We’re down to the top five now, and that seems like something of a watershed moment to me. The tension I’ve felt throughout the list between quality of story, quality of concept, and historical importance really ramped up with these characters, and I struggled with what order to put them in. One of them wasn’t originally even in the top ten, but when I sat down to write him up, I realized that he deserved far better placement. And once he’d muscled his way up the ladder, it made me re-think and re-shuffle a few others. I’m not entirely sure I’ve made the right choices, even now, but it’s time to move on and get this over with. So, without further ado… The Top Five Greatest Spandex Funnybook Characters of All Time!
Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s most famous creation is here primarily due to strength of concept. Spider-Man just works. The combination of wise-cracking super-heroics and never-ending personal soap opera strikes a chord with people, and makes him a natural for continuing spandex adventure fiction. Maybe for the same reason, however, there haven’t been many truly great runs on the character. I count two, in fact, and they both come from his creators: Ditko’s initial run with Stan Lee, and Lee’s run with John Romita, which began after Ditko quit.
Yes, all those comics were officially written by Stan. But even he admits that Ditko was doing everything but the dialogue for much of their run. Through that dialogue, Stan was able to lighten the mood, and heightened Peter Parker’s neurotic thought processes. But it was Ditko who set the course. As seen by Ditko, Peter is an heroic outsider, a brainy kid dealing with idiot friends and broken geniuses. He’s a little bit arrogant, and even kind of an asshole sometimes, but never enough of either to make him unlikeable. Ditko’s also responsible for the creepy, disturbing feel of much of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery, one of the very best collections of villains in comics.
Over time, though, Ditko became increasingly upset over not being given proper credit for plotting the series, and he quit. This left the book squarely in Stan’s hands, and things began to change. Peter became less prickly and standoffish. Less emphasis was put on how smart he was, and more on his job as a news photographer. His idiot friends began to treat him with less scorn, and eventually Pete was just one of the gang. He got better-looking, too, as new artist John Romita tailored the Spider-Soap elements of the series to the sensibilities he learned drawing romance comics.
It could be argued that Lee and Romita dumbed the series down, making it prettier and less weird. And I suppose they did. But they also made it more dramatic and emotional, and ultimately more real. They took the civilian scenes from having the feel of a dysfunctional Archie comic to the level of good young adult drama, a teen soap with spandex. And though the villains were less weird, this era did birth at least one classic: the Kingpin, maybe the best mobster super villain ever. It’s also the era that set the Spider-Man status quo in stone. The book remained locked in this mode for 20 years or more after Lee and Romita left, changing only slightly right up until the character got married.
That’s because, as I said at the outset, Spider-Man just works. And when you read the Lee/Romita run, you’re reading the real beginning of that franchise. That’s a powerful act of creation, and while I tend to give more weight to idiosyncratic personal visions like Ditko’s, it’s hard to deny the greatness of a creative vision that spawned a thousand imitators.
4. The Spirit
On the other end of the spectrum, Will Eisner’s Spirit has attained his lofty position solely through having been written and drawn better than any other character from the Golden Age of comics, and better than most since. Conceptually, though, there’s not much to him. Domino-masked crime-punchers in suits and fedoras were a dime a dozen in the 1940s. Even tossing in the juicy tidbit that he came back from the dead doesn’t distinguish him from the pack all that much. No, it’s the stories that matter here. The stories, and the beautiful beautiful artwork.
Eisner and his studio produced the Spirit comics for the newspaper market, as a weekly comic book insert in the Sunday funnies. It was a unique publishing arrangement for a unique strip. The Spirit’s adventures move effortlessly between slapstick comedy, two-fisted noir, and character study. Behind innovative splash pages incorporating the strip’s title into the artwork…
…you’ll find tough cops, oily villains, spunky girlfriends, comedy sidekicks, and more femmes fatale than you can shake a stick at:
Those noir stereotypes are just the backdrop, though. Eisner (wisely) punctures their seriousness as often as he plays to it. His sense of humor is seldom far from the surface, but when he does drop it, the results are surprisingly effective. He’s as likely to paint a picture of human desperation or comedic foible as he is to give readers dastardly villains for Our Hero to hunt. The Spirit himself is a bit player in his own strip, sometimes, and those are often the best stories in the whole run.
As you may be able to tell from the images above, though, the stories are only half the tale here. Will Eisner was also an incredible funnybook artist who contributed incalculably to the visual language of comics. Whatever storytelling innovations didn’t originate with Jack Kirby probably came from Eisner, and came earlier. And it’s not just unusual page layouts…
…or visual storytelling so superb that it doesn’t need words…
…it’s the whole Eisner package. He was a master cartoonist who could also draw realism. He was as at home in the shadows as he was in the light. He brought cinematic technique to the page when Steranko was still in short pants. His lettering could define a character all by itself, and dripped emotion in a way that only Dave Sim has ever been able to match. Without his experiments in shading, we might never have had Bernie Wrightson.
Though his work was going to be printed in color, most of it looks just as good, if not better, in black and white.
And has anyone ever drawn rain as well?
It’s a tremendous amount of talent to be poured into one strip, and it’s won the Spirit a high place on the list of greats. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and seek it out. The best work is from the post-war years (1946 to 1950), and you really can’t go wrong with it.
Here’s the guy who wasn’t originally in my top ten. He was just at the edge of it, where I’d listed him alongside Watchmen. But when I really started thinking about Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta… He rose.
Why? Because V is a great super hero. On a thematic level, he embodies the scary vigilantism at the heart of the super-heroic myth. That’s an aspect of the genre that it rather studiously ignores most of the time, but let’s face it: super heroes are people who take the law into their own hands. They deliver punitive beatings to criminals without the sanction or even official approval of society, in defiance of laws we’ve passed to prevent that very thing. Seen in the best possible light, they’re staunch individualists who just want to help people (albeit with their fists). But ultimately, even when their aim is to maintain order… there’s a whiff of anarchy about them.
And that’s where V comes in. V for Vendetta is the story of an anarchist super hero taking on a fascist regime. His tools are theatrics, terror, and high explosives. His goals are not just to free the people from tyranny, but to free them from leadership itself. He can be just as cruel as his opposition, and the conflict between them is not that of good guys and bad guys, but of two extreme ideologies clashing in the night.
Moore’s best trick in the book is to make us root for V, even as he tortures his sidekick and delivers the world into chaos. That’s all most super heroes are really good for, after all: chaos. They set the world aright through violence, but they’re a lot less useful when it comes to all the messy clean-up that comes after. V leaves it to Evey to bring about his glorious anarchist utopia. But the world he leaves us with at story’s end is as bad or worse than the one we start with. Not a typical super-heroic tale, I’ll agree. But a good one that cuts to an unexplored facet of the genre.
V’s not just a great character on a thematic level, though. He’s also freaking cool. He’s like Batman crossed with the Joker. He wears a cheerfully disturbing mask. He quotes great poetry and sings awesome songs. His origin story (nameless man risen to some sort of undefined genetic improvement as a test subject in a concentration camp) is a modern classic. He’s got a visually-arresting secret headquarters…
…and an iconic look that’s inspired real-world revolutionaries.
Okay, so yes, it’s a Guy Fawkes mask. And those were associated with revolution long before Moore and Lloyd latched onto it. But it’s V for Vendetta (and its movie adaptation) that made them popular again. And it’s Lloyd’s design they’re wearing out there: unable to find one when planning the series in the early 1980s, Lloyd came up with his own streamlined take. That sort of widespread iconography doesn’t come along all that often. In fact, V’s mask may only be surpassed in fame by the icons of the two characters above him on our list…
I feel bad not putting Superman in the number one slot. He is the prototype, after all, the first spandex super hero, and as such deserves special recognition. But, man. There have been so few truly great takes on Superman in the character’s 75 years of existence that I couldn’t give it to him.
The first, as so often happens, is that of his creators: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. It’s not the execution of the stories (which was pretty crude), but the tone of them, that matters. As originally conceived, Superman is a character not only of muscular build, but also of muscular attitude and action. He never stops moving, whether putting out fires, fighting robots, or rescuing Lois Lane from burning buildings.
The early stories also present him as a hero of the underclasses. The adopted immigrant son of a kindly farm family, the young Superman takes on not just the usual bank robbers and gangsters, but also untouchable villains easily recognizable to any poor person in Depression-era America: corrupt politicians, exploitative businessmen, and slum lords. Grant Morrison has called him a socialist firebrand, though I’m not sure that’s a label that would have been applied to him in those days. He was just sticking up for the little guy against those who would abuse the public trust (something that’s become disturbingly unpopular in our time). This champion of the people became a patriotic symbol in the World War II years, and never really recovered, settling into more of a “dad” role, a protector of the status quo.
We’ll come back to that notion of him in a minute. But first, I wanted to talk about the next two definitive versions of the Man of Steel. The first came very early. As a result of the character’s incredible popularity as a funnybook, Fleischer Studios licensed him for a series of animated short films that have become classics. Beginning in 1941, these cartoons gave Superman a shadowy art deco look and stylish pulpy vitality. In them, he battles evil scientists, dinosaurs, giant robots, spies, and erupting volcanoes. They’re simple, colorful stories that emphasize Superman’s power, but still give him something to struggle against. Save for one, they’re probably my favorite take on the character.
The next really great Superman was also animated, this time by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for their 1990s Superman television series. Dini and Timm drew on decades of stories to deliver a sort of “greatest hits” version of the character, and used Jack Kirby’s brief work with the character in his New Gods comics as an excuse to give the Man of Steel cosmic grandeur. They also did some great rehabilitation on the rather lackluster Superman rogue’s gallery, however, giving us a mercenary Metallo modeled on James Coburn, and the only version of the Toy Man that’s ever worked, period.
In the comics, though, Superman had a tough time overcoming that “superdad” image. But it’s that version of the character Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely raised to mythic heights in my personal favorite version of the Man of Steel: All-Star Superman. Drawing on 70 years of weird ideas, and exposing the poignancy at the heart of the character, Morrison and Quitely gave that do-gooder reputation a much-needed polishing, and reminded everyone that (handled properly) boy scouts are pretty cool.
Well, it’s been a fun list, and–
You want a real explanation of why Batman is the greatest super hero of all time?
Jeez. What part of “Because Batman” didn’t you understand? Sigh. Well, alright. If I really must explain… here:
Batman earns his spot at the top of the spandex pile not by having a single definitive run by an inspired creative team, but by having inspired so very many powerful creative visions, in so very many different styles, and all without breaking the character. Any spandex hero who can not only survive, but thrive, under that kind of creative stress… simply MUST be the best.
Alright. Now that’s really it. Hope you enjoyed the list. Hope I dismayed some of you and delighted others. Hope there was at least one surprise in there for most of you (though regular visitors to the Nerd Farm probably knew who my top pick was going to be before I did). And most of all, I hope this has inspired you to go out and read some good funnybooks that you’ve never read before.
But wait! We’re not done yet! You’ve seen the good, now check out the bad! With our list of the Five Worst Super Heroes Of All Time.