After a day of wrestling with WordPress, our list of the 25 Greatest Spandex Characters of All Time continues! Please forgive any layout problems or typos. It’s been a difficult posting. Part One can be found here, or you can jump right in below. Just remember: one dork’s opinion, nobody will ever agree with every pick, etc etc…
14. The Flash
A character whose enduring appeal, I think, is the thrill of speed, the freedom represented by the amazing power of Runs Fast. It’s an appeal that’s propelled the Flash pretty high up on the list, too, because I’m not sure I can point to any take on him that’s particularly inspired. John Broome and Carmine Infantino’s late 1950s relaunch of the character comes closest. They imbued their Flash with the can-do pro-science attitude of his era, and though I’ve never been especially wowed by them, the stories do have an inventive flair. Though he pre-dates it, I’d be hard-pressed to point to another character that better-embodies the spirit of America’s JFK era.
The only representation of the character that’s ever really spoken to me on a personal level, though, is Frank Miller’s take on him from DK2. His aging Flash exudes calm and good nature, relaxing between impossible bursts of speed in his bike short leotard and ridiculously huge running shoes. He only appears in a handful of panels, but I got a better sense of who he is in that handful than I did in all the years I spent reading the character’s continuing adventures.
(Oh, and as long as I’m alienating people with my opinions… DK2 rocks. Crazy, anarchic bigfoot super hero fun with the brakes not just disabled, but ripped up and tossed out the window.)
13. Captain America
The Sentinel of Liberty! The embodiment of the American Dream! And another character who’s seen many good takes, but very few great ones. He was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the 1940s… but those stories aren’t especially inspired. There’s a Lee/Kirby run in the 1960s… but it’s not their best work. Kirby returned as writer and artist in the mid-70s… but it’s some of his least effective stuff from that era. Steve Englehart, Roger Stern, John Byrne, JM DeMatteis, Mike Zeck, Ed Brubaker, and Steve Epting also contributed interesting runs… but I can’t necessarily recommend any of them unless you’re a big funnybook dork.
Why are we talking about Cap, then? Because, well… He’s Captain freaking America! He’s the embodiment of the American ideal, and as such he affords writers an opportunity to compare that ideal to the harsh reality. Or, if that’s not your cup of tea, you could write him in World War II and explore the idea of the super hero as soldier. And in the present-day, you’ve got culture shock to deal with. Because Cap is a man out of time, placed in suspended animation at the end of World War II and brought into the present day.
The one take on the character I might recommend to a general audience, in fact, plays on that last idea to great effect: Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates. Millar’s take on Cap as a man out of time is at once genuinely touching and just slightly disturbing. Alongside the character’s innate heroism and his heartbreaking yearning for times past, he also exhibits attitudes that, while perfectly normal in the 1940s, can sometimes come off as jingoistic and even bullying in the 21st Century. It’s a tough characterization to pull off in a genre as generally ham-fisted as mainstream spandex comics, but Millar threads the needle with aplomb and produces maybe the most fully-realized version of Cap the character’s ever seen.
12. The Hulk
This was a tough one. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the novel, is the best super hero story ever told. Or it is for my money, anyway, and you know… One dork’s opinion, and all that. But are the characters in Watchmen among the best super heroes ever? Hmm. Well, they’re not built to last, that’s for sure. I mean, they remain relevant and worth reading about. But they were designed to tell a story, and once that story was done, so were they. That’s not a bad thing, though. It’s unusual for spandex characters, certainly, but it’s not bad. The genre might be in a lot better shape if that were more the rule than the exception, in fact.
So let’s look at the characters themselves. Rorschach shows us what happens when the urban vigilante goes wrong, and there’s never been another funnybook psycho as thoroughly examined as him. The Comedian puts the lie to the idea of the noble super-soldier in the age of Vietnam. And Dr. Manhattan… Holy crap. Dr. Manhattan gives us insight into the mind of God.
So, yeah. Yeah, I’d say those are some pretty great super heroes. But, still… It just didn’t feel right putting them in the top ten. Ultimately, they’re commentaries on super hero archetypes rather than being the archetypes themselves, and that gives them a clinical distance that keeps me from ranking them any higher.
But speaking of the top ten… It appears we’ve arrived!
Mike Mignola’s signature character has it all: great design, cool name, weird premise, giant stone fist, and a single idiosyncratic creative vision that’s guided him through 20 years of monster-punching adventure. He is the ideal blueprint for what long-running serialized super hero fiction should be. A truly, truly great character.
9. Fantastic Four
What makes the Fantastic Four such a great super hero concept is that they’re not super heroes. Not really. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. They don’t fight crime, per se, and they’re not a bunch of do-gooders out to save the world. I mean, they’ll help out in a crisis, and they’ll fight against evil world-conquering bastards if confronted by them. But really, they’re a team of science adventurers. They explore weird exotic places, they do research, and they test new and outlandish technology. The evil-punching just kind of happens as a side effect.
The definitive run is, of course, that of their creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. FF is probably their truest collaboration, too; their run is best-remembered for Kirby’s wild creativity, but the premise and dysfunctional family dynamic at the core of the series are all Stan. They did just over 100 issues together, with their best work coming around the middle. Almost all of it is worth reading, though, for the splendor of it if nothing else.
John Byrne did the only other truly inspired run on the team in the 1980s, starting off with a series of small, self-contained adventures that are probably the best work of his career. By the time She-Hulk has replaced the Thing on the team, it’s still good, but maybe not great anymore. Those early issues are really something special, though, hearkening back to Lee/Kirby but also bringing in a little Will Eisner and, of course, an awful lot of Byrne himself.
(Here’s the proof that I’m being at least a tiny bit objective with this list: the Fantastic Four is my favorite super hero funnybook of all time, but I don’t think it deserves the number one spot.)
8. New Gods
Jack Kirby makes the list again with maybe his greatest creation. New Gods is Kirby unleashed for the first time, pouring his ideas out onto the page in hot molten form, without interpretation from a writing partner or interference from an editor. Unused to the finer points of fiction writing, such as dialogue or hammering out plots that make logical sense, Kirby forged ahead anyway, and the result is both glorious and flawed. Who needs logic, after all, when the ideas FEEL right? And if a character is occasionally so overwhelmed with the sheer grand POWER of it all that he starts talking more in concepts than sentences, that only seems fitting. For the New Gods aren’t characters, they’re ideas given flesh, embodiments of universal truths struggling to find expression. Sometimes that’s going to leave you at a loss for words.
I suddenly realize that I’ve been talking an awful lot about the tone of the book, and not the characters. That may be appropriate here, though; few of the heroes of the New Gods are all that memorable. Even the best of them, Orion, probably wouldn’t make it onto this list under his own power. New Gods fares better with its villains, of course, because this is the book that gave us the arch-villain Darkseid. But this ain’t the 25 Greatest Super Villains list, and even if it was… It’s still the ideas that are most important even where Darkseid is concerned. He’s obsessed, you see, with the Anti-Life Equation, a mathematical formula that, if solved, would eradicate Free Will in the universe. He’s an idea in search of a concept, and the story of the New Gods is the story of the human quest for freedom.
That’s probably why they’ve been so ill-served in the hands of others. Walt Simonson did a good-not-great run on Orion back around the turn of the century, but other than that, the only writer to handle the New Gods as well as their creator is Grant Morrison. His much-maligned Final Crisis mini-series has a lot in common with Kirby’s original New Gods, in fact: it’s a glorious mess, dealing with ideas so powerful that they overwhelm and shake apart the very rules of narrative itself. At the time, I would have told you that was Morrison being Morrison, but a re-read of New Gods after the fact reminded me that, no… Kirby might have been even crazier.
7. Captain Marvel
The most popular super hero of the 1940s, hands down, was Captain Marvel. The key to his success was, shockingly, quality. As the character’s co-creator CC Beck said in an interview, “We decided to give our reader a real comic book, drawn in comic-strip style and telling an imaginative story, based not on the hackneyed formulas of the pulp magazine, but going back to the old folk-tales and myths of classic times.”
This was quite the revolutionary idea for the funnybook industry of 1939, and it paid off. Captain Marvel’s adventures were written (mostly by Otto Binder) and drawn (mostly by CC Beck) with style and a great sense of goofy fun. When your hero’s thrilling nickname is The Big Red Cheese, after all, you know the people behind the scenes aren’t taking anything too seriously. There wasn’t much danger of people making that mistake, anyway. The strip’s supporting cast swiftly ballooned to feature not only junior versions of Our Hero, but also hillbillies, a con artist uncle, and (my personal favorite) Mr. Tawky Tawny the Talking Tiger.
Captain Marvel also gave us the first big multi-part story in comics history: “The Monster Society of Evil!” This massive 25-part serial ran for over two years, as Our Hero battled member after member of the Society (whose membership even included Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo!). Of course, in the final battle, it’s revealed that the boss of the Society isn’t some horrible ultra-powerful monster, but a tiny hyper-intelligent worm called Mister Mind. Typical Captain Marvel whimsy, and exactly the sort of thing that makes the 1940s Captain Marvel one of the greatest super heroes ever to wear a cape.
Outside the funnybooks, however, things weren’t so cheerful. In 1941, DC Comics instigated a legal battle with Captain Marvel publisher Fawcett on the grounds that he infringed on the Superman copyright. The case dragged on for 12 years, and finally ended with Fawcett settling out of court and ceasing publication of the character in 1953. DC licensed the characters in the early 1970s, but because Marvel Comics had trademarked the abandoned “Captain Marvel” name in the interim, they started publishing new adventures under the title SHAZAM! They even hired CC Beck to draw the early issues of their version, but the magic wasn’t there anymore. In fact, the less said about DC’s efforts with The Big Red Cheese the better…
6. Wonder Woman
Female super heroes have never been served well by the male-dominated comics industry. Not as much effort is put into them, or they’re reduced to sex objects, or they’re simply female versions of existing male heroes. I can think of any number of really good super heroines, but only one that’s truly great. And that’s why Wonder Woman is, shamefully, the only woman on our list.
But holy crap what a great character. She’s a powerful woman with unique motivations, a classic costume, imaginative weapons, and origins tying her to the greatest warrior women of myth. On a purely conceptual level, she’s in the top three super heroes of all time. There’s just one problem: only one person has ever known how to write her properly. That person was her creator, William Moulton Marston. What makes his version so good?
To be blunt… It’s the kink.
Marston was a noted pop psychologist and strong advocate of women’s rights. He was also a very open advocate of sexual bondage. His views were pretty complex, but essentially he believed that people should learn to take as much pleasure in submitting to the will of others as they do in being dominant, and that once everybody was cool with both roles, we might have a chance for peace. He also believed that women were more naturally submissive, while men were more naturally dominant. So Wonder Woman was intended as a role model to teach young girls that women could be strong and dominant, too.
It goes much deeper than simply presenting the world with a powerful woman, though. Marston was pushing his “peace through bondage” philosophies heavily, as well. Virtually every story is about the evil of some over-weening war-monger or psychic dominatrix, and why it’s okay to willingly submit, but wrong to be enslaved against your will. Everybody’s getting tied up or being forced to obey somebody else, and Wonder Woman’s enforcing her will every bit as much as the bad guys. That’s why her greatest weapon is the Golden Lasso of Truth. She uses it to end conflicts not by punching the bad guys to death, but by tying them up and making them behave themselves.
In Marston’s mind, this made her a warrior for peace, a super hero who’ll kick your ass if she has to, but who’d rather take you down with loving discipline. And this is why I think so many writers have struggled to make magic happen with the character. A warrior for peace who fights with love must seem like a contradiction to most. It certainly doesn’t lend itself easily to straightforward good vs evil super hero narratives, anyway. So they try to work around it and make sense of her in other ways, and it never quite works because they’re ripping away something that’s built into her from the ground up.
Also, it neuters her. While Marston treats most of the bondage stuff philosophically rather than sexually, there’s still a nervous, sweaty energy to his stories that originates squarely below the waist. It plays out kind of comically in her relationship with Steve Trevor…
…but all it takes is one look at Etta Candy’s expression in that last panel to tell you that SOMEbody’s getting off on this stuff. And if sales are any indication, it may have been the readers. There’s a power dynamic in a lot of relationships, so even if you discount all the bondage…
…Marston was playing on a very real aspect of sex and romance. In 1940s America, where girls were taught to be submissive and to wield whatever power they possessed passively, Wonder Woman’s forcefulness with her man had to be thrilling. Women’s Liberation and the Sexual Revolution took some of that thrill away, of course, but most writers have seemed afraid to deal with Our Heroine’s sexuality at all, and it makes their work weaker.
Not so with Marston, though. By keeping it all more or less innocent (if sometimes a bit heated), he was able to present us with a more human Wonder Woman, and a far more entertaining one. It doesn’t hurt that so many of his stories are so batshit crazy, either…
And I think that’s all I’ve got in me tonight. That leaves us with just the top five, which you can find right here in Part Three.