Watson has been on a roll recently with various personal Top 20 lists. I don’t generally rank my favorites. I’ve read too many books that I loved to pick out the 20 best the way I see it, and for other things, well, I just never put that sort of thought into it.
Then Watson said he was going to be ranking superheroes, and I thought, “Hey, I can do that!” And since I started this post, he went ahead and did that.
Anyway, here are my personal Top 20 superheroes.
Real name: Wesley Dodds
First Appearance: New York World’s Fair Comics #1, January 1939.
Why he’s cool: Look at that guy. He’s fighting the forces of evil in his regular clothes and a gas mask. His weapon of choice is a sleep gas gun. He gets clues in his dreams. He’s a very basic hero, and when DC reworked its continuity, he was more or less the first superhero. And then he got a nice Vertigo series. But hey, I’ve written about him before.
Best moment: Wesley’s dying moment. He’s old and frail. His lifelong love Dian Belmont is already dead. And he’s got knowledge the evil immortal sorcerer Mordru wants for himself. So, what does he do? Climbs a tall mountain and waits. And when Mordru finds him, Wes shoots the evil wizard in the face with his gas gun, forcing Mordru to drop him and letting Wes fall to his death, taking the knowledge Mordru wants with him. He went out on his own terms shooting a nearly unstoppable villain in the face.
19. Green Lantern Kyle Rayner
Real Name: Kyle Rayner. See above.
First Appearance: Green Lantern (Volume 3) #48, January 1994.
Why he’s cool: Kyle was for a period the only Green Lantern, and he was always different from the others. Unlike most GLs, he was actually allowed to feel fear. As an artist, he used the ring for pure creativity, something many previous GLs never quite managed. And his relationship with Donna Troy struck me as sweet before editorial forced it to end.
Best moment: Going on a mission with Superman and Wonder Woman as a member of the JLA, Kyle isn’t sure of his place. He’s scared. But the guide for this journey is Daniel, Dream of the Endless, and he assures Kyle that because he knows fear, he will surpass Hal Jordan. When the living embodiment of creativity takes your side, that’s always a good sign.
Real Name: John Henry Irons
First Appearance: Adventures of Superman #500, June 1993
Why he’s cool: Steel was one of the four “replacement Supermen” when Superman died, but he was the only one who didn’t try to take the Superman name for himself. He was the “Man of Steel,” shortened to “Steel” by Superman himself when the two met and became friends. Steel wasn’t interested in being a new Superman. He was an obvious new member for the Justice League, one that made sense the first time he was seen as a member of that team, he was one of the few “modern” heroes to appear in the background for Kingdom Come, and he got along with just about everybody, including superhero asshole Guy Gardner. Plus, he built his own suit without being a tech billionaire in the basement of his apartment building.
Best moment: Superman has decided to tell his friend John Henry his secret identity, only to learn John Henry figured it out a long time ago. As John Henry explains, he’s an engineer, and he’s trained to be observant, so the whole “Superman is Clark Kent” thing was rather obvious.
17 Old Soldier
Real Name: Unknown.
First Appearance: Astro City (Volume 1) #2, September 1995.
Why he’s cool: I am way behind in my Astro City reading, and I’ve only really read one of his appearances, but it left a real impression on me. The Old Soldier is a Captain America-type hero who just shows up when and where he’s needed by his country the most and has for over a century.
Best moment: Again, I’ve only read one, and he’s appeared maybe three times, but in his first appearance, cultists are bringing in demonic things to take over the Earth. The Astro City version of the Justice League, the Honor Guard, is fighting them with a few adders on, when a young reporter watching the fight from a safe vantage point is in absolute AWE when the Old Soldier just walks past him and joins the fight. And the Old Soldier was gone again when the fight was over.
Real Name: Kendra Saunders…for now
First Appearance: Flash Comics #1, January 1940
Why she’s cool: Hawkgirl is one of the few female knock-offs of a male hero who was actually treated as competent and an equal to her male partner Hawkman most of the time. In the Silver Age, that was damn rare when most female partners needed to be rescued more often than not. Even Wonder Woman wasn’t allowed to drive Steve Trevor’s jeep in those days! Plus, I think her helmet is a lot cooler, and she doesn’t harp on reincarnation or true love over time the way Hawkman does.
Best moment: There’s a Silver Age story where the Hawks are Thanagarian police officers, posing as humans in their secret identity, and a nosy human woman is trying to discover if Hawkman is married or not. Sure, Hawkgirl could be jealous as many other female characters in her era would be, but she doesn’t seem to mind. And as the human woman keeps trying to see if Hawkman wears a ring, we find out in the end why as Hawkgirl casually tells the reader/reminds Hawkman that on Thanagar, men don’t give their fiances rings to get engaged…they give earrings, and she’s been wearing evidence of her marriage in plain sight the whole time. The smirk she gives the reader at that moment tells you this is a strong, confident woman who isn’t the slightest bit concerned her husband and partner is going to stray any time soon, and she knows it. That is incredibly refreshing for any Silver Age female character.
Plus, she’s a total badass.
Real name: Jack Knight
First Appearance: Zero Hour #1, September 1994
Why he’s cool: Jack Knight didn’t want to be a superhero, but came to enjoy it on his own terms. He wore his street clothes and liked vintage stuff. Writer James Robinson put his heart and soul into Jack’s adventures, and the way I always explained it by comparing it to Mark Waid’s concurrent (and also great) Flash run thusly: The Flash was about a superhero who happened to be Wally West while Starman was about Jack Knight who happened to be a superhero. Jack may not be the first or the last hero to go by the name of Starman, but he certainly was the best.
Best moment: Oh, just pick any “Talking with David” issue. But maybe it’s because, in the end, Jack just decided to quit and walk away, marry his girlfriend, and raise a family, and he still hasn’t come back to superheroing yet. May it stay that way.
14 The Confessor
Real Name: Father Jeremiah Parrish
First Appearance: Astro City (Volume 2) #4, December 1996
Why he’s cool: Many Astro City characters are, more or less, thinly disguised versions of more recognizable heroes and villains. Confessor is basically Batman, but his one Astro City arc is probably the best Batman story ever told without Batman. Oh, and the Confessor had a secret.
Best moment: There’s an alien invasion, and the Confessor alone seems to know it’s coming. He’s a highly secretive hero, more urban legend than known quantity, but he does manage to reveal the hidden alien menace on live television…despite the fact the aliens have figured out his weaknesses. He dies saving the world.
13. Doctor Thirteen
Real Name: Dr. Terrence Thirteen
First Appearance: Star Spangled Comics #122, November 1951
Why he’s cool: I don’t know why I dig this guy so much. He was one of my first Misplaced Heroes, and he’s just such an oddity. He doesn’t believe in the supernatural, works actively to disprove it on a routine basis (even though his daughter is a sorceress) , and keeps running into DC’s supernatural heroes. Heck, he even dated Zatanna at one point and just rationalized her magic as quantum mechanics at work. This is a guy who will witness magic and then decide it wasn’t magic. There’s something to admire to that considering he does all that, often reluctantly partnered with the Phantom Stranger–a being Dr. Thirteen was convinced was a fraud– and he’s still a good guy.
Best moment: Dr. Thirteen briefly appears in Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic mini-series for Vertigo, going on to explain to Tim Hunter why magic is a crock. After Thirteen leaves, Tim learns that Thirteen’s disbelief actually grants him some immunity to magic without his knowing it. So, he couldn’t witness real magic if he wanted to, and it’s actually a good thing he doesn’t.
And putting him at the #13 spot was a coincidence.
12 Swamp Thing
Real Name: Alec Holland…sort of
First Appearance: House of Secrets #92, July 1971
Why he’s cool: Under Alan Moore, Swamp Thing went from being a human scientist warped into a plant monster into a sentient consciousness that could inhabit any and all plant life, even traveling to other planets if he so chose. This was a guy who could beat Batman in a fistfight by simply sprouting extra bodies. And he was as likely to save the day with his words and ideas as he was with any sort of physical fighting. That plant monster had more soul than most other heroes.
Best moment: Alec is temporarily banished from Earth and finds himself alone on a planet with blue-colored plant life. A bit too afraid to leave even though he could, he tries to make a life for himself by animating the plants into copies of his friends, particularly his lover Abbie Holland, in a knock off of the town near his swamp home. But there’s a part of him that knows it’s all a crock, and that part appears as notorious pain-in-the-ass John Constantine to give Alec the truth he subconsciously knows but doesn’t want to think about. It’s a deep look at loneliness and fear and the lengths we will go to in order to fool ourselves into not believing we are lonely or scared.
11 Captain Marvel (Shazam)
Real Name: Billy Batson
First Appearance: Whiz Comics #2, February 1940
Why he’s cool: Captain Marvel, someone who I will never think of as “Shazam,” is that gosh golly gee whiz character, a true innocent who may be that rare hero who actually works best if you don’t try to update him. He’s the good kid fighting evil and that’s that. He’s the kid fantasy in much more obvious terms.
Best moment: In Underworld Unleashed, the demon Neron is buying supervillain souls and is after a very special, but unnamed, soul. A group of heroes storms Neron’s corner of Hell convinced that he’s after the soul of the missing Superman. But nope, he wants Marvel’s, and Marvel is the only hero in the group who isn’t corrupted by Neron’s very presence. And then Marvel (with a suggestion from the Trickster) beats Neron by selling his soul…for altruistic reasons. Neron couldn’t handle it, Marvel’s soul was too pure, and the demon can’t hold onto it. Demon lord banished simply because Billy Batson is a good kid sacrificing himself for the benefit of everyone except himself.
10 The Flash
Real Name: Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Wally West, Bart Allen, some others.
First Appearance: Flash Comics #1, January 1940
Why he’s cool: The Flash was always one of my favorites from the old Superfriends. The costume is pretty damn iconic, the powers are cool, and there’s always been a creative angle to how the Flash uses superspeed. Wally’s my personal favorite, but I’ll take any Flash…well, not Bart. His run, pardon the pun, wasn’t very inspired.
Best moment: Wally West thinks Barry Allen has returned early in Mark Waid’s run, but Barry is evil now. He’s knocking the snot out of Hal Jordan and a host of other speedsters. Wally is sure he can’t match Barry’s speed, and then he realizes it isn’t Barry but really an amnesiac Eobard Thawne. And then. in the middle of the final battle something clicks, Wally matches Thawne’s speed, and despite using the name for the longest time, for so many fans, he finally became the Flash. the Fastest Man Alive. That storyline effectively shut up all the fans asking for Barry back for a good, long time.
But speaking of Bart Allen…
Real Name: Bart Allen
First Appearance: The Flash #91, June 1994
Why he’s cool: Kid sidekicks are an old thing at DC, but the dumbest sidekick name was probably “Kid Flash”. Enter Bart Allen who, at first, has no desire to be Kid Flash. He was raised in a VR environment, rapidly aged, and tended to see the world in simple pictograms. And, as we’re told, his superhero name isn’t an alias; it’s a warning. Big hair, big feet, and a big imagination. I didn’t mind his eventual transformation to Kid Flash because it was presented as Bart maturing a bit and that made sense to me, but I much preferred the Impulse era.
Best moment: Bart’s solo series, at the start, was rather funny. But after he and his mentor Max Mercury met Arrowette and her superhero stage mother, Max sees problems with a parent pushing an underage kid into superheroing when Bart innocently asks how Max was any different from Arrowette’s mother. It was probably the only time Max was ever at a loss for words.
Real Name: Arthur Curry Jr, or sometimes Orm
First Appearance: More Fun Comics #73, November 1941.
Why he’s cool: Aquaman, when he used right, isn’t a hero. He’s a king. His morals and values and tactics are different as a result. He could be DC’s Black Panther if DC wanted to go that route. Many writers have, showing Aquaman bringing armies of Atlantean soldiers to fights and not being the slightest bit ashamed to rely on such forces. The 90s were a good time for Aquaman, with the hook hand coming in, and writers really looking into the political ramifications of what a kingdom that covers 3/4 of the Earth’s surface really means. DC hasn’t quite gone all the way there, but they’ve teased it out. Aquaman may be cooler in potential than in reality. And despite a rather ridiculous orange shirt, green pants look, I still think he looks better than Namor, and you never have to wonder if he’s going to steal a friend’s wife or be a bad guy. Plus, he was the first DC Silver Age hero to get married and have a kid, even if the fate of Aquababy was a rather tragic one. Aquaman has a lot of baggage for a guy people snicker about.
Besides, as a kid, those old Filmation cartoons sure were kinda neat when he’d summon huge swarms of fish.
Best moment: I’m going with the Justice League animated series, where the producers decided to essentially make him “underwater Conan the Barbarian”. Watch that scene where he has to save himself and his infant son from sliding into a sea fissure and try not to get goosebumps when he shouts his defiance.
Real Name: Kal-El/Clark Kent
First Apperance: Action Comics #1, April 1938
Why he’s cool: Superman is the standard-setter for superheroes. He’s one of the few who does the right thing simply because it’s right. What makes Superman special isn’t the physical strength. It’s the innate goodness of the character. He’s just here to help, and as Grant Morrison said about his Superman in All-Star Superman, since nothing can hurt him, his ultimate power is super-relaxation. He never has to worry.
Best moment: There are so many to choose from. The way he handled the Elite, showing why restraint is a good thing. The first Christopher Reeve movie when he flies away at the end and just gives a nice smile for the camera.. The “World of Cardboard” speech he gave Darkseid that one time. The last Silver Age Superman story Alan Moore wrote where he gives the reader one last wink. But I’m going back to Morrison’s All-Star Superman, where even though Metropolis is in perpetual danger, and he’s been performing great feats of strength throughout the story, he overhears a psychiatrist stuck in traffic trying to get through to a suicidal patient. Superman flies off, finds a young woman on a ledge, and talks her out of jumping just by telling her there are people there for her and giving her a hug. And that’s Superman’s greatest power: he cares for everyone.
6 Black Panther
Real Name: T’Challa, King of Wakanda
First Appearance: Fantastic Four #52, July 1966
Why he’s cool: T”Challa went from a sometime Avenger and friend to the Fantastic Four to Marvel’s greatest tactician in the blink of an eye under Christopher Priest. He became what Batman is and what Aquaman could be. You could do far worse than having the King of Wakanda in your corner. And if he is in your corner, it’s probably because he planned out everything in advance and knew he’d be in your corner before you thought to ask for his help.
Best moment: This is a hard one because in many of my favorite Black Panther runs, T’Challa is the quiet straight man to all the eccentrics and oddballs around him. The best moments in the Priest run weren’t necessarily T’Challa’s but how other people reacted to him. So, I’ll just go with a moment when State Department attache Everet K. Ross finds himself in T’Challa’s office and finds a Galactus contingency plan in a drawer. When asked about it, T’Challa ignores the question because he has other things to do, but the very fact he apparently has one, and given who he is that it would probably work…
Real Name: Hellboy
First Appearance outside of a cover: San Diego Comic Con Comics #2, August 1993
Why he’s cool: Creator Mike Mignola makes this guy what he is. Appearances aside, Hellboy is something of a blue collar guy who’d just assume sit back with his buddies and have a beer. He just happens to be the foremost expert on all things supernatural. And unlike the movies, Hellboy in the comics can walk around in public without drawing too much attention to himself because he’s really just a regular guy who just so happens to be a demon prince that isn’t the slightest bit interested in being a demon prince. Unlike other demonic superheroes, Hellboy doesn’t do what he does to strike back at Hell while constantly fighting back a bad temper or something. No, he just prefers being a regular guy. He’s the kind of hero you probably wouldn’t mind hanging out with.
Best moment: DC and Dark Horse did a Starman/Batman./Hellboy crossover once, written by Starman writer James Robinson with art by Mignola, and when Hellboy and Starman spot a particularly Lovecraftian monster, and Starman comments that it looks like something out of Lovecraft, Hellboy just informs Starman that Lovecraft got some things right…
Real name: Robert Bruce Banner…sort of.
First Appearance: The Incredible Hulk #1, May 1962
Why he’s cool: The Hulk for so long was so one-note that Marvel didn’t really care what writers did with the Green Goliath. That led to writers like Peter David, Greg Pak, and currently Al Ewing really experimenting with the character and what he could do and be. He’s been smarter, stronger, craftier, and a host of other things. I’m not sure any Marvel hero has had as many different versions of himself than the Hulk has.
Best moment: There are a lot to choose from, believe it or not. It’s tempting to say when the Hulk decided Loki was a puny god, but I’m going to go for a comic book story. In Future Imperfect, the Hulk meets his evil future self the Maestro, and the Maestro knows all the moves the Hulk is going to make before Hulk makes them. Maestro’s stronger, smarter, and a whole host of other things. And then, at the last minute, a nearly beaten Hulk gets the Maestro onto Dr. Doom’s time machine and sends him…somewhere, the one place in all of time the Hulk knows about that will finally kill the Maestro once and for all. And when someone asks him where that was (read the story yourself to find out), all the Hulk says of the Maestro’s destination is the Maestro has gone to “face the music.”
Real Name: Peter Parker
First Appearance: Amazing Fantasy #15, August 1962
Why he’s cool: Spider-Man is that mid-level hero who represents all of us. While Superman may be a god, Spider-Man is a mortal man. He does his best, can liven up almost any situation with his buoyant personality, and will almost always do the right thing because if he doesn’t, who will? Plus, he may have some of the weirdest superpowers in comics.
Best moment: I’m at a loss to pick out just one moment here. There are so many to choose from for Spidey. When at a loss to say why Spidey is special, I am reminded of a conversation some members of the Avengers were having in an otherwise so-so issue of a so-so run. Peter has once again quit the webs, and the Avengers actually miss him. As explained by probably Captain America, they rely on guys like Spider-Man to keep the likes of Doctor Octopus and Electro under control because then the Avengers can focus more on bigger threats. So, not only did the Avengers respect Spidey as a comrade and friend, but they knew he could take care of things for them.
2 The Spectre
Real Name: Jim Corrigan
First Appearance: More Fun Comics #52, February 1940
Why he’s cool: The Spectre, as I recounted in his Misplaced Hero column way back when, was often a deus ex machina character who had exactly as much power as the story needed him to have. But then in the 90s, writer John Ostrander took that character apart and looked into what made him tick by looking at the human soul attached to the Wrath of God and saw all of that character’s personal strengths and weaknesses. DC let a lot of writers have these full, long runs back in the 90s that told a single story and then ended in such a way that it more or less ended the character for a period, and the Spectre was one such character. When Ostrander had finished his story, and the angry dead 1930s cop that was Jim Corrigan finally learned the concept of forgiveness, Corrigan was free to move on to a peaceful afterlife reward with the last panels showing an unknown hand inscribing his tombstone with the words “Servant of God,” the ultimate compliment for Corrigan and his time as the Spectre.
Best moment: One of the things I loved about Ostrander’s take on the Spectre was each storyline built off the one that came before it and Ostrander, working mostly with artist Tom Mandrake. Both had a pretty active imagination when it came to showing how a hero who starred in what was basically a superhero horror title and could do whatever he wanted could fight evil on all kinds of levels. But if I had to pick one, I’d go with an early story where Jim, having met a young woman who challenged him to prevent evil for a night rather than punish it, and he takes her up on that challenge. She specifically said he should stop gun violence for that one night. And he did…in the most horrifying ways possible.
Real Name: Bruce Wayne
First Appearance: Detective Comics #27, March 1939.
Why he’s cool: In a superhero setting, most heroes have awesome powers and abilities, but Batman doesn’t have any. He stands atop the superhero pyramid with a couple of boomerangs, a bit of rope, a cape, and his wits. There’s a bit of extra fantasy involved, that someone could theoretically be Batman even if no real person could possibly master every skill Batman has. Sure, it’s cliche to pick Batman as my favorite but, well, he is.
Best moment: In a nearly 80 year history, with the most iconic rogue’s gallery in comics, with multiple live action and animated series, I have to pick one? Well, if I must, and I set up these things, let’s say it’s from Batman Begins when Batman finally appears in Gotham City and takes out a bunch of low-level crooks, finally stopping to get Carmine Falcone, and we barely see the big, bad Bat. If you want a good idea of who Batman the vigilante is and what he can do, that scene more or less tells you all you need to know.
So, who’s next? Jimmy?