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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Panel Vision - Legacy Heroes Guide

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So, the big comic book news sweeping the nation this week is that the mantel of Iron Man will now be held by a 15 year old black girl.  It’s a pretty major deal though not entirely out of left field given the current Marvel line-up features a woman as Thor, a black guy as Cap, a black latino bisexual dude as Spider-Man, and a Muslim Ms. Marvel.  Still, this is definitely good news and a pretty interesting advancement for the house of ideas as they continue to push for more on-panel diversity. 

Some folks have complained, because of course they have, saying that creators should just make new heroes instead of legacy ones but I really don’t get this argument.  A lot of the most prominent superheroes of color are following in the footsteps of a previous hero, so I figured I’d give a guide to 12 such heroes, a list including some big names and some personal favorites (in case you were wondering why your personal favorite might not make the cut.)

This is where the idea of replacing old characters with diverse new heroes originated, popping up in the 1970s under author Dennis O’Neil and artist/activist Neil Adams.  In the 1970s DC was obsessed with proving they were still relevant and competitive after Marvel had spent a decade or so chipping away at DC’s dominant market share.  While there were a lot of different attempts to try and make DC comics a relevant fixture in the world of comics in the 1970s the most well remembered now was a push for more comics to feature reflections of real world issues and situations. 

The biggest place where this came about was in Adams and O’Neil’s Green Lantern comic, which featured then Green Lantern Hal Jordan teaming up with Green Arrow to tour America and try to confront issues of race and drug addiction across the nation.  It was a risky move that paid off really well as this era is fondly remembered as one of the best periods for both characters and it gave us John Stewart, an ex-marine turned engineer that Hal deputized and then made a full Green Lantern.

Since his inception John Stewart was an intermittent part of the DC universe up till the late ‘90s when he debuted as the main Green Lantern of the DC animated television universe.  From there he migrated over to being the main lantern of the Justice League and later got his own comic under the banner of Green Lantern Corp.  He’s an incredibly popular hero owing to his square jawed heroicness and his more stoic, tough guy persona compared to the cockiness of Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner or the more sensitive nature of Kyle Rayner.  Even now DC is trying to rush him into a film with 2020’s purposed Green Lantern Corp flick set to feature Stewart as one of the main heroes. 

This one is a lot more recent and I’ve spoken about at length previously but it bares repeating.  In recent comics Captain America had his super soldier serum de-powered, causing him to experience the crippling torment of time’s cold embrace in a matter of moments.  Now a wizened old codger Steve Rogers sought out a replacement in his long time friend Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon.  Sam dawned a star spangled version of his own wing suit and picked up the shield as the new Captain America, fighting the forces of evil with Steve Rogers acting as logistical support. 

This is one of those ideas I like a lot more in concept than in practice.  The Falcon was the first black superhero so having him take up the mantel of Captain America is a pretty great evolution of his character, especially if it’s meant to set-up Anthony Mackie taking over the role in the Marvel movies.  What’s more, the costume redesign is really nice and I like that Sam was able to keep his powers of flight through the transition.  

Where things have gone wrong is in a meta sense, in that Marvel has been going through so many relaunches and rebranding initiatives lately that Sam’s never really had a chance to get the ball rolling as Captain America.  Every time an interesting story starts up his book gets restarted with a new team or some big event comic stumbles in to ruin everything.  It’s a real shame and much the same problem that afflicted Bucky Barnes’ time as Captain America.  Here’s hoping for more consistency in the times to come. 

Fun fact: the same author who created Riri Williams, the new Iron Man, also created Miles Morales, a black/latino bi guy who took over as Spider-Man in Marvel’s Ultimate Comics imprint a few years ago.  For those unfamiliar with it, Marvel’s Ultimate comics was a line of books meant to be light on continuity while thoroughly modernizing the characters and universe.  While some folks liked the Ultimate Universe I feel like the ultimate statement of its failure is that last year Marvel decided to blow it up and keep the popular elements but the only thing they kept was Mile Morales. 

To Morales’ credit, he is pretty much the best thing to come out of the Ultimate Universe and a great example of how these kind of alternate realities can be used to test out weird ideas before integrating them into the mainstream.  Normally, having Peter die and replaced with an all new hero wouldn’t even be conceivable in the main books or come with the massive understanding it’d be reversed eventually but with the Ultimate comics they were free to just go for it and, in the process, create one of the true break out characters of color in the modern age.  Morales is still around now in the main universe and doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. 

One of the weird things about Marvel comics in recent times is their push to try and turn the Inhumans, an off-beat group of super beings from the Fantastic Four books that’ve never been all that popular, into a new version of the X-Men and the mutants.  This is owed to the X-Men property being owned by Fox and Marvel’s CEO apparently not wanting to promote that brand if they don't own the movie rights as well.  By now the Inhumans initiative has petered out and proven a pretty decisive failure but for one major exception: Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel. 

Created as part of the big Inhumans push in Inhumanity, she’s a teenage Pakistani American from New Jersey with the power to shapeshift and a healing factor and she is awesome.  There have been a number of Muslim characters brought into modern comics in recent years but Ms. Marvel is easily the breakout, coming to really dominate the comic reading audience’s hearts in a relatively brief amount of time.  Seriously, she’s only been around for 3 years but at this point she feels more like an institution than some of her older contemporaries that’ve distinctly faded away with age. 

A lot of that has to do with how well written Ms. Marvel is and the idea that she doesn’t need to be a role model.  Even though she’s the premiere Muslim character in Marvel comics there’s no real attempt to make her a perfect person but rather a good person trying to do good in a complex and difficult world.  Combine that with her unique power set for a girl superhero and she’s such a unique and interesting element of the Marvel mythos she was destined to become a hit.  Also she’s from New Jersey so that’s a massive plus in her favor, have to root for my home state after all.   

One of the cool things about Ms. Marvel’s rise to the prominence is that she served to remind everyone that there had already been a woman of color in the role of Captain Marvel: Monica Rambeau.  To people’s credit I can’t really blame them for forgetting Monica Rambeau was once Captain Marvel as she’s gone through about 5 different names in the course of her time in comics.  

Additionally, Monica’s very rarely made her way to the top tier of superheroes, initially starting as a Spider-Man supporting hero before making her way briefly into the Avengers and then flittering through a number of low publicity teams like Nextwave and the Thunderbolts.  Honestly, she’s been at her most popular in recent years upon joining the Ultimates, a diverse team of heroes working to protect the Earth from space based threats. 

Created in 1982, Monica was initially introduced in Amazing Spider-Man and was intended to be a bit of a Pam Grier type heroine while also maintaining Marvel’s trademark on the name Captain Marvel.  Yeah, fun fact there, ever since the ‘60s Marvel has consistently had to put out a Captain Marvel comic so as to maintain the trademark and keep DC from publishing their character Shazam under his original name of Captain Marvel.  

That’s part of how you get strange ideas like Monica or the continued role of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel.  Monica got her own comic in 1989 but by 1996 she’s switched to Photon as her name before picking up the name Pulsar about 10 years later and now settling on the name Spectrum.  Even through all that change I wouldn’t expect her to go away any time soon, she’s proven she has staying power even if her name doesn’t. 

This is a bit of a rarity: a third generation superhero legacy.  That’s something that comes up a lot in comic books owing to characters having existed as far back as the 1940s.  With such a long timeline you tend to see multiple new heroes taking up a mantel and it’s come to be known as “generations” of heroes.  In the case of the Blue Beetle, the original Blue Beetle was a 1940s character made to capitalize on the popularity of the superhero at the time.  

That version went through a ton of bizarre minor changes and inconsistencies before eventually emerging as Dan Garret, an Egyptologist who used a magic scarab amulet to fight crime.  The follow up hero was Ted Kord, a human hero in the vein of Batman who fought crime with a bucket of gadgets and a special flying robot bug vehicle.  Ted was the Blue Beetle for most of the character’s time in the 20th century, with Jaimie Reyes taking over in 2005. 

In the wake of DC’s big, universe reshaping event Infinite Crisis Ted Kord was killed and Jaimie Reyes came into possession of the magic scarab that Dan Garret once used.  When Jaimie found the scarab it latched onto his spine and covered him in alien armor as it turns out the Scarab was actually a weird alien super weapon that needed to bond to a host.  Jaimie enjoyed a very respectable run in his own solo series dealing with the Scarab’s origin and several issues as a Hispanic teen living in El Paso before his book eventually concluded.  

However, Blue Beetle would live on as a continuing member of the Teen Titans and even managed to find his place in the New 52.  There have also been a ton of pushes to get Jaimie into live action, first on Smallville then in the CW universe of shows, and now there are claims of a spin-off show.  Even as a dedicated Ted Kord fan I have to admit: Jaimie Reyes is the best Blue Beetle and it’s well past time the world got to know him better. 

Now we’re getting good and weird.  Back in the ‘40s one of the weirder characters to join the ranks of the superhero was Johnny Thunder.  This was still when the idea of superheroes was novel and weird so no one really knew what they were supposed to be. As such you had a bunch of folks that were like ghosts or wrestlers or mermen that just got grandfathered into the grand tradition of superheroing and Johnny Thunder is right there with them.  

Johnny was the 7th son of a family born on the 7th day of the 7th month, which caused him to inherit an all-powerful genie that would carry out his every command so long as he wished it.  Like I said, characters like this are pretty obviously intended to be comedy or the like but ended up under the superhero umbrella because it was the ‘40s and all this stuff pretty much runs together. 

Anyway, Johnny eventually faded away by the modern era but in the ‘90s there was a push from the forces at DC to launch a new version of their original superhero team; the Justice Society of America.  While there were a few of the original heroes still around thanks to their powers a bunch of the original characters ended up replaced with new heroes taking their name or adopting a similar persona.  In the case of Johnny Thunder, a new 7th son was born and inherited the genie from him and that kid’s name was Jakeem Thunder. 

First appearing in a Justice League/Justice Society crossover comic that launched the new JSA, Jakeem was a brash city kid who had more or less grew up on his own on the streets before inheriting one of the most powerful beings in the entire universe.  Seriously, the Thunderbolt could turn skyscrapers into letters of the alphabet if he wanted and now he has to do whatever Jakeem says.  He and the T-bolt ended up major heroes of the JSA and one of the coolest pairs in the DCU till they were tragically excised from continuity by the New 52 reboot.

Even though most people know Batgirl as Barbara Gordon there are actually four different iterations of the character.  The original Batgirl, who wore red and green and was named Betty Kane, was conjured up in 1961 as a love interest for Robin so as to assuage public fears that Batman and Robin were meant to be a gay couple.  

This version of the character didn’t last long and quickly faded away until the Adam West Batman show created the character of Barbara Gordon.  Barbara was such a popular Batgirl on the show the comics were forced to bring her in.  Eventually, Barbara ended up paralyzed from the waste down by the Joker in the much vaunted Killing Joke comic.  After that, the comics were without a Batgirl for around 15 years till 1999 when Cassandra Cain took up the mantel. 

This was in the midst of the Batman mega-event No Man’s Land, the capstone of the ‘90s trend of mega-events.  Previously that decade we’d seen Batman get his back broken, we’d seen Ebola infect Gotham city, and now No Man’s Land featured an earthquake devastating the city and the government cutting it from the rest of the US.  While attempting to restore order to the city Batman encountered the daughter of master assassins David Cain and Lady Shiva.  

Their daughter was the ultimate killing machine, trained from birth to speak only through martial arts and violence but Batman rescued her and with the help of the Bat family (Tim Drake Robin, Dick Grayson Nightwing, Barbara Gordon Oracle) managed to rehabilitate her to use her powers for good rather than evil.  Later, Stephanie Brown would take over a Batgirl but Cassandra would continue her work under the name of the Black Bat, defender of Hong Kong. 

In case you only know the Atom from CW’s Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, Ryan Choi popped up in the mid 2000s when DC was trying to present itself as fresh, revamped, and relevant after Marvel made major waves with its Civil War comic in 2005.  Ryan was a scientist continuing the work of Professor Ray Palmer, the original Atom from the ‘60s that most of you know through the CW shows.  

The idea was that Ray had disappeared in the wake of some personal issues tied into DC’s own 2005 event comic and in his absence the entire world of microscopic and subatomic sci-fi craziness that he had managed was getting out of control so professor Choi had to dawn the mantel of the Atom to try and keep the tiny world form causing big problems. 

Choi was a pretty cool Atom, a consistently interesting character in a great comic written by our lady of geekiness Gail Simone.  Simone tends to get a lot of love for her skill at representation, which is certainly great, but personally I’ve always loved how incredibly nerdy her comics are and how much she digs deep into the lore and possibilities that a superhero shared universe offers.  

For instance, the sheriff of Ivy Town, the little college town where Choi operates, is none other than Lady Cop, a forgotten ‘70s feminist hero I wrote a whole thing about awhile back when she also premiered on Arrow under her real name Liza Warner.  It’s that kind of attention to geek detail that makes Simone such a great author of our times. 

Created by Geoff Johns in the early 2000s, Jill Carlyle is one of my all time favorite women of color superheroes.  I know that Storm and Amanda Waller are the big names in that particular ranking but if I had my way the Crimson Avenger would be every bit as well known, she’s just that great.  She was one of the characters to emerge out of the Justice Society boost in the 2000s, another attempt to revamp an old character with a diverse twist.  In her case, she was a lot more like a re-imagining than anything else. 

The original Crimson Avenger was a weird blend of late ‘30s pulp heroes, the kind that fought crime a trench coat, a mask, and a gun, and the costumed mystery men of the ‘40s.  Jill Carlyle adopted the coat and guns but rather than just being a person she’s a spirit of vengeance in the vein of Spawn or Ghost Rider.  Her guns are mystic and actually speak to her, directing her towards targets in need of vengeance.  She also adopts the abilities of the victim she’s looking to avenge and can teleport around via blood and graveyard magic because she’s just the coolest. 

Admittedly a lot of my love for Jill Carlyle comes from my love for her genre of Urban Fantasy, an under explored fantasy niche that always produce really cool characters like her or the Crow.  Unfortunately Jill only ever had a brief string of appearances in the works of author Geoff Johns before disappearing from continuity in the late 2000s.  Since then she’s yet to reappear but I’m ever hopeful for her return. 

Technically speaking Jake is the second black man to take over the role of the Guardian, following up the character of Mal Duncan in the Teen Titans.  However, I don’t really care for the Teen Titans comics and 2005’s Manhattan Guardian comic is an all-time favorite so I’d be remise not to bring it up as my example.  The 2005 Manhattan Guardian mini-series was part of a weird but still compelling maxi-series from equally weird and compelling author Grant Morrison.  I’m a stated Morrison fan and while I’m a big fan of his Seven Soldiers maxi-series I think a lot of folks blitz over it, which is a shame as books in it like Frankenstein, Bulleteer, Manhattan Guardian, and Mr. Miracle are stone cold classics of his style. 

Anyway, Manhattan Guardian honestly feels shockingly predictive given it came out before Facebook and Twitter were even a thing.  It all centers around a New York City newspaper, the Manhattan Guardian, where the stories are written by ordinary people as well as the paper’s hordes of on the street citizen journalists known as the News Boy Legion.  That might sound basic today but remember, in 2005 ideas like smart phones, social media, or citizen journalism itself were completely unheard of and wouldn’t come around for another 2 years.  The Manhattan Guardian, the character, was an in-house superhero the newspaper employed to hunt down crazy and violent stories in the city, like pirate subway trains or tourist robots gone violent. 

Jake Jordan was a cop who lost his position when he killed a civilian in the line of fire, another shockingly current aspect of this story, but who found new purpose taking up the role of the Guardian.  Previously this character had been a pretty basic Captain America copy created by Cap’s co-creator Jack Kirby to guard a government super project called Cadmus and while the original Guardian did come back I still have a real soft spot for Jake and the Manhattan Guardian.

Here’s another character from mid-2000s that DC that I’m pretty sure nobody cares about other than me.  After that big 2005 mini-series Infinite Crisis DC was left trying to figure out its own response to Marvel’s Civil War.  See, even though now we’ve all come to realize Civil War was a miserable, poorly written slog that did more harm than good it also made a lot of money at the time and so everyone was keen to copy it.  DC decided to try and do this by borrowing it’s political focus and commentary on the divide between liberty and security at the height of the Bush years.  DC’s response comic was Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, a book I liked as a huge fan of Uncle Sam and company but pretty much everyone else rejected or ignored. 

A big part of the book’s focus was recreating the Freedom Fighters with new heroes after the original team was killed off in the lead up to Infinite Crisis.  While folks like Human Bomb, Phantom Lady, and Doll Man were handled early on and pretty well Black Condor is by far the coolest new member of the team.  Appearing at the mid point of the comic, he’s a combined Earth and Air elemental chosen by an ancient spider goddess to be the defender of the universe against invading ideas from beyond time and space.  That’s such an awesome idea and he’s such a bad ass character, with complete control over the wind and weather and the power to summon earthquakes.  Sadly, none of the Freedom Fighters have made it back into the main DC continuity after the New 52 but I’m still hopeful we’ll see more Black Condor sometime soon. 

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