sense of continuity within the comic. Readers are able to connect to this former sidekick’s struggle, trying to live up to the example of a friend or family member. In this sense, longtime fans are not thrown off by a random character being forced into their favorite hero’s shoes. On the contrary, existing characters are given a chance to grow up, developing into fully-fledged heroes. Seeing this change within previous allies or sidekicks makes the reader feel as if the comic is moving forward with time. Of course, there is always the risk that sidekicks who become legacy heroes will lose their own identities. For example, Dick Grayson had settled into the role of Nightwing for a long time before inheriting the Batman mantle. Seeing Nightwing give up his own, distinct identity for someone else’s title can be fairly disappointing for some fans. On the other hand, Wally West had not developed much past being Kid Flash before becoming the new Flash. Providing Wally the title of the Flash gave him room to grow and develop as a character, watching him live up to the standards that Barry Allen set. Sidekicks tend to work best as legacy heroes when it benefits their own character development.

Carrying the Bat-mantle

Sometimes, a brand new character is brought in to inherit a hero’s title. A bold move such as this one can be fairly controversial, especially since the writers have to put extra work into developing a likeable character. Then again, introducing a new character can create a great starting point for new readers. Brand new characters give comics a clean slate, where anyone can begin reading a title. Kyle Rayner, for example, became Green Lantern after Hal Jordan, having no relation to his predecessor whatsoever. Yet Rayner’s adventures are quite accessible, and very fun for anyone who is just getting into Green Lantern comics. New characters such as Rayner have an opportunity to connect with readers. There is something relatable about the “everyman” character who is just as new to their own crazy world as the reader is. Indeed, given the right characterization, new characters appeal to plenty of new readers, and even old ones who continue reading after “their” version of the character is gone. Kyle Rayner is my favorite Green Lantern, simply because he has such a fun and relatable personality. Furthermore, handing a heroic title off to a new character broadens the concept from one hero to an overarching mantle. Giving new characters a chance to make a title their own expands the ways in which readers see this title. For example, Green Lantern could be Hal Jordan, John Stewart, Kyle Rayner, or even Guy Gardner. Each varying personality expands the Green Lantern mythos into something larger than just one person. New characters ultimately broaden the horizon for superhero titles.

Green Lantern’s light renewed

Recently, a new type of legacy character has emerged: the “diversity character”. Creating more characters of color, female characters, LGBTQ characters, and characters of different religious perspectives, is crucial in today’s comic books. At a time when the U.S. is growing more diverse, superhero comics should at least make an effort to reflect the world in which we live. A black Spider-Man stands for the “everyman” qualities of the character now more than ever. Yet diversity characters maintain a controversial place within parts of the comic book fanbase. The central debate around characters such as Miles Morales (Spider-Man), Jane Foster (Thor), Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), and several others asks: is diversity included in comics for the sake of good storytelling, or just for the sake of diversity itself? As an Egyptian and a Muslim, I personally find this question to be an important one. Characters should not simply be created to be “diversity characters”. Rather, diverse new characters should be able to connect to readers through their characterization, and their stories should be just as exciting as any other superheroes. Given well-written storylines and characterization, there is a large market for diversity in legacy heroes. More diverse legacy heroes make for a more relevant heroes who reflect modern society.

Reflecting the world around us

Each type of legacy hero usually succeeds a hero who has died, stepping into their shoes. In some cases, however, legacy heroes can coexist with their predecessors. Peter Parker and Miles Morales can both be Spider-Man, Jay Garrick can run alongside Wally West as the Flash, and even Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson can simultaneously act as Batman. Coexistence offers great storytelling opportunities, as creative teams can explore a relationship between legacy heroes and their predecessors. Seeing the various Green Lanterns fight alongside each other goes a long way in showcasing the characters’ contrasting personalities. Additionally, readers are given more freedom to choose their favorite version of a hero. If someone isn’t a huge Peter Parker fan, he/she can read the adventures of Miles Morales, or vice versa. Just as creating new characters allows for a wider understanding of a title, allowing the old and the new to coexist broadens the world around certain mantles. A whole family of individuals is created through this coexistence, such as the Bat-Family, the Spider-Verse, the Flash Family, and many others. One caveat to coexistence is competing popularity between characters. When Barry Allen returned as the Flash, Wally West literally vanished from existence in the DC Universe. To a lesser extent, Miles Morales continues to struggle for popularity while Peter Parker is still around. Despite the potential storytelling possibilities, coexistence of legacy characters with their predecessors risks one character being overshadowed by another.

Fighting for popularity

Ultimately, the struggle of legacy characters boils down to the old vs. the new. Specifically, should older characters, with more history, or newer characters, with untapped potential, hold iconic titles such as Spider-Man or Green Lantern? The answer is not a clear cut decision between the old or the new. Some long-dead characters have simply lost their relevance. Mar-Vell, the original Captain Marvel, died back in 1982. When Carol Danvers, formerly Ms. Marvel, finally took his mantle in 2012, it was about time. Indeed, the most interesting Captain Marvel story during Mar-Vell’s tenure was his own death, while Carol Danvers has decades of adventures as both an Avenger and Ms. Marvel under her belt. In other cases, however, the original simply can’t be beaten. Bruce Wayne will always be Batman. Some fun stories can come out of others in the role, like Dick Grayson. Still, Bruce Wayne and Batman remain intertwined, as Wayne’s never-ending crusade originates from his childhood trauma and his obsession with justice. Both old and new characters have the potential for great storylines. It is the quality of the storylines which holds priority, regardless of who is behind the hero’s mask.

Mar-Vell who?

Legacy characters hold a huge significance within superhero comics. Ultimately, legacy heroes represent change. When characters inherit the mantle of iconic heroes, these characters develop, they age and mature, and signify the passage of time in the world at large. Furthermore, passing the torch between characters elevates heroes into legends and titles to be upheld with honor. Most importantly, passing titles on to new characters creates a new age of heroes for a new generation of readers. While some titles may be timelessly bound to certain characters, others have room to move between new characters. One generation’s Flash may be Barry Allen, while the next generation’s may be Wally West. Over the course of the following weeks, I will be comparing different characters who have held the same mantle. Examining the various legacy characters and their predecessors, I hope to answer, on a case by case basis, the age old question: stick with the old or go with the new? Who should hold these iconic titles for a new generation?

Gotta bridge that generational gap

That’s all for this week! Be sure to check in every week for a new entry in the legacy character spotlight! If you like this blog, feel free to follow on Twitter @book_column and share with your friends!

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