Super Substitutes and Super Successors

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new Captain America got me thinking about superhero legacies, how some superheroes can have multiple incarnations while others work primarily or only as their original incarnation.

And since this is the internet, let me get this out of the way: I am NOT the slightest bit outraged about Sam Wilson becoming Captain America. You will not find any inflamed hot takes here, just a sober look at the situation.

But we’ll get to the captains later. Let’s start with the kids. 

Kid Sidekicks

No offense to the youth, but sidekicks are the most replaceable category of superheroes. Naturally, they should grow up and move on at some point, like how the original Robin became Nightwing.

Sidekick roles are like apprenticeships—training, not a permanent identity. A kid can assist until he or she grows up into their own identity, and then a new kid comes along and becomes the new Robin or whoever.

Green Lantern(s)

Green Lantern is built for multiple incarnations. There’s an entire corps of Green Lanterns, after all, so numerous Green Lanterns already existed from the get-go.

It is weird that there’s now a disproportionate number of Green Lanterns from Earth, but there are harder pills to swallow in the realm of superhero comics. 

As far as popular culture is concerned, Hal Jordan has the advantage of being Earth’s first Green Lantern (of the intergalactic space cop variety, that is), but John Stewart is just as valid (especially thanks to the excellent Justice League cartoon), as are the newer ones like Jessica Cruz.

Spider-Man (-Men?)

Establishing a non-Peter Parker Spider-Man was something I didn’t think possible, but Marvel pulled it off with Miles Morales.

Part of why this works is because Miles never fully replaced Peter. As far as I can recall, at no point was Miles Morales the only available Spider-Man appearing in Marvel Comics. Readers could choose one or the other or both.

The difference between Peter Parker and Miles Morales is essentially the difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The latter keeps the spirit and core concept of the original but modernizes it for a new era with an all-new cast. Neither takes anything away from the other.

Flash: The Fastest Men Alive

When I read Flash comics in the ’90s, the Flash wasn’t Barry Allen; he was Wally West—the former Kid Flash all grown up and succeeding his deceased mentor.

That worked because Barry Allen at that point had always been a likable but fairly bland character, and Wally wound up receiving much greater development through more modern storytelling. 

Throughout the course of his series, while struggling to live up to the example of his uncle, Wally grew up from a self-centered 20-year-old to a respected hero in his own right and ultimately a responsible family man. He had such a great arc that it reached a solid conclusion and feels like a complete story told over twenty years of comics. Even with the success of the Flash TV show, I still tend to think of the Wally West version before any other.

Because he’s Batman

But compare that to Batman. Batman is such a distinct character that he can only be Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson is a valid substitute on occasion, but he’s never more than a substitute. 

During the Knightfall storyline from the ’90s, Bruce tapped the wrong substitute, Jean Paul Valley, also known as Azrael, which was essentially a way of showing how terrible it would be to have a darker, more violent Batman without the ethical restraints of Bruce Wayne. (The Punisher as Batman, essentially.) The replacement validated the original, reminding us how great he is.

It’s Superman!

Superman had a contingent of substitutes after he died in the early ’90s, and like with Batman, the point of the story was to show that only Superman (Clark Kent) can be Superman. 

Three of the four substitutes were outright horrible. One, derived from his Kryptonian heritage (a “Last Son of Krypton,” if you will), was very cold and alien and didn’t mind killing criminals. And seeing any type of Superman kill is highly unsettling.

Then there was a cyborg version of Superman (a “Man of Tomorrow”), who represented the excesses of early ’90s comics—all style, no soul. This Superman was never a hero, and he indeed wound up being a villain in disguise.

We also had a Superboy, but this kid wasn’t raised by the Kents and therefore was a selfish, arrogant brat (though he matured in later stories). 

The fourth fill-in Superman was most obviously not like the original Superman on the outside but most like him on the inside. John Henry Irons was a steelworker whose life Superman saved, so when Superman died, Irons felt an obligation to pay it forward. He built himself a suit of armor (becoming a “Man of Steel”) and sought to help people in Superman’s memory. Unlike the other three, this character was actually heroic. But he never claimed to be Superman. He was the only one who didn’t call himself Superman, and the only one who evoked the authentic spirit of Superman.

Captains America

And this brings us to Captain America. The character was created as a propaganda symbol in the ’40s, but after his revival in the ’60s, he became a character in his own right. And that character was man-out-of-time Steve Rogers.

John Walker, like in the recent TV show, was used to show us how Cap should not behave (again, just like Azrael-Batman and the ill-behaved substitute Supermen).

Bucky and Falcon are both valid substitutes—the only valid substitutes, I would say. They both had their stints as Captain America in the comics (fairly recent comics, all in this century). Bucky’s Cap story was part of his redemption arc, and it was part of a Death of Captain America story not all that different in spirit from the Death of Superman story, though it took a different route. 

The main reason Bucky ultimately agreed to step into the Captain America role was because he knew no one could live up to it, least of all himself, but out of respect for his best friend, he would give it his all. Pretty much everyone reading the storyline understood that the “real” Captain America would inevitably return within a few years or so.

I’m less familiar with Falcon’s Cap story, as it happened during a time when I was reading fewer comics. I read some Avengers comics where Sam Wilson operated in the Captain America role, and I had no problem with the concept. It reminded me of Dick Grayson filling in for Batman—it was interesting to see, and he was legit, but we all knew the original would return before long and the substitute needed to return to his own superhero identity, which he had spent years of hard work establishing.

Comic books, however, don’t have to worry about casting. Chris Evans has moved on from playing Captain America, and Anthony Mackie will likely carry the torch until the MCU runs its course. Therefore, out of necessity, cinematic Sam Wilson needs to be less “Dick Grayson as Batman” and more “Wally West as the Flash.”

Granted, it also would have been perfectly fine to simply retire MCU Captain America and launch a series of solo Falcon movies, giving Marvel Comics’ first African American superhero his time in the spotlight in his original role. But “Captain America” is the bigger brand, so naturally the producers would want to keep using the name for as long as possible. And Sam Wilson is indeed a fine choice to fill the role.

Today’s Super Comic — Action Comics #775 (2001)

At last, here we are. May 17, 2016, I started writing one quick, positive comic book review a day, with the goal of doing so for a full year. It was part writing exercise (get the words down fast and move on), part analytical exercise (if a book works, why does it work?), and an opportunity to focus on the positive and thank the writers and artists who have given me countless hours of enjoyment over the course of many years.

So let’s finish with one of the best single-issue Superman stories ever written. Action Comics #775 shows us why Superman will never go out of style and should never go out of style.

A new team of powerful superhumans appears. They call themselves the Elite, and to get the job done, they’ll kill the bad guys and any innocent bystanders who happen to be within range, so long as the larger threat is eliminated, permanently.

Superman’s not having that. As the public begins to wonder if maybe there’s some validity to the Elite’s approach, Superman realizes it’s up to him to show the world there’s a better way.

What makes Superman cool isn’t his powers; it’s how he uses them. He doesn’t force his will on others or try to seize more power for himself, and he leads by example, with physical force being the last resort. He always operates within clearly set parameters. It would be too easy for him to cross any number of lines, so he doesn’t. Most others would give into the temptation, but he’s strong enough to control himself.

In this issue, he’s not only trying to stop the Elite from killing people, but he’s also standing up for ideals—and he’s standing up to people who are seemingly more powerful than even he is.

“Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear… until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share — I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.”

Ladies and gentlemen—Superman! There’s a reason he’s the greatest superhero ever created. He’s a role model for kids and adults alike, and he demonstrates values that should never go out of style, no matter how times change.

Writer: Joe Kelly

Penciler: Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo

Cover: Tim Bradstreet

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Wonder Woman #2 (2016)

Let’s hope the movie is this great.

When Wonder Woman relaunched for DC Rebirth, writer Greg Rucka utilized the even-numbered issues to retell her early days. The second issue (or part one) introduces us to a young Diana who’s curious about what lies beyond the shores of Themyscira. Scenes of her life in paradise alternate with scenes of Steve Trevor’s life in the United States, and if you know anything about Wonder Woman’s origin story, you can guess where part one ends.

Rucka isn’t reinventing the characters or the story. He’s modernizing them and selecting from the best of what came before. It’s Wonder Woman’s latest draft, and it’s a superb one.

That’s an advantage of the comics medium—when you continue these characters in periodical format decade after decade, you have plenty of opportunities to refine and improve them. And yes, mistakes will be made and things will inevitably go astray here and there, but that’s what reboots are for. When you learn from previous mistakes and successes, you’re much more likely to get an excellent book like this.

This “Year One” arc for Wonder Woman is all about discovery. She’s discovering a new world. A new world is discovering her. And she’s discovering more about herself. The characterization is spot-on—she’s joyful, compassionate, fierce, heroic, and even a little fearful of this new world she’s entered.

Given how recent the book is (the trade just came out), I don’t want to delve into any greater detail, but know this—this is Wonder Woman done right. If you enjoy the movie when it comes out but never read a Wonder Woman comic, then read this one. If you don’t enjoy the movie, read it anyway.

Writer: Greg Rucka

Penciler: Nicola Scott

Cover: Scott & Fajardo Jr.

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: recent back issues; Comixology; included in Wonder Woman vol. 2: Year One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 12 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Flash #62-65 (1992)

Superhero comics certainly offer plenty of escapist fun for readers. But in the stories, particularly in the old-school comics of many years ago, the kid sidekicks were the ones who got to live the escapism…and the young readers could simply plug themselves into the role and imagine themselves battling crime alongside the older hero.

The Flash acquired his own sidekick early on—Kid Flash, who was actually Wally West, the nephew of Flash’s girlfriend Iris West. After Barry and Iris both died, Wally grew up and took on the Flash mantle, and he became a better developed character than Barry Allen ever was at that point.

When writer Mark Waid began his superb run on the title in issue #62, he started at the beginning, by flashing back to Kid Flash’s origins. In a four-part story, we meet 10-year-old Wally West, who’s spent his life in a small town with cold, distant parents and little to look forward to…until one summer when his super-cool aunt Iris invites him to spend a few months with her in Central City. Wally would choose his aunt over his parents any day, but he’s especially excited because Central City is the home of his hero—the Flash!

It starts as pure wish-fulfillment. Not only does Wally get to meet his hero, but a freak accident grants him the same powers. He enjoys the best summer of his life, with the problems of home too far away to matter.

But his escape will have to end eventually, and he’ll have some growing up to do.

It’s the quintessential sidekick story—wish granted, everything seems wonderful, but problems haven’t really gone away, have they?

An excellent start from Waid, and the best was yet to come. As I’ve mentioned before, this series played a huge role in hooking me on comics when I was a kid. It holds up remarkably well. Kid-me had good taste.

Writer: Mark Waid

Penciler: Greg LaRocque

Inker: Jose Marzan Jr.

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in The Flash by Mark Waid Book One (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comics — The Golden Age #1-4 (1993-94)

The Golden Age has a reputation as being Watchmen-lite, but I have to disagree. The two miniseries share some surface similarities. They both examine old-school mystery men through a more adult lens, and Cold War paranoia factors into the plots. But whereas Watchmen deconstructed the genre, The Golden Age also reconstructs it.

After World War II, the members of the Justice Society of America, as well as most other masked heroes, go their separate ways to lead normal lives, with varying degrees of success. Writer James Robinson puts the focus squarely on the people behind the masks, fleshing out characters who had received little development previously.

It’s a large cast, mixing recognizable characters such as the original Green Lantern and Hawkman with obscure ones such as Captain Triumph and the Tarantula. Prominent roles also go to Johnny Quick, Liberty Belle, Hourman, Starman, the original Atom, Robotman, Johnny Thunder…and so many more. In all cases, the miniseries humanizes them and makes each character its own. This isn’t some company-wide crossover with a million guest stars shoehorned in; rather, it’s a complete story that designs each character to serve the larger arc.

The former Mr. America turns to politics, becoming a senator and spearheading a new program of government-backed superheroes with open identities. The new age requires a new type of hero, one without masks or secrets, and answerable to his country. But, of course, the people claiming to have no secrets are the ones with the most to hide.

The climactic action pulls the superheroes and mystery men of yesteryear out of their retirements or semi-retirements. They leap into action, functioning as individuals but showing no regard for their individual well-being.

And the action is incredibly well-choreographed, with lots of characters having specific, important beats to play out. Artist Paul Smith draws it all fluidly, incorporating the best elements of 1940s comic book art—particularly the rough-hewn, innocent purity of amazing super-feats—and tempering it with modern layouts and expressive faces.

The story breaks down these classic characters, but then builds them back up into heroes, showing how they’ll always be needed, no matter how times change. It strips away their innocence, reveals their flaws, and makes their heroic actions all the more meaningful.

Writer: James Robinson

Artist: Paul Smith

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; JSA: The Golden Age (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 15 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Batman #232 (1971)

How to introduce a new Batman villain? Hide him in plain sight.

Ra’s al Ghul gets a distinctive introduction in Batman #232, an issue Batman: The Animated Series adapted over twenty years later.

Robin the Boy Hostage is kidnapped. Then a mysterious man moseys on into the Batcave, claiming that his daughter Talia—whom Batman had recently met—has apparently been kidnapped by the same people.

It opens up a unique Bat-villain dynamic from the start. In a (by comic book standards) subdued bit of macho posturing, this guy has deduced Batman’s secret identity before ever meeting him and immediately brandishes this knowledge as his “hello.” And then he proceeds to lead him around the globe so Batman can find a kidnapper who’s standing right next to him the whole time. But Batman’s one step ahead of him…because he’s Batman.

The whole thing is a test, which brings us to the next reason Ra’s isn’t like all the other bad guys. Batman isn’t just a potential enemy—he’s a potential son-in-law and successor.

We don’t learn everything about Ra’s in his debut issue, but we don’t need to be inundated with all details at once. Slow introductions are often better; we can appreciate the various facets as they slowly emerge. So much more interesting than an info-dump, and it saves surprises for future issues.

For now, we get a clear sense that Ra’s is cunning, resourceful, and used to getting his way. A successful hook. Objectively successful in hindsight, given that he’s been a major foe ever since and Liam Neeson played him in a movie11.

Also, this issue is written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams—two of the people responsible for rescuing Batman from his campy phase. That was one trap he couldn’t escape on his own.

Writer: Dennis O’Neil

Penciler: Neal Adams

Inker: Dick Giordano

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Batman: Tales of the Demon (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comic — DC Comics Presents Annual #2 (1983)

No Superwoman has ever really taken off. There have been several, and DC currently has a Superwoman title starring Lois Lane and/or Lana Lang (I haven’t been keeping up with it). The ’80s had its own Superwoman, though, and she debuted in DC Comics Presents Annual #2.

This Superwoman didn’t last long. She never even made it out of the decade, as far as I’m aware, but her introduction is solid. The issue came out at a time when comics straddled old-school and modern sensibilities. Residual Silver Age goofiness lingered, but the overall tone was growing up. The result was books like this one. It packs in plenty of imagination and excitement while putting a stronger focus on character and plotting, and it never tries to be “adult” in any immature, “edgy” way.

Writer Elliot S. Maggin reintroduces us to a character who first appeared in his 1981 Superman novel, Superman: Miracle Monday. In her comics debut, Kristin Wells, a 29th century history professor, travels back in time to uncover the secret identity of Superwoman, the last 20th century superhero whose true name remains unknown. She catches up with her old friend Superman, who’s never met any Superwoman. A powerful alien menace strikes, and no Superwoman comes to Superman’s aid. So who on Earth could she possibly be? I wonder.

It’s light, a little silly, and very fast-paced, but it’s also charming and engaging throughout, making fun use of assorted sci-fi and comic book tropes. If anything, though, it works too well as a complete story. The protagonist’s arc reaches a strong conclusion. She solves her mystery, grows, and returns home with a new perspective. While she’s perfectly likable, there’s nothing to launch us into subsequent stories about her.

But as a single-issue story, it’s an excellent example of early ’80s DC upping its game.

Writer: Elliot S. Maggin

Penciler: Keith Pollard

Inker: Mike DeCarlo

Cover: Gil Kane

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up

Today’s Super Comics — Detective Comics #784-786 (2003)

Some of the best team-ups seem totally random at first and totally complementary in retrospect.

An excellent example occurs in Detective Comics #784-786, which pairs Batman and the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott. This GL debuted back in the 1940s, long before the Hal Jordan version and the spacefaring Green Lantern Corps. DC’s continuity in 2003 had cast Alan as one of the elder statesmen of the DC Universe, essentially the Superman of the Justice Society, and circumstances (mystical, if I recall correctly) had kept him physically in his prime.

Another aspect of the canon at that time: This Green Lantern was Gotham City’s first superhero.

Batman and GL had never teamed up on their home turf, but when a homicide mimics a cold case from Green Lantern’s past, they’ll work in tandem to solve the crime (while a retired Commissioner Gordon, well utilized here, pieces together the clues on his own).

The bright shining knight of the past and the dark knight of the present create a strong visual contrast, and writer Ed Brubaker goes beyond that surface image. In a refreshing shift from his recent jerk trend, Batman displays genuine respect toward the elder superhero, and it’s earned respect. Batman knows his own motivation stems entirely from tragedy, but Green Lantern is a born hero, doing good just because.

GL’s not perfect, though, and the entire situation is a consequence of his lack of perfection. It’s a compelling mystery, not so much in the whodunit sense but in the “why did they do it” sense. And along the way, the story shows us characters who are all too aware of their own limitations.

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Penciler: Patrick Zircher

Inkers: Aaron Sowd and Steve Bird

Cover: Tim Sale

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology

Appropriate For: ages 13 and up