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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why I love Legacy Characters...

Over at 4th Letter, David Brothers has an interesting post here about legacy characters. It's worth reading, so go do that and come back.

I can see what he's saying, but ultimately, I think that legacy characters play an important role in the Big Two and I think that it would be lost if it were jettisoned.

I'm not going to argue that it's not frustrating to see a new and interesting legacy character apparently abandoned for a less interesting original character. I liked Ronnie Raymond well enough, but Jason Rusch really had a lot more to draw me in. Ryan Choi brought new life into the Atom. And to me at least, Wally West will always be THE Flash.

And I'd always like to see more completely original heroes because they make the shared world a more complicated and vibrant place.

But I think that there is a point to legacy characters that goes beyond just sliding a new, often more diverse character into the (usually) white, male old guard. For me, it ties into what drew me to DC over Marvel in the first place, and while my tastes are not so uniform anymore, it's still what draws me to the particular comics that I read.

For me, legacy characters bring a sense of time into the universe. A sense of change and growth. Yes, there is backsliding and I won't deny that. And it's always difficult to see a favorite pushed aside or replaced (in either direction). But I like seeing new ideas in comics and I like the idea that someday Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and company could retire. Not that they will, of course. But they could.

I mean, it's why I could never get into the argument that the Justice Society was better on Earth 2 and has no place in combined post-crisis Earth. As the only major superhero group on their own planet, the Justice Society is just the Justice League by another name. They're a bunch of guys (and gal) banding together with familiar powers to save the world. Cool, yes. But I think in the shared universe, they represent so much more. In the shared universe, they're the OLD old guard. The folk that never rest. The proof that heroism doesn't die, but it goes on, kicking and screaming as long as you do. Just because new guys are the ones stopping the big form alien invasions, doesn't mean there isn't a threat to be stopped.

The old school guys have seen a lot. They've seen the world change. They're relics and hasbeens and throwbacks. And the bits of new that have come in: Mr. Terrific, Dr. Mid-Nite and (sort of) Sanderson Hawkins. They add a sort of spice to the group that nothing is permanent. But that these ties to what came before are important, but that nostalgia isn't the be all and end all point. There's a sense of generation to the Justice Society (and off-shoot teams) that you don't get anywhere else. Of the old teaching the young, side-by-side. Of the young learning from the old directly, not like the Teen Titans and going off to have their own little adventure with conveniently slacking adult supervision, but like an apprenticeship to life. Or a grander version of "take your kid to work" day.

I like legacy characters because they bring the idea of consequence. I mean, yes, those consequences rarely last. But that's what comes of a medium that exists in a weird state of flux in the way that comics do. It's the same reason why death and the like is never permanent in soap operas. When you have something that goes on for decades, never stopping, you're going to go back, revisit, undo, warp, retcon, double-back and so on. It's part of the machine.

But that said, legacy characters give the consequences a bit more merit. As a rare Marvel example, there were fans who sincerely doubted that Marvel would EVER bring Steve Rogers back once Bucky Barnes proved to be so successful and vibrant in the role of Captain America. (And even now, this new set-up is allowing Steve to explore the after-effects of his experience in a way that he wouldn't necessarily get to do, if he went straight back to that cowl and shield.) When Dick Grayson took over for Batman in Prodigal, we suddenly felt that broken back more than if Batman had just slid right back into the role after some odd months of off-panel down time. Barry Allen and Hal Jordan could be dead or evil/possessed/dead for years because there was someone to pick up the slack. Legacy characters add that element of chance, I think.

And it lets there be some lingering effects that won't completely go away, I think. Hal can occasionally dwell on his Parallax experience and guilt complex. Barry Allen can be momentarily dark and bitter. There's more ability to explore consequences I think, when there's someone else who can step in as the hero that's supposed to be wearing the costume. It lets the other be dark, angry, suffering, PTSD, or whatever other condition would not be common in the "traditional" view of a superhero.

Legacy characters also, and this might be the most important thing for me, really bring forth the idea that becoming a superhero gives you something, it makes you more than yourself in some hard to define way.

Take Batman Beyond. Before that show, I would never have thought the idea of a non-Bruce Wayne Batman could ever have really worked beyond a vague hypothetical. For all the Batclan and the way Bat-derivative characters dominate Gotham, I'd felt like Batman was the one DC hero that couldn't TRULY be separated identity from core, Prodigal aside. (Or DC 1 Million aside, because that seemed more gimmicky to work.)

But Batman Beyond really did it. Terry McGinness couldn't be less like Bruce Wayne if he tried (I've always said he was Kyle Rayner with a batsuit instead of a ring). But I felt the IDEA of Batman more watching that show than I ever did. Batman is more than just the people who follow him, and more than just an iconic costume. Batman Beyond's Batman looked nothing like the original, acted nothing like the original. But he was BATMAN.

I love that. I really do. I love the idea that the mythos of the superhero is so strong that even in the universe, they feel it.

I love that Kyle Rayner had doubts that he could ever truly fill Hal Jordan's place as Green Lantern (even though the current GL franchise has modified to be closer to the Batclan than a uniform legacy line.) I love that Wally resented him, and Bruce doubted him, and Ollie wanted nothing to do with him.

I love that Wally West felt the burden of Barry's death with everything he did early on as Flash, and how he grew past his own weaknesses and character flaws to surpass his mentor in many ways while remaining his own distinct person.

I love that Tim Drake took like three mini-series to actually earn the right to wear the Robin costume. And that originally, he'd never even intended to take it! Batman needed a Robin, though, and since Dick Grayson vetoed coming back, someone had to take it.

These are only three examples, and they're probably bad examples in many ways. For one thing, they're all white male characters and all still around in some form and don't really address the frustration of having introduced diversity and new faces and then yanking them back. But they do illustrate what works best about the legacy idea for me. The idea that each of these characters, whether they were former sidekicks, complete strangers, whether they intended to or not, found themselves joining something bigger than them already in progress.

What I really wish is that we could separate the idea of "legacy characters" from "replacement characters". Because for me, that's what hampers these new characters more than anything else. Because if there can be only ONE Superman, well, then, it's always going to be Clark Kent. If DC is going to pick only one Hawkman or one Atom or one Firestorm, it's probably going to be the one that they think will sell more books, or appeal to the fanbase more. And given the current (perceived) tastes of the fanbase, it's probably going to be the old white dude.

But it doesn't have to. Supergirl, Batgirl/Nightwing/Oracle, and most of the Teen Titans. They're all legacy characters TOO, in my opinion. And ignoring the inheritability of those identities for a moment, they have a sense of permanence that the replacement guys don't. This isn't to say they can't or won't be killed off, but I think they have as much chance as any new hero. (Possibly more, since even if their book is cancelled, they can slip into recurring/supporting cast of the main book.)

What makes Green Lantern so amazing right now, to me, is that they took a legacy concept (Hal->Kyle) and the corps premise, and made something new. Guy Gardner, John Stewart (It took long enough!) and Kyle Rayner may not be THE Green Lantern. But they're all around. All prominent. All strong and nifty and playing their own roles. And say what you will about Blackest Night, they all got to do some pretty interesting things there.

Flash managed for quite a while even before Barry came back, by incorporating Jay, Jessie, Bart and so on in a wider net. And of course, there's the Batclan.

I definitely think we should have new characters, too. And I think it would be good, even, to put a moratorium on legacy characters for the time being (at least, legacy replacements. New Green Lanterns are always fun.) If nothing else, we ought to create more NEW legacies that others can inherit. But I still think that there is a power to legacy characters, and a meaning and depth they bring to the story that I'd hate to lose.


  • At September 09, 2010 6:00 AM, Blogger Eyz said…

    I like your point there!
    I also really like the concept of Legacy characters, having a sense of time and all that. Specially with the JSA too.

    Marvel's got some of those too, but more on the side of the villains (Doctor Octopus, Venom, many Ironman villains, etc..)

    Now we're at a point were there's multiple different characters sharing the same "legacy" alongside each others.. 2 Flashes, a lot of GLs, 2 Batmen soon...
    (still hoping to see 2 Blue Beetles around and 2 Atoms too...If you get what I mean..)

  • At September 09, 2010 10:51 AM, Blogger Carl Walker said…

    Absolutely! I really feel like this whole rant against legacy characters is nothing but a specific fannish preference dressed up as an argument for "maturity" and "originality" and such, even if it is probably meant to be sincere. It's much harder to argue against that then to just argue between two different fannish preferences.

  • At September 09, 2010 11:14 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I think there's a genuine concern that currently, interesting minority characters are being put on the backburner/killed off in favor of their more well-known predecessors. That's the big flaw in the current legacy character model. (A lot of bloggers blame nostalgia, I don't necessarily agree, but they've made some interesting posts on the subject.)

    I think the concern goes beyond fannish preference in that sense. I just don't necessarily think omitting legacy characters for brand new franchises will solve anything.

    (I'm a bit more cynical. I don't think the brand new heroes have much more of a chance to survive beyond a legacy hero right now. They're the ones who tend to end up cannon fodder in the big events.)

  • At September 09, 2010 3:41 PM, Blogger SallyP said…

    David Brothers does have a point. They don't seem to be creating new threats and villains nearly as much as they used to. Granted not everyone can be a Doctor Doom or a Lex Luthor, but heck, Paste Pot Pete has his role as well.

    I do adore Legacy characters however. I don't mind Jaime Reyes being the new Blue Beetle in the least...because if you actually look at him, he is so very very different from Ted or Dan, with a whole different set of powers and a whole different attitude...other than heroism.

    I love Hal and Barry, but then I'm also incredibly fond of Wally and Guy and Kyle and John, and so on. And you just can't beat Jay and Alan and Ted and the old guard in the JSA. The whole idea of the veterans training the youngsters is an excellent one.

    In the old days, we had one Superman, one Bat, one Flash, and one Green Lantern. Now we have a veritable plethora...and I couldn't be happier.

  • At September 09, 2010 5:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    A class of legacy character you neglect is one that I particularly love: the lame legacy. Terry Sloane had possibly the worst costume in comics history, and consequently is emminently forgettable, but Michael Holt is fantastic. The legacy can serve as a springboard to re-imagine the concept into something new and better, just as Al Pratt was reincarnated as Ray Palmer for the Silver Age.

    The other thing is that legacy heroes help us believe that these guys are actually heroes. They inspire people to dress up in funny outfits and do the right thing, in the same way a flag inspires people to stand up for their country.

    --Jack of Spades


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