Like jazz, comic books and more specifically the superhero is a wholly American art form. Also, like jazz, it is an art form that has been underappreciated. As a result of the popularity of superhero films like the Dark Knight, Iron Man and the X-Men, superheroes have begun to enter into the awareness of the general public. The following is a list of the best superheroes that comic books have to offer. The list is designed to provide a starting point for the new reader. I have focused on the essential elements of the characters that I believe make them significant or interesting. I tried to distinguish between good characters and a good story or a good run of issues when I could but in some cases characters have been so significantly defined by a series or an issue that they made the list. Enough with the preamble, here we go:
25. Spectre (Jim Corrigan): The avenging hand of God. Really that's what he is and the Spectre is not above (in fact he seems to relish in) dishing out justice Old Testament style. If the Specter has decided that you need to be punished consider yourself lucky if he just takes an eye for an eye. Even the heroes get a little nervous when the Spectre shows up.
24: Kid Eternity: Kid Eternity makes the list because he's a cool concept with an awesome power and heck he can even be educational. Kid Eternity was accidently killed and to make up for the heavenly goof he was given an additional 75 years of life with the bonus ability to summon any historical figure or mythological being or creature to aid in his assigned mission to do good.
23. Green Arrow: For the first twenty plus years of his creation Oliver Queen was simply a second class version of Batman. He was a millionaire; he had an Arrow-Car; an Arrow-Plane, an Arrow-Cave and a teen-aged side-kick. In the late 1960's, however, Green Arrow lost his fortune and became the voice of the disenfranchised as the resident gadfly of the Justice League of America.
22. Black Bolt: One of the strongest beasts in the Marvel Universe and yet he never uses his true power for fear of the destruction it would unleash. The merest whisper from Black Bolt could level a mountain so the ruler of the Inhumans has imposed upon himself a moratorium on speaking. Black Bolt still gets angry. The reader knows that there are times that he wants to yell but he does not. The self-control that it takes for Black Bolt to remain silent only makes him seem more noble
21. The Thing: Marvel Comics has a thing (pun intended) for monsters. There's the Hulk, the Beast, Nightcrawler, Sasquatch, the Gargoyle and many more but the first was Benjamin J. Grim. Where cosmic rays donated the rest of the Fantastic Four powers without altering their physical appearance Ben Grim was turned into an appropriately named “Thing”. Johnny Storm and the rest of the FF became media darlings while the Thing took to hiding his appearance under trench coats. It was not fair and Ben has often sunk into self-pity regarding his appearance, which has made the portrait of the Thing often poignant.
20. The Chief: Appropriately if you are wheelchair bound it is incumbent upon you to organize a group of super-freaks. At the same time that Professor Xavier was forming his X-men over at Marvel Comics Dr. Niles Caulder was forming his Doom Patrol at DC Comics. Along with Robot-Man, Negative Man and Elasti-Girl, the Chief was part of comics' most dysfunctional super group. The Chief, however, makes this list ahead of Professor X because the Chief has a more complex personality and quite possibly may be evil.
19. Dr. Strange: As Earth's sorcerer supreme Dr. Stephen Strange has taken off a multitude of mystical and otherworldly menaces such as Dormammu and Nightmare that other heroes do not even know exist. As a member of the Defenders (along with the Hulk, Namor and the Silver Surfer) he formed arguably the most powerful super-team in the Marvel Universe and as a member of the Illuminati (with Reed Richards, Black Bolt, Tony Stark, Namor and Professor X) he has manipulated many events behind the scenes in the Marvel Universe.
18. The Atom (Ray Palmer): Running neck and neck with Aquaman for worst personal life would be the Atom. He came home to find his wife, Jean Loring, cheating on him. He got divorced. He then discovered a civilization of miniature aliens in the Amazon jungle where he fell in love again and became their champion. This civilization was previously destroyed. Years later Jean Loring went mad and killed his good friend, the Elongated Man's, wife. Ray then attempted to isolate himself once again andave his size-changing equipment to Ryan Choi who became the new Atom. Choi was killed later by Deathstroke.While he has often been a hero hero DC's resident scientist in the right situation can be a powerful ally.
17. Iron Man: Like Hourman (see # 48) Iron Man is a superhero that is realistically feasible. He's also a character that suffers from real life vices. Tony Stark was designed not to be liked. He was a billionaire military arms designer / dealer created during the height of the cold war and the beginning of the Vietnam War. He's hurt from alcohol abuse. He wasted almost no time in making a move on the Wasp after her break up with her husband, Hank Pym. He even started a Civil War among the Marvel Superheroes. Throughout it all, however, he has retained an integral part of Marvel's premiere superteam, the Avengers.
16. Silver Surfer: Norrin Radd is probably the noblest hero. He sacrificed himself to become the herald of Galactus in order to save his homeworld of Zen-La. Then he sacrificed himself by defying Galactus in order to save the planet Earth. The Silver Surfer does not even really like people and yet he risked his life to save the Planet. What a good guy.
15. Plastic Man: Back when superheroes were new and there were no rules demanding that they all be grim and angst mysterious sometimes they could be fun. While Plastic Man has never quite fit in the modern age of comics his comedic surreal early adventures have made him a favorite of creators and will probably ensure that he will never completely go away.
14. Rorschach: When a character is based upon another character it is not supposed to be better than the original unless that homage is created by Alan Moore. Watchmen was originally invited to be a treatment for the Charlton Group of Heroes and Rorshach was originally supposed to be the Question (above at # 74). DC Comics had recently acquitted the publishing rights to these characters prior to the publication of Watchmen. Then Editor in Chief Dick Giordano nixed the idea of using the Charlton characters and thus Watchmen was born. Rorschach is more interesting than his Charlton counterpart, the Question. Watchmen is a must read even for those who do not think they like comic books.
13. Dr. Fate (Kent Nelson): The coolest thing about Dr. Fate is that “Dr. Fate” is the helmet. The spirit of the ancient wizard Nabu inhabits the helmet of fate and causes Kent Nelson (or anyone wearing the helmet) to act as the agent of the Lords of Order, Dr. Fate.
12. The Hulk: Dr. Bruce Banner's alter-ego is a combination of Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein's monster. Banner transforms into the monster, the Hulk, just as Dr. Jeckle transformed into Mr. Hyde but at his heart the Hulk is more akin to Frankenstein's monster in that he just wants to be left alone. Constantly misunderstood, the Hulk is drawn into violence that he does not crave. What's interesting about the Hulk is what he says about mankind in that people just can not leave the Hulk alone.
11. Namor, the Sub-Mariner: The very first mutant in comics. He was also comics' first environmental and anti-hero. Namor was no fan of mankind. He often was at war with the surface world and the original Human Torch over what he believed were infringements upon his undersea kingdom by the surface world. Namor could have been an enemy of mankind but when he was faced with a greater evil in the form of Hitler's Germany he could also team up with Captain America and the Human Torch to fight as a hero.
10. Thor: Taking parts from Arthurian legend; Christian metaphors as well as the Captain Marvel Jr., when the handicapped Dr. Donald Blake tapped his wooden walking stick on the ground he was transformed in a bolt of lightning into the Mighty Thor, son of Odin. Thor's best adventures have taken place in Asgard and the other realms where the grandiose nature of his character can be showcased to its fullest by writers and artists.
9. Wolverine: He's the best at what he does, but what he does is not very nice.He has been a mutant, soldier, soldier of fortune, secret agent, X-men and Avenger. Wolverine made his first appearance as a little guy dropped in the middle of the Canadian outback to fight both the Hulk and Wendigo. Who was this guy? From that start he became a member of the New X-men along with Storm, Colossus and Nightcrawler. There was still no answer as to who and where this little guy with the claws, cigars and bad attitude came. The mystery of Wolverine's origins kept getting bigger and bigger. When his origin was finally revealed decades later it did not hurt the mystique of the character but added even more subtext to Wolverine. With the release of the X-men films Wolverine not only became a household name but he made an unknown Australian actor an A Lister in Hollywood. Easily the most popular character created since the silver-age there just does not seem to be any slow Wolverine's progress to icon status.
8. Robin / Nightwing (Dick Grayson): Bucky, Captain Marvel Jr., Kid-Flash, Speedy, Aqualad, Pinky and everyone else owes their existence to Dick Grayson. When Batman took a young orphaned acrobat and turned him into a crime fighter he spawned a whole host of kid sidekicks. Dick Grayson never did not remain a child sidekick forever. The character has continued to evolve and grow through the years. He became the leader of the Teen Titans both “old” and “new” despite being the only non-powered member of the group. He went from Boy Wonder to Teen Wonder and as an adult he has assumed his own identity as Nightwing and become an A-list hero on his own.
7. Green Lantern (Hal Jordan): Before Jedis there was the Green Lantern Corps. 3,600 creatures from throughout the universe armed with the most powerful weapon ever created and all working to conquer evil at the behest of the Guardians of the Universe.
What makes Hal Jordan unique in the world of superheroes is that he is not unique. On Earth he was special in that he was born without fear. This attribute was later changed to an ability to overcome great fear (which makes him more heroic and less psychotic) but through the universe there were thousands (currently there are 7,200 Green Lanterns) with his exact same attributes. Of course Hal Jordan was able to stand out amid the throngs of Lanterns on multiple occasions as the “greatest Green Lantern of all” but on those occasions when he would fight alongside other Lanterns it provided a perspective to the magnitude of the threat. After all if Hal Jordan (who is one of the most powerful heroes on Earth) needs hundreds of simply powered allies then whatever they are facing must be one powerful entity. Green Lantern reminds us that there is the distinct possibility that humankind and the planet Earth may be reliably insignificant on a universal scale.
6. Captain America: Similar to Superman, Captain America has always meant to inspire. In his very first appearance in Captain America Comics # 1 he is seen punching Hitler in the jaw. This book was first published March 10, 1941. This was months before Germany formally declared war against the United States on December 11, 1941, and yet there is Captain America inspiring Americans to take a sock at Hitler.
Even though Captain America like many Golden Age heroes faded after the war he became an inspiration for a new generation with his 1960's revival in Avengers # 4. Now the Captain as a man out of his own time serves as a constant mirror by which our own time period is judged against those of “the greatest generation”.
5. Captain Marvel: The original Captain Marvel epitomizes every young boy's fantasy, “to be big”. Simply by saying a magic word, “Shazam”, young Billy Batson is able to make all of his troubles disappear at the speed of lightning as he becomes Captain Marvel. Who armed with a mixture of abilities from different pantheons (Olomon H ercules A tlas Z eus A chilles M ercury) becomes the World's Mighty Mortal. Unlike Dick Grayson (see Robin at # 8) Billy was not a young hero who was allowed to work with the adult hero he was the hero who had several sidekicks of his own (Captain Marvel Jr. at # 32, Mary Marvel, the Lieutenant Marvels, Uncle Marvel and even a talking Tiger). Captain Marvels appeal to youth was so great that at height he had the top-selling comic book in America. Captain Marvel's greatest weakness seems to be to lawyers. First he lost a battle to Superman than he lost his name to Marvel Comics.
4. Wonder Woman: Part of the “holy trinity” of DC comics. Until recently Wonder Woman was the product of an immaculate conception and a gift from the Greek pantheon of Gods to aid man's world. Created by William Moulton Marston in 1941 as a role model for girls, Wonder Woman has had varied characterizations in her past but at her best she falls somewhere between Superman and Batman. She is an inspiration but willing to get her hands dirty in order to make her vision of peace comes true.
3. Spider-Man: The proportional strength of a spider and still can not get a job. What Stan Lee and Steve Ditko brought to comics in 1962 was the opposite of just about everything we had previously seen in comics. He was not a millionaire philanthropist, a successful business man, or reporter reporter, scientist or test pilot. Peter Parker was a teenager with real problems like how to make the rent. Yet despite the issues in his own life Spider-Man always remembered “that with great power comes great responsibility”.
2. Batman : How does one react to the loss of their parents? In fiction we are given a few examples. In 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote that fine breeding and good genetics could overcome any adverse situation when he created Tarzan. In 1954 William Golding wrote about a group of British school boys degenerating into savagery without parental guidance. In 1939 Bob Kane gave us something in between. Bruce Wayne's parents were killed by Joe Chill in what would become known as Crime Alley. Suddenly orphaned young Bruce Wayne dedicated his life to battling criminals. Driven by rage and revenge Batman became a Dark-Knight fighting a never-ending battle crime. Unlike Superman, Batman is completely human. Where Superman presents a spiritual ideal for man (insert Jesus Christ metaphors here) Batman represents what man can become in reality if he is driven.
1. Superman: The first and in my opinion the best. All super-heroes stem from either the “tree” of Batman or Superman and without Superman there would be no Batman. For those who do not like Superman because they can not relate to him than they are missing the point. Superman is a concept that is meant to inspire. He is not supposed to be “one of us.” He is a strange visitor from another planet that is supposed to give us hope that one day we too can be “supermen”. Superman does not actually fight for “Truth, Justice and the American Way” he fights for the “American Ideal.” He represents everything that we should aspire to be as people and as a nation. That's why whenever someone tries to make Superman “relevant” it never rings true. Sure everyone has felt like an awkward teenager at some point or even been filled with an almost uncontrollable rage and desire for revenge (that's why those characters are easier to write and are easier to digest as they appeal to our emotions) but Superman shows us who we can be as people if we apply ourselves. We just have to be open to the message.
Entire list of my top 100