Writers: Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Cullen Bunn and others
Artists: Mahmud Asrar, Matteo Buffagani, Ramon Perez and others
Marvel Entertainment; $50
Rated T+ for teens 13 and up
Superhero comics are founded on the principle that if something works once, one should do that very thing over and over again. Heck, the superhero genre was the result of Superman comics catching fire almost 80 years ago, and publishers racing to make their own Supermen.
So when Marvel scored creative and commercial successes with characters like Ms. Marvel and the Miles Morales Spider-Man, and when they caught mainstream media attention for passing Thor’s hammer on to a new, female character—well, it was all but inevitable that they passed various codenames and super-powers from the publisher’s first generation of mostly white male heroes on to newer, younger, more diverse heroes. The result was that, by 2017, the publisher had its largest crop of “legacy” heroes starring in their own books ever, some of them sharing their names with their mentors, others replacing their temporarily dead forebears.
As originally published, the comics were likely fairly frustrating to readers. In each, a legacy hero of some kind or another is suddenly thrown through the time stream for (almost) always unexplained reasons, and then they woud meet the hero whose legacy they are carrying on.
After a few pages of figuring out that they are no longer in their own time period, they end up teaming up for some one form of superhero business or another—fighting giant monsters, undead ninjas, alien invaders, etc—and either learn a lesson or experience some epiphany about themselves and their namesake.
There are exceptions to the formula. The Jean Grey/Phoenix issue, for example, features the teenage Jean Grey, who was plucked from the past and has been adventuring in the modern Marvel Universe for the last few years, travelling back in time to meet the adult version of herself. She’s her own legacy character, then.
Ironheart Riri Williams is sent not to the past, like every other character, but to the far flung future, where she meets a 126-year-old Iron Man Tony Stark. There’s no real super-combat in this issue, nor is there in the Spider-Man Miles Morales/Spider-Man Peter Parker team-up. Both of these are written by Brian Michael Bendis, who characteristically seems to be trying to do something slightly different with his Marvel writing assignments. They are both interesting in that they are mainly conversations in which the young heroes simply take in unfamiliar settings, rather than participating in the bantering and battle of the other issues.
The other characters featured are The Hulks Bruce Banner and Amadeus Cho, Wolverines Logan and Laura Kinney, Thors Odinson and Jane Foster, Hawkeyes Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, Captain Marvels Mar-Vell and Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvels Carol Danvers and Kamala Khan (Carol is the only character who appears on both sides of the generational team-ups in different stories) and Captain Americas Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson.
It’s not until that last story featuring the two Captain Americas, perhaps the most dramatic departure of the formula, that the premise is actually explained. Apparently, during the events of miniseries Secret Empire—which actually isn’t important—a sentient Cosmic Cube plucked the various characters from the time stream using her infinite powers and sent them on these vision quest-like team-ups for purposes of self-discovery. Unlike the other time-traveling heroes, who are only away for a day or so, Sam Wilson got sent back to World War II, where he met the original Captain America under an assumed name and then he never returned to his own time, but lived out the remainder of his life, eventually parallel to his original self.
In this collected format, that last story offers a late revelation as to what was really going on in all of the others—the scripts for the other stories generally just have hand-waving explanations for the time travel, along the lines of “this is just what happens to superheroes,” although Kelly Thompson’s Hawkeye script does try to offer an explanation in the form of a hero with the power to call people through time. As originally published in the one-shots, it was probably annoying that only one of the 10 seemingly standalone stories bothered with one.
In this form, Generations is a pretty great book on the shape of the current Marvel Universe, offering short, easily digestible stories that introduce and/or define both the current heroes, the original generation of Marvel heroes and how they relate to one another—where they overlap and where they differ. If you’re not terribly familiar with either the Marvel Universe as it stands now or where it stood in the 1960s and 1970s, then this is a useful Rosetta Stone of a book.
It is also perhaps immensely helpful that each team-up is written by the writer responsible for the characters’ current book, so if a reader likes, say, Tom Taylor’s Wolverine comic or G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel story, then they’re fairly certain to like Taylor’s All-New Wolverine or Wilson’s Ms. Marvel and so on. In that respect, it’s a sampler platter as much as a Marvel history and continuity translation key.
Unfortunately the artists who draw the issues aren’t the same ones working on the regular series—and probably couldn’t be, given how much longer it takes to draw an issue of a comic book than it does to write one. So while the stories offer good examples of what the individual series might be like in terms of writing, they don’t really similarly define those series visually. For the most part then, all of these feature fairly conventional, unremarkable house-style art. The two exceptions are, again, the Bendis-written ones. Ramon Perez does a particularly excellent job on the Spider-Men story, channeling the look and feel of classic Marvel art, and while the Ironheart/Iron Man story involves several different artists with overall standard-issue super-comic art, the lay-outs are all highly imaginative and visually interesting.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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