Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sidekicks, Replacements, etc. part one

I toyed with calling this "Round Robin: The Sidekick's Revenge" out of love and admiration for Kiel, but held back.

After my lengthy post about Wally West the other day, I got to thinking about the nature of sidekicks, and what happens when the characters evolve beyond their standard role. As noted in that entry, Wally West replaced his mentor and became the Flash and Bucky Barnes is currently doing a tour as Captain America, but those are more the exceptions than the rule. A sidekick usually either stays young forever, adopts a third role in between sidekick and mentor, or does a brieft stint as the main event and then reverts back to one of those first two states.

Here are some ramblings about what sidekicks deserve to "graduate," which shouldn't, what has and hasn't worked in the past, what heroes can/can't be replaced, etc.

Thinking it over (as writing a post such as this would require me to do), there are some "big-time" heroes whose roles and personas lend themselves better to another guy picking up the baton for a lengthy period of time because while they're each and every one great characters, they lack that intangible that tells you somebody else couldn't do the job. I'd say Green Lantern and Flash certainly fit this bill, Captain America does more than I would have suspected, and I'm not unconvinced there couldn't be another Iron Man or Wonder Woman.

The four A-list heroes who I don't really think can be replaced other than for a storyline or two are Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the Hulk. It's not just that they're very special characters, it's that their origins are so linked to personal tragedies that if somebody else put on the mask (or cape or torn purple pants) it's just not the same. Whereas Green Lantern was given an awesome ring and Captain America got to go fight Nazis, Batman does his thing because his parents got killed in front of his face and Bruce Banner must be the Hulk because he was caught in a terrible accident. You can replicate the circumstances that created the Flash, but you can't kill another guy's uncle and call him Spider-Man.

That said...

Batman & Robin(s)
Like I said, I don't think you can ever really have a Batman who isn't Bruce Wayne. Even if it's another raven-haired orphan who lost his parents, Batman's origin is too unique, iconic and unquestionably tied into the DNA of what makes him a great character that you can't swap the guy under the cowl out for too long.

And yet Bruce Wayne is currently RIP/MIA/etc. But that's totally ok, because while you can't replace Batman long term, stories about replacing him short term actually have a lot of potential.

It's been well over a decade now since the "Prodigal" storyline saw Dick Grayson (aka Nightwing, aka the original Robin) become Batman for a bit while Bruce Wayne healed up from his ordeals with Bane and Azrael. I found "Prodigal" to be a curious case of untapped potential, since the ideas behind it were intriguing but it didn't seem long enough or pivotal enough to make the impact it should have.

Dick Grayson can really never be Batman. The whole idea of Robin when he started out was that, despite the tragedy of his origin, he was the total 180 to Batman and thusly fleshed out the strip from a reader's standpoint and served as a valuable weapon from the characters' standpoint. Dick's Robin was chipper, optimistic, colorful--everything Batman was not. He was the acrobatic distraction that caught the bad guys' eye so Batman could come in and kick the shit out of them. For that character to somehow morph into the morose creature of the night who relies on fear that Batman must be is betraying the most integral spirit of the character. However, at the same time, you have to figure that Dick has spent his entire life since childhood thinking in the back of his mind, "That's gonna be me someday" about Batman the same way any kid secretly wants to take over their dad's business regardless of how unqualified or unsuited they are for it. Dick realizing he can never fulfill the role Bruce spent years training him for and coming to terms with it is a story I still think has worth; like I said, "Prodigal" touched on it, but it was over too quickly and done in an era not known much for its character development.

(As an aside, Nightwing is one of my favorite characters precisely because he has the bad ass qualities of Batman and yet the people skills of Superman. He can do the whole "I figured out 20 ways to beat you five minutes ago" junk that Batman does, but people actually like him. This is the reason I eternally hope he'll have an extended stint on the Justice League someday.)

Tim Drake still feels too new to me, even after having been around two-plus decades. I'm not ready for a story where he becomes Batman unless it's set in the future.

Jason Todd taking over the Batman role for a spell could actually be kinda neat, despite the fact that it's somewhat redundant. "Knightfall" was essentially a poor man's version of what Jason as Batman would be like, with Azrael filling the role of Batman disciple with a mean streak who takes over and goes nuts, forcing Bruce to take him down. However, the fact that Jason actually has a legitimate tie to the Batman legacy as opposed to being a character only a few months old and because his and Bruce's relationship is so complex could add the extra layers that would make for good drama.

Iron Man & War Machine
Not too long ago, I read the "James Rhodes as Iron Man" story I'd heard so much about when it was collected in Iron Man: War Machine and, like with "Prodigal," I was a bit let down by it being too short and taking place in the wrong era to really get the character exploration it deserved.

I was writing about Rhodey for earlier this week and noted that a lot of his appeal comes from just how out of place he is (or at least should be) in Tony Stark's world. Stark is this brilliant but flighty playboy whose fatal flaw is he doesn't generally realize the stakes he's playing at whereas Rhodey is a somewhat world-weary realist with real grit and work ethic who weighs every decision he makes. Their differences make for a great dynamic, but I always kinda yearn to see those scenes where Tony has to rush off to a meeting or stumbles off to bed wasted and Rhodey is left awkwardly in an environment he is completely uncomfortable with.

That was the story being told in that trade, as Tony "dies" and leaves Rhodey in charge of Stark Enterprises, a job he is woefully unqualified to handle and that he clearly hates. The flipside is that he gets to be Iron Man, but even there it's weird because he's wearing his dead best friend's suit. Seeing Rhodey, who is normally so self-assured, try to settle into those roles, creates dramatic tension I'm interested in reading about. But unfortunately, before you know it, Tony is back and Rhodey is out.

It's a shame, because back then I do think Iron Man was a character you could have replaced for a few years at least and Rhodey would be the guy I'd want to see do it. I know he had a longer stint as Iron Man back in the mid-80's, but I find it more interesting when Tony is out of the picture entirely and half the book isn't devoted to him.

Now, thanks to the "Iron Man" movie's success, Tony Stark is a pretty irreplaceable commodity and there also happens to be a lot of damn good stories being told with him. Also, after so many years as War Machine, Rhodey has his own niche and his becoming Iron Man would seem a step back since he's already his own man. I'm not particularly heartbroken by the current status quo because I think Tony as Iron Man and Rhodey as War Machine works just fine, but I do wonder what could have been.

Aquaman & Tempest
Tempest should absolutely be Aquaman. It should have happened like five years ago.

The fact is, despite a world of potential, Aquaman has been a stagnant character for quite some time. He gets brought back every few years only to be put down again because people are more interested in the idea of Aquaman than in reading a book about him. I do think there are some cool Aquaman stories starring the original out there waiting to be told, but I'm not sure they're so great we need to wait this long.

I think it's a Barry Allen situation if I ever saw one (which I never have because I wasn't actually reading comics back in 1986 at age four): there's nothing to lose and everything to gain by putting a beloved but new character in the orange scale suit and seeing what happens.

I'm biased because my buddy Phil Jimenez revamped him past his Aqualad days and has spent many an hour extolling upon me his virtues, but I think Tempest is a great character. He's nothing like Wally West as far as his personality, but he's got that same potential that Wally did back in the day. Garth has been a meek second fiddle most of his life in comics, standing two steps behind either Aquaman or the Titans, but when he has been given a chance to shine, he generally steps it up.

And he's got cool magic powers that beat Aquamans skillset.

I think a Tempest-as-Aquaman series with a shiny new number one and a dope modified costume would have been a really cool idea either after Arthur "died" during Our Worlds at War or with the One Year Later re-launch (which was actually a pretty cool book, but ultimately suffered from being close to the Aquaman people were used to, but not close enough to keep traditionalists happy and not new enough to bring in new readers--Tempest could solve both those problems).

Given that Aquaman is still kinda in limbo now, I maintain giving Tempest a go is worth a shot. Watching him try to rule a kingdom, fit in with the JLA and fight his mentor's villains could be pretty rad. And if it doesn't work, whatever, bring back the original.

The Hulk
There are a few good reasons that only Bruce Banner should ever be the Hulk.

1. Like I said above, he's got a great origin that is integral to the character and really wouldn't work shoved onto somebody else.

2. You don't need somebody else as the Hulk since given the nature of the character and the history of how he has been handled under guys like Peter David, you can just switch his persona without switching the man beneath the monster.

3. If you do make somebody else the Hulk, they're just going to end up getting one of the default Hulk personalities anyways, so what would be the point?

4. Banner's continued torment and inability to escape his curse are crucial to why the Hulk remains compelling. Some other guy just starting out as the Hulk doesnt have the same emotional weight as Banner having to deal with the guilt and stress that he's accumulated over decades.

5. Rick Jones was the Hulk for a bit once and he had an awful, awful mullet. It's a sight I'd like to forget.

All that said, it only takes one good story to prove me wrong (and it would be the first time).

More to come...


Jesse T. said...

That Rick-Jones-as-Hulk moment in 'Rom' was dope, yo. He had a sweet purple jumpsuit, too.

Ben Morse said...

I was thinking of when he was the Hulk in the actual Hulk title just before Peter David came on. Was this around the same time or was he the Hulk twice, Uncle Jesse?