Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1, released in 1938, making the character 78 years old this year. His Justice League frenemy Batman is 77. Captain America is a baby boomer of 75, and the rest of the Avengers were all created comparatively recently in the early 60s. And yet, this collection of senior citizens starred in two of the biggest movies of last year.
How is it that are our most compelling superhero characters were all created back in an era when computers were the size of rooms and snail mail was just called mail? The world has changed a lot since then, and yet our heroes haven’t?
There’s several reasons for that of course. Perhaps the first being that they actually have changed. Somewhat. Captain America began as a symbol of post World War II patriotism - a freedom loving, Hitler punching ideal of the American soldier, which is an easily dated idea. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the Captain turns the focus on Steve Rogers, the man behind the persona. The stories are about him as a man lost in time, and his relationships with those around him. While admittedly not as cool as punching the Fuhrer in the face, those feelings are definitely more relatable to us an audience.
As what readers (and viewers) care about has changed, so have these characters. One way of doing this that comics figured out early on is to simply pass the superhero identity on to someone else, making them what TV Tropes refers to as Legacy Characters (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LegacyCharacter). The first prominent instance of this was probably when the original version of The Flash, Jay Garrick, was replaced by Barry Allen. The Jay Garrick character was retconned into a comic book character in Barry Allen’s universe, though it later turned out he existed on another Earth. Comic continuity is complicated, guys.
Marvel Comics has been making strong forward thinking choices to expand the diversity of their superhero lineup by having their superhero identities passed on in this way. Spiderman is a half-black, half Puerto Rican teenager called Miles Morales, the mantle of Thor has been taken up by Jane Foster, and Ms. Marvel is a Muslim girl named Kamala Khan.
But there are still several issues with Legacy Characters, of course. For starters, they are terribly confusing to anyone who hasn’t been following these arcs. Try explaining the five (or more?) different superheroes called Robin to a casual Batman fan. It’s a weird adjustment to make when you realize that Robin is really more a job title than a person.
Everyone, though, has a definitive version of a superhero character in their minds. To most of us, Peter Parker is Spiderman, and Miles Morales will always be the ‘new’ Spiderman who took over after Peter Parker died, though he’s been around for 5 years at this point. Well technically, he’ll always be the new Spiderman cause both he and Peter Parker exist as Spiderman (Spidermen?) in the current Marvel universe. Again, comic continuity is complicated.
So why do comic publishers keep returning to the same identities? Why are we coming up with new characters to take over existing superhero identities, instead of just creating new superheroes? Why couldn’t Miles Morales just become Tarantula Guy or something? You could say we’ve covered most superhero ideas already, but by that standard we should have just stopped after Superman.
The main reason The Avengers and The Justice Leaguers are still the biggest superheroes around is…that they’re the biggest superheroes around.
The big superheroes all came about at a time when us nerds had precious little other than comic books as our source of entertainment. Today, we’ve got movies, games, anime, and a million other distractions. Compared to that, comics came out almost in a vacuum. Further, the heroes we love today are the most compelling because they’re the ones who were good enough to last through the decades. There are hundreds of lesser heroes who fell by the wayside.
And of course, with the amount of economic pressure behind superhero movies today, studios aren’t risking their millions on superheroes that don’t already have an audience. This leads to kids out there watching The Avengers and getting into Iron Man for the first time, starting the fandom cycle all over again. Truly great heroes stand the test of time.
That isn’t to say there aren’t great heroes being produced today. Deadpool was one of the most successful superhero movies ever, and he was just created in the early 90s. The Guardians of the Galaxy team was only created in 2008. Interestingly, because of the relative recency of their origins, they both put their own spin on the traditional superhero style – Deadpool with his meta commentary, and GotG with the self-aware pop culture references. And it looks like these two will go down as great superheroes, so perhaps it’s time studios started looking beyond the standard set of heroes we’ve got? Just as long as it’s not the Red Bee.
Scribe: Dinkar Dwivedi
Captain's Log: Dinkar Dwivedi is a core member of the Geek Fruit team. By day he is a successful television show writer, director and producer, and by night he is also pretty much the same thing, because television is demanding guys, I mean. You have no life sometimes; it's almost like being a doctor but without the satisfaction of helping people. Apart from that Dinkar is a garage rock musician and goes by the alias Bone Broke.