The Changing Tide – The Importance of Legacy Characters

Written by Fabian Wood

July 15, 2021

DC Comics has recently announced that Jackson Hyde (aka Kaldur’ahm) will graduate from his status as the current “Aqualad” to that of fully fledged “Aquaman” in the aptly titled upcoming six-issue mini-series “Aquaman: The Becoming” this September; written by Brandon Thomas with art by Diego Olortegui. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, since just six months earlier, DC teased the same new status quo in their not-too-distant-future two-issue book “Future State: Aquaman” (which Thomas also wrote). Having debuted in “Brightest Day #4” back in 2010, Jackson quickly grew into prominence as the de facto leader in the acclaimed “Young Justice” animated series that same year.

Aqualad. Image credit DC Comics

Jackson’s origins and character comprise of him being a once sheltered hybrid human-Xebelean with amphibious and both hydro-kinetic and bio-electric powers. His estranged father (Black Manta) is also the arch-nemesis of his mentor and surrogate father (Arthur Curry), which is primed for a lot of emotional baggage. Aqualad’s fan-base has only grown since then, and he has been on the steady rise. Just last year, he starred in the YA graphic novel “You Brought Me The Ocean” – written by Lambda Award-winning author Alex Sanchez (Rainbow Boys) and illustrated by New York Times bestseller Julie Maroh (Blue Is the Warmest Color) – which received a GLAAD Media Award nomination for its portrayal of the struggles of adolescence and sexuality.

DC has shown interest as of late with its LGBTQ+ catalogue of characters and readership, with Jackson poised to be the flagship of this trend. Series author Thomas states that the young hero “has found acceptance and honesty in his relationship with his mother, made peace with the truth about his father and been embraced by Aquaman, Mera and the people of Amnesty Bay”. Thomas goes on to describe Jackson’s new personal journey “is one that’s relatable to many, whether [fans] happens to be queer or not”.

Jackson’s elevation to his mentor’s role and status is just the latest example of a “legacy” character – a new, often younger person who inherits or succeeds the mantle/title of a long, pre-existing (predominantly straight white male) superhero for an extended period of time. While not unprecedented or avant-garde, what stands out in Hyde’s case is that not only is he a Black man taking over from a (yet another) white male hero with decades of history and familiarity, but he will be the first gay character to do so. Jackson will be in a unique and auspicious position in the DC frontlines, representing both diversity in race and sexual orientation when he dons the aquatic tights of his 80-year-old predecessor. This made me want to reflect on the relevance and importance of legacy characters, especially ones of color.

A flock of Robins. Image credit DC Comics.

With DC pretty much cornering the market with its many Robins, myriad of Green Lanterns, multitude of Starmen, and menagerie of Flashes – but you also have your various Venoms and copious Captain Americas on Marvel’s end – there are many proponents who would argue against “legacy” as a whole. Pro-advocates would rightly contest that without legacy characters we wouldn’t have avid fan-favorites like Wally West, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, John Stewart, Stephanie Browne, Terry McGuinness, Jaime Reyes, Kamala Khan, X23 or Miles Morales, et al. Even staples such as Barry Allen/Flash and Hal Jordan/Green Lantern are themselves technically legacy characters to their Golden Age counterparts Jay Garrick and Alan Scott respectively. “Legacy” also has significant value in terms of representation of minorities in what was traditionally a homogenous straight Caucasian male landscape, with scant token female heroines.

My proposition is a little deeper than that. “Legacy” to me is a natural progression of the inalienable qualities we associate with that superhero or mantle, re-contextualized in a new, modern or alternative way. A fresh coat of paint with a contemporary perspective if you will, or the natural passing of the torch from one generation to the next. It also answers the question of if someone else of a different demographic or background had that power/responsibility. How would they react or do things differently? What facets or subtleties would their unique viewpoint bring to the timeless iconography?

Anthony Mackie in Falcon & the Winter Soldier. Image credit Disney/ Marvel Studios.

This is no better exemplified in the recent live-action series “Falcon & The Winter Soldier”; where one of the underlining themes and postulations was over replacing the “icon” of Captain America, who is inexorably synonymous with the “man” Steve Rogers. This philosophical dilemma is faced by its three main characters. Sam Wilson (anti-legacy) is the one hand-picked by Steve to be his successor, but is held back by his over-reverence for the mantle/shield and wishing it to remain untarnished and unblemished. Bucky Barnes (pro-legacy) is the man who wants his best friend’s legacy to live on even if it is not through him, seeing the value, power and responsibility that “icon” has for today’s world.

John Walker (the unworthy), an over-zealous and unfit usurper who fills that vacuum and corrupts that ideal, creating the catalyst for the rise of the reluctant successor. In the end, Sam, a Black man with no superpowers, dons a hybrid version of Steve’s and his suit and acknowledges himself as not the “new” Captain America, but “the” Captain America. Unlike his predecessor, Sam is a man of today, and a man with a long history tied to the African-American struggle (something Steve could never associate with). Sam is cognizant of different points of views in a complex theatre of geopolitics and moral grays, while at the same time possesses the heart of what “Captain America” stands for. By the series’ conclusion, I was sold on Sam being the new age “Captain America”. In spite of naysayers and detractors, Sam proudly proved himself equipped to deal with the nuances of our current world in Steve’s shoes/absence. His amalgamated costume embodying both the natural evolution of himself and the icon. As far as the MCU is concerned, Sam is (and rightfully so) today’s Captain America.

The face of the world has become more interconnected, dynamic, inclusive and multifaceted. Legacy characters can and should co-exist with brand new entries and the old guard to encompass the very notion of growth and gamut of modern diversity and more importantly, exemplifying the value of heritage and history. Some heroes will invariably remain timeless, and some “legacy” heroes may never fully outshine their forbearers (*see Miles Morales never being fully acknowledged as “Spider-man”). But through “legacy”, the current generation can hopefully better relate to and identify with those classic champions of heroism vicariously through the fresh eyes and experiences of the new torchbearer. This can give each age a sense of ownership and unique pride to having their own version of an endearing and enduring icon. Plus, how else will heated debates on who is the best Robin, Flash, Green Lantern, Spider-man etc go on ad infinitum.

Aqualad and Andy Curry. Image credit DC Comics.

I am more than happy to see Jackson Hyde, a character who has proven his mettle and a personal favorite of mine, become Aquaman for a bold new era, for however long it lasts. Further to Jackson’s own ascension, I am also looking forward to the next breakout “legacy” character like Miles or Kamala who will manifest and resonate with that generation in the years to come, by honoring the past and be representative of and for a newer audience.

You can read more from DC on “Aquaman: The Becoming” here.

And for more up-and-coming LGBTQ+ characters from DC and MARVEL during Pride month look here.

Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics, or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

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