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The legacy heroes and horrors of Mark Waid's DC

Let's consider Waid’s work and legacy in the DC landscape in light of these relationships and examine Waid's legacy through the framework of certain key figures he’s obsessed over all career-long

Cropped image of Superman in an action pose smiling
Image credit: DC Comics

Mark Waid is one of the biggest names in American superhero comics. He loves the superhero deeply, and has done so for over 50 years. But his most impassioned vision of the superhero is represented best in his work at DC Comics. And while he would depart from the publisher in the late 2000s, only to return just recently in the 2020s, Waid's legacy there is quite revealing, and worth unpacking.

It's a perfect time to look into Waid's legacy at DC given where DC stands right now, with ‘Death Of The Justice League’ throwing back to the 1990’s ‘Death Of Superman,’ Wally West being back as The Flash, the JSA having a new relaunch, and the Superman Family of books drawing upon the ‘90’s ‘Triangle Era.’ The spirit of the ‘90’s is currently strong within the publisher, which is trying to, once more, showcase a legacy generation, led by the likes of Jonathan Kent, Jace Fox, and others, echoing dhow DC tried to move onwards with Wally West, Jack Knight, and Kyle Rayner in the ‘90’s.

It’s a curious thing to witness, as the 90’s legacy generation was eventually sidelined, when the Barry Allens and Hal Jordans of the world once again took center stage in the 2000s. But now the 90’s are hot once again at DC, as the generations that grew up in the 90’s now hold power. And legacy is back in the spotlight. DC is at a curious transitional moment right now, and perhaps that's why Mark Waid is back and big once more at the helm as a DC Architect, just like he was in the ‘90’s.

Waid is, in a lot of ways, an avatar of that 90’s DC Legacy Hero comics. His work is rooted in a particular ethos, which is perhaps best understood by the story he's shared of how he fell in love with superheroes to begin with:

"When I was a kid, Superman quite literally saved my life.

I have always been a devotee. Captivated by superhero comics when I was no more than four years old, they became the foundation of my existence. They always buoyed me in times of trouble, but even they couldn't elevate me when I was hitting high school. I was from a broken home, I was incessantly bullied in school, I wasn't handling any of it well, and the darkness of my depression had me--and I am not exaggerating, forgive me--suicidally depressed that no one gave a damn about me and no one ever would.

And in that mood, on a January afternoon in 1979, I went to see Superman: The Movie, and it changed everything. I sat through it twice, full of a joy I have rarely experienced since. I knew Superman was a fictional character. I knew Christopher Reeve was an actor. But together, alchemically, magically, they communicated something profound to me: Superman cared. He cared about everyone.

Even me.

When I left that theater, I still wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life, but the one thing I did know was that Superman had to be a part of it."

Waid’s DC work is rooted in the profound, transformative power of inspiration and affirmation offered by an older mentor figure to a young person. The Inspiration and The Inspired is the dichotomy his work is most interested in, with his work deeply taken with navigating the nuances and emotional turmoils of such relationships. And it’s all over the work he has done, particularly at DC.

So let's consider Waid’s work and legacy in the DC landscape in light of these relationships and examine Waid's legacy through the framework of certain key figures he’s obsessed over all career-long.

Superman is, of course, central. But so are these two:

Image of The Flash family next to Magog
Image credit: DC Comics

Wally West and David Sikela.

The Flash and Magog.

Both characters loop back to the absolute height of Mark Waid’s presence and influence at DC in the 1990’s. Both are artifacts from that period who are now back in vogue and relevant to DC again, much like Waid is. Both speak to the fundamental essence of Waid’s vision.

West and Sikela are expressions of Waid's endless fascination with the tension rooted in the dynamics between generations- the old and the young, the parent and the child. And so much of his work, whether it’s Return Of Barry Allen, or Superman Birthright, is about how people try to reckon with that tension and how they reconcile it.

The ultimate dream Of DC

Illustrated cover of Superman and the Flash
Image credit: DC Comics

When Mark Waid first took over The Flash, he inherited an abrasive young man trying desperately to fill the shoes left behind by Barry Allen. Wally West was a generic figure and largely a blank slate with endless possibilities. Waid took that character and gave him specificity.

Waid reworked Wally’s origin with Born To Run, which firmly established the perspective of a young Wally West, who was all alone and had nothing but his love for The Flash. And then he is blessed with the chance to meet his idol, his inspiration, the man whose lightning gives meaning to Wally’s empty life. And then lightning strikes twice, and Wally gets to become just like his hero. He too can be The Flash. And he does, in a bittersweet way, after his hero is no more.

Waid framed Barry as the father figure Wally never had. And by allowing the reader to experience the intimacy and joy of the early years of this beautiful mentor-mentee relationship, Waid heightened its absence. In the void and trauma of that relationship lost, who does Wally grow to be? How does he shape himself and embody his role?

For a whole generation of young readership coming up, Wally West became a new Peter Parker, mourning the death of his uncle, swearing to be the best person he could be as he’d been taught. He was the hero who had grown up, and could be allowed to grow up and change, as opposed to the heroes who had come before.

Wally was a generational character, embodying the spirit and possibilities of the then recent Post-Crisis DC Universe. He became synonymous with the very idea of DC Legacy, much like his peer Dick Grayson, symbolizing creative freedom and change. Creatives are often limited in the changes they can inflict upon iconic ‘original’s which are ‘set’ like your Clark Kents and Bruce Waynes or Peter Parkers. But the successors? There is no such limit.

The legacy hero

Cropped vintage cover of The Flash
Image credit: DC Comics

Even now, Waid’s most iconic Flash storyline remains the archetypal Legacy Hero story setting the idea of the past against the reality of the present. In Return Of Barry Allen, Wally faces the notion of his hero returning after all this time, and reckons with his own identity in contrast to his mentor’s.

Though it is not Barry himself who is returning but a villain pretending to be his mentor, Wally must still reflect upon who he is, who he was, and who he will be. He must overcome his own limiting, fannish ideas about his hero and see him less as an idea he’ll never surpass, and more as a flawed person he can learn from, to be his own best self. And when he does that? That is precisely the moment he truly becomes The Flash. He finds clarity and renewed purpose, breaking beyond all his limits, becoming a man who, like his mentor before him, will pass the legacy onward.

Superman and legacy

Cropped comics panel featuring Superman reaching out
Image credit: DC Comics

That similar sensibility is also what animates much of Waid’s striking modern retelling of Superman’s origin. Waid frames Clark Kent as a lost, wandering young man trying to come to terms with the parents and the world he lost but never knew.

The notion of ‘legacy’ and ‘inspiration’ now acquire the context of culture, as Clark is trying to connect with his roots as a refugee. It’s a book in which the entire conflict and drama is centered around the tension of Jor-El and Lara sending off Clark not knowing if he’ll make it or live, and Clark never having gotten to see or speak to his birth parents. Which is precisely why the ultimate conclusion it builds to, and the final catharsis, is Clark reaching out and being able to speak to his parents, and convey a message that he made it. And Jor-El and Lara learning before they die- that their efforts were worth it, that it’s not all over and the legacy continues.

Waid loves to write about legacy, which is also probably why he is so bound up with the Legion Of Super-Heroes, having edited both the original iterations in ‘Five Years Later’ by Keith Giffen, then writing their first reboot, as well as handling their second reboot.

Legion is DC’s ultimate legacy idea and the archetypal Waid book. It follows a bunch of young people who are inspired by the life and values of Superman and his ilk and want to be just like them, even eons after they're gone. This story takes the idea of something like The Flash and expands it into a whole universe, where the source of inspiration isn’t just one figure, but the entire heroic age of the DC world.

These stories about successful legacy and the passing on of the torch follow the format of the ideal superhero story for Waid. It is the thing he found valuable about superheroes as a kid, and it’s the thing he wants to see carry on, now and forever

Which is perhaps why he constructed the ultimate contrast to that idea.

The ultimate nightmare Of DC

Illustrated image of Magog
Image credit: DC Comics

During the height of the 1990’s, which saw a cavalcade of cool anti-heroes and militaristic superheroes operating by their own rules, Waid would come onboard Alex Ross’ pitch for a prestige series. Kingdom Come was born. We were introduced to a flash forward of the DC Universe to when it had been shattered, and Superman and the older superheroes split apart and gave up.

At the center of this change was a cool new hero willing to kill. When the Joker takes the life of Lois Lane, and Superman refuses to kill the clown, Magog steps right up to do it. Magog is loved by the public at large, while Superman, who is seen as outdated, is horrified and moves on from a world he feels has moved on from him. But he and his peers are forced to return in a biblical clash of the generations, as the fate of the world comes into question.

Kingdom Come was the Ragnarok of DC. It was and is the nightmare scenario that should never occur. But it proved so popular, and was so successful, that it started informing more ‘regular’ and ‘mainstream’ interpretations in the DC Universe. You had cold-hearted, ruthless warrior Wonder Woman; a detached, depressive and outdated Superman; a fascist control obsessed Batman, all bleeding into the ‘main’ interpretations by the 2000s.

The premise of ‘What if the Trinity and the DC heroes ended up as their worst possible selves?’ went from a cautionary tale in Waid’s eyes to a guidebook for many. It’s an influence Waid has long stated he regrets and is not a fan of, as Kingdom Come was very much a ‘warning story’.

The legacy horror

Cropped image of Superman in an action pose smiling
Image credit: DC Comics

And so upon Waid's return to DC in recent years of the 2020s, his work taps right back into that nightmare. In the pages of World’s Finest, a neo-silver age throwback book, we’re introduced to Superman’s mysterious sidekick Boy Thunder, sent away from his dying world, much in the way Superman was, and mentored by the hero himself. He’s a legacy character retroactively fit into being a peer of the likes of Dick Grayson, Wally West, and the rest of that generational squad.

But then we find out the truth of Boy Thunder:

Interior page of superhero action and the killing of the Joker
Image credit: DC Comics

Boy Thunder aka David Sikela, is the boy doomed/destined to be Magog. Here we see him confront The Joker, as he did in Kingdom Come, and swears he’ll murder him.

Immediately, the implications are clear here. Waid is retroactively fitting Magog into the larger fabric of the everyday DC Universe, and taking the idea of Kingdom Come and Magog as ‘the ultimate nightmare of DC’ and making it actual text.

For what can be more nightmarish and haunting than Magog having actually been the once-apprentice of Superman? He was a Teen Titan who palled around with Dick Grayson and Wally West, but strayed elsewhere, into something much more horrific and antagonistic.

With Boy Thunder, Waid creates an antithesis of the DC Universe that reflects The Legacy Gone Wrong. The Boy Who Could Have Been. If Wally West and The Flash represent the ultimate union of the generations, of an unbroken almighty chain of legacy they all embrace, then Magog is the precise opposite.

Large comics page featuring Magog killing The joker
Image credit: DC Comics

And that is the horror and possibility that haunts the DCU now under Waid’s pen, as he suggests and winks at a dialogue between the ideas of Kingdom Come versus the actuality of Kingdom Come. We see Superman imprison David when he sees David’s outburst and behavior, much like he imprisons other young rebellious legacy heroes in Kingdom Come, and he even talks about stripping away his powers, and it’s chilling. It reveals the capacity of the idol to hurt and harm the future, rather than nurture it. But then there is a moment when Clark realizes, ‘Oh. No. That’s the wrong response’ and releases David.

And even when they say farewell and separate, Superman tells the boy how much he means to him, because to Waid, that’s what Superman does. But nevertheless, the horror of Magog coming to fruition still looms, with Waid promising that’s a story that will continue on. This scene speaks to Waid's fundamental expression of the ideas of the DC Universe- the profound power of inspiration and affirmation, and all the various ways it can manifest, in ways good and bad.

And Waid had this parallel in mind for years, discussing the the twist like so:

"I've had that Boy Thunder bullet in the chamber for 25 years. That was the original pitch for what became The Kingdom (1999), which was the follow-up to Kingdom Come. The idea that Superman had a sidekick at one point and it went horribly askew and he grew up to be Magog. That was something I had in my files from 25 years ago, and once I got World's Finest, I realized this would be a good place to dust it off. The original plot for The Kingdom, and I no longer remember why we changed it, was largely what you've seen in World's Finest with Boy Thunder."

All it takes is a magic word

Cropped image of Shazam smiling and reaching out
Image credit: DC Comics

This interest is perhaps why Waid inevitably ends up tackling another boy thunder as the writer of Shazam! with Dan Mora as his collaborator. Billy Batson, the original Captain Marvel, is after the original ‘legacy’ riff idea, a sort of Superman 2.0, with the concept of ‘What if a young child could transform into a Superman?’. It is, too, a title and a character that Waid has described for decades as a life-long dream of his, and one he almost got back in the 2000s, alongside Grant Morrison writing Captain Marvel Jr. and Gail Simone writing Mary Marvel. It’s the book he’s been after all his career, and it makes sense. It’s the culmination and crossroads of so many of his obsessions.

The original Captain Marvel was the legacy upgrade to Superman, outselling Superman so much that DC was deadset on destroying Fawcett to put a stop to it. He is the prototypical young, idealistic champion of DC Comics, underneath the shadow of Superman and all the rest of his JL peers. He is everything Waid loves about the idea of Wally West as an evergreen character for all ages.

But most crucially, Shazam/Billy Batson is also a very deliberate contrast to his fellow Boy Thunder- Magog. He is The Good Superman Successor and Legacy, the new idea inspired by Superman who encapsulates all the joy of being a young legacy hero in the DCU. He is the joy in the face of Magog’s horror. Afterall, lest one forget, Billy Batson was central to Waid’s Kingdom Come. It is his heroic sacrifice as Captain Marvel that helps save the day, and open Superman’s eyes as to what must be done. If Superman and Magog were two pillars of that text that Waid is revisiting, then Billy Batson as Captain Marvel is another. He’s the direct counterpoint to Magog in that text. And it is why Waid has also successfully gotten DC to agree to compromise wherein he is no longer referred to as ‘Shazam’ but ‘The Captain’.

It is in Billy Batson as the Captain that so much of Waid’s DC work finds synthesis, wherein both his work with both Wally West and David Sikela find a new mirror to push things onward. Billy is the lone boy who is blessed by lightning and inherits a grand legacy, and must continue on. He’s the kid who starts with absolutely nothing and finds himself a whole found family, united by the power of their bonds, made manifest in the form of magical lightning and thunder.

Billy Batson is the idea of a tragic boy deemed worthy, who is able to transform into his ideal, best self. A superman. It’s an idea about a boy and his inner Superman.

How could Mark Waid not love him?

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Ritesh Babu avatar
Ritesh Babu: Ritesh Babu (He/They) is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Polygon, Panel x Panel, NeoTextReview, DenOfGeek, Shelfdust, Comic Book Herald, and many more outlets. Their recurring fascination and subject of interest is the terrain of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism, and how they shape our collective modern realities. When he's not writing about The British Invasion (comics or otherwise) or reading books on history, Ritesh can be found enjoying football and food dramas.
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