I enjoy football very much — even the preseason games, if only to see how the rookie and veteran players look before the fun kicks off. Last week, Tony Romo, one of the most important quarterbacks in the NFL, broke a bone in his back. He is now out for almost half the season. With the run starting in two weeks, America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, just lost its starting quarterback and leader.
And now rookie Dak Prescott will be handed the reins of one of the most popular sporting franchises in the world, and we will see if he becomes the future or the failure of the team as Romo recovers from his injury. Talk about making or breaking your career, right?
This situation made me ponder the times iconic comic book characters had been replaced by heroes or villains. Not only were they expected to fill gigantic shoes, but also introduce a new spin to a beloved character's story arc. Sometimes these replacement characters ended up being well received by fans, but more often than not these drastic changes didn't work out quite as planned...
Venom represents every comic book fan's dream of creating something out of their love of reading comic books and becoming part of the history and lore. In 1982, Marvel Comics reader Randy Schueller came up with the idea of a new costume for Spider-Man. Then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter liked it so much that he paid Schueller $220 for the idea. Schueller's design was then modified by Mike Zeck and became the Symbiote costume.
Venom is not a character per se until it fuses with its host, enhancing its abilities and displaying the behavior of said host. This concept has been explored through different iterations of the character.
The alien Symbiote has passed through different characters, including Spider-Man, Eddie Brock's ex-wife Anne Weying, and even Deadpool. Indeed, it was revealed in Deadpool's Secret Secret Wars, Volume 3 that he wore the Symbiote costume before Spider-Man put it on in the original Secret Wars event, and it implies that the reason for the Symbiote's aggressive takeover of Spider-Man was a result of its bondage with Deadpool, who ended up driving Venom insane.
The Symbiote is a character with boundless potential that has been used as a platform for us to explore different sides of a variety of characters while also adding depth. It hasn't always been successful, but Venom is such a well-known character that no matter what version we get of him/her, it will always be recognizable thanks to its iconic design and fully realized depiction.
4. Captain America
Sometimes, comic characters are changed or altered simply to generate an increase in book sales. That is the case of John F. Walker, better known as the U.S Agent. Even his creator Mark E. Gruenwald wasn't shy about the reason:
"Believe me it's a trick I know works because I've seen it work a number of times. It's just to get you noticed so that people who don't normally read it will say, "Oh, I heard something about this, let me read it and see." And with luck, folks will get hooked on the storyline."
And it worked! Walker remained the main character of Captain America for issues 333–350, during which his character generally becomes more heroic.
Steve Rogers cannot be replaced, but the whole idea of John Walker was to show a different side of the patriotism and ideals that Captain America encapsulated. He loves his country just as Cap does, he obeys his government like a good soldier would, but he believes Rogers' patriotism comes from a naive, outdated point of view.
Showing the other side of the coin might present a different and interesting perspective. And in this instance, it paid off.
Ahh, the infamous Clone Saga and the introduction of Ben Reilly as the "real" Spider-Man. You want to talk about fan rage, talk to someone that experienced first hand this whole event back then.
The idea wasn't bad, mind you. The problem was that Marvel decided to capitalize on the financial success that was DC’s Batman and Superman replacement storylines, and decided to see how far it could go with its own story.
Ultimately, finding ways to extend the plot managed to turn a nice little idea into an abomination of nonsense and convoluted storylines.
Ben Reilly's character suffered at the hands of a complex narrative that tried to forced upon the readers the idea that he was the real Spider-Man and that Peter Parker was a clone, after almost 30 years of being our favorite wall crawler. At the end, Marvel ran out of ideas and decided that Peter Parker was indeed the real Spider-Man, killing off Ben Reilly in the process after it was revealed to him by Norman Osborn that he was a clone all this time. *sigh*
I blame this on the '90s obsession with everything being to the extreme. This era was the first time comic books dabbled in dark and gritty territory. No, not Christopher Nolan gritty, but more like a "let's see how extreme we can get" kind of gritty. Comic book creators tried to show fans that their art form could be serious when it came to characters compromising their ideals, putting them in scenarios that would push these characters to the edge.
The problem here is that it was explored through different characters instead of an existing one, with comic creators attempting to show us the exact opposite of the character in question instead of exploring the dark side that these heroes already possessed.
Jean-Paul Valley's (a.k.a Azrael) version of Batman was the epitome of these extreme cases of character replacement. Guns, claws and shoulder pads! Batman was already a badass character, but someone decided to send a message that he needed to look the part — literally. The idea of Azrael donning the mask and cowl wasn't a bad idea, but the execution was terrible.
As a character, Azrael was already very well developed, so when he was chosen to don Batman's cape, it was really an out-of-left-field choice, and for that reason was actually very appealing. The problem here was that the deterioration of Azrael's state of mind and escalation of his aggressive methods were explored through his appearance, rather than the narrative.
Us readers knew that Bruce Wayne would return sooner or later to suit up as Batman, but Azrael's makeover seemed a little bit forced and lazy. If the writers and artists wanted us to hate him, they definitely accomplished that, but not in a good way. Azrael had good intentions and it was natural that we would eventually witness his fall from grace. However, when that concept was explored only in corrupting the way he looked, it just felt like a huge cop out.
Luckily, writers have since explored personifications like this one but have played more with character development and dynamics. A great example would be when Dick Grayson became Batman. There was no need to change his appearance, and he honored Batman's suit by keeping the ideals intact while adding his own personality to it.
1. The Flash
Wally West is the perfect example of how to replace an iconic character and make it his own without affecting the legacy of the original.
Transitioning from sidekick (Kid Flash) to taking over his mentor's mantle, Wally managed to replace Barry Allen after he sacrificed his life during the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths to become the official the third Flash, taking it to a whole other level.
People reacted well to Wally's Flash, with fans remaining loyal for several years.
So what made Wally's Flash stand out? The idea of a sidekick fulfilling the legacy of succeeding his mentor in the role.
Wally's journey was filled with emotional depth, showing his personal insecurities and doubts over his worthiness to succeed. Yet he lived up to our expectations. A hero who wasn't afraid to show his self-doubt, Wally never wavered from his desire to continue the tradition of the Flash. His development was very unique at that time and showed how comic creators could feasibly replace one popular character and have another become a true hero in his own right. And all this while upholding Barry Allen's legacy.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
And this is why I love comic books. The superhero concept is not restricted to the pages of a graphic novel; it transcends real life. I started off discussing an injured football player, wanting to explain to non-sports fans how similar it is to see an icon being replaced and the uncertainty that comes with these changes.
Will Dak Prescott become Wally West, someone who has the weight of one of the most important legacies on his shoulders, while making a name for himself at the same time? Or is he going to be like Azrael's Batman, all surface with no substance, waiting for the real Batman to show up again and reclaim his title?
I know there are more examples out there of comic book replacement heroes and villains, but I would love to hear from you about examples of other character substitutes and their impact, whether negative or positive.