Like jazz, comic books and more specifically the superhero is a wholly American art form. Also, like jazz, it is an art form that has been underappreciated. As a result of the popularity of superhero films like the Dark Knight, Iron Man and the X-Men, superheroes have begun to enter into the awareness of the general public. The following is a list of the best superheroes that comic books have to offer. The list is designed to provide a starting point for the new reader. I have focused on the essential elements of the characters that I believe make them significant or interesting. I tried to distinguish between good characters and a good story or a good run of issues when I could but in some cases characters have been so significantly defined by a series or an issue that they made the list. Enough with the preamble, here we go:
25. Spectre (Jim Corrigan): The avenging hand of God. Really that’s what he is and the Spectre isn’t above (in fact he seems to relish in) dishing out justice Old Testament style. If the Spectre has decided that you need to be punished consider yourself lucky if he just takes an eye for an eye. Even the heroes get a little nervous when the Spectre shows up.
24: Kid Eternity: Kid Eternity makes the list because he’s a cool concept with an awesome power and heck he can even be educational. Kid Eternity was accidentally killed and to make up for the heavenly goof he was given an additional 75 years of life with the bonus ability to summon any historical figure or mythological being or creature to aid in his assigned mission to do good.
23. Green Arrow: For the first twenty plus years of his creation Oliver Queen was simply a second class version of Batman. He was a millionaire; he had an Arrow-Car; an Arrow-Plane, an Arrow-Cave and a teen-aged side-kick. In the late 1960’s, however, Green Arrow lost his fortune and became the voice of the disenfranchised as the resident gadfly of the Justice League of America.
22. Black Bolt: One of the strongest beings in the Marvel Universe and yet he never uses his true power for fear of the destruction it would unleash. The merest whisper from Black Bolt could level a mountain so the ruler of the Inhumans has imposed upon himself a moratorium on speaking. Black Bolt still gets angry. The reader knows that there are times that he wants to yell but he doesn’t. The self-control that it takes for Black Bolt to remain silent only makes him seem more noble
21. The Thing: Marvel Comics has a thing (pun intended) for monsters. There’s the Hulk, the Beast, Nightcrawler, Sasquatch, the Gargoyle and many more but the first was Benjamin J. Grim. Where cosmic rays granted the rest of the Fantastic Four powers without altering their physical appearance Ben Grim was turned into an appropriately named “Thing”. Johnny Storm and the rest of the FF became media darlings while the Thing took to hiding his appearance under trench coats. It wasn’t fair and Ben has often sunk into self-pity regarding his appearance, which has made the portrayal of the Thing often poignant.
20. The Chief:Apparently if you are wheelchair bound it is incumbent upon you to organize a group of super-freaks. At the same time that Professor Xavier was forming his X-men over at Marvel Comics Dr. Niles Caulder was forming his Doom Patrol at DC Comics. Along with Robot-Man, Negative Man and Elasti-Girl, the Chief was part of comics’ most dysfunctional super group. The Chief, however, makes this list ahead of Professor X because the Chief has a more complex personality and quite possibly may be evil.
19. Dr. Strange:As Earth’s sorcerer supreme Dr. Stephen Strange has fought off a multitude of mystical and otherworldly menaces such as Dormammu and Nightmare that other heroes don’t even know exist. As a member of the Defenders (along with the Hulk, Namor and the Silver Surfer) he formed arguably the most powerful super-team in the Marvel Universe and as a member of the Illuminati (with Reed Richards, Black Bolt, Tony Stark, Namor and Professor X) he has manipulated many events behind the scenes in the Marvel Universe.
18. The Atom (Ray Palmer): Running neck and neck with Aquaman for worst personal life would be the Atom. He came home to find his wife, Jean Loring, cheating on him. He got divorced. He then discovered a civilization of miniature aliens in the Amazon jungle where he fell in love again and became their champion. This civilization was subsequently destroyed. Years later Jean Loring went mad and killed his good friend, the Elongated Man’s, wife. Ray then attempted to isolate himself once again and gave his size-changing equipment to Ryan Choi who became the new Atom. Choi was killed later by Deathstroke.While he has often been a reluctant hero DC’s resident scientist in the right situation can be a powerful ally.
17. Iron Man: Like Hourman (see #48) Iron Man is a superhero that is realistically feasible. He’s also a character that suffers from real life vices. Tony Stark was designed not to be liked. He was a billionaire military arms designer/dealer created during the height of the cold war and the beginning of the Vietnam War. He’s suffered from alcohol abuse. He wasted almost no time in making a move on the Wasp after her break up with her husband, Hank Pym. He even started a Civil War amongst the Marvel Superheroes. Through it all, however, he has remained an integral part of Marvel’s premiere superteam, the Avengers.
16. Silver Surfer: Norrin Radd is probably the noblest hero. He sacrificed himself to become the herald of Galactus in order to save his homeworld of Zen-La. Then he sacrificed himself by defying Galactus in order to save the planet Earth. The Silver Surfer doesn’t even really like people and yet he risked his life to save the Planet. What a good guy.
15. Plastic Man: Back when superheroes were new and there were no rules demanding that they all be grim and angst ridden sometimes they could be fun. While Plastic Man has never quite fit in the modern age of comics his comedic surreal early adventures have made him a favorite of creators and will probably ensure that he will never completely go away.