Apr 24, 2017

Replacement Superheroes Have Always Existed

Replacement Superheroes Have Always Existed
Ben Smith

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about diversity of representation in superheroes, and the best way to better reflect our modern world with characters that are in some cases, 75 years old. The majority of the most popular superheroes have existed since, at minimum, the 1960s. Because of that, and our country's long-standing tradition of racism, most superheroes are straight white males. In our modern, seemingly more enlightened times, that represents a huge discrepancy with the world you see right outside your window.

The approach of DC and Marvel over the last decade, has been to try and replace existing characters with either an existing supporting character, or a brand new one. Ryan Choi as the Atom, and Sam Wilson as Captain America, being an example of each. Many fans have cried foul, as they claim to prefer Ray Palmer and Steve Rogers, and that if you want more diverse characters they should be created from scratch. I can understand preferring your traditional favorites, but just creating a new character capable of successfully carrying their own title isn’t all that easy. Deadpool and Cable are probably the last two non-derivative characters created that are capable of sustaining their own monthly comic, or a movie franchise. (Even considering Deadpool non-derivative is a bit of a stretch, since he’s basically a blatant combination of Deathstroke, Wolverine, and Spider-Man.) X-23 and Spider-Gwen represent recent successes that are completely derivative versions of their white male counterparts, while the only nonwhite character that can be included in this list is Miles Morales, also a derivative.

So, I don’t really have a solution for this problem. I understand wanting to see your favorite characters remain as they were when you fell in love with them, but it’s no simple task to create brand new characters that readers will embrace. What is not debatable is that replacement characters have existed nearly as long as superheroes have. So the next time you’re complaining about replacement characters in a vacuum, please refer to this list and maybe at least acknowledge you’ve become old and cynical.


The Human Torch was Marvel’s very first superhero, appearing in the very first issue of Marvel Comics in 1939. Then, the Human Torch was an android named Jim Hammond. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Marvel Universe as we know it with Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, they created a brand new Human Torch. This time, he was a teenager named Johnny Storm. Jim Hammond would return here and there over the years, but will never eclipse the popularity of Johnny Storm in the role that he originated.


The very first thing Walt Simonson did in his deservedly lauded Thor run was replace Thor with an alien named Beta Ray Bill. Bill was shockingly found worthy of lifting Mjolnir, and gained the power of Thor. Admittedly, this replacement only happened over the course of two issues, if even that, but the character was still accepted enough to receive his own hammer granting him superhuman might.

One of the more frequent arguments I’ve heard against replacement characters is that in the past they happened more naturally, but this couldn’t be further from the case for Beta Ray Bill. He makes his first appearance, becomes a Thor derivative, and is immediately embraced by fans over the course of two issues. I’m not trying to diminish Bill in any way, merely trying to highlight the hypocrisy of some fans. The loudest, most disgruntled voices complaining about Jane Foster, are probably wearing a Beta Ray Bill t-shirt while they do it. And if you want to argue that Bill existed alongside Thor, then I’ll point you to the fact that Thor Odinson just had a miniseries and has been guesting in multiple books, as the main Jane Thor comic is being published.


The Golden Age Flash was a character named Jay Garrick, given super speed powers by exposure to hard water vapors, or something stupid like that. In an effort to reinvigorate their superhero comics line, DC created a new Flash in 1956 named Barry Allen, with a more science-fiction bent. Barry Allen was extremely popular, and helped launch an entire wave of replacement DC heroes in the 1950s. (Eventually inspiring the creation of the Fantastic Four, after the new heroes formed a new superteam called the Justice League.) Barry Allen was then eventually replaced by his protégé Wally West, and Wally went on to have one of the most impressive long-term character arcs in comic book history.

Some of you may argue, that these changes occurred long before you were even born. You’re right, but that doesn’t make them any more noble or natural than changes occurring today. Those updated DC heroes were considered a necessity to speak to and reflect the new generation that was viable at the time. Yet somehow, that level of change and evolution has remained stagnant practically ever since.


See above with the Flash, the title of Green Lantern passed from Alan Scott to Hal Jordan to Kyle Rayner. With a little bit of Guy Gardner and John Stewart sprinkled in alongside. DC eventually realized that you don’t need to only have one Green Lantern as the focus, when the entire appeal of the franchise is an entire universe of space cops. Considering Nova is the Marvel equivalent of Green Lantern, that’s what makes the outcry over Sam Alexander as the primary Nova instead of Richard Ryder all the more confusing. (It’s also a little distasteful how much some fans complain about Sam, a character Jeph Loeb named and modeled after his son that had tragically passed away.) Richard was never all that interesting, guys. He just wasn’t.


James Rhodes is the one I’ve heard fans describe the most as a slow-developing natural progression when he replaced Tony Stark as Iron Man. I’ll admit, I don’t even know the specifics of how long it took Rhodes to take over the mantle, but at least admit that your opinions might be clouded by the fact it happened when you were 7 years old, when every story seemed more magical and you had not yet learned to question the methods by which they were told to you. Regardless, there is no way it is more natural, or he more worthy a successor, than X-23 is for Wolverine. Laura as the All-New Wolverine has easily been my favorite Marvel comic over the past few years, and you cannot tell me that there is any character more worthy of replacing the original than her.


Despised by many at the time, Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly was highly controversial when he temporarily received the role of Spider-Man in the mid ‘90s. Nearly from the moment he was killed off in 1996, fans have been clamoring and asking for the return of Ben Reilly ever since. Along those same lines…


Steve Rogers was famously killed and replaced by Bucky Barnes following the instant classic event series Civil War. After a short initial outcry, Bucky was quickly embraced by fans, and considered a more than worthy replacement because of his long association as Steve’s partner, to the point that some fans were disappointed when Steve eventually returned. In even more recent years, Steve’s longtime partner Sam Wilson (the Falcon) took over as Captain America after Steve was artificially aged due to some story shenanigans. Again, Sam also had a pedigree as a long-time ally and friend of Steve Rogers, and yet this time the replacement was much more controversial among fans. Stand Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson next to each other, and you might start to ask yourself exactly why that is.

As you can see, replacement characters have been around in comics nearly as long as comics have. But while fans readily accept characters that existed before them, or were created when they were kids, those same fans angrily reject any attempts to update characters to reflect our modern times. Either they’ve become overly cynical with age, unable to accept that change can be a welcome part of life. Or they really have to ask themselves, is it that the characters have been replaced, or who they’ve been replaced with? If it’s not the idea of replacements, then it might be the very idea of diversity, and that is unfortunately a much more depressing reality.

There’s no easy answer for any of this, but what’s clear is that something needs to change. With more and more movies and television shows being made using superhero characters, the need to reflect the audience paying to go see them will only increase. Comics have long been on the forefront of societal change, reflecting events in the world before they even occur (comic book superheroes were fighting Hitler before our government was fighting Hitler) and yet on this front, comics are beginning to lag behind. Comics had been so progressive in the ‘60s with Black Panther, the Falcon, and John Stewart, continuing on with Storm, Shang-Chi, and Luke Cage in the ‘70s. And yet, somehow, that is still basically the same roster of diverse characters being used 40 years later. That, my friends, seems wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments on The Comics Cube need approval (mostly because of spam) and no anonymous comments are allowed. Please leave your name if you wish to leave a comment. Thanks!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.