On Legacy Characters in Comic Books
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Legacy Characters in comics, and how they seem to be having a resurgence of late. They’ve always been more prominent at DC than Marvel – in fact I’m struggling to think of many Marvel Legacy characters pre-5 years ago – but lately both of the Big Two seem to be tackling the idea of Legacy in their books.
For the uninitiated, Legacy Characters are those that inherit their superhero identity from another hero, usually from a previous generation.
The most obvious one that comes to mind, for me at least, is The Flash. His legacy spans the entire history of the DC Comic Book universe, and in a large way, it’s that same Legacy that has shaped the very structure of that universe.
The Flash first appeared during the Golden Age of comic books and back then it was Jay Garrick in the costume. He was The Flash; the only Flash and life was simple (You genuinely don’t know how rare it is to say that about Superhero universes).
Without delving into the history of the character too much, in 1956 in Showcase #4, DC introduced a new Flash – Barry Allen. You may be familiar with these names from the CW TV show, and if you are then you’ll sorta know where this is heading. Anyway Showcase #4 is generally regarded as the beginning of the Silver Age of comics.
It wasn’t until 1961 however that the very idea of both of these Flashes existing became a thing.
I can only assume people just put the change from Jay to Barry down to a reboot of the character (although I doubt the term Reboot was around back then). In 1961, DC released The Flash #123 and a story entitled The Flash of Two Worlds.
The Flash of Two Worlds introduced the idea of Parallel Earths, specifically Earth-2, in which Jay Garrick was still The Flash. These Parallel Earths vibrate on different frequencies from one another and if someone were to run fast enough – someone like The Flash – they could traverse the Multiverse.
At the time, the terms Earth-2 and Multiverse weren’t knocking about, this was just a cool way for the new Flash to meet the old. And while the ramifications of that meeting would have an impact on the structure of the DC multiverse to this day (that’s a story for another time), the idea of Legacy was also introduced into modern superhero comics.
Legacy had been touched on in other ways in DC Comics. The Silver Age Green Lantern – Hal Jordan – inherited his powers from Abin Sur, the previous protector of Earth, but that’s more of a new role. Abin Sur handed over the Green Lantern ring to Hal as he (Abin Sur) lay dying, so it kinda counts as legacy, but it’s only like a job position transferring to a new applicant. Batman has Robin which could be argued as Batman passing the torch in a way, but again, like most sidekicks, they become their own character and therefore bypass that Legacy Hero status.
The original Robin however – Dick Grayson – did become Batman for a short time when Bruce Wayne ‘died’ (he got better). At that point he became a legacy character, as he took on the mantle as Batman, and that’s what we’re really talking about here.
The Flash dealt with Legacy again in 1985 when Barry Allen ‘died’ (he got better, eventually) in the mega crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths. Brought about to deal with the ramifications of multiple earths that started in The Flash of Two Worlds, Crisis collapsed all the worlds together so that there was only one Earth.
After Barry ‘died’, Wally West – previously Barry’s sidekick Speedy – inherited the mantle and Legacy of The Flash. After that, it became a real thing to pass the baton. Black Canary, a mainstay of DC since the Golden Age, was also affected by Crisis and split from one character to two – a mother and daughter. The Atom, Robin and (sort of) Hawkman (although he is a big ball of confusion) reflected the idea of Legacy.
Over at Marvel Comics, Captain Marvel – the confusing yet appropriately named alien Mar-Vell – died of inoperable cancer in 1982 (spoilers) and Monica Rambeau took on the name. Nowadays the name Captain Marvel is linked with Carol Danvers, who was previously Ms. Marvel. To further pickle your brain, the mantle of Ms. Marvel now sits with Kamala Khan, in one of the greatest modern examples of Legacy in superhero comics.
Kamala brings us right up to the present. In 2014 she became Ms. Marvel, taking on that name because she’s basically a giant nerd and idolises Carol Danvers (which is genuinely the cutest thing). She is now on the All-New All-Different Avengers team (that’s not me being funny, the comic is called that and is packed full of Legacy Characters.
Marvel has had teams of Legacy Heroes before (Young Avengers and, to a certain degree Runaways) but this team embraces Legacy like DC used to (more on that in a moment).
On the team we have:
- Iron Man and Vision – the only non-Legacy characters
- Ms. Marvel – Kamala Khan
- Thor – Jane Foster now posesses the power of Thor after Odinson was deemed ‘Unworthy’. It was a whole Thing.
- Captain America – now Sam Wilson, previously Falcon. He inherited the shield after Steve Rogers lost the powers of the Super Soldier serum that kept him young.
- Nova – now Sam Alexander, who inherited the Nova Helmet from his father who was previously a member of the Galactic Nova Corps – you know, from the Guardians of the Galaxy movie?
- Spider-Man – Miles Morales. He became Spider-Man over in the ‘Ultimate’ Universe (more parallel Earth shenanigans) after Peter Parker died (no quotation marks there. He never came back). He’s on our Earth now because of Secret Wars
- Wasp – Nadia Pym. Bringing you bang up to date (seriously, the comic came out yesterday), Nadia is Hank Pym’s daughter.
So in every conceivable way, the idea of Legacy is explored pretty thoroughly amongst that team. Writer Mark Waid hasn’t fully delved into Legacy as a theme yet in the run, although the idea of the older generation teaching the younger is a thread that runs through these early issues.
For a while though, DC seemed not to want to explore Legacy. Following the Flashpoint storyline in 2011 – another example of The Flash shaping the Multiverse – the entire universe was rebooted to a world in which heroes had only been around 5 years, and the heroes we have now are the ones we’ve pretty much always had. In this new universe – entitled the New 52! – characters like Wally West were wiped from continuity (for a while) and it felt like idea of Legacy was abandoned.
That seems to be changing with this year’s DC Rebirth. While it doesn’t seem to be a huge motivator for the change, Geoff Johns has already stated that he seeks to ‘restore Legacy’ to DC Comics, and it’s already starting to bleed back into the universe. The Pre-New 52 Superman has returned and with him is his wife Lois Lane and their son, Jonathan Kent.
He, along with Damian Wayne -Bruce Wayne’s son – will be starring in Super Sons which will no doubt be exploring their relationship as well as tackling what it’s like having superhero parents.
I love the idea of Legacy. It adds a dimension of change and growth to what can be by its very nature a medium obsessed with maintaining the status quo. It implies a development of both narrative and teh characters themselves, and it’s rewarding seeing these heroes embracing the burden of Great Responsibility that must accompany such Great Power. I’m enjoying where Marvel is taking the theme, and I’m very much looking forward to DC’s Rebirth too.