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Legacy of the Hero
by Mario di Giacomo

When you get down to it, sidekicks are the Y2K problem of comic books. While I don't ascribe to myself any special knowledge, it seems likely that the Golden-Age creators never expected their characters would still be written about 60 years later.

Hence, when it was decided to add a new character or two to the storyline that the young readers of the day could identify with, the question of what happens when a sidekick grows up was never even considered.

Dick Grayson, Sylvester Pemberton and the rest were created as kids, fought as kids, and in very few cases died as kids. Their mentors never aged, rarely changed, and it was good.

Then came the Silver Age. When it was decided to revamp the heroes of the past, clean starts were made. No one bothered to ask if Sandy was the new Sandman; as far as the Powers That Be were concerned, those stories never happened.

Of course Flash of Two Worlds changed all that. Suddenly, all of those stories happened, but the question of the heroes growing up was still pushed to the side, since it happened somewhere else.

Over time, however, especially in the periodic JLA/JSA reunions, the Golden Age, Earth-2 characters aged. By now, the editorial fiat of the status quo was well established, so while the JSA grew old and died, the mainstream characters, the ones that carried the books, stayed pretty much the same.

Roy Thomas, in All-Star Squadron, Young All-Stars, and Infinity Inc., reveled in the history of the JSA. Given a free rein with the heroes, he married them, gave them offspring, and showed the richness of their history. All was well, until the second major change in comics continuity occurred:

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Suddenly, all of these stories happened in the same universe. Not only did they have to be well told (and many of them were), they also had to make sense. By editorial fiat, nearly every character that had existed since the beginning that was _not_ replaced by a Silver Age version, simply ceased to exist. And those that survived, had a new problem to explain. Why were there new versions?

Several solutions were tried, some better than others. Barry Allen was inspired by tales of Jay Garrick. Meanwhile, Hal Jordan, as far as he knew, had no connection to his predecessor. The Golden Age Wonder Woman was replaced, first by Fury, and then by Miss America, and finally by her own mother (a long, and rather unpleasant story).

Things basically made sense. Oh, there were gaps, which some have tried to fill, but for the most part, the Golden Age heroes were old, and the Silver Age in their prime. And time passed, and passed, and passed.

Crisis was nearly two decades in the past. Slowly, but surely, the sidekicks of the Silver Age, the young heroes known to all and sundry as the Teen Titans, were growing up. However, the editorial rule was firm: The Flagship characters of the line could not age.

Chronology became weird. Decades of storyline were compressed to a few months. Even a clean reboot of history, in the less than popular Zero Hour, failed to clearly establish just how old these characters were.

And then came James Robinson. A self-professed fan of the Golden Age, he selected the character of Ted Knight, a.k.a. Starman, as his testbed for his ideas about the generational nature of superheroes. Soon, Mark Waid, writer of Flash, joined the crusade. Suddenly, the idea that heroes had a mantle to pass on not only made sense; it was popular.

Unfortunately, it will never work. Oh sure, we now have 4th-generation heroes joining the "new" JSA, or literally running around in their own books. The 3rd-generation heroes, sidekicks of the Silver Age, have all carved out their own identities, and banded together to reform the Titans. But that in itself is the problem. Rather than take the mantle of their mentors, they are forced by sheer story pressure to go on their own. And any character who does become a "legacy" hero, nearly always does so at the cost of the life of his predecessor.

A few examples to prove the point, drawn from the present makeup of the JLA, Titans, and JSA:

  • Superman. The big show, the icon, the show-stopper. The first time anyone considered replacing him was when he "died", and while two of his four inheritors remain, neither claim to be his heir. Steel has set out on his own path, and Superboy… Superboy has been told that he will never age to adulthood. And as long as Kal-El exists, it's likely he will remain a sidekick.
  • Batman. His back was broken, and he did not even consider calling in his former sidekick, the extremely competent Richard Grayson, to inherit the mantle, even though he knows, from the adventures they shared, that Nightwing's skill matches his own. And, as I'm sure my fellow editor Louise Freeman would agree, his temporary inheritance of the Mantle of The Bat was marred by the insistence that he be bad at the job. Richard has found his own way, and it's likely Tim Drake will be forced to do likewise.
  • The Flash: The legacy of the Allen bloodline has stretched to the 30th century and beyond. Barry "inherited" the name from Jay Garrick, and was in turn replaced by Wallace West. However, on the few occasions Wally has been replaced, it was always implicit that he would come back. His distant cousin Bart, now known as Impulse, will likely never gain his grandfather's mantle; instead, we get a stranger who many believe is Barry Allen returned.
  • Hourman: Rex Tyler is dead. Rick Tyler is in retirement, due to illness. And Tyler, an android from the distant future, has inherited the memories of the first of the line, and is now his replacement.

Many of the other "legacy" heroes have little or no continuity with their predecessors. Dr. Mid-Nite, the Star Spangled Kid, Hawkgirl. They may be unaware of their history, or merely apathetic. There are a few true inheritors, such as the aforementioned Starman, Sand, and Black Canary, but in every case, they inherited from a Golden Age hero, not a "mainstream" one.

I suppose that as long as comic book characters do not age, they will never retire. And since death, in comics, is nearly always temporary, there is little chance that we will ever see a new Batman, and Superman will always be Kal-El.

All characters are ™ DC Comics
This column is © 1999 by Mario Di Giacomo.