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Legacy Heroes
By Philip Schweier
Jan 9, 2013 - 18:18

Recently I was asked what my most memorable comic book “moment” was for 2012. Granted, my scope was somewhat narrow, and I can’t say my answer was an altogether pleasant one. It also led me to pondering (yet again) the efforts of storytellers to generate diversity for the sake of diversity.

My belief is that a storyteller should focus on that which serves the story, and that which does not should be largely ignored. For instance, there was a lot of criticism a year or two back when it was announced that Laurence Fishburn would be playing Perry White in the upcoming Man of Steel film. Apparently some people took issue with the traditionally white role being played by an African-American actor. But since race is not germane to the character, why should anyone care? Nobody complained when Samuel L. Jackson took on the role of Nick Fury.

But as society has progressed, there has been in increased interest among audiences in racial diversity. Perhaps this was most true in the wake of one of DC Comics’ many crises, when the mantle of the Atom was adopted by an Asian, a Hispanic youth became the new Blue Beetle, and an African-American was turned into the new Firestorm.

But this article isn’t about racial diversity, it’s about legacy characters – those who take over the mantle of a prior hero (or villain), and whether or not it’s necessary for comic book publishers to create an entirely new character out of whole cloth.

Clearly, in the case of some characters, it is not. Dick Grayson took over for Bruce Wayne as Batman, Wally West filled Barry Allen’s boots as the Flash, and Reneé Montoya inherited the role of the Question from Vic Sage.

DC has often had a problem of multiple characters, leading to entire families of archers, bat-people, ring-wielders and Kryptonians. I can’t help but wonder why such characters exist in the first place. Dick Grayson had forged his own role within the DCU as Nightwing, paving the way for many former partners to come into their own.  

Meanwhile, over at Marvel Comics, Tony Stark’s long-time buddy James Rhodes adopted the Iron Man identity during Stark’s excessive drinking days. But his character was established, and seemed the logical choice, moreso than Happy Hogan anyway.

In most cases, the heir apparent is an obvious choice, but not always. Still, is it necessary to create an entirely new character? When Hal Jordan gave in to the influence of Parallax, his role of Green Lantern was up for grabs. Did it go to John Stewart or Guy Gardner, or even Katma Tui, all of whom were already established? No. Instead, the ring was given to Kyle Rayner, an entirely character.

In 1995 when Green Arrow was seemingly blown to bits in the pages of his own title, he was replaced not by his former archer sidekick Roy Harper, but by Oliver Queen’s unknown son, Connor Hawke. It seemed to send a message to an entire generation of former sidekicks that despite all their sacrifices, they would never inherit the mantle of their mentors.

Perhaps the creative powers that be at the time felt Speedy had a bit of baggage, in the form of being a recovering drug addict. I’ll agree his decision-making skills as a teenager were a bit lacking, but is Oliver Queen much better? He’s long had a reputation for being a bit of a hot-head.

Therein would lie the true legacy hero: the adopted son taking on the role his mentor no longer could fill. Cluttering up the comic world with Kyle Rayners and Connor Hawke’s seems pointless when there is already a replacement waiting off stage, as in the case of Wally West, only to pass the Flash identity on (temporarily) to another legacy character, Bart Allen.

At least in the case of Captain America, his former sidekick Bucky took over as Cap prior to the resurrection of Steve Rogers. But for as many years as the boy was “dead” (however significant that may be in the comic book world), Bucky had little opportunity to come into his prior to inheriting the red, white and blues.

I realize all this may have been an attempt to rejuvenate some of the heroes who perhaps had grown a bit stale. But the new costumes, new looks (Superman’s mullet?) and new supporting players were little more than window dressing that failed to deal with the root of the problem – telling better stories.

Granted, the introduction of completely new characters allow for a greater degree of creative freedom, with fresh grass on the field. But what of those left behind? What becomes of the former sidekicks, now grown and expected to live up to their mentor’s name? Admittedly, some can, some can’t.

I would suggest that those than are unable to develop into stronger characters capable of living up their mentor’s name – and this would include such supporting players as Rick Jones, Thomas Kalmaku and incoming students at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters –  be written off-stage in some final means.

Not killed, necessarily. Not everyone can go out in blaze of heroic glory. But perhaps they can be recruited by SHIELD, or maybe they simply grow fat and bald and retire to the suburbs like the rest of us.

But no more mullets, please.

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