So, recently, GameSpot put out a list of the most important superheroes, ranked. It was a terrible list that included Pootie Tang and Hancock, and I’m not even going to link to it because it was so awful. But it did make me aware that there is a burning need for such a list. So here it is before you. But before we begin….
If you’re going to make a list like this, there’s got to be rules. Rule #1, these are the most important superheroes, not the coolest, the most popular, or the most powerful. To rank on the list, you’ve got to make a lasting and meaningful contribution to the comic book/superhero community. Rule #2. DC and Marvel only. I know there are hugely important superheroes that were produced by indie creators, but the scope of possible entries is so large already that for the sake of expediency, I feel compelled to stick to the mainstream guys. So sorry, no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Captain Everything, Spawn, or Hellboy here. Maybe I’ll do a list of the most important indie superheroes in a different post. Rule #3. This list is for Super Heroes. That means guys who put on a costume and fight crime. So you won’t find supernatural-based characters like Constantine, Dr. Strange, Swamp Thing or The Demon, and you won’t see NPC* types like Lois Lane, Alfred, or Jarvis. It also means heroes. They can be a bit morally ambiguous, but there’s no one on here who occasionally fights for the side of right because they were forced to join the Suicide Squad or because they’re in love with Batman. So, Deadpool and Wolverine make the cut, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Magneto, and Catwoman no. Rule #4. An included hero means all incarnations of that hero. That means a Green Lantern entry includes the entire Green Lantern Corps, a Flash entry includes the Flashes of Earth 1, Earth 2…. Earth-n, and Robin includes every Tim, Dick and Jason you can think of. Finally, Rule #5. Teams. I included a team if I felt their influence as a team ranked them as of top importance. When I included a team, it took up as many places on the list as the team had original team members. To try to include every member that has passed through the ranks of a team, even one like the Fantastic Four, would swamp the list. If I felt a team member had individual importance that ranked, I gave them a separate entry. You’ll also note that I didn’t include the JLA, JSA, the Avengers or the Legion of Super Heroes. I’ll explain why at the end. And yes, #1 on the list WILL shock you (Spoiler Alert: It isn’t Superman). So without further ado….
*Ask your geeky D&D playing friends.
48-50. The Teen Titans (Original Members: Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad)
There was a time long ago when comic books were actually geared towards kids. But very few were actually about kids. The Teen Titans gave kids and teenagers an in to the world of superheroes with three (and shortly thereafter five, and then many more) super powered youngsters who were more than just a “Junior Justice League,” but a group of individuals with their own identities. The 80’s reboot by Marv Wolfman and George Perez was one of the most read and celebrated books of its era, and introduced characters crucial to the DC Universe today, like Cyborg, Beast Boy, Raven, and Starfire, and has inspired spinoffs and an animated series. Best of all, the original members actually grew up and fulfilled their young promise, with Robin becoming Nightwing, Kid Flash becoming the third Flash, Speedy, who joined shortly after the group's first appearance, becoming Arsenal/Red Arrow, and Wonder Girl, who also joined the team at the beginning, transforming into Troia.
47. The Sandman
I’m cheating a little here. Wesley Dodds’ Sandman, a 40’s mystery man with Bruce Wayne-like wealth and a gas gun that put villains to sleep, was an interesting hero, and a member of the original Justice Society. However, his real contribution to comics’ history was inspiring Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, a title related only as tangentially as possible to the original. Gaiman created a rich mythology all his own inside the D.C. Universe with his tales of Morpheus, the essence of Dreams. Besides being one of the classic works of comic literature, Gaiman’s Sandman has inspired the FOX TV show Lucifer and a movie based on his series has been rumored to be in the works for years.
The Scarlet Witch, a reformed evil mutant or an alien experiment, depending on which retcon you ask, has a simple but very important power. She can change reality. Typically, her “Hex Powers” were merely used to create a little bad luck for her enemies. However, when she got pissed enough, with a little power boost, she rewrote the entire universe. (See House of M). The result of which was a brutal but badly needed ethnic cleansing of mutants in the Marvel Universe (They really had gotten into everything). Eventually, the mutants get their abilities back, but this event established Wanda Maximoff as a lady you don’t want to mess around with. Oh, and she also married a nearly indestructible robot, which is its own thing.
45. Ms. Marvel
While Carol Danvers, the original Ms. Marvel and current Captain Marvel in the Marvel Universe is plenty important, the major reason Ms. Marvel is on the list is because of the 4th character to wear this mantle. Kamala Khan. Khan, a Pakistani-American who is one of Marvel’s “Inhumans,” is not only a teenage girl who kicks ass, but is the first Muslim to star in her own comic book. Not bad in today’s ethnically sensitive times.
38-44 The Crimebusters (Original Members: Captain Metropolis, The Comedian, Rorschach, Nite Owl, the Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias)
While those who only saw the movie know them as “The Watchmen,” in fact, the main heroes in Alan Moore’s now classic graphic novel were never really on a team together, meeting only once as “The Crimebusters,” a meeting that went about as badly as possible. However, the characters in Watchmen, based on the Charlton Heroes The Peacemaker, The Question, The Blue Beetle, Nightshade, Captain Atom and Thunderbolt (Captain Metropolis was a minor character Moore invented completely), changed the way the world looked at superheroes, and, along with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Moore’s other groundbreaking work, Swamp Thing, ushered in the era of comics as literature, comics that weren’t just for kids anymore.
Hawkman and Hawkgirl (sometimes Hawkwoman, but usually Hawkgirl), were one of the first, if not the first, married superhero teams. In a universe where most superheroes were either loners or had swooning girfriends who could never truly possess them, married superheroes making it work was a unique idea that paved the way for other married superheroes like the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman, and Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl. The Hawks also possess not one, but two of the most unique origin stories around. In one, they are incarnations of an Egyptian Prince and his true love, doomed to be slain by their mortal enemy and reincarnated over and over again, in another, they are a pair of space cops tracking a super-thief to Earth, where they remain to capture him and end up making it their home.
The Earth is 70 percent water, and without the King of the Seven Seas, that’s leaving a lot of fertile story “ground” on the table. Aquaman, born Arthur Curry, has been around a long time, an original member of the Justice League and one who has been with the league in almost every incarnation. While Aquaman is sometimes mocked as “the guy who talks to fish,” (Thanks “Superfriends”), he is in fact a critical part of the D.C. Universe, and his powers, which include immense strength and toughness, tremendous swimming speed, the ability to breathe underwater and yes, telepathy with sea life, are often vastly underestimated.
34. The Sub Mariner
Without Namor, however, there might be no Aquaman. Namor the Sub-Mariner was one of the first superheroes, fighing alongside Captain America and the original Human Torch during World War II as The Invaders. Aquaman’s powers, origin, and motivations are disturbingly similar to Namor’s, although usually Arthur has a more favorable demeanor. Namor is fiercely territorial and a rival of Reed Richards for the Invisible Woman’s affections, so while he is a good guy at heart, he can be said to be one of the first antiheroes in comics.
33. The Martian Manhunter
So what’s so great about the Martian Manhunter? Well as humble as J’onn J’onzz is, he probably won’t tell you that he has quietly served as a stand in for Superman just about whenever DC has needed one. Until recently replaced by Cyborg (which I don’t understand), the Manhunter was a member of every incarnation of the Justice League of America, which was convenient for times when DC didn’t want Superman used in that book, since MM’s powers are very similar (flight, super strength, invulnerable skin, with shape changing, invisibility, telepathy, and some other goodies throwin into the mix). He’s also appeared in DCs TV Universe in both Smallville and Supergirl, so he must have something good going on, right?
X-men come and go, but Cyclops always seems to keep on trucking. He was the tacit field general of the original X-men, stuck around to lead the massively successful 70s reboot, and he’s still bossing some mutants somewhere around today. While firing concussive bolts from your eyes may not seem like the most impressive power, it’s Scott Summers deep love of his mutant family, thoughtfulness, and abilities as a master strategist that makes him so important to the X-men specifically and the greater Marvel Universe in general.
Storm wasn’t the first black superhero and she wasn’t the first female superhero, but she might have been the first to be both, and she’s certainly one of the most prominent figures in the Marvel Universe. She’s been a goddess, a queen, the leader of the X-men, and she even rocked a Mohawk for awhile. If you can say the Uncanny X-Men took the world by Storm, Ororo Munroe is a big reason why.
Speaking of gods and the weather, you can’t talk about either without mentioning Thor, and his importance to the Marvel Universe. While both DC and Marvel have their full versions of the Greek and Roman pantheon of Gods, Thor seems to be the only truly successful “crossover” artist, serving as both one of the most powerful Avengers and the Norse God of Thunder. Between his ability to connect the old mythology with the new, and being able to be “Marvel’s Superman,” at least with respect to power levels, color scheme, and his place among Earth’s superheroes, he’s certainly well-placed on this list.
29. Green Arrow
The hero originally conceived as “Batman with a Bow” (complete with Arrowcave, Arrowcar, and kid sidekick), quickly became a hero in his own right. In a way, he became almost the antithesis of Batman and Superman, losing his fortune and becoming a “hero of the streets.” While too much of a loner to stick with any team for long, the Battlin Bowman has had memorable team ups with Green Lantern, Batman, his sidekick Speedy, and of course, his lady, the Black Canary. He’s inspired a movie (long discussed but never made), and is the flagship character of DC’s new expanded TV universe.
Another Batman-type character with a unique twist, Daredevil has long been a fan favorite. The ultimate evolution of Stan Lee’s mission to offer readers “heroes with real problems,” Daredevil’s is about as real as can get. He’s blind. AND he lives in a crappy neighborhood. The idea of a disabled superhero was way ahead of its time, excluding the occasional wheelchair-bound Professor, and it’s no accident that just as GA was chosen to lead the DC TV charge, DD was tabbed to spearhead Marvel’s Netflix initiative.
Nightwing began as Dick Grayson, whose parents’ death at the hands of criminals proved strangely reminiscent to one Caped Crusader, who took in the young boy and trained him to fight crime as Robin, the boy wonder. Thus, the idea of the kid sidekick was firmly entrenched in comic book culture. Not only was Dick Grayson the first prominently known kid sidekick, he was also (along with Kid Flash) the first one to become a hero in his own right, giving up the Robin mantle to become Nightwing. Today, generations have passed since Dick was anything but Nightwing, but his growth from kid sidekick to scourge of evildoers has had a significant impact on the comic book universe.
But he had to become Robin first, and he wasn’t the only one. At least half a dozen young ones have worn the yellow cape, each one bringing something new and different to the Batman family. Robin is the granddaddy of all sidekicks, the colorful Yin to Batman’s grim Yang, one of the things that gives the Bat his humanity. Some Robins quit, some die, and some strike out on their own, (and some do all three) but each one is a significant part of comics lore.
25. The Hulk
Is he man or monster? Is how the Hulk was originally introduced, and we still don’t have the answer. Inspired by the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, the Hulk speaks to the rage inside all of us clamoring to get out. It’s no surprise that the Hulk is a fan favorite, especially among kids. Who among us doesn’t yearn to plow forth with a good “HULK SMASH!” when the world comes down too hard? The Hulk is a complicated hero, sometimes a gentle giant, sometimes a case of unfettered Id gone berserk. He’s inspired two movies and a classic TV show, and there’s no doubt the comic landscape wouldn’t be the same without the not-so-Jolly Green Giant.
24. Hank Pym
Poor Hank Pym. Things never seem to work out for the most talented, or at least the most dangerous, inventor in the Marvel Universe. Sure, the Pym Particles he created made Ant Man and the Wasp possible, not to mention Yellowjacket, Goliath and Giant-Man. But then again, he also created Ultron. He’s gone from founding Avenger to domestic abuser to duped criminal until hopefully redeemed as a mentor to younger heroes, the role he plays in the latest Ant-Man movie. With all of that history under his belt, it shouldn’t be any wonder why he’s on this list.
23. The Wasp
There wouldn’t be any Wasp without Hank, but there would still be a Janet Van Dyne. Never a mere piece of arm candy, even as Ant-Man’s “sidekick” she could do more, flying and generating “wasp stings” as part of her repertoire. She’s one of the first superheroes to authentically embrace both her feminine side and her powerful crime fighting side. She loves to shop and hates to wear the same superhero outfit twice, an idea that had never been put forth before but when you thought about it, of course! How many women want to wear the exact same outfit out every day? But once that outfit was on, criminals beware! Even during the “abuse” storyline, Janet refused to be a victim, and remains a shining example of a strong, independent female superhero to comics fans everywhere.
22. Iron Man
Tony Stark would never forgive me if I left him off this list. If Hank Pym isn’t the greatest inventor in the Marvel Universe, it’s this guy. After all, he built the device that saved his own life out of spare parts while he was dying. And then, of course, there’s all those bad ass Iron Man armors he’s made. Iron Man introduced us to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has headed SHIELD, and is a key figure in the Universe-changing event Marvel’s Civil War (now a movie itself). Tony would be the first to tell you he’s Batman and Superman rolled into one, which is partly true and partly his tremendous ego. Tony’s also very human. Besides that ego I just mentioned, Tony’s had to deal with alcoholism and the loss of his company, not to mention his best friend, his girlfriend, and even his armor at various times. It’s hard to imagine a comic book universe without an Iron Man.
21. Green Lantern
The Green Lantern, and by extension, the Green Lantern Corps, expanded the DC Universe dramatically. When Hal Jordan received his power ring from Abin Sur and learned of the Guardians of the Universe and their intergalactic police force whose primary weapons were rings that chanelled their own will, we learned that we were no longer alone in the DC Universe. More than just the occasional Kryptonian or Martian, there were whole sectors of space to be explored, and a serious conflict for Mr. Jordan, forced to divide his time between defending his home planet and protecting the larger chunk of space it belonged to.
20. Captain America
Captain America predates the modern incarnation of Marvel Comics, but ever since Avengers #4, when he was thawed out of the Arctic ice, he has been as identified with Marvel as Superman or Batman has with DC. Like Iron Man, Cap combines a lot of what is interesting about Superman and Batman. He’s a stalwart defender of truth, justice and the Red, White, and Blue, but he doesn’t have the benefit of tank-lifitng strength or skin that’s impervious to bullets. He’s NOT a guy with no powers, however. The Super-Soldier serum flowing through his system is some serious stuff, so serious that pretty much the primary focus of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was guys trying to recreate it. Not to mention that shield of his does a pretty good impression of Superman’s skin when it comes to dealing with projectiles. Cap’s had his own (terrible) TV Movie, an animated series, and some of the best movies the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had to offer. Few can beat his significance to the comics world.
Unlike in real life, death is not a final destination in comics, but a pit stop. To give you an idea of how impermanent it is, here’s a partial list of superheroes who have died and come back:
Batman AND Robin, Captain America AND Bucky, Superman, Supergirl, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Spider-Man. And plenty more.
A year or two ago, Deadpool probably wouldn’t have been on this list at all. But Wade Wilson, you’re one bad boy that made good. Originally a Deathstroke knockoff that appeared as a villain in the pages of the New Mutants, Deadpool has evolved into something that has changed the world of comic books and superheroes entirely. He’s not the first mainstream comic book character to break the fourth wall. Ambush Bug did it and so did Animal Man (when Grant Morrison dragged him kicking and screaming through it). But he’s the first one to do it so successfully. Deadpool sees the absurdity of the whole comic book universe, and he lets us all in on the joke, kicking a whole holy hell of a lot of ass as he does so. You don’t have to “get” Deadpool and you don’t have to know where he fits into comics continuity. You just have to hold on tight and let him take you along for the ride.
17. Black Panther
It might have been enough that the Black Panther, was the first mainstream superhero to “break the color barrier,” But T’Challa of Wakanda is so much more than that. He was a character of dignity and poise, when, in a time of great civil unrest in America, they could easily have made him some kind of caricature, a backwards savage or jive-talking street tough. Besides the convention of putting the word “Black” in the name of a black superhero, like we wouldn’t notice if they didn’t do that (e.g. Black Lightning, Black Manta, Black Racer), T’Challa’s being African was simply an aspect of his culture, and he was a great example of it, a highly skilled athlete, a genius, and King of a nation that, far from being third-world, was technologically advanced and wealthy due to its stock of Vibranium, a rare and precious metal in the Marvel Universe. It seems the Black Panther is about to experience a bit of a renaissance in both the comics and film, and it is well deserved.
16. Wonder Woman
There may have been a few female superheroes that appeared before Wonder Woman, but none as inspirational, especially to young girls who had few role models in the comic book world. There are now some great female superheroes in mainstream comics, but Wonder Woman led the way. This quote from Princess Diana’s creator, William Moulton Marston, says it all: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Okay, you’re gonna want to gloss over that “submissive” part, but this was pretty progressive for 1943. Oh, fun fact, the inspiration for that Golden Lasso of Truth? Marston also was the inventor of the polygraph machine.
What? Batman doesn’t crack the top ten, you cry? I feel your pain. Again, this list is about importance, and while Batman is certainly a mainstay of the comics universe and a popular favorite of many, including myself, his shtick had been done before, with “Mystery Men” like The Shadow, The Phantom, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Zorro. Of course, nobody does it better than Bruce Wayne, and his influence on the comics universe unquestionably reaches far and wide, so he’s certainly entitled to a top 15 spot.
What makes Wolverine so wildly popular? He’s the classic antihero, a good guy but one who plays by his own rules. When he was introduced back in the ‘70s, the idea of the antihero wasn’t nearly as ingrained in the national consciousness as it is today. Most heroes were your standard Law and Order types, so when Wolverine came along, it changed everything. He was perfect for the new X-men, a group of misfits who didn’t quite fit anyone’s mold of what a super team should be, and even though Logan’s a loner at heart, he loves his mutant family. Most of them. Most of the time. Wolverine is one of a kind, and just barely misses the top ten.
10-13. The Fantastic Four (Original Members: Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Girl, the Thing, the Human Torch)
If you want to blame anyone for pushing Batman, Wolverine or Wonder Woman out of the final spots. Blame Stan Lee and his Fantastic Four. Charged with creating a team of superheroes to rival the JLA (The heroes who would become the Avengers were not yet in existence), Stan and Jack Kirby created the FF, a group of some of the most unusual super heroes the world had ever seen, who were not only a team, but a family. The Fantastic Four ushered in the Marvel Age of superheroes, and even though they haven’t yet quite been able to translate successfully to the big screen, their importance is undiminished. Iconic characters such as Dr. Doom, Galactus, and the Silver Surfer were all introduced in the pages of the Fantastic Four, and they were the foundation on which all Marvel super heroes and super teams were built.
4-9. The X-Men (Original Members: Professor X, Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, Marvel Girl)
One wonders if the Fantastic Four wasn’t a trial run for an even more unusual band of superheroes, the X-Men. It’s in these pages that Stan Lee conceived of the idea of mutants, not as shambling, radioactive monsters, but as superheroes who were just born that way. While this idea was ahead of its time, the comic world caught up, and when Len Wein reimagined the X-Men in the ‘70s as a group of ethnically diverse outcasts (An African, Russian, Native American, Japanese, Irishman, German and Canadian joined the team, replacing all but Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Professor X), the world began to take notice. When the X-Men finally caught on, they became wildly popular, and mutant persecution as a metaphor for real world bigotry created a meaningful connection for readers, especially minority ones. The X-Men ushered in the modern era of superhero blockbuster movies, have had animated series’ and numerous spinoffs, and we probably wouldn’t have a lot of the characters on this list without them.
You didn’t think you’d get to the end of this list without seeing your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, did you? Spider-Man is one of the most recognizable figures in comics, starring in multiple animated series’, a children’s television show, a live action TV show, a Broadway play, and five movies and counting. And it all started with a little radioactive spider. What made Spider-Man special when he first appeared is that he was a kid with real problems, just like the kids reading about him. He dealt with bullies, unrequited love, the loss of a parental figure, and the challenges of saving the world and still not being late for work or school. He taught us all (via Uncle Ben) that “with Great Power, there must also come Great Responsibility.” He was also a lot more fun than most of the superheroes at the time, a wisecracking prankster who actually seemed to enjoy swinging around the city humiliating bad guys. Spider-Man was a guy you could relate to, which is why he’s the top Marvel hero on this list.
Yes, Superman doesn’t quite top the list, but it’s close. He’s the granddaddy of them all, the hero from which all other heroes sprang forth. There were costumed adventurers before Superman, but the idea of a costumed hero with special abilities beyond those of mortal men, it took Siegel and Shuster to introduce that concept to the comics world. Superman is THE quintessential superhero. He’s got the look,he’s got the powers, and he was the first. He’d be number one on this list if not for…
Shocked, right? I told you. (If you’re not, it’s only because you used process of elimination, or looked ahead). The explanation is in the picture above. In that comic, “Flash of Two Worlds,” written by Gardner Fox, DC introduced the idea of the multiverse. Different earths occupying the same physical space in different dimensions. Flash crossed the dimensional barrier, allowing him to visit his counterpart from Earth-2, the Flash of the ‘40s and ‘50s. The multiverse enabled conflicting stories to exist within the same continuity, with the explanation that they simply took place in alternate universes. It’s an idea that Marvel co-opted, and both companies use frequently to keep continuity straight today. In fact, a recent TV crossover between the CW’s Flash and CBS’ Supergirl used the multiverse theory to explain why these heroes can’t run into each other more often. DC didn’t invent the multiverse, it’s based on a concept in quantum physics, but, with the Flash’s help, they did make it an invaluable tool in comic book continuity.
The Flash is also the central character in virtually every major reboot DC has done in the past 30 years (check out Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour, Flashpoint), usually in the form of dying to save the universe (or the multiverse). He’s connected to the Speed Force, a godlike energy that seems to bind the multiverse together. He’s also Sheldon Cooper’s favorite superhero on The Big Bang Theory.
So that’s my list. Oh. And as far as the JLA, JSA and Avengers, I just felt that these characters were more important as individuals, and the idea of lumping all the best characters together in one team wasn’t that groundbreaking. Regarding the Legion of Superheroes, I love you Jim Shooter, but it’s a LEGION, for god’s sake, and I only had 50 spots. Maybe they’ll appear in a future list. (Future. Get it? Cause they’re from the…oh, never mind).
Happy to hear people’s questions, opinions, and irate rage at my leaving out/misranking X Y and/or Z, in the comments.