You probably remember this comic book character. An important figure in comics, after struggling for years in relative mediocrity, is relaunched and overhauled by Ron Marz. This character, who revolves around legacy, sees much, if not all, of their supporting cast killed or significantly changed. Subsequently, however, they became much more popular.
Kyle Rayner is probably the most notable character who comes to mind. After years of languishing in obscurity, the Green Lantern was a non-entity. The niche of “space cop” was long-since filled by the Legion of Super-Heroes spin-off L.E.G.I.O.N. and Michael Jan Friedman’s Darkstars. Jordan himself was not even the most well-known of the Green Lanterns, with Guy Gardner taking that spot after a starring role in Justice League International. Meanwhile, there was genuinely forward-moving comics starring John Stewart in Green Lantern: Mosaic. Hal Jordan floated on half-heartedly, unlikable and uninteresting, but surviving based on the cachet of being a Justice League founder.
Jordan needed a reinvention, and he got one. After the destruction of Coast City in Death and Return of Superman, Jordan went insane with power, killed the other Green Lanterns and the Guardians of the Universe, and became Parallax, in an effort to return the inhabitants of Coast City to life. Yet, at the last moment, the one surviving Guardian of the Universe gave a power ring to a random shmuck he found outside of a bar.
Kyle Rayner — that random schmuck — was a breath of fresh air. Kyle was faltering, uncertain, and confused, a change from the ever-confident Hal Jordan. Kyle was an artist, creating fantastical creations rather then bubbles and boxing gloves. And where Jordan was one of thousands, Kyle was The Last Green Lantern, a man with a legacy thrust upon him that he didn’t think he could live up to. That’s not to say that it’s flawless – that same run also had the event that inspired the word “fridging,” after all – but that run was a good one, all in all.
A decade later, Marz did it again. Witchblade had been a product of the Image era, and was very much a relic of that time. The series – created by Marc Silvestri and Michael Turner – was a comic that was epitomized by the image of a very tight dress getting cut to pieces by a giant magic sword-glove. Sara Pezzini, a New York city detective, chanced into getting the eponymous magic sword glove, and used it to fight, and solve, magical crimes in New York City. Starting in 2004, Marz – later joined by artist Stjepan Sejic – reworked Sara, changing her supporting cast, making her a mother, and adding in a successor character in the form of Danielle Baptiste.
But perhaps Marz’s most significant change to the Witchblade character was making her a legacy. In an issue with a murderer’s row of artistic talent, including Darwyn Cooke and Chris Bachalo, Marz revealed that the current Witchblade was only the latest of a long, long line of Witchblades – including a soviet soldier in World War II, a French revolutionary, a pirate, a queen of a lost African kingdom, a samurai princess, and a cavewoman. Kyle Rayner, as a character, was almost explicitly designed to be devoid of the connotations of legacy so important to the previous Green Lanterns. There were no longer 3,000-odd space cops, each with their own sector: there was just Kyle. But even operating under those constraints, Marz still found a way to use the Corps, and more broadly the concept of legacy.
While there may no longer have been Green Lanterns, a recurring motif in the series was the meetings between Kyle, John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and Alan Scott. Jade – Alan’s daughter – was a recurring character, and a long-term love interest of our protagonist. Hal Jordan, even, appeared more than once – both in the present of the 1990s as the Spectre, and in a time travel adventure. Despite the nominal exit of the Green Lantern Corps as a element of the narrative, the idea that Kyle was simply the latest in a long line of superheroes and superheroines remained important.
On the other hand, despite adding the concept of a Witchblade “legacy” to Sara Pezzini and her story, that legacy was without question a consistent background element. The previous Witchblades only exist as a way to shore up Sara herself, rather then existing as characters in their own right – bar only the cavewoman Witchblade, who also served as a convenient source of exposition.
Green Lantern and Witchblade are demonstrative of two separate ways that legacy can be addressed in a long-running comic. It can be a way of adding definition to a character’s past, or to flesh out the aspects of a character’s present – and ironically, despite Marz adding a legacy to Witchblade, and taking one away from Green Lantern, it’s Kyle Rayner who has legacy illustrate a present, and Sara Pezzini to whom he uses one to illustrate a past. It’s a tricky middle ground to find – how exactly do you set up a character as part of a greater tradition, a greater lineage, while still making them special, somehow, to the reader?
It’s easy to overwhelm the character, by simply making them one of many, with no sense of uniqueness, but it’s similarly easy to have that sense of legacy, of being one of a greater whole, be so distant that the very conceit itself falls away. What Marz did, threading that needle in order to create characters that stand apart, but still feel like part of a tradition that exists beyond just that one individual, would be impressive if he did it in just one critically acclaimed relaunch. He did it twice.