With this week’s release of Spider-Man #1, launching the ongoing adventures of Miles Morales’ Spider-Man in the mainstream Marvel Universe, this seems like a good chance to cast my eyes to the latest trend in Marvel Comics.
Miles Morales – Spider-Man. Sam Wilson – Captain America. Jane Foster – Thor. Kamala Khan – Miss Marvel. Laura Kinney – Wolverine. All these are what I call ‘Legacy’ heroes; characters who have stepped into the role of an iconic superhero, taking on the mantle of heroism.
There’s nothing new about this. James Rhodes had a stint as Iron Man, while Captain America once passed on the torch to John Walker, before being replaced by Bucky as the Star-Spangled Avenger until Cap’s resurrection just before Siege.
But there are new elements to this picture. Never before has Marvel unleashed so many Legacy heroes at once; as well as the above examples, you could easily argue that all the alt-universe Spider-Men revealed through the Spider-Verse event are Legacy heroes, the most prominent being the breakout star Spider-Gwen herself.
The other unique element is that the new era of Legacy heroes is extraordinarily diverse. The mantles of Thor and Wolverine have been taken on by women; the most prominent alt-Spider is the female Spider-Gwen; Miles Morales and Sam Wilson are black; and Kamala Khan is an American Muslim.
Now, it’s worth noting from the outset that Marvel aren’t exactly committed to the concept of diversity – nor to the Legacy Heroes in particular. Just as happened in the days of James Rhodes’ Iron Man, fans are pretty much united in seeing the changes as short-term. There’s a scene in All-New, All-Different Avengers #4 that’s pretty on-point:
Making this comment all the more appropriate, this issue was released the week after Marvel announced that Steve Rogers would be returning to the position of Captain America. In an attempt to both have their cake and eat it, Marvel will run two comics – Captain America: Sam Wilson and Captain America: Steve Rogers. A similar situation is being set up in the pages of Mighty Thor; the conclusion of the Thors “Secret Wars” tie-in showed the Ultimate Thor’s hammer making its way into the mainstream continuity, preparing us for the days when we’ll have not one but two hammer-wielders.
But what forces and ideas are underpinning these changes? Why do we have Legacy Heroes at all?
Some argue that this is just ‘Political Correctness’. The argument is that these are changes made purely to avoid excluding or marginalising ethnic and gender groups – that these Legacy heroes are artificial constructs made purely to make a political statement: “Look, we’re diverse, really!” These critical fans believe Marvel are sacrificing iconic superheroes – from Wolverine to Thor – at the altar of Political Correctness. They yearn for things to go back to the way they were.
Others argue that this is progress; that Marvel are recognising the diversity of the world, and finally striving to make their comics what they’ve always been supposed to be – ‘the world outside your window’, with the addition of superheroes. These enthusiastic fans hope that Marvel are finally finding a balance in terms of the diversity of characters they represent.
Fans with this perspective are understandably irritated at the return of Steve Rogers as Captain America. As Danny observed:
If Marvel is truly committed to an expanded and diverse roster of characters, it needs to trust the characters it’s creating. It can’t keep undercutting the heroes it has in place, the non-white, non-male heroes, by having a white male hero waiting in the wings. Don’t get me wrong: I love Peter Parker and Steve Rogers and the Odinson, and I am glad I get to read more of them, but Marvel can’t piss on my neck and tell me it’s raining. If they want their diversity effort to stick, Sam Wilson should be Captain America, Miles Morales should be Spider-Man, and Jane Foster should be Thor. Otherwise it looks like they’re trying to have their diversity cake and eat it, too, and that’s just not gonna cut it.
I disagree with both perspectives. The fact is, Marvel Comics doesn’t exist as a business to make political statements, and it doesn’t exist for diversity. It exists to sell comics. Although Miles Morales had taken over the mantle of Spider-Man in the Ultimate Universe, it was Kamala Khan who really shocked the comic book world. G. Willow Wilson’s tremendous writing demonstrated that a diverse Legacy superhero could sell, and could sell well. Marvel promptly tried out variations on the formula, and realised they were on to a winner.
Spider-Gwen is a remarkably popular book, with a strong fan-base. Miles Morales has never performed so well as he should have done, but Marvel hope bringing him into the mainstream continuity will change that. All-New Wolverine is selling better than any non-Death-of-Wolverine title starring the Canucklehead has for years. Jason Aaron’s Mighty Thor run is receiving critical acclaim. In fact, some of these books – notably Miss Marvel and Spider-Gwen – are reportedly selling better digitally than they are in paper format, completely breaking with industry norms!
Marvel have worked out that diversity sells. They’ve also realised that they need to embrace the diversity in their core titles, because otherwise it takes time for new characters to develop a strong enough brand to sell. (Just think of how many ‘next generation’ X-Men characters are overlooked every time the new X-teams are formed.) Crafting Legacy heroes who celebrate diversity is simply good business sense.
What’s more, it isn’t even always the case that Marvel have sacrificed an iconic hero to make the Legacy one work. Sure, Spider-Man was killed in the Ultimate Universe; but now Miles Morales hangs around with the live-and-kicking Peter Parker. Wolverine’s sales popularity had dwindled through over-exposure, and the character needed a break. Carol Danvers has essentially been promoted to the role of Captain Marvel, and – given that’s the title of the movie she’s going to star in – it seems pretty certain that promotion is going to stick.
Forgive me being cynical, but I think that, in truth, Marvel are only committed to diversity in the sense that this strategy is selling comics. As a result, their long-term goal is very much to “have their diversity cake and eat it”! Ironically, because I do believe in celebrating diversity, I’m more than happy with most of their Legacy heroes. But what do you think – are Marvel headed in a direction you like?