Jul 7, 2014

The Superhero Hall of Fame: The Final Showdown

The Superhero Hall of Fame: The Final Showdown
Ben Smith

Those of you that have taken this long and arduous journey with me down the hallways of greatness, have most likely guessed at the remaining two contestants vying for the coveting prize of top dog in my imaginary Superhero Hall of Fame. Batman and Spider-Man.

The determining criteria has already been established, and so in the interest of fairness and transparency, my only recourse is to explore this matchup head-to-head by category. A winner will be determined, greatness achieved, without dispute or argument for the remainder of our natural born lives, as well as what may come beyond.

Let the madness end.

It should not be a surprise that these two characters have the best two origins in superhero comics; after all, they’ve had to accumulate the required number of points to make it this high somehow. Both have clear, simple origin stories that explain everything you need to know about the character’s motivations, and provide the requisite amount of tragedy that so often compels a character to dedicate their lives to fighting crime. Both origins are as easily told in a single page, as they are in a six issue mini-series. It is effective told in a compact and direct manner, while leaving plenty of room for further exploration if desired.

Spider-Man’s role in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben adds the extra element of tragedy to his origin, that pushes it past Batman’s as the greatest of all time. They both suffered a great loss, but Spider-Man has guilt to go along with it.

EDGE: Spider-Man

Cranky Editor Man agrees with this. Spider-Man being indirectly responsible for the death of his uncle makes it worse. And also, his origin is significantly more plausible given the rules of that world, in which a radioactive spider gives you powers instead of killing you. If you got spider-powers, the first thing you would do is try to cash in on it. If you had billions and your parents were killed in front of you, the last thing you would try to do is become Batman. And you know it's true.

Batman’s skills involve being the best hand-to hand fighter in the room, the most prepared strategist, and often the smartest and coolest guy in the room, no matter the room. It’s often said that Batman can beat anyone given enough time, and that he always has a plan for any given situation. Being unbeatable can be a very appealing trait. Plus, he has all the coolest toys.

Spider-Man has the coolest power set outside of Superman. Batman may have his batarangs and grappling gun, but nothing can match the idea of swinging through the city on your own webs. Along with super strength, spider sense, enhanced speed and agility, and of course, the ability to stick to walls. Spider-Man’s greatest power though, is his determination to win. He will never stop and never quit, which makes him as unbeatable, if not more so, than Batman.

EDGE: Spider-Man

Cranky Editor Man says, They've been doing that whole "I don't give up" thing with Batman for a while, and that's DC's entire problem. Now everyone who gets into a fight with Batman is sure to lose, so DC can't ever build up new franchises (they've already basically left Superman at the sacrificial altar of the bat), and WB is too scared to do anything without Batman.

Batman has a rotating assortment of Robins, to include the first and greatest, Dick Grayson. Alfred and Commissioner Gordon have become staples of any interpretation of Batman. Detective’s Montoya and Bullock are often interesting in their own right. Lucius Fox has gained greater prominence from the movies. While it might be a little unfair to count Robin, since he’s a hero in his own right, it can’t be denied that he is a supporting character of the Batbooks, and between him and Gordon, have the most potential for independent storytelling.

At one point, Spider-Man had the strongest supporting cast in all of comics. Flash Thompson, Liz Allen, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, Aunt May, Harry Osborn, Joe Robertson, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, and J Jonah Jameson just to name a few. However, over the years, most of that cast has been killed off or marginalized to the point of non-use. Despite the presence of JJJ, arguably the strongest supporting cast member of either character, this has to go to Batman.

EDGE: Batman

Cranky Editor Man thinks that Marvel doesn't use Spidey's supporting cast enough, and fondly remembers the three-issue Daily Bugle series from the 90s.

Spider-Man has my favorite rogues gallery in comics, with its assortment of animal themed characters and goblins. Notables include Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, Electro, Sandman, the Lizard, Scorpion, the Vulture, and Carnage. The original Hobgoblin was my personal favorite. A strong list top to bottom, but Spidey’s cast of villainous foes suffers a little bit from the lack of a clear top dog. Depending on who you ask, it could be Doctor Octopus, the Green Gobin, Venom, or even J Jonah Jameson.

Again, in the interest of objectivity, I have to concede that Batman has the far more celebrated roster of villains. Two-Face, the Penguin, Catwoman, Rah’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Mr Freeze, Mad Hatter, the Riddler, and Bane. Most, if not all, have headlined their own books at some point, and that’s before you even get to arguably the top villain in all of comics, The Joker.

EDGE: Batman

Cranky Editor Man says, Batman wins this by a landslide, proving once again that the best parts of Batman aren't Batman.

Batman’s most consistent and lasting romantic entanglement continues to be Catwoman. Even then, she’s most often portrayed as the forbidden fruit, never to be indulged permanently. Characters like Talia Al Ghul, Vicki Vale, and Silver St Cloud have all had their chances to shine, but ultimately Batman’s true love is, and always will be, vengeance.

Spider-Man has a bit of an unfair advantage in his category, as he was created very specifically to have real life problems, which very specifically includes the struggles of romantic entanglement. Mary Jane is obviously the most popular and most beloved of his love interests, having been married to him in the comics for the span of 20 years. Outside of her, you have the never-ending shadow cast by the loss of Gwen Stacy, or the adventurousness and fun of the Black Cat. All are far more fun and entertaining than the dour pining of Batman for Catwoman.

EDGE: Spider-Man

Cranky Editor Man says, Batman's entire romantic life is even more evidence against Batman being a "realistic" superhero, or even, to some extent, an admirable one. This man will let anyone, be she a master thief or a global terrorist go, as long as he's got a shot at sleeping with her. What a dick. At least Spider-Man stops at the thief.

Batman has one of the most iconic costumes and logos in all of comics, whether it be the yellow oval, or the black bat. Easily adaptable by artists, with little flourishes most often taken with the length of the bat ears, or the color scheme of the cape and cowl, blue or black. It’s as striking in silhouette as it is in full view, if not more so.

Spider-Man’s costume is iconic as well at his point, if maybe just a tick below Batman’s. It’s easily identifiable from any angle, no matter how much of the costume is in view, which was deliberate on the part of co-creator Steve Ditko. It can be spooky in the right environment, or flashy and colorful in another. It also has plenty of room for artistic flourishes, in terms of a blue or black color scheme, the design of his eyelets, or the interpretation of the webbing on the costume.
The first advantage for Spider-Man is the full face mask, making it a little more practical for concealing the secret identity, and also having the added effect of allowing any kid of any gender, race, or color the ability to pretend they’re Spider-Man under the costume. The second advantage is that Spider-Man has far more variations of his costume that are just as visually appealing as the red and blue. The black costume alone is enough to put Spider-Man over the top in this category.

EDGE: Spider-Man

Cranky Editor Man says, Batman's costume may be a stronger concept, but Spider-Man's costume is a stronger design, in the strictest definition of those meanings. You can tweak Batman's costume a bunch of ways, but by and large, Spider-Man's costume adheres to the same principles. You're definitely not going to get a debate on something as basic as the colors. "Oh hey, yeah, blue and gray. That's stealthy." Way to go, Batman.

Batman has certainly had more than a few runs of sustained excellence in his publishing history. But I’ve read enough Batman to also know there have been just as many runs of average to below average storytelling.

However, I feel like Spider-Man has presented the most consistent level of entertaining stories since his creation in all of comics, particularly in the flagship Amazing title. In the interest of transparency, let’s break it down by decade, not counting the pre-1960s Batman comics, because that would be unfair.

1960s – No question that Spider-Man wins this hands-down. Not only was Ditko cranking out superhero classics that are still enjoyable to this day, but together with Stan Lee they were creating the blueprint for the Marvel superhero, and arguably for the entire medium, going forward.

1970s – The much ballyhooed Neal Adams era certainly had a handful of classics, and was expertly drawn for the time, but the majority of those books are a chore to read now, focusing far too much on Man-Bat. Conversely, Spider-Man was moving from the death of Gwen Stacy, to the original Clone Saga, to a well remembered run by Marv Wolfman that introduced the Black Cat.

1980s – This decade represented a microcosm of Marvel and DC as a whole for these two characters. Spider-Man dominated the early part of the decade, with a run by Roger Stern that included multiple classics, as well as the Hobgoblin and Black Costume sagas. Tom DeFalco followed him with a more than capable run along with frequent collaborator Ron Frenz. Not to mention the quality stories happening in Spectacular and Web of. Batman would respond later in the decade with three all-time classics, but since those are better captured in the next category, and considering I can’t really name anything from Batman beyond those, I think this decade goes to Spider-Man as well.

1990s – The less said about the ‘90s the better, but since Knightfall seems to be more fondly remembered than the Clone Saga as a whole, Batman takes the decade.

2000 and beyond – Probably Batman’s most consistently entertaining era of stories, with events like No Man’s Land, Hush, Under the Red Hood, and Fugitive. His death and return during a much celebrated run by Grant Morrison, and followed with an even more popular stint by current writer Scott Snyder. While I don’t personally enjoy the JMS years, they are cherished by a section of fandom. One More Day certainly has its detractors, but it led to a more consistently entertaining stretch of comics in Brand New Day, and then the run of sustained excellence by Dan Slott, from Big Time, to Spider-Island, to Superior, and which continues to this day. While I think Slott’s multiple-shipping Amazing and Superior represents the more consistent read over Batman’s multiple books of varying quality, I’m willing to call this a tie for the modern era.


Cranky Editor Man has a point to make here, and it's this one: Spider-Man has been pretty consistently entertaining as the same character for the last 52 years. You've had to overhaul Batman, change his motivations, change his cast, consistently move around his trappings. 60s Batman isn't anywhere near the same guy as modern Batman. Spider-Man is Spider-Man. And that matters. Or comes close to mattering as anything else in this imaginary hall of fame, which still doesn't matter as much as having a beer after work with friends.

Also, including the pre-1960s Batman comics would be unfair, because they would be negative points for Batman.

While I feel like Spider-Man has had the more consistently entertaining books, there’s really no question that Batman easily trumps him in terms of evergreen stories. The Dark Knight Returns alone, is (along with Watchmen) the most celebrated “graphic novel” of all time, and is one of the top books in all of comics most frequently read by the casual fan. The Killing Joke, Death in the Family, and Batman: Year One are not far behind, and that’s before you get to newer classics like Hush and the Court of Owls.

Spider-Man has the benchmark of the Death of Gwen Stacy, often cited as the end of the figurative “Silver Age” of superhero comics, and a turning point in storytelling. Kraven’s Last Hunt, The Master Planner Saga (containing probably the single most famous single moment in all of comics), The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man, and Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut are all standouts, but nothing on the level of Batman’s top books. Spider-Island and No One Dies should someday be included with the greats, but they’re still not even on the level of Snyder’s much more hyped tenure.

EDGE: Batman

Cranky Editor Man thinks sure, but come on, read The Killing Joke again. Really read it. A lot of it is good work that is elevated to great work because Batman is in it and people think "Hey, comics aren't for kids anymore and I can use this to legitimize my hobby!" Except for all the Miller stuff, those are genuinely great.

Short and sweet, while Spider-Man is now one of the most well-known, recognizable, and popular comic book characters ever around the globe, Batman has arguably passed Superman as the single most popular comic book character worldwide.

EDGE: Batman

Cranky Editor Man says, sure, but this comes with DC putting all their eggs into one big bat-shaped basket. Marvel doesn't do that with Spider-Man and he's still the industry's top seller and still in the three most widely known superhero worldwide, and he did it without the benefit of a groundbreaking TV show, cartoon, or even a movie until the 21st century.  But yes, he wins this one, because even Spider-Man quotes him:

Along with Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are the most licensed characters in all of comics. All of them have multiple toy lines, and have been used to sell everything from towels to bicycles.

Batman gets the edge in animation, thanks to the ground-breaking Batman: The Animated Series, and the highly enjoyable Batman: The Brave and the Bold. But Spider-Man is no slouch either, going all the way back to Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, the underrated Spectacular Spider-Man, and the enjoyable all-ages Ultimate Spider-Man. Batman has enjoyed a few gems in the Animated Movie department, starting with the first (and the best) Mask of the Phantasm, continuing through Under The Red Hood, but has suffered from increasingly uninspired and overly violent entries in recent years.

The Arkham Asylum games certainly have a large contingent of fans, but Spider-Man 2 happens to be the single greatest comic book video game of all time. (Maximum Carnage held that title in its day also.)

Television is a landslide, with the ‘60s Batman series as a full-fledged phenomenon at the time, while the less said about the live-action Spider-Man series of the ‘70s, the better.

Batman has eight major motion pictures under his belt, Spider-Man has five. While Batman may boast (begrudgingly by me) the best movie of the bunch in The Dark Knight (as well as my personal favorite in the 1966 version) he also boasts the absolute worst in Batman and Robin. Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises are about as equally as bad, leaving the other four Spider-Man entries as the most consistently entertaining compared to Burton’s nostalgic-ly charming but extremely flawed Bat-movies.

What puts the Spider-Man movies over the Batman movies as a whole for me (and this cannot be chalked up to my Marvel bias, as I legitimately do not enjoy the Raimi movies anymore) is that they are all actually about Spider-Man, and spotlight him as a character. With the exception of Batman Begins, Batman is frequently overwhelmed by the showcase villain(s) of any specific movie, to the point where Batman is almost relegated to supporting character status. At most, he’s the co-lead, and to me, that should be a major discriminating factor when it comes to determining the best overall superhero character. If the public is more interested in the villain than they are the hero, that says something. On the other hand, I initially forgot about the ’66 movie, which kicks all of the other movies in the teeth with its awesomeness, and they are all bat-centric movies regardless, so what do I know.

EDGE: Batman

Cranky Editor Man thinks the Arkham games are way overrated and could be done with any character with any semblance of action-genre trappings. Spider-Man video games are always distinct because Spider-Man's power set is not replicable. Also, Andrew Garfield is the best part of the Spider-Man movies. Can you really say that about any lead actor in any Batman movie? In pretty much all the Spider-Man stuff, the best thing about them is Spider-Man. You can't say that about Batman, really. Having said that, the 1966 Batman movie alone would win this for Batman. Add in the 90s cartoon, and it's a slaughter.

And while we're at it, can I just say, I plugged in Batman Forever a while back after watching Tombstone, and I legitimately do not get the hate for it. Is it overwritten? Yes. Is it campy as all hell? Yes. Is Val Kilmer the best actor to portray both Batman and Bruce Wayne? Yes. Does Nicole Kidman alone make it worth watching? Well, no, but close. See, I'm not a big movie guy, so the whole "Jim Carrey was just playing Jim Carrey" criticism doesn't work with me. His Riddler was entertaining. I don't know what more you can ask for.

With all the previous categories adding up to a complete tie up until this point, we come to the last and ultimately most important category in determining which character is greater, Batman or Spider-Man.

Bruce Wayne, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist. He doesn’t lead any sort of real life beyond making social appearances in an attempt to convince anyone that he’s not secretly Batman. His main story function is to attend parties that will eventually get crashed by some manner of villain or criminal. His dominant identity is as Batman, and even when he’s not Batman, his every action is motivated by his life and goals as Batman. This is highlighted by the fact that his supporting cast consists almost completely of his colleagues and partners as Batman, and that his primary love interests are often criminals themselves. Even his most prominent “civilian” friends, Lucius and Alfred, exist solely to support his role as Batman. Almost every attempt by a writer to give Bruce Wayne more of a focus, is invariably quickly abandoned . There’s no gold to mine in them thar hills.

Peter Parker, on the other hand, is the single greatest secret identity ever created. Instantly relateable and understandable, Peter was very specifically created to more accurately reflect the life of his reader. He famously has troubles with girls, money, jobs, and his family. While his troubles are certainly more heightened and fantastic, those basic concerns are easy for any reader to identify with. Peter Parker just seems like a fully realized person on his own, like he’s one of the guys.

Spider-Man’s real identity was a watershed moment for the medium, adding a level of depth and sophistication never before seen in comics. It not only epitomized everything Stan, Jack, and Steve had been doing up to that point at Marvel, it changed the entire approach to comic book storytelling from that point on. DC characters had to be altered to reflect real lives and real personalities outside of the suit. It was just a byproduct of the eras they were created in. They had secret identities because that was the convention of the genre, and they were mostly used to further the plot of the month. Marvel characters had the advantage of being created with their personalities and lives in place, making the ever-increasing sophistication of comic book storytelling a much smoother transition for them. Peter Parker was the catalyst for that, a true game-changer for the entire genre.

For that, I give the edge, and the title of greatest superhero comic book character ever, to Squirrel Girl. Oops, I mean Spider-Man. Feel free to disagree, but I have math to back me up, and math is never wrong.

Cranky Editor Man realized upon reading this that the entire Superhero Hall of Fame was just an excuse for Ben to say why Spider-Man is better than Batman. Which is good, because it needed to be said. And the part about Spider-Man being a game-changer is absolutely right. Batman is important, culturally and historically, but Spider-Man changed the flow of genre fiction. Shows like Buffy, and so, consequently, shows like Smallville and now Gotham, wouldn't have existed if Peter Parker didn't pave the way. And that matters. 

With that, this brings to an end my ambitious and exhausting quest to create and list the inaugural superhero hall of fame. May the inductees enjoy the honor and pride that comes with such a prestigious designation. Hopefully the four of you actually reading this enjoyed doing so as much as I did putting it together. I look forward to the likely revisions as more and more superhero characters are thrushed into prominence. We live in golden times, my fellow geeks. Enjoy.


Peter said...

Excellent breakdown and read

Jeremy said...

Could have done without editor sticking in to talk about how totally lame Batman was/totally awesome Spider-Man was throughout, tho

Duy Tano said...

Hey hey hey! I said good things about Batman! Even Batman Forever! And, and, and, okay, fine, I hate him.

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