Legacy is an interesting beast in the realm of superhero stories. On the one hand, it’s an inevitable result of the never-ending narrative found within the pages of the superhero comic. You can’t have an ongoing story for sixty years and not expect to throw a couple of wrenches into the mix to spice things up. Characters live, die, get replaced, and maybe return if the weather’s right. But, on the other hand, legacy can incense fans of the medium unlike any other kind of story twist. There really hasn’t been a time in the history of the modern superhero where replacing a classic character with a new, shiny version hasn’t set off a sizable portion of the audience. But, to understand just what it is that makes the eye twitch when they hear the words “legacy character,” we really have to go all the way back to the very beginning of the term.
Legacy was never an issue back in the Golden Age of comics, which makes sense. This was the birth of the modern superhero, these characters were brand new, and the audience responded. The superhero boom of the forties ushered in almost every classic character we know and love today. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, Hawkman, the Atom, Doctor Fate, the Justice Society…well, we know and love some of them today. They couldn’t all be household names.
But, during the fifties, the superhero experienced its first real slump in interest. After the war, the comic book was vilified for it’s “Seduction of the Innocent” and many were canceled if they weren’t outright burned on the street. The only characters who were able to survive the purge were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman; every other character faded into obscurity.
That is, until 1954.
DC Comics published Showcase #4 and ushered in the Silver Age of comics and brought us our first taste of the legacy hero. The Flash raced off the page and into the minds of readers everywhere, but this wasn’t the Flash that everyone remembered from the Golden Age. The original character had been Jay Garrick, a man who inhaled hard water fumes and could run faster than they eye could see. Here, in the fifties, was Barry Allen, a new Flash for a new era, who gained his speed after being doused in chemicals and struck by lightning. New character, same shtick.
This began a new age where old characters were reimagined for new audiences. Green Lantern came back as a space cop instead of a guy who stumbled across a magic ring. The Atom returned as a scientist who could shrink at will instead of a short man with a complex. And Hawkman was…well, he was Hawkman but worse. But, surprisingly, fans bought into it.
At the birth of the Silver Age, enough fans had lost interest in comic book superheroes that these new legacy characters didn’t cause too much of an uproar. There were brand new fans for these brand new characters. And for those fans who had stuck around through the dark times, there was still Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, as reliable as they come. Plus, and this was important, the newer characters didn’t come at the expense of the older ones. They were simply on a different, alternate earth and could meet up with each other for fun adventures. Y’know, because comics. Both could exist side by side without invalidating each other. Superheroes entered a new age of popularity, thanks in no small part to the birth of Marvel Comics. The sixties allowed these new legacy characters to really come into their own, gain their own fans, and, thanks to Marvel molding life-long attachments, keep those fans.
As the years rolled on, superheroes went through a ton of changes, most notably in the eighties, where legacy characters once again reared their heads. See, comics had reached a nice plateau in the seventies, where the illusion of change was in full effect without ever radically altering the characters. Nobody died, nothing ever changed for long, and we could always count on Spider-Man to be there next month. But the eighties were here, and nothing would ever be the same. Dick Grayson, Robin, grew up and became Nightwing. Tony Stark, Iron Man, gave up the mantle to pursue a liberating career as a drunk, leaving the name to James Rhodes. Barry Allen, the Flash, died saving the multiverse, and left Wally West to take up the yellow boots.
All of the new characters that fans had fallen in love with in the Silver and Bronze Ages were slowly growing older, dying, being replaced. But this was mostly a temporary thing over at Marvel, who prided themselves as being contemporary and telling one, long story. DC, on the other hand, embraced the changing dynamics of their universe and allowed certain characters to pass on their names. Dick Grayson was replaced as Robin by Jason Todd, who was replaced by Tim Drake, who eventually was replaced by Damian Wayne. Hal Jordan, Green Lantern, was a character built on legacy, as he was a part of an entire legion of space cops; John Stewart and Guy Gardner had both filled in for him at one point or another.
Of course, no major hero was ever replaced for very long unless they had died off. Superman, after all, was still Superman, you couldn’t just get rid of him. Sure, he was replaced by a few doppelgangers in the nineties, and Batman had Azrael, but it never lasted for very long. They had never stopped publication in the fifties, so they had no need to be rebooted into different characters, there was no legacy precedent. But the Flash? Green Lantern? Those were characters you could work with. Barry Allen stayed dead for over twenty years. For many fans, Wally West was the only Flash they had ever known. And that’s how legacy can be handled properly. They respected Barry Allen enough to give him a send-off worthy of Hollywood and replaced him with his own sidekick, who had been known to readers of the Flash since the Silver Age. Sure, there were fans who were upset, but they couldn’t say the new guy was an imposter who wasn’t worthy to wear the boots.
But when legacy is mishandled? Well, alienating a large portion of your audience is only the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous examples of trying too hard to make unnecessary changes just for the sake of change and the immediate example that comes to mind is the legacy of Hal Jordan. DC tried to capitalize on the success of Wally West’s promotion and decided to replace Hal Jordan, their most popular Green Lantern. But they did it by making him a supervillain who murdered all of his space cop friends and eventually killed himself to save the sun. Again, comics. But his replacement? A brand new character never before seen named Kyle Rayner. Fans were outraged. DC had destroyed the legacy of Hal Jordan and given the most powerful weapon in the universe to a struggling New York artist? The idea was ludicrous. But, after realizing that Hal wasn’t coming back anytime soon, fans warmed to Kyle and, to this day, he is one of the more popular Green Lanterns. He became an entire generation’s Green Lantern and that’s no small feat after the rocky start DC gave him.
Today, the term “legacy” seems to mean following the Kyle Rayner formula but at a much more alarming rate. New characters replace older ones but without the emotional payoff of years’ worth of story. New characters aren’t allowed to breathe as they are sandwiched between an event that allows them to step up and the event that brings the original hero back. Wally West worked because Barry Allen was dead with a capital D. Kyle Rayner worked because DC refused to bring Hal Jordan back and because Kyle was just a genuinely great character who earned his stripes through years of storytelling. Unfortunately, what makes legacy so special seems to be lost on modern comics. Modern interpretation seems to be to replace a well-known hero for the slight bump in sales it will bring, and treating your characters as nothing more than vehicles for money is no way to present a meaningful narrative.
Legacy as a storytelling device isn’t something that can ever be completely tarnished. Embracing what made original characters so popular and giving new characters the opportunity to step up and earn their own audience is what keeps an ongoing story feeling fresh even after decades of content. Legacy, when used properly, can inspire people both real and fictional to be greater than they are. It’s a tightrope to walk across, for sure, but comics have proven that it can be done, and done exceptionally well.
The only question is what that legacy will inspire next.