This fall, Marvel Comics’ premiere characters are changing – some are dying, some are retiring, and some are changing radically. Between Death of Wolverine and the “Avengers NOW!” revamps of the core trinity of the Avengers – Captain America, Thor and Iron Man – Marvel is looking to draw in readers for the departure of some of its bedrock characters as well as the impending arrival of new characters taking on these famous mantles. Comics fans will remember this is far from the first time a superhero has been replaced or killed, but with such a high number happening in a condensed period of time at one company, it could be a sign of something larger. Is it a changing of the guard for the literal face of Marvel comics, or simply change for change’s sake that will eventually revert back to what it was before?
With “Avengers NOW,” Marvel seems to be aiming at a more diversified cast in its familiar roles. Same superhero code names in virtually all the cases, but instead of the stereotypical white male archetype that was popular in these characters’ time of conception, it’s an African-American as Captain America and an as-yet-unnamed woman as Thor. As the audience, both actual and potential, of comics has grown beyond the bounds of young white boys with disposable income, these characters provide unique storytelling avenues as well as a more personalized draw to, for example, young African-Americans who can see more of themselves in Captain America.
While the idea of a new person stepping into role and the name of a popular character like Captain America and Thor might seem novel, we’ve seen it before – even in these two particular cases. There have been eleven other characters who have acted as Captain America in Marvel’s core continuity outside of Steve Rogers and the upcoming “All-New” Captain America, Sam Wilson/Falcon. Thor’s had three others carry his hammer and his name, while five have played the role of Iron Man in Tony Stark’s stead. And while Falcon’s upcoming work as Cap is emblazoned with “All-New,” Sam Wilson has done it before (albeit very briefly) back in 1998’s Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty series.
Why is this kind of change so popular for publishers? It’s for what it brings. First you have the retirement of the current hero, which brings renewed attention to a given series for the “final” moments of that character’s career or even life. Then you have the ascension of their successor and their time attempting to fill the shoes of those who have gone before. But almost inevitably, the new-ness of a replacement hero wears off and the publishers find themselves nostalgic for what made the title popular in the first place – the original. So then they can have the retirement of the replacement hero and the “surprise” return of the original, classic hero. It’s a portion of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth played out across two characters inhabiting one role, with symbolic deaths and rebirths.
Literal deaths in fiction, particularly comics, work in a similar fashion. For every story about a character’s demise, there remains the story about the character’s seemingly inevitable return. Only a slim number of superhero deaths have stayed final; even Marvel’s pivotal Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel was dredged up on multiple occasions for potential returns before revealing in a twist that’s it’s not who they teased. Looking just at recent years, characters like Peter Parker, Nightcrawler, Cable, Colossus (really most of the X-Men at this point) have died and come back to life, whether it’s through pseudo-science or mystical/spiritual means.
The big “death” this fall for Marvel is that of the X-Men/Avenger Wolverine. There’s no surprise in this one, as Marvel’s enshrining it in the weekly miniseries bluntly titled Death of Wolverine. And while series writer Charles Soule promises the series will live up to the title, Marvel has announced a flurry of subsequent miniseries and one-shots under the “Death of Wolverine” umbrella that will fill the absence of Wolverine titles on comic shelves and then some. And it’s not like anyone in the industry, fan or professional, believes that Wolverine will remain dead and absent from comics for any extended length of time.
So in both cases, death and retirement, it breeds another category of story: the return. Heroes can’t return unless they’re gone, and their absence literally makes “the heart grow fonder” – whether it be Peter Parker in the culmination of Superior Spider-Man or the return of James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale.
And this isn’t the first time replacing popular characters has been in vogue at Marvel. During Tom DeFalco’s tenure as the Editor-In-Chief of Marvel, the same heroes who are shuffling in “Avengers NOW!” – Captain America, Thor and Iron Man – all saw themselves being replaced. John Walker became Cap in September 1989, Eric Masterson became Thor in May 1991 and James Rhodes once again took over as Iron Man in September 1992 – with Tony Stark even faking his own death to boot. Their tenures were short however, with Walker and Masterson lasting 20 months each and Rhodes lasting only seven before the originals returned. Rhodes has at least had a long career as variously-named other Iron men, be they War or Patriot (even making it to film).
But that’s not to say every replacement hero is doomed to failure. The most glowing example of one succeeding is DC’s Hal Jordan as Green Lantern who took over from Alan Scott, followed quickly by Barry Allen as Flash (in place of Jay Garrick). On the Marvel side of things, Carol Danvers seems to have firmly taken up the mantle of Captain Marvel and there’s no previous mantle-holders waiting in the wings to return. In fact, her own replacement has emerged with a new Ms. Marvel in her stead. That being said, replacement heroes who actually get to keep their job are in the immense minority, with an extremely high failure rate.
But maybe that’s not a bad thing? Whereas in the real world heroes can’t live forever, in the world of fiction and especially with exceedingly long-form storytelling such as serialized comic books, creators can provide people comfort in the enduring quality that their childhood heroes will continue to live on. And while change does entice lapsed readers and those “on the fence” to sample a new comic, part of the book’s popularity to begin with can’t be forgotten. So while change is necessary, in many instances it’s the “illusion of change” wherein those changes are eventually changed once more back to its earlier iteration. And while the stories of the changed status and those memories remain, it avoids changing what the character’s owners see as the core tenets of the character.
There’s an old adage that’s poetically apt when talking about this trend in comics storytelling and marketing, and even adds another layer to it all; the more things change, the more they stay the same. The beauty of fiction and long-form fiction is that you can have it both ways: you can change, but you can also write your way out of those changes back to an earlier version if you so desire.