Over the last couple of days as i knocked out one final exam after another, i spent my recently freed-up time visiting lots of other blogs and media sites and enjoying what other people had to say about the same sorts of stuff that pique my interest.
One of those things is, of course, comic books. And i noticed something a lot of places have in common - lists of favorites. Marvel characters, DC characters, comic book characters, and so forth.
That got me thinking how i would answer those questions, and my mind settled on crafting my list of favorite heroes. Here's what i came up with - my favorites of the 'good guys' who star in their own titles and more-or-less stand for what is right, and pure, and true.
#10 - Oracle
The first thing to note here is the distinction between the Oracle persona and Babs' other vigilante nom de guerre Batgirl. i don't know a whole lot about her career as a Chiropteran themed crime-fighter. Around the time when The Joker put the kibosh on that venture i was pretty much a Marvel Zombie - the colloquial term for fans, not the eponymous book - so i wasn't aware of whatever she was doing at the time. Giving an assist to the Suicide Squad from what i understand.
When i got into DC books in the late 90s, through Grant Morrison's phenomenal run on JLA, i was introduced to an unknown entity represented by a symbol that appeared on computer screens. With seemingly limitless knowledge of people and world events, this entity provided the pantheon of heroes with critical information. For a while i just assumed "Oracle" was the name of the Watchtower computer system.
When i discovered there was someone on the other side of the screen, it was definitely one of those no *expletive* moments. As far as i knew at the time, her fate had pretty much been sealed by the Clown Prince of Crime about a decade earlier.
As many critics have pointed out over time, my first reaction was skepticism over Babs' handicap. She existed in a world where people regularly come back from the dead or at least recover from crippling injuries in relatively short order. But if you ask me, this event wasn't the the end of a career. It was the inciting incident that sparked the beginning of one.
The debate over whether or not Ms. Gordon ought to remain confined to a wheelchair or not in lieu of the fantastic universe she lives in has gone on for years. People on both sides of the field weigh in with convincing reasons for and against it. Arguably the character's biggest fan, blogger Jill Pantozzi wrote a heartfelt op-ed on the topic for Newsarama last year when DC announced plans undo the character's paralysis.
For my taste, i'm in the camp that believes she ought to retain the physicality she's had for the past...geez it's been like 20 years already. i certainly don't want to cast judgement her evolution in the comics - i haven't even read them if i'm honest. But for my taste, Barbara Gordon's Oracle persona made her into one of the most intriguing, well-rounded, and believable heroes.
Oracle is the result of the most human of qualities that we all identify with - the ability to endure. She came out of a place of pain and sadness and decided she wasn't going to let that stop her. Instead, she tapped into a deep well of strength and moved forward, all the better for it. i can almost picture her struggling through the recovery process, sitting up alone late one night within a small cone of lamp light. Too exhausted in the doldrums to look out at Gotham City and lament the days she prowled her streets, in her desperation making a list of pros and cons. Soul-searching to find some meaning in all of it.
Pros: Genius-level intellect. Photographic memory. Vast knowledge of computers and electronics. Hacker. Martial arts discipline.
Cons: Can't move legs.
The power in the concept of the Oracle character springs from the real-world practicality of it all. Around the time of her debut, the Information Age took a quantum leap forward when the World Wide Web emerged, and here is a character that tapped directly into that. She used her smarts and the resources available and dollars-to-doughnuts did more good for the world from her Clocktower than she did from the Batcave. What better way to tap into the escapist power trip fantasy of comic books than a character who is essentially a nerd with a computer that Superman has on speed dial? And on top of that - no costume! That definitely speaks to me, as someone whose grown-up perspective on comic books often results in not grasping the leap from "i've got extraordinary power!" to "i should make a colorful costume and go out at night to fight crime."
Pure indulgence. That's the top reason Scott Free makes my list. When Jack Kirby went to DC Comics in the early 70s, he basically got to create his own universe. The Fourth World consisted of three titles - The New Gods, The Forever People, and Mister Miracle.
There's no disputing the King's influence on comics. If you've ever read comics, you'd have to go out of your way to avoid characters he helped create or at least see the influence of his work. Frankly, i am surprised that only two of his creations wound up on this list. After thinking about it though, i guess i cut my teeth in comics during the period past his heyday.
Anyway, yeah...Mister Miracle. This character just screams I'm a comic book character! to me. And everything awesome about him is right there on the cover to issue #1 from April, 1971.
The first thing that catches my eye is that costume. It's outrageous, garish, obnoxious - absolutely terrible. And i love it! One of the core concepts of the character is Mister Miracle's origins as a stage performer, and the colorful costume is basically his stage duds. The guy on the cover here is actually the second Mister Miracle, Scott Free. After the leaders of some cosmic deities exchanged infant sons in a truce, Scott grew up on the evil dudes' planet Apokolips at a 'Terror Orphanage.' But he escapes all that and comes to earth, where he naturally apprentices to carnival escapist Thaddeus Brown, and also incites a galactic war. But then someone killed him and Scott took up the mantle.
After soaking in that image, your eyes float up to the big bold title. Mister Miracle...what does that mean? Turns out to be pretty multi-dimensional. One of the New Gods using their skills and powers on humankind's behalf? i'd say that qualifies as divine intervention. A guy that can cheat death, defy man, and not be bound by any trap, a SUPER escape artist - all extremely outstanding or unusual events or accomplishments.
One of the things i enjoy most about Mister Miracle's adventures is that he adventuring partner was his wife - Big Barda. She is a warrior woman whose personality was based on Kirby's own wife Roz. In contrast to Scott's light-heartedness, humor, and brains-over-brawn approach, Barda is tough, brazen, and serious. The role-reversal works for the duo, and resonates with me because i'm the nerd in the comic book store buying Vs. cards while my girlfriend is chasing down thieves in the parking lot and jump-kicking them off her absconded bicycle.
It stands to reason that if my favorite comic book story stars this character, there's place for him in the top ten. Dream is one of seven beings called the Endless that each personify powerful universal concepts. The embodiment of all dreams and stories, Dream is certainly appealing from a writer's perspective.
Tales of his adventures are epic dramas of tragedy and comedy. Loss and heartbreak set against peril to the fabric of existence one moment, and musings from a curmudgeonly pumpkin-headed janitor the next.
While i had certainly heard of the character before, and seen issues of The Sandman on the comic book racks, the first story i ever read was the one mentioned above. At the time it was written, i was in high school and going through the familiar rebellious phase (i don't think it ever truly ended). Initially, the artwork by Marc Hempel drew me in. It's so colorful and quirky, and different from the morose stuff i'd seen on countless Sandman t-shirts peeking out from under black leather trenchcoats.
The thing that kept me counting down the Wednesdays until the next issue was the story-telling. i'm sure i don't need to explain how terrific Neil Gaiman's skill is. What i enjoy most about his work on this book are the nods and references to countless pieces of classic literature and mythology. i'm no expert, so i'm sure many of them go unnoticed by me. At the same time, i've closed out a few Jeopardy! categories on mythology and literature from the couch, so i'm not sweating it.
My experience with this book re-ignited my interest in comics at the time, which comes and goes for me in cycles. Not since the Infinity Gauntlet saga had i really collected a story arc religiously as it was being published, and this book whet my rebellious, intellectual, sometimes-angsty whistle a whole helluva lot more than a superhero slugfest on a floating-in-outer-space temple of death.
Since that time, of course i've gone back and read earlier tales of Morpheus and whattya know - they're great too! If i take a step back though, what most impresses me is how the author really uses the character as a stand-in for himself. At least, it seems like it to me. i don't know him personally by any stretch. But the character definitely gives me the sense that Gaiman is using it to explore questions and thoughts he's had himself. It's just set in a fantasy environment. To me, that's the best kind of writing - exploration of human nature in a construct where anything is possible. It really drives home the point that we all share common ground.
Despite, or perhaps because the character is the immortal embodiment of all that is not reality, he's really just a moody, romantic, kinda self-absorbed guy who sometimes feels burdened by the responsibilities he's been shouldered with. But damn if anyone is going to threaten his position - all of a sudden he's fiercely protective of his niche.
And i like his raven companion Matthew too.
"Hey - I thought you said Top Ten Heroes. Magneto is a villain!"
Depends on your perspective. And in mine, i never considered the Master of Magnetism a bad guy. Always cast as the violent counterpart to Professor X, Mags has been a foe of his X-Men since the very beginning. With a story that springs directly out of the civil rights movement of the 60s, the tale of mutant oppression focuses on a dichotamous choice between peaceful co-existence and evolutionary dominance.
Now i know, Magneto has many times in the past inflicted terrible harm upon humanity, caused death and untold destruction, and personal pain. But i ask you - can you really blame him?
While i'm not endorsing his deeds by any means, what i always come back to is a teensy little point embedded in the core of the character, something that i bet even Charles Xavier knows too - he's right.
Mutants are a step up on the evolutionary chain. Dubbed homo sapiens superior, their genetic mutations manifest as extraordinary powers (in Mags case utter control over the forces of magnetism). This mutation is significant enough to warrant acknowledgment as a species removed from that of all other humans on earth, the homo sapiens. Because of fears about their power and the possibility of mutation in anyone, humans in the comics have tried more than once to put an end to the mutant race.
Inject into this scenario a man who survived the Holocaust and finds out he wields enormous power as a member of a new species, and how do you expect him to react when a government decides to marginalize him and/or eliminate his species altogether?
i was actually going to make a point how the opposition he faces from the X-Men only really works in the comics because of the code against killing that heroes typically follow. Then i think about the Punisher, who's "super-power" is basically a willingness to gun down criminals, and how the other heroes have continued to let him operate all these years. And these days, without the Comics Code Authority and a shift in audience perspective that some grey area is okay to explore in regards to the occasional offing of a bad guy, even that argument doesn't hold much water.
Maybe it's just because he's so darn powerful, it's all the heroes can do without just leveling with the guy.
"Look, dude," some hero says. "You're right. Mutants are genetically superior, and you're the most powerful of them. You could tilt the planet off its axis if you wanted. We get it. But we can't just roll over for you. Can't you be content knowing you're at the top of the food chain? The rest of us will cotton to it eventually."
That's the other thing i like about Magneto too - his power. Back when he was created, he was pretty much a gimmicky villain to oppose the X-Men. He's called Magneto! And he can fling metal stuff at you! It probably didn't cross Stan and Jack's mind that he could potentially manipulate the Van Allen Radiation Belt and that sort of thing. But they did make point out that he's "Earth's most powerful super villain" right there on the cover to X-Men #1 from 1963.
So many classic comic characters are like that, with powers that they couldn't possibly have fully comprehended at the time because science hadn't figured it out yet. Here we are years later, looking back at oddballs that manipulate light, gravity, kinetic energy, and so on. Why are they wearing costumes and punching each other?
Here's a book that i'm so happy i judged by its cover. By the time i got into it in 2000, the end of the 81-issue run by James Robinson wasn't too far away. So not only did i experience the joy of discovering a great character from a talented writer and artist team along with Tony Harris, i got to sink my teeth into a back-issue collecting adventure like i talked about a few weeks ago.
What's not to like about Jack Knight? He's a rebellious guy more interested in classic Count Basie records and forgotten bric-a-brac than fighting the never-ending battle between good and evil. Thankfully, his older David took up the Starman mantle from their Golden Age dad. But when David is murdered by one of their dad's old nemeses, Jack takes up the cause. He only does so on one condition though - that his dad shares his scientific genius with the world to make it better, instead of to make nifty star-themed gadgets to fight bad guys with.
The other thing i dig - the digs. No costume! Jack can go directly from the jazz club to an outer space adventure without stopping by the phone booth to get in character. He does wear my absolute favorite accessory though. Goggles, the anti-flare sort, to protect his eyes from the brilliant light of his cosmic staff. Later in his career, he pinned a sheriff's star on his leather jacket and made a really cool star-logo on the back.
By the time this impressive yarn penned by James Robinson wraps up with a showdown between Jack and all of his foes, it's not the epic battles that stand out in your memory. It's the times in between. The peace times, when friends are made and you can laugh about the hardships you face because at the end of the day, you're just another person trying to get by and have a nice, quiet life. Find someone you love. Start a family. Maybe open up that store you always wanted, in a new city.
i like the way my friend Dan put it when we were talking about our favorite heroes.
"Madman has my vote for general good timey-ness."
i'm not even sure how to begin to describe this character in a way you can relate to. If the adventures of a resurrected car accident victim named for the intellectual and artistic heroes of a scientist whose experiments on his own brain transform him into a cosmic consciousness sound like your cup of tea, you're in for a treat.
Madman generally has a good heart, and doesn't like to see bad stuff happen to people. Or aliens. Or robots. Maybe mutant beatniks though.
What the character most enjoys is time spent with his girlfriend Josephine, in the books more commonly Joe.
Madman won me over with with lively story-telling, smart and hip writing, and truly remarkable art work all done by Mike Allred. If you want to understand the power of a few simple lines, look no further.
For my money, his best work is Red Rocket 7, a comic book limited series of (you guessed it) seven issues. In a nutshell, it's the story of alien clones saving the universe through rock n' roll. The reason i mention it is because of this gem from the series, a collage of music's greats. Far from photorealism, it nevertheless portrays unmistakable likenesses that are immediately evident. Here, take a look.
Say what you will, i'm a firm believer that every comics fan can fit and should fit Supes on their list of favorites. At the very least, runner-up with a convincing argument for the ones that beat him out. i mean, come on. It's freakin' Superman.
He's been voted the greatest comic book character of all time for good reason. That's right, because he can wear his undies on the outside and still look totally manly and confident.
In all seriousness, this Cleveland-born character is demonstratively the greatest comic creation of all time. Just a few months from now in April is Clark Kent's 75th birthday. How has this cultural icon remained relevant and popular for all those years? That's easy - simplicity.
Superman is an alien trapped on earth who uses his great power to always do what's right and good no matter what. People look up to Superman in both the comics and in real life. Now that's some powerful influence. He represents the best of everything in humanity, yet he is not human. He's a hero because he believes in us.
When you're the hero that other superheroes look up to, you know you're doing something right.
Now i could likely write an omnibus myself about why Superman deserves the #1 spot on any list. But i made the decision that if i went that route, all the other choices would feel skewed. Instead, i stared out the window at downtown Cleveland's little cluster of skyscrapers and daydreamed about the days of comics past.
Which stories do i remember reading and getting excited about? As it turns out, Kal-El popped up in every comic book phase i can think of.
In the early to mid-80s Superman battled Lex Luthor in his funky green-and-purple warsuit a lot. Those were fun. In the 90s Superman died and i was deep into that story. During the early part of this century, Metropolis truly became the City of Tomorrow after Brainiac embedded itself into the infrastructure. Luthor became POTUS. Grant Morrison's (him again) All Star Superman. Yeah, there's quite a few stand-out Superman stories in these memory banks.
If i wasn't a fan of motorcycles before, running into a house the first time i tried piloting one of the infernal things didn't make one of me. And i'm generally not that much into horror stuff with the exception of H.P. Lovecraft and Evil Dead. But for some reason this flaming skull headed demon biker chained up some part of my imagination early on and threw away the key. For some odd reason, it has something to do with this issue from 1981 'Evil is the Enforcer.' The art by Bill Sienkiewicz might have had something to do with it. i couldn't tell you what the issue was about, and it seems no one else can either. After searching around for more time than it should take to find something on the Internet, i came up with nothin'. But i always remember this cover.
About a decade later, during a routine Friday evening bike ride to Comics and Collectibles, down the forgotten corridor of the Shoregate Shopping Center, i spotted the Spirit of Vengeance again. At the back of the issue was a subscription order form. That would be the only time in my life i bought a subscription for a comic book. And since i typically waited until Friday for the $10 we got for setting up bingo tables after school, receiving my copy of Ghost Rider in the mail on Wednesday when it actually came out was a big deal for me. The subscription lasted until shortly after the Midnight Sons cross-over story arc, and then i went off to college and had no money for comic books for a while. But i took all my Morbius and Ghost Rider books with me.
Believe me, i was surprised that ol' flaming skull head wound up so high on this list. He's quite unlike most of the others here. What i like most about this character is that, while his conflicts usually revolve around the struggles of supernatural forces like demons, witches, black magicians and the like, he still takes the time out to put the screws to everyday, run-of-the-mill scumbags. When you're a tireless engine of vengeance, you can spare those few moments to run down a murderous trucker, a filthy rapist, or violent mugger and look them in the eye...and make them relive all the pain they inflicted on others with a Penance Stare.
One last thing - while i don't condone the sequel, which was just an awful mess, the first Ghost Rider movie with Nicolas Cage was pretty cool. The story was dumb, and if i were the casting director Peter Fonda wouldn't be the first name that comes to mind for the role of Mephisto, but i enjoyed Cage's performance. He brought that nuttiness to the role that someone like Johnny Blaze needs. You can only watch your own face melt off so many times before you get a little wonky.
Just yesterday, while reading another Top Ten list over at Longbox Graveyard, i came across this nugget of description that gave me a true laugh out loud moment.
"Sure, Daredevil is really just Spider-Man with his eyes closed," wrote the blog's author Paul O'Connor.
They both use their radiation-caused superpowers to acrobatically swing around New York City and foil nefarious plots while struggling to keep their civilian lives together.
But i started reading DD during the legendary Frank Miller run of the early 80s, and that made all the difference. People fought to the death. The hero got beat up. For crying out loud the first page of one issue opened with ol' Hornhead tied up inside a sewer pipe to drown (he got out).
Possibly the coolest thing about Daredevil is how his superpower, his vulnerability, and his secret identity are all three the same thing - his blindness. If people never suspect the 6'3", 225 bespectacled Clark Kent could possibly be the 6'3", 225 Superman, who's gonna think a blind lawyer is a ninja master vigilante?
Daredevil for the most part has always stuck to street-level crime. Through the lens of innocence, the childhood me really didn't grasp that there are people in real life who perpetrate the kinds of crimes DD fought to stop. That was just his rogue's gallery, like Spider-Man and the Sinister Six. Now that i'm older and wiser, or just watch the news enough to know that you don't have to have mechanical stilt-legs to hurt innocent people with your criminal activity, i appreciate Matt Murdock even more as a hero. He's never really been one to jump into the action during big crossover events, or find himself on other worlds or in myriad dimensions. He's a Brooklyn kid who wants to keep his neighborhood, his little slice of the universe, safe.
My favorite run on the character is without a doubt the Bendis/Maleev years, starting with issue #26 in December, 2001. During this time, Matt Murdock faced some of his greatest challenges and they weren't just nocturnal rooftop battles against various assassins. But there were some of those too. It brought to the table a sensibility of what might really happen if someone took the law into their own hands and starting dispensing vigilante justice. Lawyers and the media became the bigger threat, powerhouses that you can't beat with your fists.
Well, maybe a little.
But only if you're a blind ninja master with super senses.
Sometimes, if i squeeze my eyes shut real tight, i can almost block out the memory of Daredevil's appearances on the big and little screens.
The superhero with the best superpower of all - money. Billionaire Bruce Wayne, his parents gunned down in cold blood before his 8-year-old eyes, makes a vow to avenge their deaths and do everything he can to prevent tragedies like his own.
But 'Bruce Wayne' is just a mask he wears, the costume of that little boy who may as well have died in Crime Alley with his parents. One of his most enduring catchphrases sounds more like he's convincing or reinforcing himself than telling anyone else.
No other comic book superhero represents the distilled concept of the power of humankind to persevere against any odds than the Caped Crusader. The inciting incident alone is a tragedy that overcoming is triumph enough in real life, and that's just where he gets started.
In his nearly 74 year crime-fighting career, Bats has taken on any and all comers, including his colleagues in the capes-and-tights community on more than one occasion. He's been campy, groovy, brooding, sociopathic, and just about every other incarnation possible through a fractured psyche.
A few years ago, Grant Morrison (how many times is he going to creep in here?) posited that Batman's arch-nemesis The Joker is not insane, but in fact super-sane. That got me thinking, maybe Batman is super-insane. He's certainly violates societal norms himself, with abnormal patters of behavior and thought. But at the end of the day, he's the most resolute and determined hero of them all. The one who takes his self-appointed mission more serious than any of the other heroes could imagine.
Like those of us who discovered comics in our youth, Bruce Wayne himself believes in the power trip fantasy. And with his vast resources, he was able to accomplish what we all secretly wish when we read about our comic book heroes - he became the myth. As i mentioned earlier, the difference between Batman and other characters is that the costumed crime-fighter is his secret identity, and the aloof playboy is the costume he puts on when he isn't living his true life as the one man on earth willing to engage with gods on their own turf with the confidence (or arrogance) in his own superiority.
This year's Dark Knight Rising has a scene that i think wonderfully captures Batman's psychosis. After he decides to re-enter the world, Bruce Wayne attends a masquerade ball and encounters Selina Kyle. In regards to her black lacy domino mask, he remarks that it's a brazen look for a cat burglar. She retorts by asking him who he's pretending to be.
"Bruce Wayne," he replies with a wry smile.
If they only knew, Bruce. If they only knew.
Perhaps my absolute favorite Batman story is from Detective Comics #241, from March 1957. From the very instant i laid eyes upon it in the display case at Comic Heaven, i had to discover the answer to the burning question Robin asks of Batman on the cover.
The proprietor of the shop cleverly segued my intense curiosity into a sales pitch, and within a few months i received the issue as a gift from my girlfriend. Have i told you how awesome she is already? This was just another reason. Finally, the riddle was solved!
i don't want to spoil it for you, so if you really want to know why Batman MUST wear a different colored costume each night, you'll have to go find out on your own. Earlier today i retrieved the book from the box o' mementos and i noticed the emphasis on Batman's words isn't the same as i imagine. The emphasis is on "Robin" and "Batman" on the cover, but in my mind i'm hearing emphasis on "must" - he MUST change his costume every night! That's the kind of determination i admire in a comic book super hero. When your genius-level intellect tells you the most logical solution to a situation is rainbow-colored versions of your crime-fighting attire, you go all in.
i think it's pretty safe to say i'm a bit of a freak when it comes to Batman. There's no replica Batcave under my home where i store all the memorabilia i've acquired over the years or anything - i said i'm a bit of a freak. But i love the character in all his incarnations. In comics, books, cartoons, movies, video games, television, alternate universe versions, versions from the past, versions from 1,000,000 months in the future - there's just something universally appealing about the character for me.
That's not to say i love all those renditions. i'm 100% against rubber nippled-batsuits for example. But i'll give them a chance at least once. i owe Batman that much at least.
For English 101 my freshman year of college, i wrote a paper that compared and contrasted Batman and Hamlet. If i still had a copy of it i would share it with you. Since i don't, i'll just go ahead and tell you, it was really good and made a lot of sense.
The oldest memories of have of reading Batman comics are during Len Wein's run in the late 1970s. A really cool site i came across helped me locate the earlier issue i remember, part of my older brother's milk-crated comic collection. He probably had more Batman books than any other character, which probably explains my connection to the Dark Knight. Skimming through all the covers, it looks like the exploration into the possibility of Batman's instability had its roots in this era. At the very least, the question is raised in your mind "maybe this guy is a little crazy."
Well, that's it for my list of my favorite comic characters. Some of these came easily to mind when i started thinking about it, but i have to say i wasn't expecting several of them to so readily take their place as my favorites. And more than a few wound up on the fence and didn't make the cut.
The closest runners-up were probably Dr. Strange, The Question, and Ragman. Maybe i'll explore them on their own at some other time. Right now, i'm coming down off what was basically 12 hours of comic book research (during which of course i got lost enjoying a book or two). Lately, i've spent a good deal of time re-connecting with my love of comics, and i'm kind of looking forward to exploring some other topics here on The Long Shot. However, i did vow to delve into my own experiences with comic creation, and i wouldn't want to deprive you of that.
After blowing your minds with that sure-to-be riveting post, i plan to spend my winter break from school banging out a few more interviews with some of the creative people from The List.
And how's this for a slick coincidence - one of them is a local film studio that will be shooting a documentary about another one! i'm really looking forward to visiting the set. It will be my first opportunity to see somebody in action doing their thing with a chance to speak to them about their work afterwards. i'm also working to negotiate what could possibly be another car-to-car conversation with an artist i've admired and followed for the last 15 years.
So yeah...pretty exciting stuff in the chute.
Thanks for visiting!