Recently, a friend showed me a mainstream entertainment site’s list of the 25 Greatest Super Heroes. I approached the list cynically, of course. As a funnybook connoisseur (read: DORK), I automatically assumed that the straight world just wouldn’t get it right. And I was correct to some extent, but as I went through their list, I also found myself becoming fascinated. Because it wasn’t really a list of the best super hero characters. It was a list of the best versions of super hero characters. So some characters appeared more than once, and others appeared on both their best and worst lists, depending on how well they’d been revamped and interpreted on different occasions.
That’s brilliant. As someone who values the work of individual writers and artists over any corporate-owned property, in fact, it seems like the only reasonable way to do it. Can’t believe I never thought of it before. So of course (the siren call of THE LIST being too great for my dorky heart to resist) I started making my own Top 25. My Dork Awards, if you will, for the Greatest Spandex Funnybook Characters of All Time. As with all such lists, nobody is going to agree with all my choices or placements. No matter how objective I might try to be, it’s still only gonna be one dork’s opinion. But just so you know… Here are the criteria I followed:
- The most weight is given to powerful creative visions, runs that not only define the character but are also worth reading.
- No more than one entry per character. I wanted this to be a genuine character list, rather than a “best stories” list, so I placed this limiter on myself. Plus, it allows me to talk about more comics, and that’s always good.
- Character concept, and place in spandex history. Much as I intended to avoid this, there were characters that seemed foolish to leave off, even if they’ve never inspired any particularly strong work. Speaking of which…
Honorable Mention: Space Ghost
Everybody loves Space Ghost. He’s got a great ridiculous name, cool powers, and what may be the best super hero costume of all time. Plus, he was designed by Alex Toth, one of the all-time great comics artists, a giant of the medium who did so very little super hero work that he won’t be represented anywhere else on this list. He is, quite frankly, awesome. But there’s never been a good Space Ghost funnybook, and (if we’re going to be perfectly honest here) even his cartoon show isn’t very good. I mean, I watched it as a kid, but I loved it mainly because Space Ghost himself was so freaking cool. So I can’t, in good conscience, put him on the list. But I had to talk about him, because… well…
Because Space Ghost.
I’m lumping these four all-star teams together because they’re essentially the same concept. Sure, the Avengers have more of a soap opera tone, while the JLA’s more about big ideas. But, come on. These teams are just their owners slapping their most popular characters together on one team, for purely mercenary reasons. There are even two versions of each, revamped and updated for new generations. They’re the same freaking thing.
So why are they on the list? Well, seeing all your favorite super heroes working together is pretty cool. And, while they’ve never inspired many truly great creative visions, there is one major exception:
Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s run on The Ultimates. These hugely influential comics were the basis of the Marvel movie franchise, and have changed the face of mainstream comics right up through the present day. Millar drew on decades of stories to redefine the Avengers team for the 21st Century, and what he found was a group of fascinatingly flawed heroes who often hurt each other more than any bad guys ever could. His cheerfully nihilistic take on Iron Man is probably the most influential thing to come out of the book, but I’m also rather taken with his catastrophically repressed Bruce Banner, violently self-loathing Ant Man, and unconsciously masochistic Wasp. His Captain America, though, is the real highlight of the series for me. But (spoilers!) I’ll talk more about that later.
24. The Demon
One of a couple-dozen incredible concepts Jack Kirby cranked out in the 1970s, Etrigan the Demon is not a character that usually makes this sort of list. But I think he fills an important role in the grand spandex tapestry: the evil hero.
Now, Kirby didn’t play up that aspect of the character; his Etrigan was more cheerfully destructive than actively evil. But that doesn’t make his run any less worthwhile. The brand of insane occult adventure Kirby dished out in this book was, if not a new genre in and of itself, at least a unique spandex sub-genre. Every issue has at least one complete what-the-fuck moment, and most of them have several.
Taking that WTF ethos to heart, and gleefully exploring the evil hero concept full-bore, Garth Ennis and John McCrea gave us the other definitive take on the character in their mid-90s run. Etrigan took to calling himself “the good guy from hell” in these stories, and that’s a rather apt description. Sometimes it’s a hard call which is worse: the villain, or the way the Demon deals with the villain.
Not the first blind super hero, but undoubtedly the best. The devil costume gives Daredevil great iconography, and his power set of enhanced senses and “radar sense” are unique and cool. Also? He fights ninjas.
That last bit comes from the definitive run on the character, Frank Miller’s work from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Miller’s gritty, noirish martial arts saga launched a thousand imitators, and raised Daredevil’s profile from a third-tier character in danger of cancellation to one of the best street-level crime-punchers ever.
Probably the most purely Kirbyish of the Lee/Kirby collaborations, the 1960s Thor stories feature manic creativity and some of the most outlandish character designs ever seen. It’s at its best when the action moves to Asgard, with the “Tales of Asgard” back-up features being a particular highlight. But once Lee and Kirby hit their mid-60s stride, you’d be hard-pressed to find better viking super hero comics anywhere.
Unless of course you read Walt Simonson’s inventive run from the 1980s. It’s not a definitive re-invention of the character…
…but it is a return to the raw creative energy of the Lee/Kirby era. Simonson also drew on the actual Norse myths better than Lee and Kirby had, and to good effect. The book took on a sense of boisterous fatalism that’s very true to the Eddas.
21. Green Lantern
One of those characters who made it onto the list almost entirely due to the strength of the concept: a guy with a magic ring that can create whatever he wills it to make. Whether that ring is truly magic, and makes constructs out of eerie green fire, or if it’s weird science fiction magic courtesy of blue alien midgets…
…it’s a great idea for a super hero. Unfortunately, though, I can’t unreservedly recommend any run of Green Lantern comics. The closest the character’s ever come to brilliance is the “topical” early 70s run from Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. But while those are some truly beautiful funnybooks, and while I applaud O’Neil and Adams for tackling issues like racism and drug abuse in the pages of a super hero comic… The writing hasn’t aged all that well. Those books are just too damn preachy.
That leaves the best version of Green Lantern to Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Justice League animated series, where they made John Stewart into a heroically hard-assed Space Cop. That’s a take they’ve never pulled off very successfully in the comics, which is too bad. Green Lantern as sci-fi police procedural seems like a no-brainer.
20. Iron Man
Much as it pains me to say it, the definitive version of Iron Man is a Hollywood creation. “Guy in high-tech armor” is a great super hero idea, to be sure, but the actual Iron Man comics were never really all that good. As embodied (or maybe possessed) by Robert Downey Jr, on the other hand, he’s fantastic. Sure, Downey’s performance owes a huge debt to Mark Millar’s take from The Ultimates (which in turn owes a debt to David Michelanie and Bob Layton’s “Demon in a Bottle” storyline). But it took Downey to make the heroic dissipated genius really shine as a solo hero. That the films dodged the character’s alcoholism in the third act is disappointing, but it takes nothing away from that first film, and its defining role in Iron Man history.
This one’s bound to be controversial. Some would say that Wolverine doesn’t belong on the list at all, while others would argue that he deserves to be much higher. I feel sympathy for both sides.
On the one hand, I really do think that Wolverine is a great super hero concept. He represents an important heroic archetype that the spandex crowd didn’t really have before him: the wild man. Plus, you know… The claws are cool. He’s got hair shaped like his helmet (!). And his Healing Factor is a unique power that can be used to great effect. I mean, you can kick the shit out of this guy. You can abuse and damage him in the most ludicrous ways imaginable, and it doesn’t stop him. My favorite Wolverine moment ever comes from Steve Skroce’s woefully cut-short run on the book, a cliffhanger where a Japanese gangster shoots Our Hero in the face. But that’s not the cliffhanger. The cliffhanger is Wolverine’s head snapping back around with a chunk of his forehead ripped off, revealing the adamantium skull beneath. His eyes have gone all crazy, and he’s growling, and we’re left to wonder exactly what horrible horrible things he’s about to do. That’s right: we are actually left worrying more about the bad guy than the hero. And that is awesome.
Then there’s Rafael Grampa’s simply amazing Wolverine story from the second Strange Tales mini-series, in which a jaded Wolverine has gotten involved in the seedy world of Super Hero Fight Club, a deadly lucha libre style bloodsport in which he lets his opponents cut him up bad, wooing them into a false sense of security before killing them, because it’s the only thing that gets him off. I’m not going to direct you to illegal scans of it, but there’s a luminous critique of it to be found here: http://deathtotheuniverse.blogspot.com/2010/10/in-red.html, and it’s well-worth reading. But really, you need to read this story for yourself, if you haven’t. It’s ugly, brutal, and brilliant.
On the other hand, of course, those are the only two really good Wolverine stories I can think of, and they’re both short, marginal things that most people aren’t really familiar with. Most Wolverine stories are about him being a huge bad ass who doesn’t get the shit kicked out of him every issue. And that, I think, just misses the point entirely.
18. X-Men/Doom Patrol
The X-Men and the Doom Patrol were developed completely independent of each other, at two different companies, at pretty much the same time. But they’re both teams of super hero freaks, outcasts even from those they fight to save. And therein lies their appeal. This concept is best-captured, I think, in the early Doom Patrol stories by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani, who gave the book a desperate air and uniquely creepy vibe. X-Men, on the other hand, didn’t hit its stride til much later. The early issues feel like something Lee and Kirby crapped out quickly at the end of the month, and I’m not very surprised that it languished on the verge of cancellation for so long. It took Chris Claremont and John Byrne to start exploring themes and storylines that brought the book to life (though they were often less about super-alienation and more about the creative team working out their BDSM fantasies in print).
Interestingly, both books also had massively creative runs from Grant Morrison. His absurdist take on Doom Patrol brought mental illness and gender confusion into the heroic outsider mix, while his updating of the X-Men’s themes of racial prejudice played with the idea of outsider cool, and saw the development of a mutant culture outside the bounds of the militant Xavier vs Magneto equation. Though the X-Men work is marred by rushed artwork and a truncated ending, both are must-reads.
17. Stormwatch/The Authority/Planetary
For lack of a better term, I’m going to be referring to these books as Warren Ellis’ “Bleed Cycle,” in reference to the interdimensional space common to all three. Ellis and his collaborators (Tom Raney, Bryan Hitch, and John Cassaday) created a run of super hero comics that drew on a century of genre fiction and simultaneously moved that fiction into a new century, changing the way super hero stories were told for more than a decade. Techniques like “decompression” and “widescreen action” (terms coined by Ellis himself) became the order of the day, and it all started here. Without the Authority, there would have been no Ultimates, and I’ve already discussed the influence of that book.
But more important than the techniques (which were often mishandled rather badly elsewhere) are the stories themselves. The Bleed Cycle offers a rather unique mix of weird science, politics, history, philosophy, complex characters, and innovative power sets (God of Cities! Machine Telepathy! Universal Shaman!). It’s about bringing forth new wonders out of old ideas, and about actively, aggressively, seeking change. One of the key story arcs, in fact, is called “Change or Die,” and that could be Ellis’ rallying cry to the comics industry as much as it is his central theme. All of which makes the Bleed Cycle the premiere super hero concept of the 1990s, and earns it a spot on this list.
I count Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus as one of the last truly great super hero concepts: given the ability to channel enormous stellar energy by a mysterious god-like alien called the Merk, Nexus is driven to hunt down and execute mass murderers.
But concept is only a small part of why he made the list. The comics themselves are just that good. It’s something of a forgotten classic now, but from character design to page layout, plot, and theme, Nexus was one of the best series of the 1980s. A heady mix of political commentary, social satire, space opera, and super hero adventure, Nexus was wildly creative, visually stunning, and able to turn on a dime from boisterous fun to deadly seriousness. There’s really nothing else quite like it in the super hero genre, and that’s down to the idiosyncratic creative vision of Baron and Rude.
Rude, in particular, is a hidden gem. Nexus makes up the vast majority of his comics work, other than a handful of work-for-hire one-offs and mini-series. But he’s one of the best artists of his generation, and if you want to see his best work, you need to read Nexus. But you need to read it, anyway. Because it’s awesome.
15. Dr. Strange
Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Master of the Mystic Arts doesn’t often rank this high on lists of this type. He doesn’t often make them at all, to tell you the truth. There are probably a lot of reasons for that, but I think the main one is that most of the post-Ditko Dr. Strange comics have kinda sucked. Oh, there’ve been pretty good runs here and there. Roger Stern and Marshall Rogers did some nice things with him, for instance. But that’s primarily because they captured the essence of the Lee/Ditko run, which… Well, that kind of makes my point for me.
This is all down to Ditko, of course. Even Stan couldn’t keep that strip going at the fever pitch it attained when Ditko was drawing it. That’s partially because of his design aesthetic. The surrealistic other-dimensional landscapes are a bit thing, of course: everybody loves the Dark Dimension, and nobody else ever drew it as well. But there’s more to it than that. In Ditko’s hands, the world of Dr. Strange took on an air of weird menace that few since have been able to capture. It’s all shadows and smoke and strange shapes in the dark. Even Gene Colan couldn’t match Ditko for sheer mood on this book, and that’s so astounding I can’t believe I just wrote it.
That’s not all it’s got going for it, of course. Once Lee and Ditko really kick into high gear on this strip, the story becomes thrilling and complex, and moves like a runaway train. Dr. Strange gets mixed up in political strife in the Dark Dimension, has his place usurped on Earth by his arch-enemy Baron Mordo, and is kept in constant danger as Mordo and the Dread Dormammu join forces to seek his destruction. Before it’s all said and done, the Ancient One has been taken hostage and Strange has to seek help from the living embodiment of the universe itself. It’s an epic, and if they’d never written another word about the character, he’d still deserve to be counted among the greats.
Aaaannnddd… That’s it for tonight. Come back tomorrow, when I’ll continue the countdown, and ramble on even more pretentiously about my favorite funnybooks.
No, really. I’m gonna finish this one. It’s already half-written. And I’m on vacation, so I’ve got plenty of time. I won’t leave you hanging again…