As the year comes to a close, it’s become clear that in the Marvel Universe, there has been major upheaval from within the company’s heroic pantheon. With a new Captain America leading a band of Secret Avengers, what’s old is new again, with the concept of the legacy hero getting a set of legs at the House of Ideas.
But what is a legacy hero, you might ask? For those needing a refresher in comic book geekspeak, a legacy hero is typically an associate, lover, or sidekick of a fallen hero who assumes their friend’s mantle if he has retired or fallen in battle. DC Comics has made this concept into one of the company’s key pillars, beginning all the way with Barry Allen as the Flash in 1961. The idea of the legacy hero is that it gives a franchise an epic, generational feel, while allowing each generation of readers to adopt their “own” hero to match their own values and storytelling standards. But as 2008 and 2009 — as well as several earlier attempts — show us, Marvel isn’t above adopting a good idea when it sees one.
As if I needed to warn you, there be spoilers up ahead…
With the beginning of 2008, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Jeph Loeb swifly expanded Bruce Banner’s gamma-enhanced gallery in Hulk, introducing Rick Jones as the new Abomination (or as he called himself, “A-Bomb”), as well as creating a villainous red Hulk (known in many communities as “Rulk”) to battle the not-quite-as-destructive green original. While the series has gotten its share of knocks on the Internet for its pacing as well as the ongoing question of Red Hulk’s identity, Loeb’s murder mystery around the blood-red behemoth stuck obviously a chord with readers, as it consistently hit the top ten throughout 2008. (And to even further expand the Hulk mythos, Greg Pak released the sleeper sword-and-gamma-strength epic Skarr: Son of Hulk, which played with the warrior world introduced in Planet Hulk.)
Of course, no discussion of the Hulk in 2008 would be complete without this:
However, both the sales and the real creative kudos went to Ed Brubaker’s work with Captain America. To give some background, Brubaker, along with colleague Matt Fraction, had some previous experience with the legacy hero concept: in 2006, they helped kick off the trend with Marvel during their run on The Immortal Iron Fist, in which they retroactively establishing Danny Rand as a legacy hero, with the honor of the Iron Fist having been bequeathed to warriors for millenia. But it is comparatively easy to create older generations for what had been a defunct title like Iron Fist. Brubaker, on the other hand, had a much more difficult sell for Captain America, a pop culture icon pre-dating America’s involvement in World War II and the company’s longest-running hero after Namor the Submariner. What could you do when Cap was Marvel’s One True Hero?
As it turns out: everything.
Building off his Winter Soldier arc, during which Captain America’s long-lost protege Bucky returned as a Soviet assassin, Brubaker built up Steve Rogers’ supporting cast to exist without the title hero. Playing off Bucky’s past as a remorseless killer clashing against his newly remembered past, the one-time sidekick’s motivations were scaled up organically, as he lashed out against Tony Stark and Black Widow before realizing that his real target — the Red Skull — was gearing up to strike. Fan reaction — which we all know can be overwhelming if provoked — was mostly positive, simply because Brubaker did not try to usurp the mantle of the sainted Captain America, but bought into the argument that Bucky was not at Steve’s level, both physically and morally, and the struggles these deficiencies would bring him.
That wasn’t the only reimagining going on in the House of Ideas, of course. The book known as X-Force had spent the last two decades meandering in terms of its core purpose: at first, it was the graduating New Mutants team, now the future revolutionary Cable’s mutant strike force, and by the turn of the century it had become a post-modern team of misfits by Peter Milligan in X-Statix.
But in February, following the events of the X-event Messiah Complex, in which the enemies of mutantdom nearly succeeded in murdering the first mutant born since House of M, a new X-Force emerged. Inspired by Cyclops’ increasingly Nietzchian style of leadership and helmed by the former killer Wolverine, X-Force became the black-ops execution squad of the mutant race. It was a bold concept, simultaneously embracing the “big guns, big violence” mentality of the ’90s series while at the same time tying into the greater X-Men mythos: these are heroes who are getting pulled deeper and deeper into moral gray, and this war-like mentality is beginning to show. With Warren Worthington reverting back to his murderous Archangel persona and Cyclops shielding the knowledge from even his telepathic girlfriend Emma Frost, this is a rebooted concept that could really have some strong impact on the rest of the X-Universe.
While the X-Men Universe has been always been a crown jewel in the Marvel crown, what about a no-name property like the Ghost Rider franchise? If Nicholas Cage’s lackluster screen turn as the Spirit of Vengeance didn’t bury the character, strange retcons and lackluster stories sapped the key concept — a flaming skeleton on a motorcyle — of its vitality. Yet when Jason Aaron took over the book, he too expanded the Ghost Rider mythos by focusing on the battles between the past and present Ghost Riders: in this case, Johnny Blaze and his brother Danny Ketch. By inserting a grindhouse sort of gusto into the weirdness of the series’ high concept and by heightening the stakes through the angelic origins of the Spirits of Vengeance, this book became a sleeper hit under Aaron’s gritty, watchful eye.
Finally, Secret Invasion continued in its predecessor Civil War‘s style of reimagining and repositioning new takes on old names. Whereas Civil War took these reimaginings on a grand scale with The Initiative (with new versions of the Great Lakes Avengers and Force Works), The Order (initially meant to be a relaunch of Marvel’s old Champions book), and a fugitive team of anti-registration heroes called The New Warriors, Secret Invasion was the starting platform for individual heroes. In the sixth issue of the event, Kree soldier Mar-Vell seemed to be positioned as the direct successor for the Captain Marvel franchise, as the dying Marvel urged the hotheaded Kree warrior to stop the Skrull invasion.
Perhaps more important, however, is the death and “return” of Janet Van Dyne, also known as the Wasp. A founding member of the Avengers, it seems that Janet’s pivotal moment was her most vulnerable, as she was slapped by her manic-depressive husband Hank Pym. Yet when a Skrull infiltrator disguised as her estranged husband altered the Wasp’s growing serum, Janet died in the midst of the final battle of the Secret Invasion. Hank, having returned from his captivity without having had the chance to make amends to his former wife, decided to give her one last gift: a legacy. Altering his biology to grant him wings and the ability to shrink as well as grow, Hank assumed the identity of the Wasp as he joins Dan Slott’s Mighty Avengers.
Yet as we’ve seen in Marvel’s solicits, 2009 will also be a big year for Marvel’s legacy heroes. Doctor Strange, having broken his oath and used black magic, will be replaced as Sorcereror Supreme in Feburary of next year. Meanwhile, the Black Panther will also go MIA, with a new female counterpart taking over the sacred Wakandan office. And perhaps most important is the birth of the Dark Avengers: if speculation is correct, whereas the initial Thunderbolts series was villains infiltrating the Marvel Universe by parlaying their powers as heroes, the Dark Avengers will go one step further — these are hardened thugs who will usurp the heroes’ very identities and reputations. If characters such as Bullseye, Venom, Daken, and Moonstone are pretending to be Hawkeye, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Ms. Marvel — the Avengers establishment, so to speak — the balance of power in the Marvel Universe could change irreparably. Indeed, whereas DC has used the concept of the legacy hero to bolster their respective franchises, Marvel may take a subversive turn with the paradigm: these legacy heroes may destabilize the already murky morality of the Marvel Universe.