Right away, I am sure that there are going to be those who read this title and scoff. They are going to think “here’s another butthurt comic fan who hates x-y-z and just wants a vanilla brand of superheroes that reflects what he saw in his childhood.” There will be a lot of people who undoubtedly see this title, and refuse to click- and you know what, that’s their right. However, if you choose to actually read this piece (and it will be an investment of your time) I hope to show that this is only half true. Truth is that I do miss the brand of superheroes that reflects what I saw in my childhood. However, I miss it, not because it reflected some vanilla brand of superheroes, but because (contrary to what the people whose only exposure to these characters is the going on 20 film marathon of Marvel films from the past decade or so, and dc films stretching back before even that) the comics I read growing up actually reflected a diverse community of heroes, and for all their imperfections they at least tried to be original. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s take a look at the “Legacy Character” and how it showcases a creative bankruptcy in the mainstream.
What exactly does the term legacy mean? I know it may sound like a silly question, but I want to address this because before we can look at what these characters are, I think it’s important to understand this term and how it relates to the medium of comic books. Legacy is defined, as it relates here, as “a thing that is handed down by a predecessor.” So in terms of what a legacy character is, we are talking about a character that has inherited the role of a predecessor, but before we move on, there is another important thing to establish: what is the legacy of comic books?
It’s funny because this question is actually a bit of a controversy among the intellectual community. However, the way I have always seen it is that comics are just the latest version of traditional myths that have captured the minds of people since the dawn of civilization. These characters embody in themselves the intangible constructs we hold value in as a society- physical manifestations of good that set an unprecedented example of the best we can accomplish together if we hold true to those virtues. So, to me, the legacy of comic books is thus: To tap into the cultural DNA of the world to inspire the best we can be as people and hopefully leave the world a better place. The best way to ensure that is to absolutely have the landscape of comics illustrate that global mindset- that diversity. This brings us to the role of Legacy characters, as that is currently the primary way the big two companies, DC and Marvel, have chosen to push this diversity and the sad truth is: it’s not working.
Most of these companies don’t look out at what they have inherited, the legacy they are caretakers of if you will, as characters or stories that should be shown reverence. They look at them solely as numbers on a spreadsheet of intellectual property. They see things like movies making billions of dollars, or comic sales of hundreds of thousands, and that’s it. So from a business standpoint, there is a logic that by taking one of these intellectual properties, and handing the mantle off (in best case scenario) or even completely changing that character- altering an established history- to make them fit the bill of this diversity is the most lucrative way to go about it. Lucrative is what they care about, not the stories- not the characters. But herein lies the problem, art is not arithmetic. Numbers don’t bring people together, stories and the characters that make them, do.
I love to call stories “the great unifier.” When you look across the world, look at the different cultures, races, religions, etc. you will find that while specific values may not be universally constant, the method by which they are distributed is. Every culture, since the beginning of time, has codified their societal values through stories, stories of people achieving great things- creating links to their gods, and overcoming evils that represent what these cultures consider to be harmful to their societies. As I said earlier, comic books are the latest chapter in that tradition. Despite it being new in the grand scheme of things comics, as a tradition, go back almost a century at this point. The characters built through those stories have value and have connected to their audience in a way that has not been fully realized by these larger companies (Disney, Warner Brothers) until recently. So when a company tries to pass a mantle off from one character to another, as a way to “build diversity” it comes off as disingenuous- it severs the connection the audience had with those original characters and their stories, and it has ultimately caused a massive rift in the community.
Now, this portion of the piece is where most people would naturally expect me to focus on how this has failed and why. However, it’s a tired topic. The amount of content already out there that does this is staggering, and all one needs to do is go to sites like comichron and look at the sales freefall in the top 20 books featuring massive characters in the last few years when their films and shows are bringing in billions of dollars to box offices and streaming services globally to see it. However, what I don’t see from a lot of critics of this push is talking about how Legacy characters could and should be done. Because, while “passing the mantle” is a taboo and tired trope, these characters have a legacy far beyond their identity in the example they set.
As I stated previously, these heroes are manifestations of what we hold value in as a society. Throughout the years they have done groundbreaking things in their stories, saving the day countless times over from simple things like a kitten in a tree or bank robbery, to a global alien invasion. So what if the “Legacy character” was not a character that tries to replace the icon that already existed, but tries to live up to the example the icon set, and devote themself to the same cause and expand the legacy further? Back in the 90s, we saw this with the emergence of Steel from the ashes of Death of Superman. John Henry Irons, a black man (who didn’t fit the standard “victim of social circumstances” stereotype- but was instead an Army Veteran with a genius for mechanical engineering) was inspired to take on the crest of Superman and use his strengths as a soldier, scientist, and engineer to fill the void left by Superman’s absence. However, what made Steel unique amidst the various pretenders around trying to BE Superman, was the fact that he had no interest in being Superman. He saw the wound that was left by Superman’s absence, and decided he wasn’t going to sit around and let it fester- he took action. He became a hero by following the legacy of the Man of Steel, and while he may have the symbol of Superman on his chest, he was always his own character.
The legacy of example is an immensely powerful thing, of course when you have characters like Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman running around and saving the day, their altruism is going to speak to people. Point of fact, that’s the very reason for their existence: to INSPIRE! Obviously, it’s for the reader, but to show how that inspiration reflects within the universe makes the world they exist in feel more consequential. However, making seven different shades of Batman to reflect demographics the world over, isn’t going to do that. Bruce’s choice of the Bat as his symbol is personal, it reflects who he is and is tethered to his own, personal ethos. Somebody else putting that costume on’s motivations are literally limited to “there needs to be a Batman,” and that’s hollow and one-dimensional. Additionally, if you think of it, it means that Bruce ultimately failed- and that’s not inspiring, it’s heartbreaking. Bruce became Batman so that no one else would have to. If he inspires others through his example to take up the fight after he’s gone, GREAT! But none of them should be Batman, Bruce’s crusade was fixated on ensuring that no one would ever have to don the cowl. That’s why stories like Batman Inc ultimately fell short. It’s why Damian doesn’t work for me because he sees Batman as an inheritance which was never Bruce’s intent. Even as someone who adores Batman Beyond, that’s honestly one of its weakest points: why does Terry NEED to be Batman? Why can’t he be something else, and the answer is simple: because DC wants more Batman IP to milk.
This brings us to the title: how “Legacy Characters” reflect a creative bankruptcy in the mainstream superhero industry. Taking existing characters, and passing off mantles doesn’t push diversity- it’s a lazy way to check a box. “Upgrading” certain characters from one mantle to another isn’t really a promotion, it’s a white flag of surrender that they don’t feel like the character had any value in their previous role. Stating that there is a lack of diversity in comics is a mostly false half-truth that stems from people who are basing that opinion solely on what they’ve seen on a big screen in the past 10 years or so. If these companies truly wanted to showcase the diversity of their own brand, they have a wealth of property to do so with- Steel, Static Shock, Icon & Rocket, John Stewart & Kyle Rayner (just two of at least 5 Green Lanterns that come from multicultural backgrounds), Vixen, White Tiger, Warpath, Storm, Dust, Night Thrasher, and the list stretches on. If they wanted to push their diversity why not give these characters a solo series written and drawn by the best creative teams in the industry? Or failing that, why not create new heroes and rather than just slap them with a title of an existing character, give them their own identity so that they can stand on their own two feet?
The answer is sad but simple: the people that work in comics right now don’t have those ideas and these companies aren’t looking for people with those kinds of ideas. There are some exceptions, but all in all, that’s the barebones truth. These companies think that this is the best they can offer in terms of pushing diverse storytelling because they see it as the easiest way to be lucrative– but all it does is create division and create an argument that didn’t use to exist and ironically has been anything but lucrative (neither Marvel nor DC have official office buildings anymore just as a reminder). But all these companies ever needed to do was to commit to using the characters they had or creating new characters to build off the “legacy of example” set by existing icons to tell good stories- but that requires risk that I feel either companies of the big 2 are too afraid to take now. Imagine what would happen though, if they actually tried.