Some of the most memorable and fascinating characters in all of fiction were first created for comic books. These are characters that have moved millions of units and endured for decades across many media platforms.
Some characters’ popularity is short-lived. They come in as the hot new era-appropriate property that catches kids’ imaginations, but a lot of times, their star burns bright and fast; it isn’t long before they feel like a cash-grab relic of an antiquated time.
But comics haven’t survived as long as they have based on short-lived successes; they’ve made their beds on the creations that had a more timeless appeal. So today, let’s look at some of the biggest hits in the comic book landscape and see what it is about those characters that have such generational appeal.
(We will save Jubilee for a future edition, though. She’s objectively the greatest character for many obvious reasons, and I don’t have time to write 10,000 words on this.)
Why not start at the very top, with the first prominent superhero created – Superman himself.
I love Superman. It’s a relatively recent development in my life as a comic fan, but the older I get and the more I see of the world, the more I love about the inherent politics of Superman. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
Superman’s acclaim can no doubt be somewhat attributed to the fact that, within just a few years of his creation, he had been licensed to hell and back. A radio show, a cartoon, a movie, television serials… Kal-El of Krypton was everywhere by the early 1940’s, and the public had quite the hunger for this strange hero from another world.
In those early days, Superman’s powers shifted from a simple-but-effective array to those of a godlike being capable of overcoming any threat. That allowed Superman to, admittedly, gain interest as a severe power fantasy. Who among us wouldn’t want to be able to fly to the moon and back in a few seconds? Or juggle vehicles? Or be impervious to physical pain? Clark’s powerset is enviable! We’ve all imagined what we would do if we were him.
But aside from that, there are a surprising number of political aspects to the character. The first is that he is one of the few characters that can bridge the Rural America/Urban America divide. Clark Kent was raised on a farm in Kansas by a down-home set of adoptive parents. He grew up with a mighty work ethic and a great appreciation for what the unrecognized folks of America go through.
But he also made his home in a massive, modern city. So he recognizes the struggle of people living squeezed together in tiny apartments and traveling together squeezed into tiny busses and working together squeezed into a tiny office. He cultivated a worldview that is experienced with diversity and outlooks from all over the globe by living in a cultural hub.
So Superman is an example of how we should all appreciate both views of our nation. There is no “This America vs That America”. To Superman, we’re all alike in our own ways.
As an immigrant of a land he can never return to, Superman also carries a permanent sense of not belonging. He’s different from us, and as much as he tries to fit in, he knows he will always be viewed as “the other”. He struggles with balancing his integration into our world with keeping his own culture alive (shown by his devotion to the Fortress of Solitude).
And those same powers that make him seem so enviable are also something of a lesson in and of themselves. Superman lives his life keeping aware the line between being a benevolent helper, guiding us to be our best, and being a totalitarian, living our lives for us. Superman has to look at every problem in the world and think “If I fixed this, would I really be HELPING?”. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
ESSENTIAL READING: For The Man Who Has Everything; What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?; Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?; Kingdom Come; All-Star Superman; Secret Identity.
This one is a bit harder because for as much as I like Superman, I dislike The Bat in equal measure. But I strive for objectivity! So I’ll TRY.
Whereas some of Superman’s popularity is that he is a godlike power fantasy, Batman’s comes from the idea that any of us could be Bruce Wayne. He doesn’t have immense physical gifts granted by the sun. He doesn’t fight otherworldly gods or rampaging monsters. He just puts on a costume and deals with goons with guns and poison gas. It’s easier to buy the threats that Batman faces than to really accept the scope of Superman’s enemies.
Batman has more of an edge to him, too. While Superman comics mostly take place in the bright, colorful daylight of a modern Metropolis, Batman’s books are written with the hero under the cover of a night in a grimier, more dangerous city. Superman smiles for the cameras; Batman scowls and threatens his foes. Clark Kent will subdue a foe without inflicting pain when possible; Batman considers a few broken bones the cost of being a criminal. It’s easy to imagine who is more relatable in the face of violence and terrorism.
ESSENTIAL READING: The Long Halloween; Year One; Dark Victory; The Dark Knight Returns; The Killing Joke; Holy Terror
I droned on about Superman up there, and I honestly believe that Superman is the most nuanced character who can be the most things to the most people.
But make no mistake that Spider-Man is the greatest character in all of comics.
I said a lot about how Superman’s immigrant status or Batman’s powerless nature make them relatable, but Spider-Man is the first character who took the notion of relatabilty and really ran with it. Superman and Batman were, for much of their existence, one-dimensional characters who had secret identities, but had little going on besides punching crime. They were adults who didn’t really have any day-to-day struggles that comic readers would or could identify with.
Spider-Man was US. He was a young man with a broken homelife and who had to worry about curfews and bullies and school dances. From the very beginning of Stan and Steve’s creation, the reader could be just as invested in the human face as they could in the costume. Would Peter finally smack Flash Thompson one? Would Aunt May find out Peter was out after dark? Would Jonah Jameson pay him enough to make the rent? These were real problems, and treated every bit as seriously as if Doctor Octopus would blow up a reactor before Spidey could stop him.
Also, while Superman was and Batman came across as so stoic, Spider-Man was charmingly witty. He leapt into battle with snark and clever one-liners. The dialogue was fun to read to see what put-downs he could come up with. He was Mint Chocolate Chip in a hero landscape full of Vanilla at the time.
ESSENTIAL READING: Ultimate Spider-Man (like, all of it, but especially the first 50 or so); The first 30+ issues of Amazing Spider-Man volume 1; Spectacular Spider-Man #170 (or so)-#200; Kraven’s Last Hunt.
Wolverine is the “newest” of these classic characters, having not been created until the mid-70’s and not really coming into his own until the back half of that decade. But he’s made an equally large impact.
Wolverine’s initial popularity stems from a very bland reason: he is just a badass, and its empowering for kids and teenagers to read about this character who is full of rage and energy that he doesn’t know what to do with as he tells the people in authority over him to get stuffed. On a team full of vibrant, fun characters, Wolverine stuck out as the take-no-prisoners, sarcastic and bitter overachiever who took everyone else down a peg.
Over time, though, Wolverine evolved because he had to, or was he never going to retain his popularity. So Logan became a more honorable character with a tortured, confused past. He brought in an Eastern influence that Sunfire failed to really be a solid ambassador for. He got a second home in Madripoor where he could go to unwind from X-Men adventures, and he carved out his own corner of the Marvel Earth there (though often only to get caught up in solo messes). He took younger characters like Kitty Pryde and Jubilee and Armor under is wing to shape them as heroes. He remained a hardass, but he became one with a direction and a complex inner character.
Whereas Spidey and Supes and The Bat were all more-or-less instantly potent because of what they represented, Wolverine became a legend because he didn’t rest of the laurels of his initial boom of success and showed constant growth as his time went on.
Also, there is just something to be said for someone whose power is “get the holy hell beaten out of them” that is so fun to read. It makes for some great visual stories. Sure, being unkillable always removes some stakes, but it’s the creative ways writers take him to the brink of death that are a blast to read.
ESSENTIAL READING: Weapon X; Wolverine (the original mini-series by Claremont and Miller); Wolverine (the Larry Hama ongoing series).