Always Early #4 – The Replacement Heroes

The central concept of Justice Society of America is legacy. The first super-hero ‘team’ comic, the JSA launched in All Star Comics #3 in the early 1940s and they are still around today. Obviously, not everyone from the first issues can still be around since 70 years have passed. That’s where legacy comes in. The JSA is the focal point for generations of heroes inspired by the original mystery men. Grandchildren, nephews, daughters, and so on, all driven to costume by those that came before. I fell in love with the JSA primarily for this reason. I own not only all the modern issues, but the 1970s reboot of All Star Comics and some of the DC Archives of the original series. I have yet to take the plunge and buy some actual Golden Age comics, but the day is coming.

"Take that, Hitler!"

While the Justice Society is the one title that focuses more on legacy than just about any other book, the idea of ‘replacement heroes’ is everywhere in comics. Like the JSA, many of today’s major heroes have been around for over 70 years. The world met Batman in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. Readers got Captain America Comics #1, featuring Cap punching Hitler, more than six months before the US entered World War II. Superman first appeared in comics in Action Comics #1 in 1938, but that’s actually his third appearance as he was first seen in a science-fiction magazine as an alien villain here to conquer the Earth. Now, most comic readers realize that time is about as fictional in comics as multiverses and alternate futures. But 70 years is still 70 years. That’s how many generations of readers?

Captain America sparked my interest in this. I just spent the last month reading the Ed Brubaker run on the current ongoing Cap series. The primary event of the book is the return of Cap’s WWII sidekick Bucky. Presumed dead for more than half a century, Bucky was actually recovered by the Russians and turned into a secret weapon called the Winter Soldier during the Cold War. He was kept in suspended animation and only brought out at crucial times. Cap learns of this and vows to rescue his friend. He helps Bucky free himself of the Russians control. But that’s just in time for Steve Rogers to be ‘killed’ by the Red Skull. Steve’s wishes are for Bucky to carry on his legacy and that’s eventually what happens. Even with Steve back, Bucky remains Captain America and has been accepted by peers and public alike. I know many of you are familiar with this story, but when you read 30 comics in two nights, you’re mind starts racing with thoughts.

I was skeptical about the Brubaker Cap. I criticized the return of Bucky quite heavily. Comics are dominated by character revivals. That’s the point of this very article. But Bucky was one of those ‘untouchable’ characters, too woven in to the lore of Captain America to be brought back. Too attached to WWII. I think for me it wasn’t just the idea of bringing Bucky back, but the continued meaninglessness of character deaths. If someone can be revived after 70 years, what difference does any death have? Why even kill characters? That’s a whole other topic that boils down to whether or not the death makes sense for the story being told. I was won over by the quality of Brubaker’s story and especially by great Steve Epting art and design. Epting’s pencils are complimented by great panel layouts and color. Panels feel like camera lenses, capturing well-plotted action and highlighting great visual imagery such as the famous Shield of Captain America. So this was a great book. It’s only real flaw being the length of time it took to get from the ‘death’ of Steve Rogers to the revelation of why he was shot —- a bit of a let down. My other realization is that Bucky Barnes is Jason Bourne moved from fiction and film to comic. I feel like a bunch of Marvel execs had a Bourne marathon one night and decided they wanted that character. A brainwashed soldier retains the muscle movements from his past life, a role tailor made for the return of Bucky. Manipulated by governments for their own purposes, ultimately freed of mind control. Yup, Jason meet Bucky, Bucky meet Jason.

I also started really turning around the central idea of this article. I realized that Bucky was the latest in a long line of substitutes, characters stepping in for other characters. He’s not even alone right now. Dick Grayson emerged from the Battle for the Cowl after Bruce Wayne’s disappearance. And that’s not even the first time he’s donned the Bat-suit. Joined by new Robin, Damian, the latest in a whole host of Robins, Dick has just started his career. Speaking of Robin, there’s been Damian Wayne, Time Drake, Jason Todd, Dick Grayson, the Spoiler, and, of course, Cassie from Dark Knight Returns. Captain America has had his own transformations. There are two Steve Rogers and a Bucky who’ve worn the costume. There’s even been two Buckys. Plus, Steve has been Nomad and US Agent, I think. So two characters, Batman and Captain America, both nearly 70 years old, and both great examples of legacy.

Barry, Wally, and all the other Flashes.

Should we even try to look at Green Lantern? Earth currently has four. There’s Hal Jordan, but he’s buddies with John Stewart, Kyle Rayner, and Guy ‘one punch’ Gardner. Plus, there’s a whole corps of Lanterns in the universe. Hal went bad and became Parallax and got replaced by Kyle but then got better and replaced Kyle. Guy has had at least one of his own comics and starred in numerous JLA books, as has Stewart. Kyle was the title character for at least a decade and now stars in the Corps. None of these guys were even the original Green Lantern. That’s Alan Scott and his powers are derived from magic and not Oa. How about the Flash? Golden Age Flash was Jay Garrick, member of the JSA. But then in the 1960s, Barry Allen showed up. They meet and started the whole whole mess that leads to the destruction of the multiverse in 1985. Barry dies during that and Wally West replaces him. Jay is still around and he and Wally hang out for a while until along comes Bart Allen, who’s been Impulse, Kid Flash, and the Flash all in about 20 years. Now Barry’s back so there are a million Flashes running around. Plus there’s all the other sppedsters like Jessie and Johnny Quick and Max Mercury. That’s just the beginning at DC. There are lots of Superboys. There’s Prime, there’s Clark Kent as a kid, and there’s Conner Kent. There’s more than one Supergirl, the new one from the recent Superman /Batman series, and the original now known as Power Girl who ‘died’ in the original Crisis on Infinite Eaths. Donna Troy is a spin-off of Wonder Woman as is Wonder Girl. There’ve been countless incarnations of Superman. There’s four replacements post death, including Conner, a third Supergirl, a Cyborg Superman. There’s Superman Red and Superman Blue, Kal El split in two. There’s Kal L of Earth-2. There’s Kingdom Come alternate future Superman. There’ve been Supermen with beards and Supermen who grew up in Russia. There’s even Mon Ell now. You can’t count how many Supermen there are.

Seriously... the same guy.

Over at Marvel, the situation is only slightly different. Most Marvel characters came into being in the 1960s so they have 20 less years of history to worry about. But as I pointed out already, Captain America has had no shortage of place holders. The Human Torch in the 1940s is  a robot unlike the one in the Fantastic Four. Both catch fire, though. Namor has remained pretty much unchanged since the days of WWII and so has the Red Skull. But as for the 1960s gang, there is no shortage of changes. Spidey has gone through lots. He had clone Ben Reilly take over for awhile. He’s spun off Spider-Girl. He’s worn a black suit and then the black suit tried to kill him after it became Venom. That led to a whole planet of symbiotic aliens. Sure Wolverine is still Wolverine, but he’s got a kid Dakken and then there’s X-23 and whatever her connection to Logan is. Jean Grey has become the Phoenix, died and become the Phoenix again so many times it makes your head spin.  She’s both been good and bad Phoenix. The Beast is a great one. He was originally human looking, with giant feet. Then he got turned blue and then into a giant cat. And then there’s dark Beast from another universe. Iron Man has seen it all. There’s War Machine, poiloted by his buddy Rhodey. But for a while, Tony was a 12 year old kid from another planet. And how many suits of armor have there been? Thor is pretty much Thor, but what about guys like Beta Ray Bill and all the other Asgardians? And sometimes Thor is Donald Blake, too. I almost forgot the Hulk. There’s Grey Hulk, Green Hulk, Red Hulk, She Hulk, Red Hulk plural and Red She Hulk. Don’t forget the Maestro, future emperor of the world Hulk. We’ve had smart Hulk, dumb Hulk, split personality Hulk, abused as a child Hulk, Banner-Hulk, and even Banner free of the Hulk Hulk. There’s lots of Captain Marvels. There’s a Kree, a black woman, and a zillion at DC. Ms Marvel has been Warbird and a herald of Galactus. How about Hank Pym? He’s been Yellowjacket, Giant Man, Ant Man, and just plain old Dr. Pym how many times? He’s even been a Skrull. I’m not even counting the Ultimate Universe here, which has a whole other set of characters that mirror the regular Marvel one. We’ll just let that speak for itself, with it’s most noteworthy example being Nick Fury.

I’m sure this is the tip of the iceberg. I am hoping this article might even spark some discussion. I guess my interest here is just to point out our diverse experience as comic readers. We sit here today reading about Bucky Cap and Dick Batman while back in the 1940s some kid was reading about Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers. It’s the same mask that’s survived through all this time. The iconic images of super-heroes have transcended through more than half a century  of American history. World wars and cold wars and gulf wars. They’ve survived radio, TV, movies, color TVs, and so far the internet. They’ve each been transfigured into these new media in some form but have ultimately remained unique to the printed page and the irreplaceable paper and ink. They’ve been thrown away, put in bags and backers, passed on, lost, seen booms ad busts. But as all true heroes do, they keep coming back no matter who’s behind the masks.

Got a character you can think of who’s gone through identity changes? I know I left out lots. Please feel free to keep the ball rolling here and I’ll see you next week.