Disclaimer: All mentioned characters and used images are property of their respective creators!
Today, I’ll be talking about Legacy Characters! What? No, they are not lazy writing or cheap writers reusing old material.
In simple terms, a Legacy Character is a particular identity that is passed down from the original to a successor. This is more than just a simple reboot, reimagining, or alternate take (though successors can be any of those writing-wise): what makes Legacy Characters stand out is that their past, present and future incarnations are more closely, directly linked than simple reboots or revisits of the same creation.
Pictured above: Taking the term spiritual successor a little literally there HOLY CRAP IT’S GHOST TRUCKER AND GHOST WATER BUFFALO RIDER.
Sure, you could reimagine Superman, or give him more Kryptonian relatives. You could have Green Lantern be an organisation, with multiple parallel members. And yes, you can retroactively add more super soldiers developed in the same way as Captain America. But those are expansions of a character’s mythos and roster, where the Original remains the same.
A Legacy Character, on the other hand, is an idea, a mantle, perhaps even a rank that is passed down from master to apprentice (or alternatively, government/cosmic force to appointed replacement), be it hero or villain. The Phantom might be one of the oldest examples of that, but more prominently, DC and Marvel have their big hitters, too.
The most common Legacy Characters are ones who have close sidekicks. Within DC, Flash is probably the best known example, as Barry Allen started out as a reboot of the original, but Wally West would end up being the new Flash. And though they remain active within the comics, both Batman and Green Arrow did eventually have their sidekicks step up and take on their roles for a time. And though the many parallel Green Lanterns are each a unique individual, there was a time when Hal Jordan went mad and the new GL had to be Kyle Rayner.
Marvel, on the other hand, has a lot more examples that readily come to mind. Now, technically, Doctor Strange is one, as the Sorcerer Supreme is a title that he inherited and will pass down, but that’s a little hard to imagine since the good Doc’s succession is hardly discussed. He inherited it from The Ancient One, yes, but we hardly think of him as a successor because we didn’t get adventures with said old magic geezer. It’s the same deal with the Black Panther: we know he inherited the mantle, but we never see the adventures of his forefathers. But in fairness, while we seldom think of them in a ‘pass the torch’ kind of way, having seen them as established and experienced, it’s hard to deny their status as inheritors given that it’s right there in their backstory and plotlines.
But no, when you think of a Marvel legacy, perhaps the best example would be Iron Man. As Tony Stark faced the triple threat problems of alcoholism, a failing body, and being a complete and utter nobhead, perhaps he had more incentive than most to prepare a successor. He trained many to take up the Iron Man mantle, and while he would be the one who stuck with it the most, he DID have War Machine and a couple of other mooks stand in for him when he was too wasted to do it himself. Heck, Captain America is just as big on the Legacy train; although sometimes the position was outright taken from him and at other times he’s mostly remained in it, it’s still true that Cap trained a number of successors to take up the shield. Similarly, many of their VILLAINS ended up raising their own successors to continue wasting their time on old grudges instead of getting on with their lives.
That being said, perhaps that is what cements a character’s legacy: BOTH past and present versions must have had their share of exposure in the main role, instead of being shunted off to the margins as backstory or flashbacks.
Don’t think that the transition is always smooth, however. Not every Master and Apprentice have an amiable relationship, or have the best partings. While the most well-adjusted inheritance is delivered after sufficient training in a safe, warm, supportive environment, the world of fiction is full of occupational hazards. Let’s face it: Many, many, MANY Originals die prematurely, forcing a bunch of unprepared successors to grow up FAST. And of course, some mantles aren’t given; some must be taken, and sometimes they’re even stolen, or even unwanted. In fact, some fans grow so attached to the Originals that they will outright protest or deny their successors.
So what’s the use of Legacy Characters aside from looking really cool and giving these guys a retirement plan? Well, for starters, Legacy Characters can add a certain mythic scope to a hero’s legacy, the idea that they’re part of something bigger while at the same time striving to carve out their own unique identity in the role.You simultaneously stay true to the character’s appeal while exploring individual quirks.
They also represent a potential plot thread, either for moving things forward in the future, or dragging up things from the past. The passing on of the torch or the return of old enemies (or even former Legacy Heroes!) are two plot threads common to these characters, and are often used either early on as a trial by fire or later, once they’re more experienced, as a blast from the past. Everyone is familiar with a Hero that is struggling to learn the ropes, but a Hero with the weight of a Legacy on their shoulders? That’s a little something extra.
On the production side of things, Legacy Characters are also useful if a character needs a reboot, or a new set of eyes to enter a new era. It’s a way to send off characters that seem old, or to revive them if they’ve been out of action for a good long while. Plus, y’know, you get to redesign some pretty silly outfits.
My delight, however? When you take some of the most unlikely characters and expand them into Legacy Characters. Or when you take characters you knew deep down were part of a Legacy, and then expand that Legacy much later. Because that gives you a great deal of creative freedom to, once again, pursue those nerd longings within you: What if Iron Fist used GUNS? Or was fighting opium dens? Or what if there was a Gladiator Black Panther? Or a LUCHADORE Black Panther? Or a BLACK PANTHER Black Panther? And what if Ghost Rider rode a TRUCK or a BIPLANE?
Were they wiser? Stronger? More ruthless? More foolish? Are there failures that come back to haunt the Successor? What were the big differences? Or just as important: What did they all share?