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'Jupiter's Legacy' and the eternal appeal of superhero succession stories

Comic Books

‘Jupiter’s Legacy’ and the eternal appeal of superhero succession stories

Our popular culture is obsessed with legacy.

Nearly every inane sports debate revolves around who will take the crown from the last generation’s star player. The big, blockbuster franchises that have come to dominate the movie industry might be about cars, monsters, or space wizards, but they’re almost always about the same thing: legacy and, by extension, family.

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Superheroes are not that much different from the culture at large. Pick a superhero property at random and you’ll find a prominent example of a child struggling under the weight of their famous parent’s heroic (or villainous) legacy. Professor X and Legion. Bruce Wayne and Damian. The Runaways and the Pride.

On television, the best superhero shows have been about questions of legacy. Just this year, we watched shows about resurrecting a fallen hero (WandaVision), replacing a legend (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), and rejecting the example set by your father (Invincible). On Friday, Jupiter’s Legacy will join those ranks when its eight-episode season premieres on Netflix.

The show, an adaptation of writer Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely’s 2013 comic, comes from the unassailable tradition of finding drama in stories about legacy and succession.

The appeal of these stories as part of the superhero genre is to demystify the untranslatable concept of having superpowers. Even the most relatable superheroes like Spider-Man are glorified fantasy figures, imbued with a power and lifestyle we can barely comprehend.

Legacy characters upend this paradigm, injecting guilt, shame, and envy into stories that otherwise would feel almost like myths. Give Batman a fancy car and loyal butler, and he becomes a pulp hero — admirable from a distance but divorced from the experience of any but the most deranged (or wealthy) among us. Give Batman a son and suddenly he is King Lear, consumed by questions of legacy and inheritance. He is a dad forced to grapple with the same questions as any person caring for a life not their own.

We all know something about legacy, whether it involves a past we hope to embrace or diminish. Our parents are not Superman or Darth Vader, but at various times and various moments, they feel like one or the other. Legacy stories are, in essence, family stories. And however remote or inaccessible superhero stories might seem to the non-geeks of the world, family is universal.

Jupiter’s Legacy does not reinvent the legacy story any more than Invincible reinvented the superhero genre. But like the best indie comics, it builds upon and collates its many influences. Reading Jupiter’s Legacy will enhance your appreciation of King Kong, Captain America, and Star Wars. But however indebted the story is to those properties, it also is undeniably a product of Millar’s aesthetics.

Where the comic most fascinates me is in that liminal space — where the mass-market influences collide with Millar’s unmistakable, and often frustrating, vision. Is Jupiter’s Legacy a worthy heir to its forebears or a poor imitation of their most glaring traits?

'Jupiter's Legacy' and the eternal appeal of superhero succession stories

Courtesy of Frank Quitely/Image Comics.

It is impossible to talk about Jupiter’s Legacy without discussing the writer Millar, a creator whose divisive reputation belies his influence and, more crucially, his marketability. No one can argue with his success. The Marvel Cinematic Universe arguably would not exist in its current form without Millar’s Ultimates series. Logan, easily one of the best superhero films ever made, is an adaptation of Millar’s Old Man Logan.

His stories have Hollywood appeal for the same reason many comics fans, frankly, do not like them. His style—violent, subversive, and crude—blurs the line frequently between what Millar seems to enjoy and what he seems to be critiquing.

“People would say, ‘I joined the army after reading the Ultimates because I wanted to make a difference in the Middle East,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I kinda meant the opposite of that,'” Millar told the New Republic in 2013, the same year he released Jupiter’s Legacy. “And I kinda like that, though, because I do quite like it being open to interpretation.”

Superhero comics are necessarily violent, so it seems almost gauche to concern troll at the margins of the genre’s worst excesses. But in a time when right-wing extremists regularly appropriate superhero symbols and costumes, it seems almost disorienting to look back at the revelry with which Millar uses violence in his work.

If the Millar of Kick-Ass or Wanted or Nemesis creeps into Jupiter’s Legacy, it is thankfully only in small doses. The first issue of the series opens in 1932, when Sheldon Sampson, his brother Walter, and their friends book a trip to a mystical island west of Cape Verde. Millar wisely doesn’t show us what happens when they arrive — at least not yet.

Across two volumes and a spinoff as well as a prequel series, Millar tracks the fallout from that mythic journey. Sheldon and his cohort become superheroes and spend the next several decades falling in and out of love, growing old, having children, and watching the world stay just as troubled and plagued with problems as it was on the day they landed on that island.

Until the release of that prequel series, it is not even clear what kind of life Sheldon and his compatriots lived. All we know about their lives is refracted through their children, who we meet as spoiled ne’er-do-wells. Sheldon’s kids, Brandon and Chloe, are perpetual disappointments. Walter, once the loyal brother, is now the conniving uncle, scheming a way to seize power from Sheldon, ever the golden boy.

Heroes themselves are a diminished concept, no longer commanding the respect or influence they presumably held decades ago. The island gave Sheldon and his friends superpowers, but it didn’t solve the refugee crisis, income inequality, climate change, or any of the other problems that actually bedevil us now.

Millar situates the story in the Great Recession-era United States, which makes for some fun moments when characters directly reference Barack Obama, but otherwise does not really work. If a financial recession is what sparks a superhero-led coup, what exactly were those heroes thinking during Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and any other more damning series of national scandals and crises?

However crucial geopolitics are to the book’s larger story — one character literally conquers China in the second volume — it is the family drama that interests Millar most and where he finds success. Sheldon made himself into the world’s greatest hero, but became a lackluster dad, a feeling he echoes in a harsh scene with Brandon: “I wanted a successor and ended up with a disgrace! I’m ashamed of your behavior! Disgusted by this shallow celebrity you seem to have chosen for yourself!”

It is hard to read Jupiter’s Legacy and not think of how unusual it is to see Millar’s words accompanying Quitely’s art. The Scottish creators, among the best-known of their generation, rose to fame with almost entirely different creative styles. Millar’s stories use simple panel layouts and can read like knockoff movie scripts — which isn’t such a bad idea when it comes to getting your work adapted by Hollywood. Quitely’s best collaborations have been with Grant Morrison, whose elaborately designed comics are often about comics as much as they are treatises on magic, nuclear power, and youth culture.

For such formally distinct writers, Morrison and Millar have long been drawn to similar ideas. (Once friends, the two reportedly had a falling out some time ago and are now estranged.) A year after Millar released Jupiter’s Legacy, Morrison published an issue of their mind-bending series The Multiversity that showed DC’s legacy characters as spoiled socialites in a world where most crime has been eradicated by their parents. The next issue, Pax Americana, featured Quitely’s brilliant art, an eight-panel grid inspired by Watchmen, and a riff on Bush-era neoconservatives that registers with more sharpness than anything in one of Walter’s sermons to Brandon.

Jupiter's Legacy

Courtesy of Image Comics.

What advantage Morrison may have in artistic merit can hardly compete with the accessibility and simple, commercial appeal of Jupiter’s Legacy.

Millar has compared the story to the HBO show Succession, which is not a bad point of reference. Both series feature mostly unlikable characters competing to see if the second generation can live up to the impossible standards of the first. The crucial difference, then, is in the scope and depth. Millar’s story spans multiple generations, showing the rebellion against Sheldon, an alliance between Walter and Brandon, and their eventual downfall at the hands of Chloe and her son.

Jupiter’s Legacy is working on Shakespearean terrain, but Millar’s characters have no comparable depth. Brandon, especially, is straight out of the worst tradition of mid-2000s comics archetypes: saying nothing but what he means and never displaying an ounce of introspection. Chloe and her boyfriend Hutch, himself the son of Sheldon’s archenemy, are arguably the two most interesting characters because they actually change.

Their victory at the end of the book’s second volume is thrilling, but in Millar’s best storytelling choice, also deeply ominous. When they assume the mantles of their dead parents, it could be a moment of unadulterated joy. Finally, the second and third generations have redeemed the first. But it’s too obvious what will happen next: “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

In March, Millar released a preview of his final chapter of the story, Jupiter’s Legacy: Requiem, which will finish Chloe, Jason, and Hutch’s story. (That story begins June 16). Within that preview, it is established that Hutch and Chloe are no longer together and she has had at least three other marriages. The world turns, but family drama goes on. As it will for Jason’s kids and the generations to come.

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