In part one, I talked about the replacement superhero trend of the 1990s, specifically the number of replacement characters rolled out by DC. But while the trend may have come to prominence in the 90s, it didn’t start there, and it certainly didn’t stop.
The first true replacement hero made his debut in 1966 and it could not have been for more emblematic reasons.
Charlton Comics had purchased the rights to the Blue Beetle from Fox Comics in the 50s. They tried multiple times to get the original Blue Beetle, Dan Garret, to sell, but no one was buying. So in an effort to boost sales for a character with a familiar name, Charlton rolled out the second Blue Beetle, a former student of Dan Garret’s named Ted Kord.
Kord wasn’t just the first replacement hero to stick around, he was also an early adopter of the legacy hero which would become so prominent in the DCU. Appropriate, then, that DC would ultimately buy the Charlton superheroes and eventually replace Kord with a new hero calling himself the Blue Beetle. We’ll come back to him in a minute.
Yes, the obvious choice for first replacement hero is Barry Allen taking on the mantle of the Flash, but remember that originally Jay Garrick was the Flash of Earth-2. Barry wasn’t replacing Jay; they existed in different universes. The same goes for Hal Jordan and Alan Scott.
Marvel dabbled with replacement heroes with Eddie March, a boxer who filled in for Tony Stark in the early 70s. Iron Man would become the first Marvel title to fully embrace this concept when Stark handed the role of Iron Man to his then bodyguard, James Rhodes.
Marvel also introduced the idea of replacement Captain Americas in Captain American #215 in 1977. Created in an effort to fix a continuity error — namely that there were Captain America stories that took place after Steve Rogers fell into the ice and before he was revived — we learned that at least three other people had donned the costume of Captain America in order to keep the public believing that Cap was still alive.
Captain America would also serve as a pre-cursor to the 90s craze of replacement heroes when Steve Rogers stepped down in Captain America #332 in 1987. He would be replaced by John Walker, who had been running around as a character named Super Patriot, who believed that Captain America no longer represented the United States.
Steve Rogers would continue his superhero ways, but under the guise of The Captain, wearing a black and red version of Captain America costume. After Rogers got his job back, Walker would take up the black and red costume and call himself USAgent, an operative of the US government who would eventually become a member of the West Coast Avengers.
On a small scale, the USAgent represented what would be the next big thing for replacement heroes: brand building.
Marvel tried this multiple times with Rhodey by making him War Machine and spinning him off into other titles, most of which got canceled. DC had the most success following Reign of the Supermen: both Steel and Superboy got their own titles — at one point Superboy had two. To this day, DC tries to make Azrael a part of the Batman world, with varying degrees of success.
While DC has struggled with replacement heroes recently, in large part because they are continually trying to streamline their universe, Marvel has doubled downed on it, so to speak. It seems like there are now two of every prominent Marvel character: two Thors, two Hawkeyes, two Wolverines, two Spider-men, two of every original X-Man, two Captain Americas, etc. Not all of these doubles are replacement heroes, but that’s where the trend originated. And why not? Two Captain Americas mean twice the number of titles each month means twice the number of sales.
But expanding a brand isn’t just a matter of increasing the number of comics featuring that brand, it’s also a matter of expanding the audience. Those who follow comics will notice another trend in the current version of replacement heroes, like Jane Foster, Kate Bishop, Jaime Reyes, or Simon Baz. Marvel and DC are diversifying their cast of characters and they’re using established brands to do so.
Which, sadly, is the only way to build diversity in superhero comics. The average superhero fan buys what they know. They want to see an X or a Spider or a Bat on their comics. It’s the cold, hard truth of the superhero business.
So the Big Two want to expand their brands and, in theory, attract new audiences. And there might even be an attempt at becoming more inclusive, although I suppose such a theory would require support from hiring practices. But at the very least there are dollar signs attached to untapped demographics so, as with most things, progress is made when money can be. Let’s be at least somewhat happy that it’s happening at all.
The beauty of all of this, from the standpoint of the Big Two, is that they can have their cake and eat it, too. Now that replacement heroes are sticking around even when they’re no longer needed, Marvel and DC can maintain their core audience (“Steve Rogers is Captain America!”) while also diversifying their line (“Sam Wilson is Captain America!”) and making more money.
This is why the replacement hero trend that exploded in the 90s has continued to thrive twenty-five years later. This is why it will continue to grow as the Big Two try to evolve while still holding on to the audience that keeps them afloat.