It’s not a snarky question, but a serious one. Nine times out of ten, the “replacement” hero is cast aside pretty quickly in a rush to return to the status quo–something mainstream superhero comics are remarkably good at. Sometimes, though, you get a new iteration of a classic character who redefines the role and really changes the game.
Before we get into a list of our favorites, here are a few basic ground rules: no teams. So things like X-Force relaunching as X-Statix or the rebranding of X-Factor or the Len Wein X-Men from Giant Size X-Men #1 don’t count. It’s not that they aren’t remarkable events in and of themselves, but that they’re just taking over the name of the team. When somebody comes and plays first base for the Yankees, they don’t inherit the name “Don Mattingly.” They’re not even really replacing him, just filling a role.
This is about somebody who stepped in and took over the role from a hero who was retired, dead or otherwise indisposed, and who was specifically setting out to fill that character’s shoes. So not only no teams, but no “The Question was basically Batman during 52 when Bruce was gone.” Also not considered are DC’s first spate of Silver Age characters named after Golden Age properties the company owned (Green Lantern, The Flash, etc.), or Marvel’s Silver Age reinvention of the Human Torch. Also nix on the Ultimate Universe, except in the case that a particular Ultimate Comics hero has died and been replaced. Just being an alternate-reality version of a dead guy, for instance, doesn’t make you a replacement.
When Booster Gold died during 52, his ancestor Daniel Carter of Pittsburgh was quickly recruited to replace him.
Booster, meanwhile, was not actually dead. Having discovered that his faithful robot pal Skeets had been compromised, Michael Jon Carter conspired with his son and mentor Rip Hunter (ain’t time travel a hoot?) to fake his death and go undercover as Supernova, allowing him to operate largely under the radar of Skeets and Mr. Mind, who had infested him.
Daniel, of course, would later go on to become Supernova in a number of subsequent adventures (like Booster, Supernova’s powers came from his costume), so that for a stretch of time during 52, there was a rare double-switcheroo, where Supernova was Booster Gold and Booster Gold was Supernova.
You might say that such a short-term replacement–never intended to be permanent–shouldn’t count for a list like this, but that’s part of why it’s an honorable mention. Besides which, Booster has been a perennial replacement hero since he became part of Rip’s Time Masters gig. In the course of his own series, besides the times he was just undercover, he has masqueraded as Deathstroke, Killer Moth, Elvis, Batman and a younger version of himself.
Hank Pym has had a number of identities over the years, and often when he vacates one there’s someone else willing to take it up. Besides Eric O’Grady, though (who took on Ant-Man reluctantly and with no intention of replacing Pym), none have had much impact on the Marvel Universe except Bill Foster.
Also known as Giant-Man (like Pym) and Black Goliath (we’ll leave that one to fester), Foster had a fairly impressive run as an Avenger and was one of the few “legacy characters” in Marvel with any kind of longevity at all.
And then there’s the way he went out. During the Civil War event, Foster was killed by Tony Stark’s Thor clone, in a moment that galvanized the characters behind the insanity of fighting one another over semantics and galvanized what few fans had been on Iron Man’s side of the conflict behind the fact that he was acting like a giant tool. Even more giant than Goliath.
Following the death of Superman at the hands of Doomsday, he was replaced by four guys, three of whom claimed to be Superman and two of whom actually got into a trademark dispute over the right to call themselves by the name (art really does imitate life sometimes).
The one guy who never got into the whole “I’m Superman and you’re not” debate was John Henry Irons, a former weapons designer and current construction worker whose life had been saved by Superman after he fell from a high beam. Having failed to return the favor during Doomsday’s blood-soaked rampage, Irons fashioned himself an Iron Man-like suit of armor and began fighting crime as the Man of Steel, sporting a Superman “S” and, as often as not, facing off against Superman wannabes who failed to grasp the most important part of Superman: his moral compass. That’s what kept Irons relevant, and made him a fan favorite, in spite of the fact that there were never any illusions that he might actually turn out to be a permanent replacement for Superman.
When you’ve got a guy on deck who everyone knows is just a placeholder, you might as well make him the best you can–and that Steel is still appearing regularly in DC titles 20 years later suggests that the creative team did a pretty good job with that.
In one of the biggest mainstream media coups Marvel has had in a while, the Peter Parker of their Ultimate Universe was killed off and replaced by Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Hispanic kid who (again) carries on Peter’s self-sacrificing and good-hearted nature.
Between heroes, villains and everyday civilians, Marvel has shown us literally millions of people with Spider-Man’s powers over the years but it’s only Morales who really ever managed to seem like a legitimate replacement for Peter. Why? Because he understands that with great power, comes great reposonsibility–without that, Spider-Man is just another dude in tights.
Again with 52. Renee Montoya, a fan-favorite character imported from the beloved DC Animated Universe, first appeared in Batman: The Animated Series and went on to be a regular supporting castmember in the Batman titles for a while. Over time, her persona became increasingly complex, with dark and murky problems tying her in knots as well as ties to crooked cops and a potential sex scandal when it came out that she was a lesbian. By the time 52 began she was, like so many of the other characters at the heart of that series, at her lowest point.
Enter The Question, who has terminal cancer and one last mystery to solve. He needs Montoya’s help and is set on getting it, whether she’s offering or not–and by the end of it, the resolution that she would be the new Question made more sense than most replacements that are years in the making.
Replacing a white, male character with a nonwhite lesbian was not without its critics who claimed it was tokenism–and tying The Question much more closely to the Bat-family was admittedly not something that had everyone sold right away. Still, Montoya as The Question generated some of the best stories that had come out of either Renee or The Question in years and by the time The New 52 wiped that part of her history away, fans were sad to see it go.
One of the few times you’ve seen the student grow up to become the master, so to speak (although we’ll get to some more later), Malcolm’s evolution is noteworthy because it happened in real time.
We saw him born and, now that he’s taken over for his dad at the head of the title, he’ll be fighting supervillains AND high school at the same time. Meanwhile, his late father is back in the picture but not, as so often happens when the old guy turns out not to be so dead anymore, taking over the title, which will remain in the hands of Malcolm and his sister Angel.
As one of the Silver Age characters who had eclipsed their Golden Age counterparts, it was surprising to some that Hal Jordan could be replaced on a semi-permanent basis but many fans just kind of shrugged and said, “Of course he can.”
It was Kyle Rayner’s workaday appeal and accessible personality that made the change more tenable for most readers and a sales success for DC for quite some time.
He was not without his fierce detractors, though–a problem that was probably exaggerated by the fact that Hal was not (initially) killed, but turned evil, meaning that Kyle had to face off with him from time to time. That said, it was a dual boost for DC. First they got the excitement, controversy and sales of replacing Hal with Kyle and then they came back for seconds when, years later, they were able to launch Green Lantern: Rebirth and usher in the Geoff Johns era by returning Hal to his former glory.
James Robinson, like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore before him, took a property that had lain fallow for years at DC and turned him into something that shook the industry to its core.
His Starman run is arguably the gold standard for in-universe, ongoing superhero stories; it’s virtually impossible to remember another run that stayed so consistently excellent for so long. It also informed things like the JSA relaunch that Robinson and Geoff Johns were a part of and Marc Andreyko’s excellent take on Manhunter.
One of the best new characters created since the Crisis on Infinite Earths at DC, Jack Knight was a character who not only did all of this but elevated the name of “Starman” to something that people would still be talking about years later, instead of just another Golden Age also-ran.
As Robin, and then Nightwing, Dick Grayson was a lot like Tim Drake. He never really wanted to be Batman, in no small part because he saw that it did to Bruce Wayne to take on that burden.
Following Bruce’s death at the hands of Darkseid, though, Grayson felt that there needed to be a Batman and that he would rather do it himself than have another Azrael-like disaster. Stepping into the role, Grayson set the stage for all that has come since in the excellent Bat-titles, exploring not only his own relationship with his father/mentor and the Batman identity that he created but also Batman’s unique and twisted relationship with the unique and twisted city he protects.
It was a cool, clever exploration of the character and the mythology that has continued to influence the comics and will likely influence Batman’s effect on popular culture for years after Grayson is no longer wearing those pointy ears.
Right around the time longtime sidekick Dick Grayson was adopting the Batman identity from the fallen Bruce Wayne, longtime sidekick Bucky Barnes was adopting the Captain America identity from the fallen Steve Rogers. It did not go unobserved.
Still, the pair of stories–which continued to share similarities all the way until they were concluded–both ended up as fan favorites, with the fill-in characters managing to fill their mentors’ shoes far better than anyone ever expected.
Perhaps the original, and certainly the longest-running, example of a sidekick stepping into his mentor’s shoes as a permanent replacement, Wally West lasted twenty years before he was re-replaced by his Uncle Barry. During that time, he grew up substantially not only physically but as a character, starting as an insecure teenager in way over his head and ending up as a strong-willed family man whose tenure as one of the DC Universe’s prime superheroes may never be totally paralleled, even by the role model he patterned himself after.
For more than a generation of fans, this writer included, Wally West IS the Flash (the fastest man alive, that is), and the way the character was first shunted off to the side and later retconned out of existence remains a sore spot. Barry Allen’s new title is undeniably good, but nobody–including, apparently, its own creators–think that it wouldn’t benefit from a little Wally.