TOP 10 HEROES OF COMICS
When it comes to the truly mythic modern heroes and villains, there is no comparison to comics- indeed, it’s right there in the words that tend to define the medium, superheroes and supervillains. Superheroes (and supervillains) uncannily resemble their predecessors from mythology (when they are not simply the same, as in the title picture), even down to all their alternative story versions and retcons. The most iconic superheroes have characteristics and origin stories that are as well-known and ingrained in the popular imagination as their mythic predecessors or religious figures (which they also resemble on occasion) – comparable to how the people of Greece or Rome recalled the heroes of the Trojan War or other figures of classical mythology and the people of Christian Europe recalled Biblical heroes or saints.
Unlike actual heroes and villains in history or real life, superheroes and supervillains tend to be more pure embodiments of good or evil – and more powerful, whether saving worlds or enslaving and destroying them. These are essentially the criteria of heroism or villainy for my top 10 heroes and top 10 villains of fantasy and science fiction. Firstly, there’s the scale of how heroic or villainous they are in their moral character or ethos. Secondly, there’s the scale of how powerful they are, ranging up to heroes or villains capable of saving or destroying worlds (and beyond!).
Finally, iconic status (and my idiosyncratic preference) tends to trump all – although of course iconic status is usually gained from other criteria in the first place, with the most good and powerful heroes or most evil and destructive villains being most iconic in popular culture or imagination. And given that the girls of comics – heroic, villainous or otherwise – get their own top ten in my Fantasy Girls (indeed, as the prequel to this top ten), this is for the boys.
So, counting down my top 10 heroes and top 10 villains in comics…
What’s not to love about a comics hero who is the literal Beast of the Apocalypse (or Anung Um Rama – “upon his brow is set a crown of flame”), except of course he has rejected his role to be champion of humanity instead. Hellboy is the eponymous hero of the Dark Horse comic series of that name, which has been popularized by the Guillermo de Toro films.
Hellboy is one of the good guys – and humanity’s best hope against hell and other eldritch abominations – because of his human upbringing. And a taste for pancakes had something to do with it. His backstory is that he was summoned as a demon (child) in the last days of the Second World War to turn the tide of that war in Project Ragna Rok by Nazi occultists, led by none other than Grigori Rasputin – the mad monk turned eldritch abomination himself. I can’t help but feel Rasputin cheated his Nazi patrons if they expected victory for their war, as Rasputin was apparently playing the apocalyptic long game. Fortunately, Rasputin and his Nazi occultists were opposed by the Americans and their nascent Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development, who disrupted the ritual and raised Hellboy as one of their own – as he grew into his full-blown demonic appearance, with horns (which he files down for appearance), hooves, tail and red skin.
Again, what’s not to love about this comic hero? Nazi occultists? Rasputin? Secret occult history? Demons and Lovecraftian eldritch abominations, most notably the apocalyptic Ogdru Jahad? And as I said, a series with the Beast of the Apocalypse as hero, fighting for humanity against his own apocalyptic destiny – embodied in his Right Hand of Doom, the key to the abyss…?
(9) DOCTOR STRANGE
Doctor Stephen Strange. As Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts and Sorcerer Supreme, he is the primary protector of Earth (and beyond) against mystical and magical threats. Unlike other titled doctors in comics, Doctor Strange is actually a medical doctor – his origin story is that he was a brilliant (and arrogant) neurosurgeon, but a car accident smashed the bones in his hands so that he couldn’t perform surgery. He then obsessively searched the world for a cure, but instead found something much cooler – magic! He is accepted as student by the Tibetan Master (and then Sorcerer Supreme) known as the Ancient One.
Doctor Strange becomes a practitioner of “the mystical arts as well as the martial arts” (so he can kick your ass as well as enchanting it), taking up residence in his Sanctum Sanctorum (in New York) and succeeding to the title of Sorcerer Supreme. He draws power from mystical entities with strange names such as Agamotto and from mystical artifacts, such as his Cloak of Levitation – which makes his cloak one of the few functional capes in comics. He is functionally “immortal ever since he and Death came to an understanding” – death can only come to him “from without not within”, but even then has been resurrected as least once. Quite simply, he spends his time punching out the various Marvel Comics equivalents of Cthulhu (not to mention Dracula), while travelling psychedelic mystical landscapes. Groovy!
To quote the Doctor himself from his page quote in TV Tropes:
“I have been accused of being unrelenting. Merciless. Perhaps I am. For I have looked into that heart of darkness. I know the chill of evil. I have clearly seen that, no matter what, sometimes the night cannot be kept at bay. So I carefully choose my battles. I fight those I can win. And make sure the ones I can’t win are worth dying for.”
(8) IRON MAN
Few people outside comics fandom were aware of Iron Man or Tony Stark prior to Robert Downey Jr’s debut as the character in the Iron Man film. Thanks to his portrayal of the character and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now everyone knows about Iron Man – the most famous Stark outside of Game of Thrones. He was created in 1963 as a counterpoint to the counterculture at the time, and he sure showed those hippies – an American billionaire playboy, arms dealing business magnate and technological genius. Like Batman, he relies on his money and gadgets, particularly the armored powered suits that give him his superhero identity. He originally created his first Iron Man suit to escape captivity by dirty commies in Vietnam, although his origin story has subsequently been updated in the comics and film (in the latter to dirty terrorists in Afghanistan). Of course, it doesn’t explain how he has managed to suspend the laws of physics inside his suits and avoid being mashed inside them (like any other vehicular collision).
If forced to choose between, say, Iron Man and Captain America, as we were in the Civil War storyline in the comics and film, I would have to concede that Captain America trumps Iron Man as more iconic and heroic (in terms of moral character as well as physical ability). However, my personal preference will always be Iron Man – or Team Stark. It’s not just the shared surname. As Tony Stark quips about Captain America in The Avengers Age of Ultron film – “He’s the boss. I just pay for everything and design everything and make everyone look cooler”. Indeed, he does.
And in your heart, you know Iron Man had the moral high ground in the Civil War storyline. Well, perhaps not in the comics, which were a little more nuanced (although is it so outrageous having some sort of government registration for people with potentially destructive or lethal powers?), but definitely in the film. I mean, come on Cap, what is your problem with the United Nations wanting a little accountability? You know, tapping you on the shoulder and asking why so many civilians were killed as collateral damage? Instead, Cap throws his petulant hissy fit – even more so when it’s to save his precious Bucky. Just get a room already, you two!
(7) X-MEN – WOLVERINE
He’s the best there is at what he does, but what he does ain’t pretty.
Of course, what Wolverine does best is steal the spotlight from the rest of the X-men, Marvel’s mutant superheroes, so perhaps we’ll start with them first. The X-men originated in 1963, then and since an allegory for civil rights. This allegory gets a little broken at times (as does the similar vampire for gay allegory in the TV series True Blood) when you consider that mutants, unlike racial groups or other minorities in real life, tend to be walking persons of mass destruction, but then humanity is not particularly inspiring in the Marvel Universe (what with genocidal Sentinels and all). On the whole, however, Charles Xavier or Professor X, and his team of X-men, are heroic in nature – battling destructive or evil mutants while protecting (and seeking peaceful coexistence with) normal humanity, who all too often respond only with fear, hatred, violence, prejudice and discrimination.
The X-men are also a celebration of diversity, not just with their overall theme, but with their characters. Admittedly, they did not start off as diverse – there were originally only five X-men (excluding Professor X), all white and only one female. (If you’re interested, they were Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman and Jean Grey). Since then, however, they have proliferated into a bewildering plethora of diverse characters, such as the original Uncanny X-men (also known as X-Factor), the New X-men, Exiles, Generation X, the New Mutants, Ultimate X-men and X-Force (not to mention outliers such as Alpha Flight, Excalibur, Cable and Deadpool).
But as I said, Wolverine – also known as Logan or Weapon X – steals the spotlight from all of them (and for that matter, the Marvel Universe, even gratuitously – giving rise to the trope of Wolverine Publicity). Which is somewhat strange, given that there are other compelling characters (I’ve always been a fan of the man himself, Professor X) and that Wolverine’s mutant power essentially consists of…claws (SNIKT!), in hand-to-hand combat against mutants that can, you know, destroy worlds with a thought, or at least operate at a distance of greater than arm’s length. Yes, I know – there’s also his longevity, his healing factor (which varied, but on occasion was souped up to incredible levels) and that whole adamantium thing. Okay, I admit it – he’s pretty cool. Especially when played by Hugh Jackman.
And spoiler alert – he’s also dead in the comics, although that doesn’t stop him appearing in the Marvel Universe, or being succeeded by X-23, essentially a sexy female Wolverine.
Mmm – sexy female Wolverine…
(6) CAPTAIN AMERICA
For my sixth place entry in my top ten heroes of comics, we have the other of the two leading lights of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Captain America
This is somewhat ironic as the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to make a virtue out of necessity, as Marvel had sold the rights to its most iconic character Spiderman to Sony and its two leading team ensembles, Fantastic Four and X-men, to Fox. Marvel therefore had to mostly resort to its ‘B-team’ of heroes, who were not well known outside of comics fandom.
However, Captain America was reasonably iconic – as you’d expect of a guy whose superhero persona is named Captain America, dresses like an American flag (and has a shield with an American star) and punched out Adolf Hitler in his very first issue. In March 1941 (by Marvel’s predecessor, Timely Comics) – although punching out Hitler might have been more useful a few years previously. In fairness, it did predate the American entry into the war – and did depend on Steve Rogers receiving his super-soldier serum as part of a test under impetus of the war and becoming Captain America. (Also in fairness, DC Comics’ superheroes such as Batman and Superman had even less excuse for their inaction during the Second World War).
In the words of TV Tropes, “Captain America is one of the many, many patriotic superheroes created during World War II to bolster morale on the home front, but none have lasted as long, been as influential, became as famous, or transcended their original time better than him”. Frozen in suspended animation at the end of the war, he returned to head the Avengers. He is the moral heart of the Marvel Universe (similar in that role to Superman in the DC Universe) and is often considered the leader of its superhero community.
On the other hand…
Yeah – called it! Team Iron Man is where it’s at, baby!
That phrase evokes everyone’s favorite big green rage-monster from Marvel Comics.
The Hulk is the alter ego into which emotionally repressed physicist Bruce Banner transforms – “under emotional stress and other specific circumstances, at will or against it”, most famously when he’s angry. In effect, the Hulk is Banner’s id, superhumanly strong and invulnerable. The cause of the transformation was that old comics standby – radiation. Gamma radiation in this case. Ah, radiation – is there anything it can’t do in comics? (Other than what it does in real life – you know, kill people).
Stan Lee attributed the Hulk’s influence to a combination of Frankenstein with Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde – “I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Frankenstein monster. No one could ever convince me that he was the bad guy. … He never wanted to hurt anyone; he merely groped his torturous way through a second life trying to defend himself, trying to come to terms with those who sought to destroy him. … I decided I might as well borrow from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well—our protagonist would constantly change from his normal identity to his superhuman alter ego and back again”.
The Hulk was originally grey but became his iconic green color due to inking problems. I’m not sure as to his iconic purple trousers, which famously remain intact despite the Hulk bursting out of his clothing everywhere else. As Bart exclaims of Homer’s Hulk parody – “Thank God his pants stayed on!”. Although in the comics, Banner does transform into different versions of the Hulk, reflecting different parts of his psyche.
The Hulk has successfully – and memorably – been adapted to television, lending itself to the Hulk’s iconic status in popular culture – but less successfully or memorably been adapted to cinema, at least in his solo outings.
And who doesn’t secretly dream of turning into the Hulk? Anger management – my ass! Give me my Hulk! Don’t make me angry – you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…
(4) JUDGE DREDD
He is the Law!
Yeah, the ranking of this entry is largely due to my idiosyncratic preference for a personal favorite as well as the hero in comics I loyally follow – Judge Dredd. (Even so, he couldn’t outrank the top three – they’re just too iconic).
I’ve previously waxed lyrical about the ten reasons why Judge Dredd is the galaxy’s greatest comic and why he deserves his own cinematic or screen universe – and I continue to wax lyrical in my ongoing weekly reviews of Judge Dredd in my Mega-City Law feature.
Judge Dredd is the most iconic character from the British weekly SF anthology comic, 2000 AD, ongoing since it was launched in 1977. Unfortunately, American audiences remain somewhat unfamiliar with (or unresponsive to) Judge Dredd, despite his American setting (albeit the future Atlantic seaboard megalopolis Mega-City One) and despite that he is effectively a quintessential American hero in the same vein as Batman – relying on superior discipline, training, experience, equipment and resources, except as a governmental lawman rather than a vigilante billionaire. They even both effectively remain masked in their public identities, as Dredd never removes his helmet. Even more unfortunately, the most substantial introduction of American audiences to Judge Dredd was the 1995 film, although fortunately the 2012 film was much more effective in capturing the elements of the original comic (not least in keeping Dredd’s helmet on throughout the film – but not as effective in capturing an audience, or ongoing screen adaptation.
As for Judge Dredd himself, the essence of the character and his world is ultimately very simple – Judge Dredd is a futuristic Dirty Harry in a dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF satire. Dredd is stylistically and visually reminiscent of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry – the height (and the lanky frame, particularly in the original art – although other artists have added the characteristic musculature of heroes in comics), the stoic expression (with the helmet visor substituting for Eastwood’s squint), the laconic wit and the whispered menace (at least as far as one can tell from his minimalist mouth movements). Above all, Dredd shares the predominant character theme of Dirty Harry as driven by duty and an instinct for justice – embodied by the Law and himself as agent of the Law, hence his catchphrase identification with it.
This presents us with the moral complexity of the character, who might otherwise seem to be an authoritarian and potentially fascistic anti-hero – the heroic self-sacrifice of the ideal Judges, such as Dredd, sworn to uphold the law and protect Mega-City. Dredd himself has consistently accepted the potential sacrifice of his own life to protect the citizens or even a citizen of Mega-City One (and even the residents of the Cursed Earth or anyone looking to the protection of the Law).
In the words of TV Tropes:
“By his very nature and purpose, anti-hero Dredd is firmly committed to his organization’s authoritarian, brutal, and ruthless methods of law enforcement, but it’s established that Mega City One would collapse without him and his fellow Judges, and more than once has…Dredd is impeccably honest and honorable, despises corruption, does not discriminate, goes out of his way to save innocents…and has been given cause to question his purpose more than once.”
Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman!
As for who he is and how he came to be Spiderman, you all know it. Peter Parker. Bitten by a
magic radioactive genetically engineered spider. Uncle Ben. With great power comes great responsibility.
Introduced in 1962, Spiderman is the most iconic Marvel Comics superhero (and their flagship character) – indeed, one of the most famous superheroes or fictional characters of all time.
His superpowers are as iconic, thanks to the catchiest superhero musical theme from his animated TV series (and one as famous as the character) – he does whatever a spider can. This corresponds to the proportional superhuman agility, speed and strength of a spider if they scaled up to man-size. He can also cling to walls (although I’m not sure how he does it through his costume – after all if you were completely lacking in arachnophobia so as to put pajamas with little socks on a spider, I’m not sure how it would cling to surfaces). He also famously has his ‘spider sense’ (effectively precognition or a sixth sense), which,just as famously, tingles.
He does also shoot web like a spider, although these are his own thematic invention as a scientific genius. I actually prefer the Raimi cinematic adaptation that these are an organic part of his spider powers (even with its arguable sexual innuendo).
What makes his character so engaging to popular culture is not just his superhero concept (or his costumed weirdo adversaries, often also animal themed) but his personality. He was conceived as a teenaged hero – an age normally reserved for sidekicks. As a consequence, he has to deal with all the problems of adolescent life as well as his superpowers (although he has a tendency to end up with girlfriends who are or look like supermodels – what a loser!).
And he’s the wisecracking hero – always cracking jokes or quips throughout it all. Let’s just say – I love Spiderman! And I’m arachnophobic!
As TV Tropes summed up his appeal – “While he wasn’t the fastest, strongest, smartest or most skilled hero there was, Spidey possessed enough of all these qualities to be able to handle a wide variety of situations and villains…The big draw of Spider-Man is that he has problems — problems as a hero, problems as a man — and, despite weakness, despite adversity, overcomes them, because he knows he has to. Among superheroes, he’s the regular guy trying to get by in a world of those who can crush planets between thumb and forefinger. In his best moments, Spider-Man is heroic enough that you want to be him, yet human enough that you think you could be him”
Well, it could only be one of two superheroes, couldn’t it?
As for Batman, you know who he is. Everyone knows who he is.
Batman. Bruce Wayne – orphaned by the murder of his parents by a mugger in Gotham. Billionaire playboy by day, vigilante dressed as a bat by night. Alfred Pennyworth. Robin. The Caped Crusader. The Dark Knight. The World’s Greatest Detective (not that he does much detecting in his cinematic adaptations). The Most Dangerous Man on Earth. The Cowl as opposed to the Cape. The Goddamn Batman!
His superpower, like that of Iron Man, is money. Well, money – and “intellect, physical prowess, martial arts abilities, detective skills, science and technology, vast wealth, intimidation, and indomitable will”. And just being cool.
As TV Tropes sums up Batman:
“Batman is also one of the greatest trope makers and trope codifiers in not just comics, but all visual media; one of the oldest superheroes still in print — having debuted in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) — Batman is one of the three best known superheroes ever … and one of the most popular comic book characters in history. The Batman mythos has expanded into virtually every medium in the decades since the character’s debut, and there’s a good argument to be made for Batman being the most critically and culturally successful superhero in history … Batman’s legacy and relevancy have never truly faded in the public eye, and his popularity across multiple sections of the mainstream remains as strong — if not stronger — than it was back in the 1940s. He’s pretty much the only superhero to date who could pull out a lightsaber with no explanation at all and get away with it, and he’s arguably the world’s most popular superhero.”
And in the end, there can be only one.
You know who he is.
Superman. The Last Son of Krypton (well until you have Supergirl, the Super-pets, General Zod and other Kryptonian criminals in the Phantom Zone and…it gets to the point where I wonder if anyone actually died in the destruction of the planet Krypton or whether they all just moved to Earth). Smallville and the Kents – with his secret identity as their son Clark Kent. Metropolis. The Daily Planet. Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. The Man of Steel.
He is the most powerful man of the planet, winner of the superpower lottery by virtue of Earth’s yellow sun (as opposed to Krypton’s red sun).
Both Superman and Batman are long-running characters from DC Comics, with Superman introduced in 1938 and Batman introduced in 1939, with widespread adaptations in media throughout popular culture. Both have a moral rule against killing, which is periodically subverted in the comics or in their adaptations. Even in these days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, no other heroes are as enduring or as iconic in the popular consciousness.
So why does Superman win here?
When it comes to my personal preference, there is no contest. Batman is that much cooler, he’s a better character with better (and more diverse) stories, and above all, he’s a character with which we can more readily identify. On the other hand, Batman is the champion or hero risen from humanity, through the power of talent and training as we like to imagine it (or ourselves), or money and position as we grudgingly concede to reality (or to our older selves). Superman is the divine hero, born or descended from the heavens, with superhuman abilities or powers that transcend our own – which is why many of us don’t really identify with him and prefer (or root for) Batman.
And yet, when it comes down to which of them is the greatest hero, I have to concede that there really is no contest. Superman is simply more heroic. He certainly is more powerful, Earth’s champion against far greater threats. Batman may well be able to save his city, but only Superman can save the world against planetary threats.
Although it was Aquaman, DC’s perennial loser, in the above video clip from Robot Chicken, it could well have been Batman. I mean, come on Batman, for all your angst (as Bruce Wayne) in the opening sequence of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, just suck it up! After all, who else is going to save the world from General Zod’s Earth-humping world machine? You?
And as my favorite Australian Youtuber, Mr Sunday Movies, has pointed out, there’s only about five ways Batman can defeat Superman without kryponite – most of which involve getting Wonder Woman to beat Superman up for him.
Whereas Superman can defeat Batman in at least fifty ways.
Superman is more heroic, not just in terms of power, but also in terms of his idealism or morality – truth, justice and the American way. He’s just so damn good – indeed, DC Comics’ Big Good or moral heart of its universe (like Captain America in Marvel), the Big Blue Boy Scout. Even Batman admits it in comics – “deep down, Clark is a nice person, and deep down, I’m not”. In short, Superman is THE superhero – and certainly the superhero, if I could pick one, I would most like to actually inhabit the real world.
To paraphrase The Dark Knight, Batman may be the hero we deserve, but not the one we need right now. That’s Superman.