Marvel's Generations, and a Discussion on Legacy Characters
As Marvel starts to gear up for its "Generations" project, which is supposed to be taking steps to restore many of the classic elements to the Marvel Universe believed by some to be missing lately, I wanted to talk about diversity for a bit. I'd like to bring up a step that all too often is left out of the discussion: execution, specifically in terms of introduction of legacy characters.
The increasingly politicized nature of the internet is such that every issue has taken on an "us vs. them" mindset. In comics, nowhere is this more pronounced than with respect to the introduction of diverse characters into the superhero landscape. You're either with the idea of change or against, and from there people make inferences on everything from your political leanings to your attitudes towards other races, the opposite sex, and the LGBT spectrum. Without making a value judgment on how much sense that makes, I would like to go ahead and establish some things:
I'm a black guy who walked into his first comic shop over two decades ago, and even before that I was a fan of comic books. As an eight year old I wanted to live in my local shop, so I'm not sure I was ever familiar with the idea of comic books feeling unwelcoming. In general, few things make me happier than seeing the industry as a whole do well, and if comics are going to continue experiencing the boom they currently are, they're going to need to embrace some level of change. That can mean doing better with digital comics and programs like ComiXology, or experimenting with a wider range of price points like DC's "Hold the Line" initiative, or even something as "big" as including a larger pool of character types to create a more inclusive world. I understand the desire to see one's self represented in fiction, so I am firmly in favor of diversity in as many different types that can be provided. And, if we're being fair--there's one company that has figured it out:
As we watch DC's Rebirth initiative continue to create incredible sales results long past the point where early hype and returnability would be factors for keeping sales high, and even as we make our way towards the initiative's second wave, it's noteworthy to point out who's headlining some of these comics. You've got Green Lanterns, which has a main character duo of a Muslim man and Latina woman with anxiety issues. Then there's Batwoman, who at this point is unquestionably comics' most well-known lesbian superhero. You have Wonder Woman, who's currently basically shipping two books a month that both sell in the 50k a month range. And there's much more--in fact, of DC's main line of just over 30 comic books, over half of them feature a woman, a person of color, or an LGBT character in leading roles. This, in the face of both DC's claim as well as fan perception that they are attempting to "turn back the clock".
Though there's many possible reasons why DC is receiving far less flak from fans on the subject, my own running theory is that their execution is solid. New Super Man doesn't shy away from Chinese culture in the slightest--it's embedded in the book's very DNA--but it's all filtered through classic superhero storytelling tropes. And it didn't create Kenan Kong with the intention of replacing Clark--he's his own character, with his own world, his own supporting characters. Marvel, on the other hand? It can vary. There are good examples, bad ones, and mediocre ones.
Kamala is even given her own unique costume, and even though she's certainly inspired by Carol, the two characters exist apart from one another, which allows Kamala to make her own mistakes and gives her the room to grow without being under guidance that could eventually come to seem authoritative. Like this, Kamala has her own failures, triumphs, and accurately shows what life as a teenaged Muslim woman hero would be like. It blends those same classic kind of superhero tropes I was talking about before--trouble with the opposite sex, balancing your secret identity with your home and school life, and so on--into the Ms. Marvel book to create a classic, Spider-Man-esque comic book for the modern era.
But like I said, not all examples are perfect. Jane Foster's Thor is an attempt at diversity that kind of walks the tightrope a bit. Ultimately, I feel like Jason Aaron's Thor is at such a high quality that even the problematic elements are easy to ignore.
In 2014, Thor Classic was felled with a whisper in Marvel's Original Sin event, as Nick Fury whispered to the Thunder God words that somehow made him unworthy of wielding the hammer Mjolnir. With the Odinson out of action, a new Goddess of Thunder would take to the skies to defend both Midgard and Asgard. Like I said--in the grand scheme of things, this was a fine enough change. To be sure, it commits the cardinal sin of replacing an original character with a legacy, but the direction of the story indicated that Thor would stand down regardless, and Aaron just decided it may as well be a woman to take his place. The story also made it obvious through visions of the future Thor would one day regain control of his hammer anyway. With these bits of knowledge in mind, it was fine to embrace a Thor that perhaps wasn't the Odinson we were used to, though in my head I felt we went backwards a bit.
Before the Odinson swapped places with Jane, the state of Thor's world was far more...female-friendly? The All-Father had been replaced with the All-Mother triumvirate, Thor had just recently discovered his sister and introduced her to Asgard, and Thor's companion book Journey into Mystery starred Sif, and was a great comic book by Kathryn Immonen. Comparatively, by the time the Jane Foster-era of Thor had settled, Thor's sister Angela was off in her own book and the two haven't developed much of a relationship at all, Sif's book had been cancelled, and the All-Mother triumvirate was replaced with Odin and his misogynistic brother Cul. So we went from Thor being a book about one of the most traditionally masculine superheroes in comics surrounded by women who were either his equal in battle or his superior outside of it, to Thor being about one lone woman standing against a lot of powerful men. To be certain, the story we're getting is absolutely more true to life, but I think there's also something to be said for creating art that you would prefer to see life imitate.
Sam Wilson's Cap is probably the one I find the most frustrating though. Again, this is mostly in the hand-off from Steve to Sam and not the actual book itself--but you'll find that it's the initial transition that loses the most fans, rather than the books themselves. Once more we've replaced the original hero, but in this case there's so much more to it than that. To begin with, it was only a few years ago that the Captain America name was being used by Bucky Barnes, while Steve Rogers was dead. This not only implies that Sam is the second choice, but worse it's unoriginal. Technically Cap only came back in 2010--did we really need another Cap replacement only four years later? Moreover, the ongoing story for decades with Sam Wilson as Falcon is "worried about being in Captain America's shadow", wherein he constantly tried to tell everyone he was his own person...so of course he becomes the next Captain America, essentially negating everything he's said for years.
Most annoying of all is that Falcon isn't even the best replacement for Cap. It should have been Patriot, who's history (and the history of his grandparents) means he more than deserves the role, and it feels like it only went to Sam Wilson because Anthony Mackie's stellar job playing the character caused Falcon's popularity to skyrocket. Between all of these factors and the fact that his first major appearance as Cap in Axis made him look like a giant dick, I've been kind of turned off from reading the character for years now.
This is all worth discussion, because I feel too often when it comes to diversity nobody ever wants to talk about if its done well or not, just that it was done. Which brings me to another example that might feel a bit more...surprising.
Plus, this is certainly not the most embarrassing time Tony Stark has been "replaced" because he couldn't be Iron Man. James Rhodes donned the armor when Stark had crawled inside of a bottle and refused to do anything other than find another place that would let him knock back more drinks. "Teen Tony" took over after Tony Stark turned evil after years of being manipulated by Kang. Dying heroically in a battle to protect the world from "predictive justice"? Probably the best L he's ever taken.
Her book isn't even that bad--she's a genius engineer inspired by Stark to build her own armor, she's being mentored by an AI version of Tony, and this is probably the most meaningful expansion of Iron Man's world since War Machine. Much like Ms. Marvel, it's a young hero learning to navigate her way in a world that can be a lot more dangerous and cruel than what she could've hoped to imagine--she's just got quite a bit more help than Kamala in Tony-bot and Pepper.
In any case: understand that I don't just believe diversity of characters should be applauded, I think it's absolutely necessary as we transition into a society that is increasingly more accepting of people we once would have seen as "other". Legacy characters are a vital part of making these universes feel like a more welcoming, inclusive place, and to refuse to allow creation of characters that reflect our changing real world is to make those worlds we've created feel more artificial.
Still, while Marvel needs to work a bit more to figure out how best to insert legacy characters into their continuity, they should also probably know change will always be jarring to longtime comic fans--I'm going to bristle every time you introduce a new character to take the place of one I love. But it might not be the worst idea to stop killing off characters to "force" readers into reading the new guy/gal. In place of that, perhaps just give them strong ties to the original characters, but let both the old and the new co-exist.
Over everything though, I don't believe Marvel (or anyone) should stop trying to create diverse, new characters. For one thing, an injection of fresh characters keeps the universe from feeling stodgy and dated. And for another, from my experiences as a teen, I can guarantee a lot of the work being created right now is speaking to a lot of people, and making their world a little less shitty. And that's worth all the trouble you get from busting your ass, I promise.