Can there ever be a more incendiary topic than asking who are the best super-heroes of all time? Bar fights have been started and wars have been fought over lesser topics! Nevertheless, this writer will attempt to answer the question and then immediately duck to avoid the inevitable brickbats.
First, how to pick from among the hundreds, nay perhaps thousands, of super-heroes that have paraded across the four color page since that fateful day when Superman first sent bad guys running on the cover of Action Comics #1? I say “since” because before the debut of Superman, comics had hosted many other heroes including such stalwarts as Speed Saunders and Slam Bradley. The difference was twofold (one which we shall use subsequently to help define what is meant by the term “super-hero”): Superman had super powers and a colorful costume that couldn’t be mistaken for street clothes.
Indeed, in retrospect, it seems that it was those two points, powers and costuming, that made all the difference; not only placing Superman at the top of the super-hero heap and initiating an avalanche of colorful imitators, but granting to the lowly comic book its raison d’etre. For better or worse, the super-hero would become synonymous with comics and by the 21st century, have eliminated all other genres for dominance of the industry.
That said, what to do with all those Superman imitators? How to sort the wheat from the chaff and pick out the very best of the lot? Aside from the basics of powers and costuming, something more is needed to differentiate the best from the rest. Metes and bounds need to be established to lend some legitimacy to those choice few that’ll make the cut (and cut down on the brickbats). For that, I suggest staying power, a hero who, decade after decade, comes on and off his own title, shows up steadily in other characters’ books and adventures, and continues to capture the imagination of readers over the years; originality, qualities in the creation of the super-hero that differentiate him from all others; and iconic status, a position captured over the years above and beyond the often insular world of comics readers.
With those parameters in mind, let the brawling begin!
Sure, there were other Thors in comics before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came up with their own version in Journey Into Mystery #83, but none of those others had the sheer durability of Marvel’s own god of thunder. What set the character apart from those others? Like them, he had super strength, a magic hammer, and connections to Asgard. He was better looking too: gone were the traditional scraggly red hair and beard. But Marvel’s Thor had one thing more: personality. Making this otherworldly being with godlike powers the alter ego of a lame physician who couldn’t make it with his pretty office nurse granted him a sympathy to readers absent in other versions. Together, it all added up to staying power and blockbuster movie status!
When Dr. Raymond Solar became trapped in an out of control nuclear reactor and had his atoms ripped apart and reassembled, he became…well, Solar! Able to control the sub-atomic forces that shape all of time and space, Solar is perhaps the most powerful super-hero of all time. Okay, under his original Gold Key banner, Solar didn’t exactly set the world on fire. That had to wait until writer Jim Shooter gained the rights to the character and reinvented him for the 21st century. It was Shooter who added the crucial human dimension to the character that began at the moment of his rebirth when, while still in the furnace of atomic fires, Solar took the opportunity to change one element from his past, one little thing that would cause him no end of trouble once he emerges from the molecular maelstrom as the Man of the Atom. Sporting his simple but arresting red body suit, Solar has proven his durability by having been revived by Valiant Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and most recently by Dynamite Entertainment.
8) Dr. Strange
A world famous surgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange had every right to feel vain about his success until an auto accident causes nerve damage and ruins his career. Refusing to be anything but perfect, he roams the world seeking a cure until he winds up in a mysterious Tibetan monastery and under the tutelage of the Ancient One. Unlike every other comic book magician before him, when his lessons are over, he has become a master of the mystic arts with the ability, among other things, to step from one dimension to another as easy as other men cross the street. Over his subsequent career, Strange would face a line up of the most outrageous foes including personifications of such concepts as eternity, dream, and justice. But do you notice a pattern here? Strange, like all the other characters on this list, has a strong grounding in human failing and weakness that allows readers to sympathize and identify with the character. Around nearly 50 years, Strange is due to become a household name soon with his very own big budget movie!
Truly one of the most unique comic book characters of all time, the Spectre was once policeman Jim Corrigan before he was murdered by gangsters just as he was about to be engaged. (Ouch!) Unfortunately for Jim, his spirit was denied entrance to the afterlife and instead, was directed by God (okay, in the original More Fun Comics #52 He was identified only as “the Voice.”) to return to Earth as the Spectre. There, attired in a spooky green and white costume (and continuing to take on the appearance of Jim Corrigan), he acts as God’s instrument on Earth, dispensing often grisly justice to deserving sinners beginning with the gangsters who killed him!
Although the suits at DC Comics would have readers believe that Captain Marvel was nothing but a pale imitation of Superman, the Big Red Cheese was nothing but. Sure, he displayed some of the Man of Steel’s powers, but their origins were completely different as was the approach taken to their adventures. But beyond that, Captain Marvel’s stories were even more fantastical than Supes’ filled as they were with whimsy and magic and a charming manner that enthralled millions of young readers who may not have been ready yet for Superman’s battles with Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Adding to Marvel’s durability was his alter ego, that of newsboy Billy Batson, an orphan whose good hearted nature no doubt appealed greatly to readers.
Starting out in the golden age as more of a mystically based character, the Green Lantern most everyone knows today is the silver age version that has test pilot Hal Jordan encountering a dying alien who bequeaths to him a power ring that makes Hal a member in an intergalactic law enforcement agency called the Green Lantern Corps (itself something based on science fiction pioneer E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series). Despite often using it to create giant hammers, scoops, and the like, the ring is an awesome weapon whose power is only limited by the will of its bearer. Thus Hal by necessity must be one of the most noble of heroes. Because of the originality of his ring-based power, the durability of the concept (surviving the transition from mystical to scientific), and the persistence of the Hal Jordan version of Green Lantern, the character has to rank among the top super-heroes ever created.
Sure, he wasn’t the first patriotic super-hero ever created (for the record, it was the Shield ), he barely held readers’ interest much beyond the end of World War II, and a first attempt to revive him in the 1950s failed miserably, but Captain America still ranks as one of the top super-heroes of all time. Why? Not necessarily because he struck a nerve with wartime audiences making his book a surprise hit for Martin Goodman’s fledgling Timely Comics, but through the new formula of humanistic heroes developed by writer Stan Lee in the 1960s, Cap came back in a big way, and back to stay. Furthermore, his subsequent durability took place in a late 60s, early 70s atmosphere of anti-authoritarianism managing to hold on over the decades until (in a pair of blockbuster films) the character’s inherent optimism in the American experiment seemed to become relevant again in a more cynical age of Obamism that views such things as the Constitution as obstacles to an enforced utopianism. For conquering all forms of media and managing over the decades to become the personification of the American dream, Captain America has to be at the top of any list of the best super-heroes ever!
While based on a number of pre-existing pop culture icons including such stalwarts as Zorro and the Shadow, over the decades since Bob Kane came up with the character, Batman has evolved into his own man until finally eclipsing his antecedents. Beginning as a dark avenger of the night, Batman was not always well served over the years between his grim, early days and his return to basics in the late 1960s, but all of his incarnations each contributed to the character’s footprint in the minds of the general public. Through mass media other than comics, Batman has always proven to be an attractive property with movies, television, books, toys, and back to movies again in huge blockbuster hits such that the character has undoubtedly achieved an iconic status, proven durability, and worldwide popularity.
Superman, the Man of Steel, achieved iconic status almost from the moment he first appeared on the cover of Action Comics #1 in 1938. Very soon after that, in quick succession, he conquered every other form of media including film, radio, toys, and comics strips. With an unforgettable series of symbolic comics covers during the war years as well as a televised George Reeves standing defiantly before a rippling American flag, the character became forever associated with “truth, justice, and the American way.” He didn’t wear red, white, and blue, but his basic color scheme of red, blue, and yellow became identified almost from the start as one with his adopted country. Invented by teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman might appear distantly related to pulp heroes such as Doc Savage, but he was definitely an original and a forerunner for the four-colored, super-powered army that came after him. But such a seemingly perfect creation had to have some weakness and that was to be found in his human side, which was never fully developed. An orphan from the planet Krypton, he was adopted by a kindly farm couple and later pursued a career as a news reporter. But for much of the time since his creation, the paradigm would change little, leaving Superman with a feeling of cold changelessness, perhaps the reason why his latest forays in film have left audiences unmoved.
A later arrival on the comics scene, Spider-Man has nevertheless managed to pass even Superman in worldwide acceptance and recognition as demonstrated in a string of truly blockbuster films that have brought the often luckless character to the attention of millions. Without Superman’s godlike array of powers, pre-eminence among his super-heroic peers, the respect of world leaders, and even the confidence being an adult in the working world can bring, Spider-Man has nevertheless overtaken the refugee from Krypton in the hearts of comics fans and movie audiences alike. Why?
From the very beginning, on that very first splash page in Amazing Adult Fantasy #15 in 1962 when readers witnessed scrawny, bespectacled Peter Parker sobbing as he was being rejected by his schoolmates, his humanity, frailties, his realness, struck a chord that immediately earned his own title with Amazing Spider-Man #1. As artist/co-plotter Steve Ditko and writer/co-plotter Stan Lee continued telling the character’s adventures, they emphasized Peter Parker’s apartness, his alienation, and the self expression he could only find after putting on a full face mask and becoming the anonymous Spider-Man.
But less than his battles with such colorful villains as Dr. Octopus, the Vulture, and the Molten Man, it was the daily trials and tribulations he encountered as Peter Parker that intrigued readers and made Spider-Man Marvel’s top selling comic and soon, the top selling comic in the industry finally eclipsing even Superman. Because of that, Spider-Man became one of the first of Marvel’s characters to break into television both animated and live action, then into movies where Peter Parker’s life was not shortchanged in favor of super-hero action. It proved a wise decision by the filmmakers who ended up recapturing the human aspects of the character for a wider audience who immediately embraced the ups and downs of Peter’s life. Because of all that, which has given the character its durability, uniqueness, and undoubted iconic status, Spider-Man is the number one super-hero ever created.