Comic Fodder

A Superhero By Any Other Name

Comic book fans are used to dealing with complexities. The recent Legion of 3 Worlds mini-series showcased three different versions of the Legion of Superheroes, and it took quite a few mental gymnastics if you wanted to recognize which Lightning Lad of the three was on aparticular panel. There is a bigger problem that has developed over the years, though, involving the same codename used for different people, and not because it's a dimensional counterpart. The practice is getting out of hand, and both DC and Marvel should cut it out.

The subject is different people using the same name while everyone else is still active. There isn't a big problem with Dick Grayson becoming Batman in Bruce Wayne's absence, or Bucky becoming Captain America while Steve Rogers is gone. But what happens when they come back? Everyone knows they will. DC has been particularly busy with shuffling names and characters around lately. Jason Todd was Red Robin, until Tim Drake took it up, since Damian became Robin in place of Tim. The Batgirl suit has been tossed around so many times, I'm getting dizzy. But at least for now, there's only one person going around as Batgirl, only one Robin, and only one Red Robin. While you might need a scorecard to keep track of all the switching, at least you can make sense out of it.

The real problem is most prevalent at DC. Is Ryan Choi the Atom, or is Ray Palmer? Wait, they both are. The Golden Age Atom, Al Pratt, is deceased, but the visual distinctions and the pre-Crisis alternate dimension Earths made things relatively easy to keep straight in your mind. Who cares if there are two Green Lanterns when one is blond with a purple cape and only teams up with the other one once or twice a year? Crisis on Infinite Earths changed all that. Now all of these heroes are on one planet. The JSA heroes weren't so hard to handle, with their original setting in the WW II days, but the modern new characters have upset the apple cart entirely, because the Silver Age characters refuse to stay dead, or go away for very long.

Ray Palmer was AWOL because of the events in Identity Crisis, and that allowed the introduction of someone else to take up the mantle. For good or ill, Ray Palmer eventually came back. Whatever sense of propriety that let DC keep people like Barry Allen and Hal Jordan center stage (while keeping Jay Garrick and Alan Scott in minor roles) is officially not working with the next generation. The Silver Age guys keep popping back in, but refusing to take back their identity under sole proprietorship. "It's okay, you can use the name and costume too. It'll be greeeeat!" Now we see both Atoms in similar uniforms going along on the same adventure. Are they supposed to use their civilian names in the field now, so teammates can distinguish which Atom they want to do something? There are three main places where this confusion gets concentrated: Green Lantern, Flash, and the JSA.

Green Lantern

Five Terrans hold a power ring these days. Alan Scott is visually distinctive enough, but for the modern age, we have Hal Jordan, John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and Kyle Raynor. The rules with their civilian identification have been fairly lose over the years, to the point that John and Guy are full-blown public, and everyone and their dog seems to know who Hal is by now, regardless. Kyle has spent most of his time in space, so that reduces problems. That may be a purposeful choice on his part, because he is definitely not looking forward to hanging around Earth and finding yet another girlfriend in a refrigerator.

Sorry, but that's still too many for my tastes. Kyle's status as Ion was temporary, and his recent death in the Blackest Night saga may also prove reversible. As much fun as I have reading these characters, there is just as much potential for other alien races to get a chance at the ring. The Guardians need to clean house and have one official Earth-present ring-slinger, and at least keep all the others deployed elsewhere.

Flash

The old-timer Jay Garrick remains part of this problem, but the least of them all. We have three other generations that have put on the red suit, and they're all back! Bart will end up as Kid Flash, at least, which dials us back from his premature promotion, and the disastrous run that led to his lame death scene. That still leaves us with Barry Allen and Wally West as the second and third person running around with the Flash name. That's at least one too many. Perhaps DC is scared to change anything else, because of the popularity involved with the name recognition. In a Newsarama interview, DiDio talked about this: "Well, we didn't change Jay Garrick, so I don't see any reason why we need to change Wally's name. They all know who they are. They're not confused with each other, and neither should we be."

If we're to treat these people as if they operated in an actual world, they would not consider only the fact that "they know who each one is." They would also consider government files, media coverage, group rosters, etc. I know if I happened to be a superhero, I wouldn't want to share the same name with somebody. As things stand, they will do a minor tweak on Wally's costume so Barry can have his original, and we will have two very similar costumes running around in the same comic, with Wally reduced to a backup feature. Setting aside the problem that another old-timer has come back to reclaim his mantle, I do not relish the idea of reading two features of two guys calling themselves the same thing in slightly different costumes. Even if the confusion is small, it does not make for the great, visual spectacles that are deserving of epic superhero tales.

JSA

Where to begin? Thankfully the extra Superman thing was temporary, and we've had decades to get used to Jay's Flash and Alan's Lantern still being around, but as soon as they found Wildcat's son, they decided to make him a member of the group and call him... Wildcat?!!? For heaven's sake, why?!? They're even on the same team! Through this team alone, we now have multiples of Flash, Green Lantern, Wildcat, Starman, Hourman, Johnny Thunder, Atom, and more. All of it is ultimately manageable, but how hard is it to come up with a different name for Ted's son? On day one I was sick of the idea of having two Wildcats on the same team. It's like they're not even trying anymore. Have we really reached that point, where all the good names have been taken, so we're just going to recycle and stick the new one next to the old one?

Marvel

While a lesser offender, Marvel does not get a free pass with this issue either. At different times we have had to deal with multiples of Thor, Human Torch, Hawkeye, Goliath, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, etc. Recently they kicked it into overdrive with an explosion of Hulk variants, a confusing duplication story with Ms. Marvel, and the prospect of Rogers Cap and BuckyCap ending up side by side. The Ultimate universe is sufficiently differentiated enough that it serves as Marvel's version of an Earth-2, so there isn't a big concern with that, at least. But when you have Beast in the X-Men, and Dark X-Men also has a Beast, it should be mandatory that they identify him not as "Dr. McCoy" alone, but in some manner that tells the reader this is not the 'real' McCoy. That's at least the job of a good editor, if the writer is already falling down on the job.

There are two black Widows now, and for no reason that I can tell. With Mattie Franklin being brought back into the picture while Jessica Drew is getting her own series, it really makes no sense to me that three different women use the name Spider-Woman. No matter which code name Hank Pym uses, he’s sure to be duplicating somebody on any given day. What with time travelers, we have a second She-Hulk running around too. While someone like Didio may think this isn’t confusing, trust me, the newer readers will be pulled up short if they don’t have enough issue sunder their belt and you throw these things at them at this pace.

Here's an idea: Let the new guys take over!

One of the best things to come out of the Crisis on Infinite Earths was character development. Marv Wolfman and Georg Perez showed a great step forward when Wally West decided he had outgrown the "kid" part of Kid Flash. The moment when Wally picked up Barry's mantle and (pardon the pun) ran with it was one of the most moving moments (Gah! That one unintended too, honest!) in comic history. It felt important because it signified a true change. Over the next few years, that change became the new status quo, proving that you could take a popular character and have a succession, and have it stick. The problems started when it became too successful, and a ton of lazy writers decided to mimic it in their books. Remember the rash of stories that had multiple people vying for the role of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman? Remember the cluster-(censored) of Hal Jordan that had to wait years before Geoff Johns' Parallax retcon could repair the damage? Remember when Ollie Queen was killed, and Connor Hawke became Green Arrow?

Just look at what happened after each of these lame attempts. The original guy came back. Connor, for example, is still somewhere in the DC universe, and he kept the title of Green Arrow, but Ollie has been resurrected, and Connor has pretty much disappeared. For all the luck DC has had with Ollie, they might as well have left him in the ground. But no, he had to come back, and now DC has so many archers, they don't know how to insert all of them into the 30-odd superhero comics they publish every month. Now it's happening to the Flash, too. Barry had a "great" death in comics, but now he's back, and the one, best example DC had of moving on and actually giving the fans something a little new and different is going by way of Connor: into a backup feature, and most likely just seen in a panel or two a year from now in Titans and/or Flash.

What about Dick Grayson? He's Batman now, but can he go back to being Nightwing, since Chris is now Nightwing over in Action Comics? When Bruce Wayne comes back, they should let Grayson, Connor and Wally go choose their own different names and form their own team. Wally could be Not-Flash, at least that would eliminate a little redundancy. It's all about creativity at the end of the day. We used to see new characters and outlandish costumes all the time, but today the publishers seem so scared, they have to keep even the different characters confined in identical suits to keep everything safe and quiet. I got news for you, we don't want safe and quiet, we want good stories with vibrant characters that have sufficient charisma, attraction, and minimally independent egos so that they can at least have enough courage to choose a unique, identifiable name!

The fear to change is starting to paralyze both companies. Spider-Man's epoch-shaking revelation of his secret identity to the world in Civil War lasted all of an eye blink before they reset things to the status quo. People considered dead for 20 years or more, like Jason Todd and Bucky, are being revived left and right. The return of the one character nobody asked for, Barry Allen, marks a reversal of the only lasting, significant change we had seen in decades. This is weird.

Tune in tomorrow, when we move from this one little problem of identical names, to the greater crisis that hampers all aspects of our entertainment society, to include television and movies.


Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.