The history of the replacement superhero

Superior_spider_man_by_ryanstegman

Once again we find ourselves in a place where a classic superhero has been replaced. In this case if you haven’t been following the comic book news, Peter Parker is no longer Spider-Man.  A new Spider-Man has taken his place. According to Marvel this is a permanent change and will be the status quo going forward.

The general consensus amongst fans is that this status quo will last about a year before Parker is returned to his role as the Wall Crawler.

But why do we just assume that this is a temporary situation. Let’s take a look at the history of major characters being replaced in superhero comics.

First I suppose we need to establish that we are talking about characters from the silver age. There was of course the update of most of DC Comic’s characters in the 60s. That was treated as a new launch and not meant to be old characters being replaced.

The first question is why replace the character at all. The answer is naturally to open up new story possibilities. When a character has been in place for so long several of their characteristics are set in stone. If a writer wants to go beyond those a good way is to have someone new in the role.  There is also the idea of character growth.

One of the most successful replacements of a character ever was the Flash. In 1986 during Crisis on Infinite Earths, Barry Allen gave his life to save the universe. At the end of the series his nephew and sidekick Wally West, Kid Flash adopted the Flash identity. Over the next 25 years Wally West was the Flash. The series often examined Wally attempting to live up to the legacy of Barry, and how other heroes and villains who knew Barry reacted to him in the role. Wally went from overcompensating, to insecure, to finally stepping up to the role of one of the leading heroes in the DC universe.  Wally ultimately stood as a member of the Justice League alongside many of other major heroes. Most media projects of the time used the Wally West version of the Flash; most notably the Justice League animated series.  There is an entire generation of comic fans for whom Wally is and has always been the Flash. But the tale of Wally West does ultimately lend itself to why we fans are cynical about the permanency of a replacement hero.

In the 2008 series Final Crisis Barry Allen returned from the dead. The following year saw the release of the Flash Reborn where Barry officially stepped into the role of the Flash again. Wally was still around at this time, but he no longer had his own book, and after a while just faded from the title. With the New 52 relaunch Wally is now not only missing from any title, but is one of the characters that writers are forbidden to use. Again he is the Flash that a lot of fans are familiar with, but since the powers that be at DC want Barry to be unique Wally has been wiped from the universe.

Another example was one we touched on last year when we talked about the old speculation boom and how it went bust, the Death of Superman storyline and specifically the Reign of the Supermen. Here you had the very publicly touted death of comics’ most iconic character.  It was certainly a headline grabber. For all the grief it gets as a sales ploy and the storyline that started the implosion of the speculator market and subsequent shrinking of the industry, it was a well written story. It was broken into four acts, the death, the aftermath, the rise of the replacement supermen, and the return of Superman. Clearly the whole story was planned from the beginning, and savoy comic fans knew this. At shops and comic shows everyone speculated how each stage would be handled. No one expected any of the replacements to permanently take over. Well no one who actually followed the books. As discussed before, speculators assumed this was a permanent change. Just look at the previous article for more on that. The replacements did of course continue on as characters in their own right and Steel and Superboy went on to be important parts of the DCU.

Around the same time you had the Batman books doing a similar idea with Knightfall. Again a new character was brought in as the replacement Batman. This one had less impact on the DCU, with only the new villain Bane having any impact going forward.

In both those cases the fact that new characters were introduced as the replacements was a big clue that it these were only storylines and not lasting changes.

More recently Marvel and DC did some very similar stories that went another route on the replacement angle. Like the Flash these were stories where the former sidekick took over for their fallen mentor.

At Marvel it was Captain America’s sidekick Bucky taking over the role went Cap was killed at the end of the Civil War Story. At DC it was Dick Grayson taking on the role of Batman following Bruce Wayne’s death at the end of Final Crisis.

In both cases some very good writing came out of these stories. Ed Brubaker wrote Captain America at this time and you had a slightly darker Cap with Bucky under the mask and espionage was a bigger part of the story. At DC you had Grant Morrison writing Batman and Robin and knocking it out of the park with a more light-hearted Batman and a darker Robin, who was Bruce’s son Damian.

In both cases about two years later both Steve and Bruce were proven to be alive, their deaths faked by means of time travel. Upon their return both Steve and Bruce left their successors in their roles and the pursued other goals. Eventually both heroes returned to their roles and the sidekicks resumed their previous identities.

When these storylines started fans were already cynical enough about main heroes being replaced that there were betting pools on how soon the originals would return.

These are hardly the only cases I could site on this subject, but the trajectory is basically the same. Eventually the old superhero resumes his role.

As of this writing I can only think of one exception to this, Marvel comics’ cosmic hero Captain Marvel. Marvel’s death occurred in the first ever Marvel graphic novel. Over the years his death has stuck. The problem has been keeping a consistent successor.

Originally the new Captain Marvel was an unrelated heroine with unrelated powers who took up the name. Next up was Marvel’s son taking up his father’s role. Most recently we have the heroine Ms. Marvel, who was connected to the original, taking on the title of Captain. This last is being well received so we will see how it goes.

Which brings us back to Spider-man.

This is actually the second time that Peter has been replaced. In the 90s you had the first attempt to have an unmarried Spider-man thanks to the clone saga, where it was revealed that Peter was just a clone of the original Spidey and the person we thought was the clone, Ben Reilly, was really the original. Peter decided to retire, and Ben took over as Spider-Man.

Fans hated this twist and it was quickly dropped and revealed to all be a plot by the Green Goblin and Peter was the original after all.

Now thanks to a body swap we have Doctor Octopus inhabiting Peter’s body. Doc’s body with
Peter in it has died, so Doc as Peter is the new Spider-Man.

I won’t get into the details, but the first issue of the new Superior Spider-Man on the last page already has the seed of how the original Peter will return. So the question is, how long will it take.

Anyone want to set up a pool.

 

 

 

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