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It's time for Marvel and DC to embrace change, retire their legacy characters
The comic book industry has historically had a difficult time getting noticed by the mainstream media. Despite having long ago left behind its disposable pulp roots behind, comics have always struggled to get even a smidge of the attention movies and television get.
Not last week.
As word got out that Superman's son, Jon Kent, would come out as bisexual in November's Superman: Son of Kal-El #5, written by Tom Taylor and drawn by John Timms, the story took on a life of its own. Everyone covered it, including SYFY WIRE, of course. But so did NPR, the Washington Post and the newspaper of record, the New York Times, and dozens of other outlets who never write about comics unless a character is being killed or there's a lawsuit involving the ownership rights to a well-known superhero.
Back when I worked in morning television news, we'd always look for stories like this, "the talker of the day." You could build a big chunk of your morning show around something that served as a magnet for conversation. It's increasingly rare to have a story break out from a Twitter trending topic into a watercooler story where everyone has an opinion. But that's what happened with the Jon Kent news.
If I'm a member of the DC Comics staff, I'm feeling proud in light of the announcement — because as writer Tom Taylor said during an interview on CNN with John Berman, representation matters to all those people who can now can see a bit of themselves in the son of Kal-El.
To have Jon Kent come out as bisexual as time is a very progressive and intelligent move on DC's part. But if I'm a DC staffer, I'm also thinking that Jon Kent could be the beginning of something even bigger and bolder. It's an idea DC and Marvel may never have the guts to do, but one it should seriously consider: Retire some of the oldest legacy characters at Marvel and DC.
Marvel artist Sean Izaakse posted a great thread on twitter where he shared his thoughts on why some of comics' greatest heroes could/should be retired and it inspired me to write about this. What Izaakse wrote made entirely too much sense. As comics fans, we always know that Bruce Wayne/Batman has a plan to survive anything and save the day. We know Peter Parker/Spider-Man will overcome what ever insurmountable odds are stacked in front of him, and that Clark Kent/Superman will do the right thing.
Marvel and DC, the holders of the keys to the superhero kingdom, are trapped in an eternal "wash, rinse, repeat" cycle. How can they possibly break free of it?
Not by getting get rid of Superman — but by getting rid of Clark Kent;
By retiring Peter Parker, and creating a new alter-ego for Spider-Man;
By keeping Batman, and dumping Bruce Wayne.
The youngest character mentioned above is 60 years old. We have mountains of stories depicting these guys. The same goes for Diana Prince, Hal Jordan, the Richards family, Dr. Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers and Logan. Who's to say that they must always be the people in the costumes and masks of our favorite heroes? Batman may have been borne from tragedy, but why should it only be a rich guy whose parents were gunned down in Crime Alley?
It's drastic, yes. But the more I think about it, the better it sounds.Why? One reason is that it gives readers a clear jump-on point. Just as the Ultimate universe provided a nice, uncluttered entry into a Marvel universe untethered from decades of past continuity when it debuted in 2000, retiring some of these characters could be the avenue toward extending a true welcome to new readers. It's what comics publishers always talk about, finding new readers to give their comics a try. Except most attempts by DC and Marvel to do this with legacy heroes like Batman, Superman, the X-Men and Spider-Man are "not inviting" in the least.
Need examples? The Jonathan Hickman-curated X-Men books are gorgeous and have some fascinating concepts, but for new readers — heck, even veteran comics fans — it's almost impenetrable. Nick Spencer, Ryan Ottley and Pat Gleason's Amazing Spider-Man was really entertaining for longtime fans, but the entire run was steeped in Spidey lore. If you had no idea about Peter's long, troubled ties to the Osborn family, then how in the world could you have truly appreciated the climax to the run?
The same goes for the Batman run scripted by Tom King in tandem with artists like Mitch Gerads, Joelle Jones, Clay Mann and Tony Daniels. If you had years of Gotham reading experience under your belt, it was incredibly rewarding. But good luck if you just decided to jump in because you saw the Christopher Nolan movies on cable and wanted more Batman adventures.
Besides the conundrum of continuity, there is the simple truth that at a certain point, there are diminishing returns for stories with Bruce Wayne in the Batcave, or Clark Kent at the Fortress of Solitude. By replacing them with fresh faces, it could energize creators to breathe new life into these characters. DC already has moved in this direction with Future State, showing future versions of heroes, such as Yara Flor as the new Wonder Woman, Jesse Chambers as the new, gender fluid Flash, Tim Fox as the new Batman. But don't just make them "future versions." Make them the primary versions of these heroes on Earth-One.
Also, let's face it, replacing the lineup of typical white male characters who have held these roles for decades could prove interesting for readers looking to see a bit of themselves in the heroes they read about. It's also worth noting that introducing a gay Batman -- and at some point, it is going to happen -- will be much easier to do with someone other than Bruce Wayne beneath the cowl.
Marvel and DC have both always been scared to death to make radical changes to their publishing lines, for fear of losing their entrenched fanbase. Nevermind that that fan base is shrinking because a sizable chunk of those readers who still buy handfuls of Marvel/DC comics each month are getting older. We can't overlook that history shows fans actually do want and will embrace change in their comics, as long as its done within the context of good stories.
The Avengers have changed lineups countless times, the FF have lost one of its core four more than once (remember when Reed and Sue left to join the Avengers?), Hal Jordan was not the Green Lantern for a long time, and Tony Stark wasn't always in the Iron Man armor. Changes to the status quo of some of comics' most recognizable heroes have happened before, and it's been just fine. There are several examples to point out, but Wally West taking over as Flash after Barry Allen sacrificed himself in Crisis on Infinite Earths is one of the best. Kyle Rayner replacing Hal Jordan as GL is another.
The problem is, the Powers That Be have always felt the need to revert back to the same old, same old. And it's not just a DC issue. Marvel suffers from the same lack of institutional fortitude.
Remember the Clone Saga in Spider-Man? Yes, the story was... messy, but it did give us Ben Reilly. Well, Ben is back and he's taking over from Peter Parker in the flagship Amazing Spider-Man title. It's just one issue in, and I'm into the story. Hopefully, it's a permanent change.
Not because I don't like Peter Parker. I love Peter Parker. He might be my favorite comic book character. Not Spider-Man, but Peter. He's always been the most interesting character in any Spidey book. But there are 60 years of stories involving the Parker luck. I never ever thought I could see another person being Spider-Man. And then Miles Morales came along.
Peter Parker is IMHO the greatest out-of-costume character in comics history. Retiring him might be the toughest move. But Miles proved that the Spidey legacy could carry on without Peter on the webs, that the kid in the Spider-Man mask doesn't have to be a wallflower from Midtown High with an elderly aunt. Hell, Dan Slott's Superior Spider-Man saga, when Doc Ock took over, also went a long way toward showing that the Spidey mantle of heroism, loyalty and responsibilty can be passed on.
Will there be backlash? Of course. So what?
Staying the course and continuing to churn out more of the same isn't going to grow the readership. But taking a big-league swing for the fences may do it. Call it a changing of the guard, and use it as a way to expand the reach of comics. As long as Clark Kent is in the red & blue longjohns, or Oliver Queen is still firing off arrows, or Bruce is still brooding in his cave, we, the readers, know how every story they're involved in will end. And that sort of defeats the purpose of dramatic storytelling. Instead of simply telling another Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent story, why not build the canon of the new heroes who wear the capes and cowls?
As Izaakse said on Twitter: "New stories and new characters don’t take away from the stories we’ve had before."
Let these new heroes reflect the diversity of the world of today. Keep the older characters' memories and copyrights alive with reprints and occasional stand-alone stories. But commit to bringing in new blood. By doing so, they can find new readers who can actually recognize and relate to the people whose adventures they follow.
It's time. It's long overdue. Change is good. Comics should finally embrace it.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.