Monday, March 16, 2009

Death of The Legacy Character

Recently, Dan Didio has stated that he is trying to return several of DC's characters to an "iconic state" (my words) that the public could easily recognize. This, of course, has upset parts of the fan community, specifically fans of DC's legacy characters.

On one hand, there are the fans who are enjoying the return of these classic characters, myself being one of them, and, on the other, there are fans of the legacy characters who are being replaced by these classic predecessors.

While some fans of the legacy characters from the past couple decades, such as Batgirl (Cassandra Cain), Green Arrow (Connor Hawk) and Supergirl (Linda Danvers), would like to have people believe this is because certain writers, most often citing Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison, are simply "Silver Age Fanboys" bringing the characters they grew up reading back, it is actually the symptoms of a much deeper problem that has plagued DC since the end of the Silver Age and Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Waves of Characters

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to divide DC's characters into four "waves". The first wave represents the classic Golden Age characters, such as Earth-2 Superman and members of the JSA (Alan Scott, Jay Garrick, and Ted Grant).

The second wave of characters were the ones that came in with the Silver Age, characters such as Hal Jordan and Barry Allen.

The third wave begins with the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths characters, like Superboy (Kon-El), Batgirl (Cassandra Cain), Green Arrow (Connor Hawke), Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) and Impulse (Bart Allen, who later became Flash). Although Wally West is technically from the second wave, where he was Kid Flash, I'm putting him with this wave since this around the time when he become the Flash.

The fourth and final wave are the newest round of legacy characters, plus a few new ones, such as Manhunter (Kate Spenser), Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes), Batwoman (Kate Kane), the Atom (Ryan Choi), and Firestorm (Jason Rusch).


Although Barry Allen and Hal Jordan are the original legacy characters, they are not the origin of DC's problems when it comes to multiple people sharing the same super hero identity. Both Jordan and Allen can and did exist completely separate from Alan Scott and Jay Garrick, since Scott and Garrick were both from different times and, in the books themselves, different realities.

In actuality, Wally West can be considered the original forerunner for all legacy characters running around the DC Universe, which compose my "third wave". He replaced his predecessor from the same reality, unlike Hal and Barry's replacement of WWII heroes from alternate Earths, and had known and served as a sidekick of Barry.

This was what made the third wave of characters different from the second - they existed in the same reality as the their predecessors and eventually took up their mantles, unlike the second wave's reusing of concepts established back in the 30's.

This brings them into conflict among fans over who's the better or 'true' character in a way that the introduction of Barry and Hal did not have on the pre-existing Jay and Alan. In the case of these legacies, you typically have to get rid of one in order to get the new version. This has had the obvious problems of upsetting one group of fans when their favorite character is now second to another character that is either the Legacy character or their predecessor.

The Origin Problem

Another problem facing legacy characters is that, outside of the first wave of legacy characters, they don't usually have independent origins. While this isn't so much of a problem with regular readers, it is a problem for attracting new readers.

For example, Kyle Rayner and Wally West don't have independent origins. They are directly linked to their predecessors, Hal Jordan and Barry Allen's removal/deaths. Hal become Parallax which led to Ganthet, the last Guardian, making Kyle the last Green Lantern while Barry died back in CoIE.

Barry and Hal, as second wave characters, have truly independent origins from their first wave countparts while Wally and Kyle "need" Barry and Hal as the catalyst for their existence as characters. Looking at it objectively, Hal and Barry are "better" characters than either Kyle or Wally because of this.

For a simple example of this, in Justice League Unlimited, the Flash was Wally's personality with Barry's origin and history. This applies to several other legacy characters featured in the DC animated universe. It's a glaring flaw in many otherwise solid characters.

Public Perception

This all begs the question, why is DC bringing back these specific legacy characters in the first place? After all, in reference to Barry or Wally and Hal or Kyle, many people in the public probably don't even know one of these characters from the other despite many knowing who Flash or Green Lantern are.

Look at Batman the Animated Series and, by extension, the rest of the DCAU. Many of the second wave characters appeared in either Batman, Superman or Justice League. Both Batgirl and Supergirl appeared in the series, but not as the "fan favorite" versions that first appeared post-Crisis (ie, neither Cassandra Cain nor Matrix/Linda Danvers versions appeared). In the Batgirl's case, it was the Barbara Gordon version featured in Batman: TAS and, again, in The Batman. When it came to Supergirl, she was Superman's "cousin", alla the Silver Age.

By using these characters in television, these are the versions that people are going to be most familiar with. One of the hoped for side effects of doing things like TV shows is to get more people to read comics. If a person's favorite character from the show isn't in the comics ,then DC has more than likely lost or alienated a customer.

This is why Cassandra Cain, Linda Danvers and most of DC's legacy characters are not the best possible versions of these characters - they simply don't match what the public perceives Batgirl and Supergirl, or anyone else, should be, which isn't good for DC's comic versions either.

So, why not make the animated versions match up with the most recent versions? Well, sometimes the newest legacy character appeared after the TV show aired(Cassandra Cain) or their origins are too complicated(Matrix/Danvers Supergirl) and this basically means that the creation of a third version or hybrid of Silver Age and modern versions of the character would be necessary.

Marvel's Advantage

The question of who is better, Marvel or DC, will rage forever without a definitive answer, but one thing is pretty certain, - Marvel's characters are simply more stable than DC's.

While the A-listers at both companies are pretty much set in stone, even Marvel's lower tier characters are fairly stable compared to the numerous waves of DC legacy changes that take place.

Despite the fact that DC characters are generally viewed as "icons", there are still a lot of characters that share the names and mantles across different mediums, from televison to toys to movies. In Marvel's case, the fact is, if you see or like a Marvel character from another media, odds are their comic book counterpart is basically the same, even when it comes to the B and C-list characters. The odd exception to this was with the always single portrayal of Spider-Man, but One More Day changed that.

As a quick aside about OMD, in just about every non-comic Spider-Man property it is strongly hinted at that Spidey and Mary Jane would either get together or eventually get married. Undoing the marriage in the comic actually creates a difference between the two when Quesada was actually trying to align them. Now, that's not the only, or main, reason why he did it, but it is there.

This is one of the things that has hampered many of the third wave Legacy characters. They got started in a time of upheavals in both the DCU and the comics industry. Even if they had managed to catch on, they never reached the necessary acceptance level to thrive as many of the second wave characters did. This also decreased the likelihood of the them appearing in other media, which would have cemented their claim to their legacy mantle.

The Few Survivors

Despite the failure of many third wave legacy characters to catch on, two have managed to do surprising well - Wally West and Kyle Rayner - but for different, yet very important reasons.

In Wally's case, unlike just about every other third wave legacy character, Wally made it to "Icon" status. The Flash is one of the seven founding members of the JLA which made Wally a lot more visible, especially when it came to other media like JLU. He also had the longest time to establish himself, some 20 years before Barry Allen finally came back. In addition, he had two definitive back-to-back runs by Mark Waid and Geoff Johns, which really helped to firmly establish him both with fans and within the DCU. Wally has "made it" in every sense of the phrase.

Kyle Rayner is the second legacy character to survive his predecessor's return and has done better that most other Legacy characters for very different reasons than Wally's. First and foremost, Kyle is part of the Green Lantern Corps. There has almost always been multiple Green Lanterns, especially in regards to Earth based versions, which has allowed him to stick around after Hal's return. Ironically, the one exception to this 'multiple GL' rule was when Kyle was first introduced. Either way, this meant that Kyle went from being The One to being One Among Many. This is something that many Legacy characters don't have the chance to do.

He also had an in-story reason to stay prominent - he was the Torchbearer, the man who kept the GLC going when everyone else was gone. Again, very few Legacy characters have had in-story reasons for them to remain prominent after their predecessors have returned. So, while Wally and Kyle are indeed the exceptions to the legacy character rule, they also prove just how hard it is to pull off and stay relevant.

The Next Wave

Jaime Reyes, the current Blue Beetle, is probably the perfect legacy character. His origin is connected to his predecessor yet independent, Jaime found the scarab which attached itself to him and made him the Blue Beetle.

But, more importantly, his history as a character also has something that distinguishes him from many of the other legacy characters - a TV show. While not specifically a Blue Beetle show, he has appeared on Batman: The Brave and The Bold twice.

This is one reason why he will probably succeed where so many others have failed - mainstream exposure. Jaime Reyes is now the Blue Beetle that people outside comics will know about and if they get the urge to check his comic book adventures, he will be there as well.

This also applies to a lot the of the fourth wave legacy characters. It is more likely that they will have opportunities to appear in outside media than previous characters increasing their chances of survival as long term characters in the DCU.

What Does It All Mean?

Basically, DC is undoing something that should have never really been done in the first place. This is not to say that any DC's legacy characters are mistakes, but, rather, they should have never eclipsed their predecessors in comics only. Many of them never made it into the public consciousness, which means they could never be as successful as the originals. Even among comic readers, Barbara Gordon is more likely to be know as Batgirl than Cassandra Cain.

What DC is doing is trying their best to make their characters have the greatest appeal possible and you do this by going with the characters people know the best. Regardless of Cassandra Cain's or Barbara Gordan's qualities as characters, Barbara is always going to be the better Batgirl since that is who most people know to be the character, which is why she should be Batgirl, at least in DC's eyes. Until DC decides on the wholesale evolution of all of it's characters, it is perhaps in their best interest to stick with what people know.

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Anonymous said...

This was an interesting and very well-informed post. My thought about DC is that when they are doing something well, they shine like no others. But when the "gods" fall, they fall harder and faster than any other characters could. Final Crisis was a jumbled mess and really would have benefited from a clear, concise vision. This seems to be an indicative symptom of what is happening in the DCU as a whole. The line doesnt seem a streamlining of characters, but it should remain true to its core idea of great characters doing great, heroic things being told well. Thats it. Its not rocket science, its 'just' comics! =)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, while I agree with your comment with Kyle and Wally, for the new blue beetle I think, and I might get flame for this, the reason why he might succeed Ted is because Ted was lame I've watch brave and the bold and Jaime's power seem cool while Ted seem to just play tsukommi to Booster gold's boke. The most people rememebr Ted as the guy doomsday beat to a pulp. Ted was definitely not iconic.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you for the most part... however I think Nightwing and Barbara Gordon deserved some mention. Former sidekicks that have made some dent in their own right, especially Nightwing. And Tim Drake, thanks to the New Batman Adventures, is relatively well known now (esp. compared to his contemporaries).
The real big problem is the fact that DC doesn't seem to want to support these new characters outside of the comics. It's as if they're afraid that by putting the new ones out in cartoons etc. they will risk losing fans of the old ones. Which begs the question, if you don't think they'll prove popular, why introduce them?

They've had so many opportunities to expose the new 'legacy' characters... just look at that Teen Titans cartoon. Why did we need to see a team that hasn't existed in years? Why not feature Tim Drake, Cassandra's Sandsmark and Cain, Blue Beetle, Bart Allen, etc? They could have had the old Titans make some cameos here and there, and voila! Issue resolved!

It seems that for some reason DC just doesn't want the new characters to do well; they're just publicity stunts. Indeed, with Barbara now all but certain to go back to being Batgirl, it seems like DC will never let its characters grow. Which would be fine, if they didn't pretend they were doing the opposite.

Anonymous said...

Yeah but teen titans was aim for a younger audience, Cassandra a bit too extreme, Speedy has AIDS, Bart died, and did the new blue beetle even existed during teen titans? But I agree, Tim should have been Robin instead of Dick

Anonymous said...

did Bart die before the show started?
and come on, they could've toned down the extremities of Cassandra and Speedy... just like they do for every character in a cartoon.

Andrenn said...

This was a great post Kirk. Though I've always liked Legacy characters, I definitely think that in the end, the best are the originals. I think it's sad to see DC rather lazily going back to the originals then simply pushing the new ones into a more deserved spotlight, but oh well, it's not like I can stop them.

Kevin said...

nice article Eric. You bring up an interesting argument that I have argued with many of my friends who are pure DC fans.

Also you can add Damien as part of the Fourth Wave since he is mostlikely going to be the next Robin.

Kirk Warren said...

@Andrenn - This was actually written up by Eric, not me. I'm sure it's just a force of habit to assume it's me. =D

@Kevin - Hard to say if Damien is a fixture or just another Spoiler. The way I'm seeing it, it's a Grant Morrison character. Soon as he leaves, Damian is as good as dead. If he starts appearing in every book as Robin, though, maybe we can reassess it.

Eric Rupe said...

About the Robins, I was going to include them but when I got started on on this I realized just how much I did not actually know about the comic versions. Also, Dick has appeared as Nightwing in Batman: The Animated Series towards the end.

@Kevin - I agree with Kirk, once Morrison leaves Damian probably leaves with him and he is most likely only going to be Robin until Bruce comes back and all of the Batbooks go back to their pre-BftC status quo.

Jake said...

i dunno. maybe i'm the few who actually thought the legacy characters were one of DCs strengths. It gave the sense of a real breathing world with multiple characters and also the sense of time, since the second wave characters seemed to get old and needed to get replaced (ala dick growing out of his role as robin). it was an evolving world, nothing was status quo. and it made for great stories.

marvel however, while from a marketing standpoint might have a leg up against DC coz their characters are more stable, seemed to have characters that stagnated. how many times have they rebooted spideys story to keep him single? how many wolverine weapon x stories have we read? honestly.. marvel sometimes bores me. everything remains status quo.

and isn't it intriguing that marvel is now trying the legacy story with its characters? new captain america? new iron fist? multiple ghost riders? what's even more intriguing is these are considered some of marvel's best books right now. just some food for thought guys. =)

Kirk Warren said...

@Jake - What I think Eric was getting at, though, was that DC was basically killing off the legacy characters that you claim made them special by getting rid (either killing off or through the return of older legacy characters these new ones originally replaced) of the third and fourth waves of legacy characters.

Eric Rupe said...

@Jake - I completely agree that Legacies are one of things that separates DC from Marvel and I do enjoy Legacy characters but at this point in time they are probably more a burden than a help in their need for attracting new readers.

It worked fine in the 90s when comics where at a high point but now, not so much. The main problem is that you having all of these characters appear in multiple mediums and you want them matching up so you can't have Hal be the Green Lantern in the new animated film and movie that are coming up and not have him be the Green Lantern in the comic book.

And about Marvel's Legacy characters, I expect Steven to come back before the Cap movie comes out even though I'd prefer he didn't. Iron Fist and Ghost Rider are retroactive Legacy characters so they don't have the probably that I described above.

Anonymous said...

What about John Stewart, Hal Jordan's pre-crisis Green Lantern legacy? I wonder how many kids think of Stewart as the main GL thanks to the Justice League shows.

Anonymous said...

Basically what you seem to be saying is that comics should capitulate to television and the comics people should follow whatever the television people decide.

This ends the relevance of comics as an art form as they become just a TV adaptation rather than the primary source of all this mythology.

Comics should be seen as the primary source. Television should take its cues from the comics rather than the other way around. Otherwise you're just perpetuating the attitude that comics as a media form are destined to fade out to limbo.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous #12768,

That's not what he said at all.
All that was said is that DC should use the versions of characters they're presenting in the comics in other media; using only the old versions means that the new Legacy characters never take root with the public and end up being discarded.

Daryll B said...

Ok I am of 2 minds of this: while I love the legacy concept, people always use it or change it for the wrong reasons. I can tell you when first reading the Goyer JSA I loved it. New and old legacy characters intertwining with their lives and times also comparing and contrasting is a thing of beauty.

But my bliss was short-lived for as soon as it came out I would hear on a weekly basis: why did they have to change it? Now here were characters that weren't being used as a whole until Morrison brought them back in JLA, and Goyer was using them well in my opinion and these fans were hating on it. I took it as anti change, anti growth. And louder and louder you'd hear: "why does the new character have to be ....? I liked the old one better.." Some were even commenting without even reading the book!

I love Jaime, Kyle, John, Guy, Wally, Kate, Cassandra etc. and I love Ted, Dan, Barry, Jay, Alan, and Barbara. Both sets of characters have had great stories. Sometimes I hate silver age DC fans for not giving the new stuff a chance because they'll always look like petulant children to me. After all the world did change a lil after 1969 ya know? If time didn't freeze out here why should it freeze in there?

Thought provoking article Eric...

Jake said...

agreed on everything.

it's sad though how it seems that instead of prioritizing good stories.. comics are now prioritizing marketability.. (at the expense of the good stories!)

must it be like this? is the previous comic business model now defunct? sad.

Eric Rupe said...

Lots of good points here so I'm actually going to do a follow up post for all of this. Should be up in a week or two.

AirDave said...

Great post! Really got me thinkin'!

I've been guilty of being a fan of Hal, Barry and Oliver and not accepting Kyle and Connor. I grudgingly accepted Wally, but deep down still looked at him as a Teen Titan. When I started reading comics in the mid to late '70's, I think DC had lost a little focus on Hal and Barry. It didn't get any better through the '80's. it wasn't until Green Lantern was relaunched in the '90's that I started to like and enjoy it again, and then he became Parallax. And then Kyle took over. I felt like I was robbed. The whole Trial of The Flash was just a mess. you could almost tell that they knew he was going to die in the Crisis and everything was shoehorned together. There probably were some great Wally West stories told, but one of the longest running stories was The Return of Barry Allen; in which The Reverse Flash came back and impersonated Barry. Like I said there may have been some great Wally stories - and there may still be some great ones ahead. I'm not convinced that DC was giving Wally, Kyle or Connor their chance.

ejulp (john) said...

When I was little, and started to get into comics because of X-Men TAS, I instantly saw the comics as, "the real ones." Funny now, when I look back, any confusion-discrepancies were intriguing to me, rather than frustrating...I'm genetically such a little geek.

Anonymous said...

Dude, where was Wonder Woman in this whole post? Have you seen that animated movie that just came out with her? It's awesome, and she's been around forever, and you forgot her.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

Just as a heads up, I was inspired to write a counter-post on my own site (rather than do a lengthy reply in your comments). You can click my name for the link, if interested.

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