A few caveats first, though. This list contains characters created after 1938 - specifically, after the first appearance of Superman. The reason for this is if we count the influences of Superman and (more importantly) Batman, we'll have a list of characters all created before 1938 - so that'll just be a list for another time.
This list also contains characters who have absolutely nothing to do with DC and Marvel. That means Captain Marvel isn't on this list (he'd have topped it), and neither is Plastic Man.
This list contains characters who appeared first in comics. I don't care how important or influential Buffy the Vampire Slayer is; she didn't debut in comics and therefore is not on the list.
The list is after the jump. Ready? Let's go!
|Art by Frank Frazetta|
Vampirella debuted in her own magazine for Warren Publishing, and was created by the late Forrest J. Ackerman, and developed by the late, great Archie Goodwin and Frank Frazetta and the still-living Tom Sutton. At first, she played the role of hostess to her readers, being used to introduce short horror stories, much in the tradition of the Cryptkeeper or the Old Hag from the old EC Comics' Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Vampirella's figure and attire (what little there is of it), however, was a stark departure from that convention, as the old horror hosts were generally, shall we say, um, full of warts and boils. After only eight issues, Vampirella became a lead character.
Created in 1969, Vampirella is really indicative of the awakening of sexual identity in America and in comics - in fact, I'd hazard a guess that her comics were published in magazine format instead of comics format due to the magazine format's ability to bypass the Comics Code Authority, the industry's censoring machine. Vampirella, for better or worse, is one of the important and significant influences behind the development of female characters in the last forty years. If you ever had a female superhero in ultra skimpy clothing with an ultrabadass personality, you probably have, on some level, Vampirella to thank. Or blame. It depends on where you fall.
To this day, Vampirella comics and stories are being published by acclaimed writers and artists. She certainly is someone a lot of people want to write and draw. In fact, she's been written by Grant Morrison, James Robinson, Alan Moore, and Warren Ellis.
|Art by Todd McFarlane|
Legal problems aside, I don't think anyone can possibly argue with the success of Spawn. Debuting in 1992 and created by Todd McFarlane, Spawn was and remains the standard-bearer for Image Comics, about to hit his 200th issue in a couple of months. Of the original Image titles, only Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon has run as long.
Spawn is the story of Al Simmons, who was a soldier who died and went to hell and made a deal with a devil named Malebolgia to put him back on earth. Simmons ended up being screwed over and being granted powers at the expense of his immortal soul and ravishing good looks. You can see clear influences of Spider-Man, Venom, Batman, and Ghost Rider in it, and the book was known for the gritty, grim art of Todd McFarlane and Greg Capullo. To this day, when I talk about comics to new people, there are those who ask me what's up with Spawn these days. Graphically, Spawn just "got" the 90s, and even had Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, Grant Morrison, and Frank Miller all contribute to it.
Spawn has been so successful that Todd McFarlane was able to license him out to a (rather unsuccessful) movie, and two - not one, but TWO - HBO animated series, both of which were (I should say are, since it's current) pretty acclaimed. More prominently, Spawn revolutionized the toy industry, as, before McFarlane Toys came into existence, you had relatively badly sculpted molds and fewer points of articulation. Then Todd came along and made toys that looked like this:
|From McFarlane Toys|
We can also say that because of the McFarlane/Gaiman lawsuit, Spawn is the reason new and better creator rights are being set in place. So there's some heavy influence there.
|Art by Garry Leach|
Marvelman was created by Mick Anglo in 1954, specifically to replace Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family in the British market, since the Superman/Captain Marvel lawsuit was taking Captain Marvel out of circulation.So Marvelman was Mickey Moran, a kid who could turn into Marvelman whenever he shouted the word "Kimota!" (Read it backwards.) Marvelman had some Shazam-inspired stories until 1963, and then was unheard of again until 1982, when Alan Moore and Garry Leach got their hands on the character and either changed or ruined everything. (I'm leaning more and more toward ruined by the day...)
Using the Captain Marvel archetype that Marvelman embodied, Moore set out to do the first comic book for adults that got mainstream attention. In this story, sidekicks became evil, London got slaughtered - and the graphic nature of it was shown on-panel. Kids abused each other, swear words were used, and childbirth was even shown - graphically - on screen.
Miracleman (as Marvelman was called stateside) was also one of the very first comics in the eighties - predating Squadron Supreme, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, and a host of others - to really ask what would happen if the superhero actually existed in the real world. The result was not pretty, and was a defining influence in the comics that came after that movement.
Unfortunately, where Miracleman and those other works tried answering those questions with some thought and applied deconstruction well, their emulators just tended to go "Heroes killing people. That's the way to go!"
2. The Spirit
|Art by Will Eisner|
Created in 1940 by the late and great Will Eisner, the Spirit did more than revolutionize comics; the Spirit practically invented the language of comics. In a time when comics utilized the basic storytelling technique of "read the panels from left to right, up to down" and had virtually flawless, unstoppable characters, Eisner used the Spirit to turn everything on its head, innovate the form, and tell stories about a hero that's all too human.
Denny Colt was a detective who was mistakenly pronounced dead after an accident, and thus put a mask on and waged a war on crime as the Spirit. With only 12 years worth of Spirit stories, Will Eisner was able to invent the language of the medium and create a bunch of techniques that are still utilized and built upon to this day, including this one. What's more, the Spirit could get hurt, be beaten, and have his heart broken - a rarity in those times.
The Spirit has been the subject of multiple revivals over the years, and when acclaimed writers such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Kurt Busiek were asked how they felt about writing stories for the character, they confessed to feeling intimidated, because no one wants to do the Spirit wrong.
1. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
|Art by Kevin Eastman, I think. Feel free to correct me.|
In 1984, two friends named Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman self-published a small comic book that was meant to be a parody or tribute to Frank Miller's Daredevil and Ronin, and Dave Sim's Cerebus. The "parody" aspect came from the part where the main characters were giant turtles.
Published in black and white and done in their apartment under the (nyuk nyuk) mirage of Mirage Studios, Eastman and Laird created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and sold the first issue at the San Diego Comic Con. There was never supposed to be even a second issue - in fact, the main antagonist, the Shredder, was killed right away - but it made such a big impression that only three years later, the Turtles already had one of the most successful Saturday morning cartoons of all time. They followed it up with three very successful live action movies, and supplemented it with a wave of very successful action figures. The Turtles transcended any medium they were involved in and became a pop culture fixture - everyone knows them and just about everyone loves them - and their comics continued to be published throughout the decades.
In 2003, they debuted a new cartoon featuring the Heroes in a Half-Shell, and in 2007, they released the CGI movie, TMNT, which was dead excellent and if you haven't seen it yet, you damn well should. In 2009, they released the made-for-TV movie, Turtles Forever, in which the 1987 Turtles met the 2003 Turtles, and in which they find out they're part of a larger, more important, Turtles multiverse - a tribute to all versions of the Turtles that have come since 1984.
Watch this. Now.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the most successful and most widely known comic book property that debuted after 1966, and I definitely think it's a safe assertion to say that it's the most successful and most widely known comic book property that didn't originate from DC or Marvel.
More than anything else, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the little comic that could. It changed the face of everything, proving that you can self-publish and get mainstream and critical attention -- in other words, you can do things on your own, and with enough skill, talent, and luck, you can succeed.