Jun 30, 2014

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 5: Pantheon of the Big Trinity

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 5: Pantheon of the Big Trinity
Ben Smith

For all of you super-duper late-comers, I made the insane decision to create a superhero hall of fame, very much like you would find in major professional sports. You should really go back and just read the previous four parts to the series. Anyway, I am also attempting, unwisely, to rank the characters that will fill these fictional halls of justice, using categories of my own devising.

Those criteria for selection are detailed in the very first part, so I’m not going to take the time to re-type it all here, because I am still lazy (that didn’t change), and hate introductions (ditto). You also clearly have access to the internet, and need to read the first four parts anyway.

Previously, I detailed the All-Star, Superstar, and Franchise tiers of my ill-advised but still fun figurative Superhero Hall of Fame. I used math to rank the characters, and then created arbitrary levels of distinction which I titled using those three tiers. I worked hard on it okay, much harder than I usually do for this thing.

This week, if you’ve been paying attention, you could probably use rudimentary deductive skills to ascertain the remaining three franchise level characters still to be ranked. Since I couldn’t decide if I wanted to steal the Pantheon from the Book of Basketball, the big three from Marvel, or the Trinity from DC for the name of this exclusive tier, I went with…


3. Superman

In the interest of complete transparency, since many of you already disagree with me right now, I’m going to give my thoughts on Superman by each category I used for this ranking process.

Superman has one of the most well-known origins, and it’s certainly a good one, with the whole last survivor of an exploding planet angle, but it just doesn’t have the punch and simplicity of Batman or Spider-Man. Basically he was born special, and raised to be a force for good by his kindly old adopted parents. It’s not a bad origin by any means, but it’s just a tick below the in-your-face tragedy of a parent murdered at gunpoint. Still, I gave him maximum points in this area.

Definitely one of his most appealing features to the casual fan, most of which value raw physical factors like super-strength and speed. Well, Superman is the strongest character in comics, one of the fastest, and you can add flight, x-ray vision, bulletproof skin, and super-kissing into the mix. Max points in this area as well.

One of the all-time classic supporting casts, with the most well-known being Jimmy Olsen, Perry Watson, and the Kents. Throw in derivative characters like Supergirl or Krypto, and visits from the Legion of Superheroes or Justice League, and Superman has a wide variety of companions to pal around with. Another top score in this category.

Lois Lane is the most famous love interest in all of comics, and an extremely capable character in her own right (when done well) that headlined her own comics series for hundreds of issues. Even if you want to take the Wonder Woman as love interest angle, she happens to be the top female superhero in the entire world. You can’t really go wrong with either one, they’re both at the top of their respective lists. Max points again.

You don’t get much better with the top spot on this list, Lex Luthor. He’s arguably the second greatest villain in all of superhero comics. Brainiac and Bizarro are personal favorites of mine. Beyond that, you’re getting into Parasite and Toyman territory, and for that, I could only give him 9 out of 10 points in this category.

The Superman “S” is the most iconic logo and symbol in all of comic books. (I’d venture to guess it represents the most requested tattoo from the world of comics.) Unfortunately, the red shorts represented a running joke from a segment of fans and casual observers for a long time (not me, I prefer them). DC showed so little faith in the iconic look, that they changed it during the New 52 relaunch, adding a stupid collar and pointless lines everywhere. For that reason alone, I gave it a 9.

For a character that has been around as long as he has, he should probably have more definitive runs along the lines of a Walt Simonson Thor, or a Geoff Johns Green Lantern. The books are consistent, consistently average, at best. 8 out of 10.

Superman has some solid evergreen stories, such as For the Man Who has Everything and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow by Alan Moore. Red Son by Mark Millar is a popular Elseworlds book. His most famous to the general audience is probably The Death of Superman, which generated a sales phenomenon, drawing a wave of speculators to the hobby. All-Star Superman is extremely polarizing, but I think it definitely qualifies. The various reinterpretations of his origin are usually well regarded. There’s still nothing on the level of a Dark Knight Returns (not many are) so this one gets another 9 out of 10.

At one time, the most well-known and popular superhero character in the entire world. Now, he’s arguably been surpassed by Batman, but is still insanely popular around the globe. Maximum points.

Superman was probably the first superhero to get his own toy, his own lunchbox, his own radio serial (which created Kryptonite, among other things). He’s still one of the top licensed superhero characters in the world, with shirts, action figures, bed sheets, every conceivable product there is.

Superman was the first superhero to have a regular television series, starring George Reeves. He’s had multiple television series since, most noteably Lois and Clark in the ‘90s, and Smallville in the ‘00s.

He’s been a fixture in animation from the very beginning, starting with the groundbreaking Fleischer cartoons. He was a mainstay of the various Super Friends cartoon series. Superman the Animated Series might not have been as great as Batman’s, but it was still pretty good, and when the two shows finally crossed over, it was probably the greatest cartoon I had ever seen until that point. That is, up until Warner Bros finally decided “hey maybe a Justice League cartoon would be good,” and it did, in fact, become the greatest superhero cartoon of all time (despite what Duy might try to convince you about Gargoyles). In particular, the two-part episode where Superman seemingly dies, but is actually transported to the future and has to quickly learn to survive without his powers thanks to the red sun blanketing the Earth. It was a transcendent episode, and I don’t even like Superman. (I also like when he fights Captain Marvel because he’s a giant dick, so it balances out.) He co-starred with the Legion of Superheroes in their short-lived cartoon (they even double-upped in the second season with two versions of Superman).

DC’s recent straight to DVD animated movies have almost always either starred Superman, Batman, or both. Unfortunately, the Superman ones represent some of the weaker offerings in my opinion, as he doesn’t quite match with the inexplicable desire to make those movies overly violent and cynical.

Superman, for some strange reason, has yet to have a standout video game (actually, he has some of the worst in history). He seems like with his array of powers, he would be ideally suited for a expansive video game along the lines of Spider-Man 2.

Superman’s first movie, directed by Richard Donner, was the first sincere attempt to take a superhero movie seriously. Unfortunately, it suffers from a hodge-podge of a script that went through several different writers. Fortunately, it was saved by a charismatic, and transcendent performance by the late Christopher Reeve. The second movie is beloved for Terrance Stamp as the evil General Zod, but is not really that great by modern standards (take off your rose-colored glasses, people). As each movie got progressively more silly and more awful, his performance at least made them somewhat palatable (I really liked Superman 4 when I was 7 Cranky Editor: Interesting, because it came out when Ben was 9.). Bryan Singer, fresh off two highly successful X-Men movies, inexplicably decided to make the long in development Superman Returns a direct continuation of the original two movies. The result is a boring mess that only the most devoted Superman fans claim to love. Zack Snyder gave us Murder Superman in the latest movie, Man of Steel, the less said about the better. It’s one of the more polarizing superhero movies yet. Superman may not have had the best movies, but the impact of those original Christopher Reeve movies cannot be denied. They were, at the time, the best they could have been, and really only suffer from an increased level of sophistication in special effects and in the approach to big budget superhero movie storytelling in the years since it was made.

In short, easily another 10 points in this category.

Clark Kent isn’t nearly as blank of a slate as Bruce Wayne, but he’s not on the level of any of the best Marvel characters. I had to give him points based purely on the fact that he practically invented the idea of the superhero secret identity, but it can’t be denied that the Clark people see in Metropolis, is the true mask. Superman represents the most altruistic and heroic side of his personality, but the most sincere representation of him as a whole person is limited to his time visiting the Kents, or with Lois when they were married in the comics. Real or fake, you can’t deny that he’s mostly an authority figure, that to a young kid, has more in common with your parents than with you. For that reason, he gets 8 out of 10 points.

All that added together, gives him an average point total of 9.36, which is good enough for 3rd on the list. As you’ve probably already gathered, since I mentioned them several times while discussing Superman, the final two comes down to Batman and Spider-Man. Who will take the spot as the top superhero on my inaugural list of inductees into my fictional Superhero Hall of Fame, come back next week and find out.

Cranky Editor: I made it this entire time with one interjection. One. And why? Because Ben ranked Superman this high. I will remember this forever. Also, every image in this one was by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, who did a bunch of Superman stories at one point, all collected here.

Jun 26, 2014

Is Live Action the Wrong Action?

What Happens When Pen and Paper Meets Latex and Celluloid

We, shockingly, live in a world where the presence of comic books characters in our movies and our TVs has become common place. As one might recall - if said one lived before the year 2000 - live action versions of superheroes were extremely limited at one time. More frequently, your caped crusaders and amazing heroes were cast on a smaller, more animated screen.

As I’ve discussed before, comics require special considerations when they change media. The additions of sound and motion are two of the more important things an animator, director, set designer, sound mixer, whoever is involved with the translating process, needs to consider when interpreting comics. Adaptation is difficult, what works for a monthly serial may not work in a TV series or a movie. Just think of your Super/Amazing Friends or Hassel-Fury.

It is my contention that the best way to translate what works in comics to movies and television is through serialization and animation. The argument mostly derives from history and the relationship between what comics do especially well and how those aspects can best be translated. The basic points are: costumes, action and acting.


Let’s get this one out the way first. What is the greatest complaint people have about how comic characters are presented in live-action? The answer: the costume. Batman has nipples, Superman is covered in weird S underwear, the Green Lanterns all look silly.

There is just a lot wrong going on here

I’m not picking on DC with these issues. Marvel has them too. The Fantastic Four movies particularly spring to mind of bad costumes. Costumes in particular highlight the problems of transferring drawn works to live-action. She-Hulk, Power Girl and Wonder Woman have similar issues with their costumes (if any one of them actually ever gets the live-action treatment in the near future, a topic that deserves a separate and lengthy discussion).

The essential problem of the costume in a live-action film is that there is a strong desire for practicality, reasonableness and appropriateness that a comic can basically ignore. Batman must have thick or super-science thin armor and belt to work. Captain America must have patches and what-not. Hawkeye must not have sleeves, Superman must not have shorts, Green Lantern must literally be a lantern, the list goes on. The live-action version of these characters suffers from a desire to look real, when the basis of the characters themselves is unreal.

When designing a character concept and first drawing him/her, the creator doesn’t say “How do I make this costume practical for the real world?” The first question is usually “What costume makes sense for this character’s mission, theme or goal?” For Batman, that means dark tones and a utility belt. For Superman, that means a bright costume with a giant S on the front. For Spider-Man, it’s the webbing. The purpose of the costume - outside the obvious identity hiding - is for a reader to look and say, yes, that is definitely a Green Lantern or yes, that looks like someone who would call himself the Flash.

If you are noticing the costume too much and analyzing it’s meaning, I suspect the point of the costume has been lost and it’s become a means unto itself. Animation is particularly effective at conveying who a character is by a costume. A cartoon short-circuits the problems with live-action costumes because the audience or adapter doesn’t expect or project authenticity onto the costume. They can still be crazy or simplistic and the adaptation doesn’t end up breaking the fourth wall. My prior, salivating appreciation of the DCAU illustrates some fine examples of animated costumes working where live-action ones fail.

There is a lot right going on here (see second row, middle)

Essentially, it boils down to too much attention and detail heaped onto the costume. Extra lines, details, nipples, just invite extra scrutiny. The purpose (in my not particularly humble opinion) of comics is accessible escapism and suspension of disbelief. Nothing distracts a viewer from the fantasy like trying to get the costume as believable in the real world as possible. It’s a fantasy world, the costumes don’t have to be functional, they have to facilitate the story.

Animation also lends a hand when a costume and hero need to be put to use: destroying cityscapes using powers.

Action aka Powers

I will preface this section by saying that advances in special effects from Superman to X-Men: Days of Future Past have been tremendous. If Richard Donner had has access to 21st Century CGI in the 70’s, Christopher Reeve turning the Earth backward (SPOILERS!) in time would’ve looked way less dorky. I think, therefore, it’s fair to compare effort to effort in the time they occurred.

Batman Returns to B:TAS, JLU to X-Men: The Last Stand. I would compare more recent animated and live action action, but I haven’t seen The Batman or any Marvel animated shows since the 90’s. The one case that springs to mind of an action or power usage sequence being equivalent between animation and live action is in the case of Green Lantern, but mostly because the movie and cartoon were both using the same technology. Taking that caveat away, let’s compare and contrast!

(It’s also a terrible comparison because I was not a fan of the GL movie and JS in the DCAU does borrrrrring powers. The characters even make fun of him for it. Which is the sort of bonhomie that you don’t get in films.)

I will give sound effects and triumphant bass explosions to live action. Nothing quite matches experiencing the destruction wreaked on New York in The Avengers as experienced in the movie theater. However, on my meager personal TV speakers, the sound is not as awesome. And since most people do not watch movies or TV on giant screens with impressive surround sound (If you do, great, stop telling me about it, I don’t have the room), the best field of comparison is watching this stuff on my TV.

Actually, very well-done

Live action powers, much like costumes, serve to draw direct attention to some of the sillier aspects of a character’s nature. Superman has heat vision, super-strength, ice breath and can fly. Of those, the heat vision and ice breath are particularly difficult to pull off in a movie or TV show. Laser beams coming out of Clark’s eyes just calls attention to the fact that there are a lot of things about this show/movie that don’t add up. As a writer/actor/director, you can choose to embrace or ignore these issues at your leisure. Reeves somewhat embraces them, the more recent movies equate seriousness with capable storytelling and do not. Reeves is still damn dorky though.

The recent Marvel movies (not counting the ASM movies, since I haven’t seen them), have done a better job of displaying live action powers. The primary reason for this outcome is that the powers of these movies are relatively easy to visually display without much second guessing. Iron Man just mouths off some techno-babble and at this point, society is pretty much fine with it. Hawkeye and Black Widow shoot things and do martial arts, another easy sell. Thor is a bit harder, but his main skill is being strong and having thunder, again not much of a stretch.

The X-Men are different (as always). You have a somewhat unique blend of the goofy and effective. Beast looks goofy in blue, Nightcrawler as well. Wolverine’s healing, Mystique’s mimicry and Ian McKellan Magneto’s metal manipulation play out well as effects-driven powers. Telepathy is a bit of an easier sell too. These types of powers do not require a lot of disbelief to be suspended as they don’t throw the crazy right in your face.

Not too in-your-face

Where the X-Men and other live action movies run into trouble is when the use of these powers forces you to admit that what you’re watching is completely off-base. The function of live action is to make the viewer feel like the situation on screen is believable or possible in actual, non-movie life. Thus far, the live action translation of powers and abilities, has been mixed at best. CGI makes Green Lantern very glow-y, but doesn’t provide the depth or detail you see in comics. Trying to make Batman the latex ninja has not worked particularly well, his whole range of motion is terrible. I also am of the opinion that Superman remains particularly difficult to translate because his powers are so enormous. It’s like a hurricane destroying a seaside town, he’s just too much.

In some respects, moving the characters to a cartoon environment eliminates the need for them to be 100% (read 32.5%) realistic in their abilities or powers. No longer constrained by a need to be even remotely realistic, and removing moral quandaries by making all buildings look empty, cartoons can truly let their fights escalate to epic proportions. Consider the destruction wreaked in the video below:

Basically, Superman and Captain Marvel wail on each other in an abandoned city (Luthor is there, but he doesn’t count). It displays quite effectively the power of both characters and also their preference for not destroying large, populated areas with their powers. A critique Duy leveled convincingly enough in his Man of Steel diatribe that I just didn’t see the movie. While I may talk nauseatingly at length about my love for the DCAU, Marvel - in the 1990s when I watched their cartoons - got a lot right too.

The X-Men and Spider-Man cartoon from the early 90’s demonstrated a sustained effort to get both hero and villain powers in the right visual ballpark. (I am going to ignore Spider-Man’s terrible CGI for this part since it’s irrelevant.) The Days of Future Past and Phoenix Saga stories, done well enough for someone to follow who didn’t read comics before he was out of diapers (me), also include excellent depiction of powers. Bishop’s absorption and use of energy, Jean/Phoenix, even Banshee flying gets a shout out.

What particularly sticks in my mind from the Spider-Man series is the use of webbing. In this case, it’s science webbing, but you get to see it combined with acrobatics in a way that translates actions from page to screen extremely well. This type of action rendered by CGI or wire effects (as in the Maguire movies) is too fluid and slick and ultimately draws your attention to other aspects of Spider-Man that don’t make any (spider) sense. These issues dovetail nicely into the final factor in favor of animation: voice acting.

Acting, Voice

More than effects, more than costumes, more than most things, the actor or actress playing a comic book hero/villain is the one who truly sells the role. I don’t expect everyone to be Kevin Conroy or Michael Fassbender. You are going to have some bad/awkward casting (just put whoever you dislike here). The distinction between good and bad acting or voice acting is how the character is sold and conveyed. Arguably, this task is more difficult in animated shows because the voice actor only has tones and accents to convey emotion and little to any control over how the character will actually appear.

For shows or movies focused on an individual hero, the job of the lead is to play both parts fully. They have to be Bruce Wayne and Batman, Clark and Superman. It’s hard work. A lot of people are not up to the job. Seeing this basic failing, to realize you’ve been cast as two characters for one paycheck, is the real test of an adaptation.

The successful Marvel movies have mostly elided this problem with their choices of focusing on the X-Men and Avengers franchises. Despite seeking anonymity for mutant kind, the X-Men don’t really have secret identities, Iron Man ends with Tony Stark admitting he’s Iron Man, Steve Rogers basically doesn’t hide his identity to protect anyone (mostly, they’re all dead anyway). The strength in this approach can be seen when a character does require a secret identity.

The original Spider-Man titles and pretty much most of the recent DC movies illustrate the weakness of the dual identity. Christian Bale doesn’t just have a Batman voice problem, but also a Bruce Wayne acting problem (Michael Keaton is better at portraying both sides in his first movie). His Bat-voice is gravelly and he doesn’t seem to even pretend that Bruce Wayne needs a life too. Tobey Maguire is a lackluster Spider-Man. He is a wooden actor and the quick wit and quips Spider-Man is known for seem hollow coming out of his mouth. He breathes little depth or humor into Peter before he gets bitten so the sudden change comes across false. (There are a lot of other examples I could go with, but at least Batman Begins and Spider-Man are amusing to watch. Daredevil and Green Lantern are not and epically fail to make at least one half of the superhero interesting.)

Uncle Ben died in this scene and I can’t stop giggling

Again, the superhero adaptation is hard. I get that, I’m not trying to be unreasonable in my claims or preferences. Live action adaptations that expect the characters to lead two, often conflicting, lives is not going to be an easy sell. I believe that this conceptual difficulty makes the success of animation in adapting page to screen all the more impressive.

As I’ve laid out before, the DCAU was particularly successful at turning Batman, Superman and the rest of the Justice League from page to screen. To this day, Kevin Conroy is Batman and Bruce Wayne, Dana Delaney is Lois Lane, Michael Ironside is Darkseid, David Warner is Ra’s al Ghul. The voice, expression and actions are inextricably linked in my mind. B:TAS won 4 Emmy’s (one primetime). One for Robin trying to avenge his parents’ murder, it’s not light material.

He is vengeance, he is the night, he is Batman. Also, Kevin Conroy

The voices make the characters. Sell their reactions, paranoia, powers and costumes. As I’ve stated before, in many ways the work of a voice actor is harder than a live action actor. Tim Daly often doesn’t necessarily see what Superman is doing, but Henry Cavill actually does it. Christian Bale is there to physically be Batman, Kevin Conroy has to make you believe he’s there. It’s a taller task and the fact that anyone could pull it off, or consistently for over a decade is an accomplishment in and of itself.

You may be saying, wait, cartoons are easier, the expectations are lower. Perhaps, but you can also trip over that bar. I don’t think the expectations are particularly high for a summer blockbuster, but live action adaptations have certainly managed to both exceed and lower those expectations. The question you should ask after watching a live or animated comic adaptation is not if they cast the right person or if they checked off all the boxes in your mind, but if the entire package, the costume, the powers and the acting sold the character. Did you forget that you were entering a fantasy land where the Asgard are basically real? Did you feel the fear, rage and desperation a young boy felt over the murder of his parents? Did you lose yourself in the story?

Those are the real questions that matter and in this critic’s opinion, animation delivers. Consistently.

Just so long as it’s never, ever the Fantastic Four.

Jun 23, 2014

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 4: The Franchise Tier

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 4: The Franchise Tier
Ben Smith

For all of you incredibly, incredibly late-comers, I made the insane decision to create a superhero hall of fame, very much like you would find in major professional sports. I also unwisely am attempting to rank the characters that will fill these fictional halls of justice, using categories of my own devising.

Those criteria for selection are detailed in the very first part, so I’m not going to take the time to re-type it all here, because I am lazy, and hate introductions. You also clearly have access to the internet.

Previously, I detailed the All-Star and Superstar tier of my beloved figurative Superhero Hall of Fame, with the All-Star tier mostly representing characters that were pretty decent in a few areas, but also pretty darn weak in others, and the Superstar tier representing strong all around characters, or characters that were exceedingly strong in certain categories, but still weak in others, like actual comic books. All of which I am quite certain makes no sense to anyone but me, but that’s okay, I made a graph and used math, so, yeah.

This week, we’re going to launch into the final arbitrary tier of distinction, which will represent the characters with the least amount of weak areas across my entire range of discriminating factors. Characters capable of supporting multiple books, cartoons, and/or movies. Dare I call them…


9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Resume: origin, cartoons, toys, supporting cast, rogues gallery, popularity, powers

The single most successful creator-owned comic book ever created. (Cranky Editor: Who's second, and how far are they?) From a tiny garage, Eastman and Laird launched a multimedia juggernaut that has continued from the ‘80s until today. The original comics were high quality entertainment, and that legacy continues to this day with a very well-received series published by IDW. The supporting cast was top notch, with April O’Neil and Master Splinter, as well as a Magneto-level villain in The Shredder. The ninja aspect was instantly appealing to young boys, each character outfitted with their own individual weapon of expertise. The look of the characters was brilliant, especially after incorporating the different color headbands from the cartoons. Speaking of, the original cartoon was an absolute sensation, leading to three live-action movies and a never-ending stream of action figures. The early ‘00s cartoon was a little less silly, and adapted a lot more of the elements from the comics. That series ended with a special three-part episode that teamed up the current turtles with the ‘80s cartoon turtles, and then even the original comic book versions, in a epic storyline that crossed multiple dimensions (showing DC how to properly tell an amazing multiverse story in the process). The TMNT CGI-animated movie was good, even great in some moments. The fight between Leonardo and Raphael is something kids had been debating since the earliest days. (Cranky Editor: Leo threw the fight. I'm sticking with that.)  A few years ago, after the Turtles were sold to Nickelodeon, a new cartoon debuted which is hands-down the best TMNT cartoon yet. It combines the best elements from the comics and previous cartoons, keeping the turtles largely as deadly ninjas operating only at night, but still with lots of fun, and a great sense of humor (Michaelangelo is now my favorite turtle based purely on this show, he’s hilarious). Even another live-action movie is in production under the shaky direction of Michael Bay. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a true superhero comic book franchise.

8. Green Lantern

Resume: origin, supporting cast, Sinestro, consistency, Blackest Night, popularity, cartoons, movie

Hal Jordan was a fairly successful (I assume) if unremarkable superhero for the majority of his career. Guy Gardner and John Stewart had their moments as the Lantern (Guy mostly as the asshole lantern that got punched out by Batman), but none of them ever really caught on. Kyle Rayner had his fair share of fans after taking over, but it wasn’t until Geoff Johns, Ethan Van Sciver, and the Green Lantern: Rebirth mini-series that Green Lantern really took off as a character. Now Green Lantern was supporting two monthly books, and the creation of an entire spectrum of colored lantern corps kicked them into overdrive, leading to the critically acclaimed Sinestro Corps War. That mini crossover did so well, that next came the big company-wide crossover event, Blackest Night . That success carried over into animated films, one poorly received live-action movie, and a Green Lantern cartoon that only managed one season. The greatest superhero cartoon ever, The Justice League, went with John Stewart as its lantern, adding some much needed diversity to the team. The John Stewart in that cartoon was the best the character has ever been, and as a side effect, causes a bit of confusion as to who the “true” Green Lantern is supposed to be among casual fans. (Personally I think Hal is the worst of the bunch, something that Johns obviously does not agree with.) The great thing about Green Lantern that nobody properly capitalized on until Johns, was that it has its own built-in supporting cast, with thousands of Green Lanterns from across the galaxy to incorporate as needed. Instead of limiting the series to one central Earth lantern, they used all four Hal, John, Guy, and Kyle, along with fan favorites like Kilowog, Arisia, and Soranik Natu. Green Lantern is now a legitimate comic book franchise.

(Cranky Editor: Okay, this is a joke. Green Lantern is nowhere near as successful as his status indicates. Hal Jordan had lagging sales 75 issues into his existence and had to team up with Green Arrow and get the entire series retooled, and then that still didn't do well so he had to become a backup character in Flash. Hal Jordan had to be replaced multiple times and wasn't even in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Only Geoff Johns' giant man-crush on him saved him and made him a comic franchise today, but that hasn't translated into other media successfully, and being a big comic book franchise in 2014 for DC is like the equivalent of being the winner in the contest for tallest hobbit. Yes, he's an icon, but so is Aquaman. Number 8 is too high. John Stewart is a more important character, and he has the same name as the Daily Show guy. So pfah, Smith! Pfah!)

7. Thor

Resume: powers, love interests, consistency, Loki, evergreen, popularity, movies, cartoons

Thor has made quite a leap in recent years. Always a little bit underrated on the comic book end, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby enjoyed their second longest collaboration (to FF) on the original Thor series, and it’s a highly entertaining one. Of course, the legendary Walt Simonson has a well-deserved reputation for providing the definitive Thor run in the ‘80s. Thor: The Mighty Avenger was a fantastic book that ended far too early, and is easily worthy of being an evergreen book that you can give to any casual reader interested in the character. Jason Aaron is currently in the midst of providing yet another classic Thor run. When the Thor comic is good, it’s great, and it’s great for a lengthy run by that specific creator. When it’s bad, it’s pretty darn awful, which is pretty much every time inbetween one of the more heralded tenures. Thor has a great rogues gallery, including the Enchantress, Lorelei, Surtur, Mangog, The Wrecking Crew, Ulik, my beloved Karnilla the Norn Queen, and of course, Loki. His supporting cast is just as strong, with Balder and the Warriors Three, Odin, and his rotating love interests, Jane Foster or Sif (I really can’t choose who I prefer). Thor had a star role in one of the made for television Hulk movies, and guest-appearances in Marvel cartoons here and there (I think he and his world be great in its own animated series). It wasn’t until the Thor movie (which I always thought it would be impossible to translate him to live-action) that the character achieved any true adaptation success, thanks to the underrated portrayal by Chris Hemsworth. (The Hulk Vs animated movie was excellent also.) More than anything, the breakout success of Tom Hiddleston as Loki, has helped to propel the entire franchise to even bigger heights, primarily after a star-making turn as the lead villain in the highest grossing superhero movie of all time, The Avengers. The second Thor movie, The Dark World, was a bit uneven, but Hemsworth and Hiddleston are electric together. Never would I have ever believed that Thor was capable of carrying his own movie franchise, but we live in wondrous times, my friends.

(Cranky Editor: Thor should be #2.)

6. Wolverine

Resume: powers, popularity, evergreen, X-Men, Sabretooth, movies, cartoons

Take all the violence and edginess that the casual fan likes about a character like the Punisher, and then add claws that pop out of the back of his hands, a mean growl, and you get the insanely popular Wolverine. I’ve said before that I think every comics reader goes through a Wolverine phase at some point. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by the Dirty Harry of comics, with knives that readily spring from his hands, and a mutant healing factor that makes him unkillable. The adamantium skeleton, the mysterious origin (until recent years), the tough talk, there’s nothing about this character that doesn’t scream cool to a 12 year-old (or 36 year-old, in many cases). He’s been an integral part of the X-Men books since they were reinvigorated in the ‘70s, giving him a ready made supporting cast of any X-Man or mutant in the Marvel universe, as well as a mysterious espionage past that allows him to cross paths with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury. He even has a history with Captain America dating back to WWII. His solo rogues gallery is pretty limited, with standouts like Omega Red and Sabretooth. His immortality gives writers unlimited story possibilities from the past, and all the way to the distant future. His evergreen stories include his original solo mini-series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, Origin, and the pure insanity of Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven. Wolverine has been a central figure of every version of an X-Men cartoon, including the highly influential ‘90s cartoon, that made a lot of new fans among an entire generation of viewers (despite it being objectively awful). The Wolverine and The X-Men cartoon was the best version yet, but only lasted one season. The real impact of Wolverine lies in the live-action movies. Blade opened the door for Marvel characters in big budget action movies, but the first X-Men movie kicked that door down and smashed it to pieces. Hugh Jackman’s star turn as Wolverine was undeniable, leading to three more X-Men movies, two Wolverine solo movies, and the upcoming return of original director Bryan Singer for X-Men: Days of Future Past. Love him or hate him, Wolverine is here to stay.

5. Captain America

Resume: costume, origin, powers, Red Skull, consistency, evergreen, popularity, movies, cartoons

Captain America has almost all of the same advantages of the previous two entries, Wolverine and Thor. He’s got the cartoons, the recent Marvel movies wonderfully brought to life by Chris Evans. Like Wolverine, his supporting cast works best when filled with other heroes like The Falcon, Black Widow, Nick Fury, or as part of S.H.I.E.L.D. He’s got a much better origin than either of them, but his powers aren’t quite as fun, though I’ve always been enamored of his ability to lead and his strategic abilities. His best love interest, Sharon Carter, isn’t as great as Sif or Jane Foster, but his relationship with Peggy Carter from the first movie trumps all other contenders. (I feel like I keep saying this, but Hayley Atwell gave a breakout performance in Captain America: The First Avenger, and then in the Agent Carter one-shot short movie on the Iron Man 3 blu-ray. It was so good, it inspired its own upcoming television series, which I am insanely excited about.) The Red Skull, Baron Zemo, or Arnim Zola are not on the level of Loki, but they’re better than Sabretooth. There are two things that put Cap over Thor and Wolverine. The first is that he has had the far more consistently entertaining comic books over the years. None of them may match the peaks of a Jack or Walt Thor, but the deservedly praised Brubaker run isn’t that far behind. (Cranky Editor: Right now, the Brubaker run is not that far behind, but I say give it 10 years or so, and the Brubaker run will start outranking the Walt Thor run when it comes to greatest runs on characters, if only because the people making those lists at that point will have been the ones to have grown up with it.)  There was the short but memorable Sterenko years, the Michelinie and Zeck era, the short-lived but fantastic Roger Stern and John Byrne run. Gruenwald (for all its flaws) and Mark Waid. It hasn’t always been great, but on the whole, I think it outpaces Thor or Wolverine. The second factor that puts him ahead, is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is arguably the best movie Marvel has ever made (which means it’s the best superhero movie ever made). I don’t know what else to tell you.

4. Iron Man

Resume: powers, origin, costume, Pepper Potts, popularity, movies, cartoons, Tony Stark

Iron Man may have the weakest track record in the comics out of everyone in this category, but he makes up for it by being the star among stars (thanks to Robert Downey Jr) of the Marvel movies. He’s not completely hopeless in the comic book arena, thanks to standouts like Armor Wars, Demon in a Bottle (I may not like it, but others do) and Extremis by Warren Ellis. The combination of his central role in the Civil War crossover event, and the first Iron Man movie, have helped make him far more interesting in the comics than he’s ever been. The recent run by Matt Fraction started off excellent, and carried on at an above average level until he left the book. He has one of the coolest looks of anybody in comics, ever since the armor was redesigned by Adi Granov for Extremis, and then adapted into the movies. He’s got a weaker rogues gallery than Cap or Thor, but a comparable love interest in Pepper Potts, especially as played by Gwenyth Paltrow. So, you might be asking yourself right now, Thor and Captain America have had the better comics, the better villains, comparable movies and cartoons, why is Iron Man ranked higher? It’s because of Tony Stark. Thor, Cap, and Wolverine have decidedly weak alternate identities (or none, in Wolverine’s case). Tony Stark is the most interesting and entertaining character in all of the Marvel movies, easily. Robert Downey Jr’s performance has carried over into the comics, making Stark the most flawed Avenger, but no less heroic. This may not last once RDJ decides to move on and do other things, and the list can be adjusted if need be, but until then, he’s planted in here firmly at #4. (Plus he makes for the best action figures.) 

(Cranky Editor: Hard not to go with Iron Man right now at this specific point in time, but I wonder if it's sustainable. I think it is, but they're going to have to figure out a way to move past Robert Downey Jr. at some point. Any attempts to replicate his voice alone, in animation, has been kind of laughable.)

That’s a pretty impressive list of franchise-carrying characters. Hopefully the three of you actually reading this have some pretty strong opinions about where I messed up (in your own opinions of course, my math is sound). If so, send us some comments. Or don’t, as you usually do, and make me sad. I feel so alone.

Jun 16, 2014

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 3: The Superstar Tier

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 3: The Superstar Tier
Ben Smith

For all of you late-comers, I made the insane decision to create a superhero hall of fame, much like you would find in major professional sports. I also unwisely am attempting to rank the characters that will fill these fictional halls of justice, using categories of my own creation.

Those criteria for selection are detailed in the first part, so I’m not going to take the time to re-type it all here. You have access to the internet.

Last time out, I finished up the All-Star tier of characters, which mostly represented characters that were strong in a handful of areas, but pretty weak in others. This week, we’re going to launch into the Superstar tier, which will represent the characters that have much stronger overall resumes.

Let us begin, shall we?


16. The Legion of Superheroes

Resume: powers, popularity, evergreen, rogues gallery, consistency

Bit of a cheat here, to include them as a team, but it’s my list, so deal with it. The Legion of Superheroes was at one time, along with the New Teen Titans, the only books DC was producing that could compete with Marvel in the early ‘80s. Once one of the most popular teams and books in all of comics, that still maintains a dedicated core group of fans to this day. The Legion was one of the earliest books to use continuity to their advantage, having the characters age and grow, get married, and retire from the team. Their status as the superheroes of the future gave them extreme freedom for the writers to do whatever they wished. The massive cast made for one of the best built-in supporting casts in all of comics, to include Superman and Supergirl. Despite the multiple reboots the team has been put through due to various DC Crisis series, all the different versions of the Legion, and their resultant series, have been remarkably consistent (my favorite being the pre-New 52 Levitz series). They have a true evergreen book in The Great Darkness Saga, which (spoiler alert) revived Darkseid as a viable comic book villain. Cranky Editor: I think the cover of the book actually ruins that spoiler at this point. Along with him, the Legion has a great rogues gallery that includes Mordru, The Fatal Five, Time Trapper, and the Legion of Supervillains. They got their own short-lived animated series, and starred in one of the best single episodes of Justice League Unlimited. Brainiac 5, my single most favorite DC character, is a core member of the team.

15. Fantastic Four

Resume: origin, powers, Dr Doom, evergreen, cartoons, movies

The impact of the Fantastic Four cannot be understated. The first book that launched the re-branded Marvel, and the first to introduce the flawed hero approach to characters that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were trying to develop. Probably had the strongest first 100 issues of any series in comic book history. Introducing the Watcher, Skrulls, the Inhumans, the Black Panther, Galactus, and the Silver Surfer, to name a few. A decent rogues gallery headlined by the greatest Marvel villain of all, Dr Doom. At least one evergreen story in the previously mentioned Galactus Saga. Two characters with great solo potential in The Thing and the Human Torch. Right up there with Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Hulk in the number of different animated series over the years. Two big screen Fantastic Four movies (unless you count the unreleased movie from the ‘90s Cranky Editor: And why wouldn't you? The last scene of the movie has Mr. Fantastic's hand stretching out of a limo, and it's basically a fake hand on a stick.), with another in development, that unfortunately were both extremely unremarkable.

14. Hulk

Resume: origin, powers, popularity, evergreen, Betty Ross, movies, cartoons

The Hulk is another character that is far more popular outside of comics, than his monthly comics would warrant. He’s got a great origin, and his status as the strongest Marvel character is instantly appealing to a lot of casual fans. Betty Ross is a great supporting character and star-crossed love interest. Hasn’t always had the strongest monthly series, but has had a handful of stories that could be considered evergreen, to include Hulk: The End, the first appearance of Wolverine, and Planet Hulk. Never had a particularly strong rogues gallery, but The Leader and Abomination are standouts. Only Spider-Man has had more animated series over the years. Unlike Spider-Man, the ‘70s Hulk television show was the first real impact Marvel ever made in live-action. Had a string of made-for-television movies spinning out of the show, that co-starred characters like Daredevil and Thor Cranky Editor: Great, now I want to watch it.. The Hulk’s first big budget motion picture was a flop, but he got a second chance with Marvel Studios’ The Incredible Hulk, which is a highly underrated movie Cranky Editor: Up to that point, it had the single best fight scene in any live-action comic book movie. Along with Black Widow, the breakout character of The Avengers movie.

13. Robin/Nightwing

Resume: origin, love interests, costume, evergreen, popularity, movies, cartoons

As Robin, probably the fourth most well-known superhero in the world, after Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. As Nightwing, one of the more popular characters in all of comics. Dick Grayson has a great origin, if slightly derivative, and unlike Batman, has a well-rounded and enjoyable civilian identity (more on that later in the list). One of the great costumes in all of comics as Nightwing. A bit of a ladies' man in the DC universe, he’s been romantically linked with The Huntress, Starfire, and Barbara Gordon. Has had many evergreen stories as part of Batman and Teen Titans books, most notably the Judas Contract and the Trigon Saga, but rarely has had anything of significance on his own Cranky Editor: This is why. As Robin or Nightwing (and sometimes both) is a key part of almost every iteration of a Batman cartoon or animated movie. Leader of the team in the Teen Titans and Young Justice cartoons. Had a big role in three of the worst comic book movies ever made, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, and The Dark Knight Rises Cranky Editor: Batman Forever was fun, and you all know it. At least two of those were wildly successful, at least.

12. Wonder Woman

Resume: costume, powers, popularity, television show, cartoons

The single most perfect example of a character that is far more popular and successful outside of comics. The arguably third most recognizable and well-known superhero in the entire world. Her status as a symbol of female power and empowerment, helps compensate for the general mediocrity of her solo comic series over the years. Even highly regarded runs by creators like George Perez and Gail Simone only manage to create above average stories at best. Has one of the weaker supporting casts and rogues galleries among the top characters in comics, and her primary love interest historically, Steve Trevor, has spent long periods of time excluded from her books. Her origin and secret identity are at best confusing, most often ignored completely. Her power set makes her the most intimidating and powerful female character in all of comic books. (My favorite all-time Wonder Woman moment was in Justice League Unlimited, where Hawkgirl, Black Canary, and Vixen are stunned at the arrival of a brainwashed Wonder Woman. The sheer terror of the three of them having to face off against her really helps encapsulate how powerful Wonder Woman is.) Along with the Hulk, had a very successful ‘70s television series, if short-lived. Wonder Woman is always included in any Super Friends or Justice League cartoon. A core member of the best superhero animated series ever created, the Justice League. Got her own very well-done, but ultimately unsuccessful, animated movie. Set to make her big screen debut in the upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Probably the most lopsided character in terms of comic output vs multimedia output. (For basketball fans, she’s the Vince Carter of comics. Insanely popular despite never quite living up to that fan support in terms of stories/wins.)

11. Daredevil

Resume: powers, origin, consistency, evergreen, love interests, popularity, movie, cartoons

Almost the complete opposite of Wonder Woman, where Daredevil’s in comics resume can arguably only be matched or exceeded by Spider-Man or Batman. Daredevil has had one of the most, if not the most, consistently entertaining comic series from his inception. From the early Stan Lee years, to the run by criminally underrated artist Gene Colan, to the legendary Frank Miller, to Nocenti, to Kesel, to Kevin Smith, to Bendis and Maleev, to Brubaker, and now to Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. Daredevil has been the destination for prestige runs by some of the best creators in the history of the medium. Born Again, the death of Elektra, and Man of Fear are easy standouts of evergreen stature. He’s had a remarkable string of love interests in Elektra and Karen Page, and one of the best supporting characters in Foggy Nelson (as well as Ben Urich). His rogues gallery is top-heavy with Kingpin and Bullseye, but modern creators have been unusually successful in updating old villains into competent threats, like the Owl and Mr. Fear. His secret identity as Matt Murdock is one of the strongest in comics, especially whenever he decides to pretend he’s his own twin brother Mike. Daredevil is one of the most frequent guest-stars in Marvel cartoons, without ever getting one of his own. Daredevil did get his own movie, played by Ben Affleck, which was apparently successful enough to get its own spinoff movie in Elektra Cranky Editor: I think Elektra was already contracted before Daredevil was even released. Don't quote me on that though. One of the four characters selected by Marvel to get their own television mini-series through Netflix.

10. The Flash

Resume: origin, powers, costume, rogues, consistency, Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, television, cartoons

Highly recognizable and popular, if only by name and power set. Suffers a bit, like most Silver Age DC characters, from a weak supporting cast and secret identity (at least the Barry Allen version), but one of the greatest rogues galleries in comics, on par with Spider-Man and Batman. His power set, as the fastest man alive, is something easily understood and admired by anyone that values physical capabilities like strength and speed (namely young boys, athletes, and sports fans). One of the great costumes in comics (sans chin strap) and one of my personal favorites. Flash has had a consistent run of excellent comics throughout the years, especially during the Waid and Geoff Johns runs. However, arguably the best Flash comic ever was one where he dies, saving the world in Crisis on Infinite Earths. (Geoff Johns' tremendous Super Friends obsession worked for Hal Jordan, but was decidedly less successful in the return of Barry Allen.) A core member of any Justice League cartoon, and one of the best parts of the excellent Justice League animated series. (When he almost dies defeating Luthor and Brainiac, it makes my heart grow three sizes bigger, Grinch style.) Had a solid live-action television series in the ‘80s, which was a big part of young Back Issue Ben’s week at the time. A version of the Flash had guest-starring roles on the Smallville and Arrow TV series, and is about to follow that up in 2014/15 with a brand new solo television series.

Cranky Editor: This is not the first time Ben's made a list and just lumped Wally and Barry together, and I agree with him. As longtime readers, yes, we can separate them and we know the differences, but in terms of casual fans and mass media, it's the Flash half that's important. But Wally is better.

If Flash, Wonder Woman, and Daredevil are the cutoff points for the Superstar tier of the hall of fame, what could the next category possibly be? What could possibly be higher than superstar. You’ll just have to join us again next week to find out.

Jun 9, 2014

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 2: The All-Star Tier

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 2: The All-Star Tier (Continued)
Back Issue Ben
Ben Smith

For all of you late-comers, I made the insane decision to create a superhero hall of fame, much like you would find in major professional sports. I also unwisely am attempting to rank the characters that will fill these fictional halls of justice, using categories of my own creation.

Those criteria for selection are detailed in the first part, so I’m not going to take the time to re-type it all here. You have access to the internet. The characters are ranked, the tiers are set, the beer is cold, let us continue this unexpectedly time-consuming venture.


24. Supergirl

Stats: powers, popularity, Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, cartoons, movie, supporting cast, costume

While Supergirl may borrow a lot from her more famous cousin, especially in name recognition alone, that shouldn’t discount the famous logo, the costume, and the powers that she shares with him. I don’t think you should ever underestimate the impact a powerful female character can have on female readers, especially young ones. She’s headlined her own comic series on multiple occasions, even though her only memorable story was probably her “death” during Crisis on Infinite Earths. While her supporting cast in her own right is limited, she has a long and enjoyable history as a member of the Legion of Superheroes. She got her own movie during the ‘80s, which was not the best. She had a major supporting role on the Superman Animated Series, as well as Justice League Unlimited. Her return to the DC comic universe in the Superman/Batman series by Jeph Loeb, received its own animated movie adaptation. Supergirl is also one of the most frequently cosplayed female characters, which should count for something.

(Cranky Editor: How can you forget Helen Slater? That movie was awesome. And one thing I always found kinda sad—Supergirl was killed off because a lack of quality stories up to that point kinda made her expendable, but her death ended up being a quality story.)

23. Batgirl

Stats: supporting cast, powers, The Killing Joke, Oracle, cartoons, movie, costume, television

Barbara Gordon enjoys many of the same superficial advantages from Batman, in terms of costume, name recognition, and supporting cast. Her back-up features in the pages of Detective Comics and Batman Family are underrated gems. As is unfortunately the case with a lot of female comic characters, her most significant moment was a negative one, when the Joker crippled her during the prestige one-shot The Killing Joke. Writers were able to turn that negative into a positive by having her become Oracle, where she served as the technical expert of the DC universe, providing invaluable support to the bat-books. Her role as a member of the Birds of Prey series by Gail Simone is probably the highlight of her comics career, though she has recently been restored to full mobility as Batgirl in the New 52. Batgirl’s appearances on the Batman television show of the ‘60s, jump-started many young boys into puberty. Unfortunately she made her big screen debut in one of the worst superhero movies of all time, Batman and Robin, portrayed by Alicia Silverstone, who was miscast. Batgirl has also appeared in almost every version of a Batman cartoon, most notably in the highly regarded ‘90s animated series.

Cranky editor: she had a darker blue before Batman did, which makes her a little bit cooler.

22. Ant-Man

Stats: origin, founding Avenger, The Wasp, Ultron, costume, cartoons, movie, secret identity

My wife would kill me if she ever saw me rank her beloved Hank Pym this low. Fortunately, she never reads Back Issue Ben, so my safety should be assured. Hank Pym has a dynamite origin, great costume, one of the founding Avengers, and is on the shortlist of smartest characters in the Marvel universe. He’s enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in the comics since his role as one of the characters replaced by a Skrull during the Secret Invasion crossover event, which continued on through a leadership stint in Mighty Avengers, a central role in the Avengers Academy series, and most recently the short-lived Avengers A.I. book. His multiple hero identities as Giant Man, Yellowjacket, Goliath, and Ant-Man have all been appropriated by several other characters. His long-term romantic relationships with The Wasp and Tigra are as dysfunctional as they are often entertaining. Pym is infamous for the creation of one of the greatest Avenger villains, Ultron, who will soon be featured in the second big screen Avengers adventure. Hank Pym himself will make his movie debut in the upcoming Ant-Man film (though he’s been relegated to old man status with the casting of Michael Douglas). Hank Pym played a major role as team leader of the ‘90s Avengers cartoon, as well as a member of the core team during the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series.

21. Black Panther

Stats: costume, consistency, King of Wakanda, cartoons

Black Panther was never a particular favorite of mine until the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon, where they did an excellent job of showcasing what makes him cool. One of the earliest minority superhero characters, his impact in that respect cannot be overlooked. Has had a fairly consistent run as a lead comic book character, from the early Jack Kirby stories to the Christopher Priest run, and on. Hasn’t had the breakthrough evergreen story as of yet. His solo movie is in constant development. Part of the Ultimate Avengers and Next Avengers animated movies.

Cranky Editor: Black Panther could take Batman in a fight. Prep time, no prep time, nothing. Black Panther could and would take Batman in a fight.

20. Dr. Strange

Stats: costume, sorcerer supreme, consistency, cartoons, Ditko

A consistent comic book lead character throughout his history, with his original Steve Ditko stories possibly qualifying for evergreen status. Probably the most frequent guest-star in any Marvel animated series other than Daredevil and the Punisher. Received his own animated movie, with mixed results. Heavily rumored to soon get his own live-action movie as part of the next wave of Marvel films.

19. Silver Surfer

Stats: powers, origin, consistency, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, cartoons, popularity

Silver Surfer is one of those characters that is arguably more popular outside of comics than he is in the comics world. Along with Dr Strange and Adam Warlock, a part of ‘60s and ‘70s college culture that helped establish Marvel comics and the characters as cool. Has had a fairly consistent run as a comics character, with his first appearance a definite classic, The Galactus Saga in Fantastic Four. Headlined his own cartoon and is frequently included in most other Marvel animated series. He was the title character of the second big screen Fantastic Four movie, where unfortunately he was the only decent part of it.

Cranky Editor: Ooh, an opportunity for a shameless plug!

18. Professor X

Stats: X-Men, Magneto, powers, movies, cartoons, Lilandra

A part of countless evergreen stories as part of the X-Men, but nothing significant as a solo character (unless you want to count the Shadow King). One of the best arch-nemesis in all of comics with Magneto. An indispensable part of any animated series or major motion picture. A star turn as the lead character in X-Men: First Class, as played by James McAvoy.   

Cranky Editor: I hate Professor X, so so much.

17. The Punisher

Stats: origin, costume, consistency, popularity, movies, cartoons

Another character that’s cooler to like as a casual fan, without having to read his comics (low blow, I may not like them, but many people do). Extremely popular outside of comics due to the insanely cool logo and costume, and because he’s a violent character. Punisher has a simple to understand origin, that explains everything you need to know about the character. Has had a consistent run as a solo character, except for a period of over-exposure in the ‘90s (who didn’t), and that time where he was an angel, but for the most part the comics stick to the basics. (My favorites being the original Grant/Zeck mini-series, and the Rucka series.) Garth Ennis had a very well received run as a write of the book, especially when it was moved to the Marvel Max line. One of the more frequent guest-stars in any Marvel animated series. The Punisher has headlined three live-action motion pictures, but all of them have been terrible.

That’s it for this tier of the superhero hall of fame. The Punisher is the line of demarcation between the All-Star tier, and the next tier. What could it be? Come back next week and find out.

Jun 2, 2014

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 1: The All-Star Tier

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 1: The All-Star Tier
Ben Smith

I’ve been re-reading The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons lately, and it’s inspired upon me an idea. As any sports fans will know, basketball players considered of appropriate worth are inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor reserved for those that excelled in the sport over their career. Little more than a glorified museum, it is however considered an extreme honor, and a validation of one’s accomplishments on the court. A player only needs to receive the required number of votes, from those eligible to vote on such matters, to be accepted. Once in, no other discriminating factors are applied.

Bill Simmons postulates in his book that the inductees should be tiered into five different categories of accomplishment, with the best players of all time occupying the top floor of the Hall, comprising the Pantheon of the sport. This was little more than an exercise for him to rank the 96 best players of all time, using his own criteria. Basically it’s just a list, and anyone that knows me knows that I’m all for lists.

All of which is a long-winded explanation for how I’m going to steal his idea, and use it to rank the best superheroes of all time. I will do this by using discriminating criteria of my own devising. My goal is to be as objective as possible (Cranky Editor's Note: HAH!), meaning I’m going to try to limit my extreme preference for Marvel characters as much as possible, and try to score the categories as logically as possible.

Here are the categories I have decided to use.


The best origins are able to define and describe the respective character in the most simplistic of ways. In other words, a great origin will tell you all you need to know about a character to understand them.


Which characters have the kind of powers (or in the case of non-powered heroes, skills) that are worth emulating? In the simplest terms, the characters that a kid would want to pretend to be while they’re playing.


A strong supporting cast goes a long way toward making a character iconic.


Along with the supporting cast, a hero is nothing without his villains, and a strong rogues gallery can make even the blandest of characters infinitely entertaining (first shots fired, Batman).


Even the most determined of heroes should find time for love, and a strong love interest can often find his or her own book to headline. What kind of madman wouldn’t want to see their favorite character find happiness (other than me, of course)?


Comic books are a visual medium, and I believe that the character’s costume plays a big role in how well they are received, whether people realize it or not. Sometimes, looking cool is all it takes.


Has the character had a consistently entertaining series over the years, or is their publishing history marked with extreme peaks and desolate valleys. A pedigree of strong storytelling can go a long way toward establishing a character as a favorite.


Beyond a record of consistent storytelling, which characters have provided a platform for truly transcendent benchmark stories that have stood the test of time? If you needed to give an interested fan one book on a specific character, could you?


This will involve a complex matrix of how well a character is known by the general public, and how much they seem to be loved overall. Either that or a judgment call I will make on my own authority.


Which heroes are most often adapted into other mediums, like movies and cartoons, along with toys, bedsheets, and toothbrushes. Are those adaptations entertaining in their own right?


It should never be just about the mask. The person underneath should be just as interesting as the costume. The best characters have a civilian identity that provides opportunities for greater storytelling.

With the categories distinctly laid out, I will assign point values to each character by each category, and average that total out. The list will then be assembled from the highest average point total, to the lowest. I am not nearly crazy enough to attempt to list the top 100 or even 96 superhero characters of all time, so I’ve settled on a list of 32, with a few honorable mentions.

Now that all that preamble is out of the way, let’s begin.


The Spirit – brainchild of the legendary Will Eisner. Headlined his own unsuccessful movie. Highly influential to an entire generation of future comic book professionals. (Cranky Editor's Note: The movie was still awesome. Go watch it. Also, has to be said, that entire generation of professionals includes Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Walt Simonson. I really think Eisner is all things considered more influential than Jack Kirby.)

Miracleman – impactful British import, helped launch the career of the highly influential Alan Moore. Level of sophistication in the storytelling would be important to the evolution of comic books, before disappearing due to legal battles over ownership.

The Watchmen – the most highly acclaimed graphic novel of all time. Received its own major motion picture adaptation. Always intended to be a standalone story with no continuations.

Spawn – At one time would have challenged the top of the list in terms of popularity and multimedia adaptations. Influential in terms of being the most successful of the creator-owned Image characters that attempted to break Marvel and DC’s stranglehold on the genre. Beyond a flashy but dated costume, decent origin, and a compelling lost love angle, the character didn’t have much to sustain it as a top level contender. All flash with no substance.


32. Black Canary

Stats: costume, Birds of Prey, powers, cartoons

Black Canary would be on this list (sexism alert) for her costume alone, but they keep changing it. She had an excellent run as part of the Birds of Prey series, where it was established that she is one of the deadliest martial artists in the DC universe. She is currently part of the Arrow television series, and her episodes with The Huntress on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon were some of the best of the series. (Cranky Editor's Note: Everyone go read Black Canary/Zatanna: Bloodspell. It's fun.)

31. Falcon

Stats: cartoons, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Just go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Cranky Editor's Note: Wait, what? Seriously? Falcon?)

30. Captain Marvel

Stats: cartoons, Black Adam, Shazam catchphrase, power set, early dominance.

Captain Marvel was another fast burner in the early days of superheroes, challenging and even surpassing Superman in popularity on the comic racks. He had his own early motion picture serial series. A DC lawsuit eventually removed him from the picture for many years, until DC eventually purchased the rights to the character. The character has had trouble finding his own niche ever since, while his arch-nemesis Black Adam has arguably found a more comfortable position in the modern DC comics. Captain Marvel had a forgettable animated series in the ‘80s, as well as an unmemorable direct to DVD animated movie co-starring Superman. Feature episodes in Batman: Brave and the Bold and Justice League Unlimited remain his greatest modern contributions.

(Cranky Editor's Note: Putting Captain Marvel this low is just Ben baiting me into writing something for the site, and IT WORKED. Putting Cap this low is a joke. He was the most dominant character of superhero comics' most dominant era, had spinoffs in different styles as it was happening, had the only critically acclaimed serial of the decade, and had a TV show in the 70s that sucked, but somehow led to the creation of He-Man. So eat that, Smith!)

29. Hawkeye

Stats: longtime and popular Avenger, love interests, The Avengers movie, The Avengers animated series

Hawkeye has had limited success as a solo character, never having enough of an independent supporting cast or rogue’s gallery to sustain him on his own. He’s long been one of the more popular and entertaining member’s of the Avengers, and arguably has had the best history of love interests in all of comics. Black Widow, Spider-Woman, Mockingbird, and many others have all had extended romances with Hawkeye. He’s also managed to find his way into every multimedia adaptation of the Avengers. The late ‘90s cartoon may have only been loved by my wife, but the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series was well received by fans, the ones that actually watched it. Hawkeye played a major part in the series, with his trademark rebelliousness and original (and preferred) costume. The Avengers movie was the most successful superhero movie of all time, but unfortunately, Hawkeye is the least beloved character of the principle cast. Hawkeye is a member of the team on the currently running Avengers Assemble animated series.

28. Green Arrow

Stats: Arrow television series, love interest, The Longbow Hunters, Kevin Smith

As much as it pains me to rank Green Arrow above Hawkeye (Cranky Editor's Note: Green Arrow sucks.), he has the significant edge on him in terms of solo comic books. Green Arrow has him in terms of consistently headlining his own book, as well as some mildly evergreen projects like The Longbow Hunters by Grell, and Kevin Smith’s short but wildly successful run on the character. Hawkeye may have the Avengers movie, but Green Arrow has his own moderately successful television show, as well as his prior appearances as a supporting character on Smallville. Green Arrow also had a significant part on the greatest superhero animated series of all time, Justice League Unlimited.

27. Storm

Stats: powers, X-Men, movies, cartoons, costume

Storm has many of the same advantages of the next character on the list, a strong backing as part of the X-books, always a core member of every iteration of a X-Men cartoon. The mohawk and leather look. One of the first breakthrough minority female characters, that I have to imagine was the first one to ever be the team leader of a major superhero team. The reason Black Widow gets the edge over her is that Storm, as played by Halle Berry, never really had a breakthrough performance in any of the X-Men movies. (Cranky Editor's Note: It was nice to see Halle Berry back as Storm in Days of Future Past. I mean, she didn't really do anything, but it was fun to see.)

26. Black Widow

Stats: The Avengers, love interests, costume, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Black Widow has had some decent solo starring ventures, including the recently launched book as part of All New Marvel Now. Historically, she’s been best as a member of a duo or team, first with Hawkeye, then with Daredevil. Along with those two, she enjoyed a long run as the love interest of Bucky Barnes, more commonly known now as the Winter Soldier. She has one of the better looks in comics, not much can beat a black bodysuit. Sometimes less is more. Despite historically not being a major member of the Avengers in the comics, she was included in the Ultimate Avengers animated movie series, along with the Next Avengers. Just like Hawkeye, she’s been a major part of the recent animated series. Unlike Hawkeye, her breakout movie appearances, as played by Scarlett Johannson, in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have left many moviegoers clamoring for her to star in her own. (Cranky Editor's Note: If any female character gets a movie before Natasha, I'll be very surprised.)

25. Aquaman

Stats: Mera, popularity, cartoons

Aquaman, for better or worse, is one of the more well-known superhero characters publicly. Unfortunately for him, it’s more often for worse, as he’s frequently the target of ridicule for his power set. Images of him riding a seahorse from his incredibly dated solo animated series, and as a member of the Super Friends cartoon, don’t help matters. Attempts to grim and gritty him up for modern projects, like the Justice League animated series, and Flashpoint animated movie, have been met with moderate success. His longtime love interest Mera received a boost in status thanks to a starring role in the Blackest Night comic event. He also has one of the all-time coolest looking arch enemies in Black Manta. Despite his questionable reputation, he’s almost always included in any Justice League project.

We’ll stop here for the time being. In part 2, we’ll continue along with the All-Star Tier, on our way towards the ultimate goal of identifying the greatest superhero character of all time. I’m sure all four of you are on the edge of your seat with anticipation.