I turned 40 recently.
I know it’s “just a number” and “you are as old as you feel” and all (which… isn’t useful ever since I fell down the stairs in December and hurt my back; I feel 65), but it’s still a whole thing, right? Turning FORTY, man. Thirty is no big deal; you’re just “more of an adult” at that point. Fifty is just “you’ve already been old for a while”. Forty really is the “no one is going to call you a charming young man anymore” age. It’s a reminder that death is relatively imminent.
It’s going to be MORE imminent if I keep falling down stairs.
(Yes, I keep talking about this lately!)
My age got me to thinking: what are some of the best comic book characters who have come into existence since I was born? We are going from Marvel and DC only since it’s so damn easy to pick great independent characters from the last twenty-to-thirty years, and I was most interested in what characters broke through despite being surrounded by legends. It feels like, despite how old I am, so many of the greatest characters somewhat substantially pre-date me. Spider-Man and The Avengers and the Fantastic Four have been around since 1962-1963. Superman and Batman are from the 30’s! Hell, even Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost were birthed a month or so before I was conceived.
(There was… probably a better way to word that)
So with my birthday being November 1980, I rounded down by two months and started my research: who are some of the best characters created in the last forty years? I came up with a more sizable list than I thought I’d be able to, so I cheated a bit. We have a top ten, but we also have about ten honorable mentions, each as kind of an “alternate” to the lower ranked characters on my list.
I just wanted a reason to hedge my bets, mostly.
Let’s see who starts us off…
Look, I don’t want to hear it. It’s MY list; you’re lucky she isn’t #1. Honestly, she could stand to be even higher, but I’m recognizing my bias and just squeezing her onto the bottom here. Don’t give me shit over this.
Jubilation Lee debuted in 1989, created by Chris Claremont and Marc Silvestri, to serve as the proto-Kitty Pryde. With Kitty having come into her own as a hero and left the X-Men in order to be a part of Excalibur, Claremont needed a new young character to serve as the reader’s “in” to the books. If you started reading X-Men in the early 80’s, Kitty served as the reader’s avatar–the character who was also as amazed by everything that was going on as you were. If you started reading in the early 90’s, that character was Jubes.
And she did well! She was entirely different from Kitty to mirror a different era. She was more disaffected and “cool”, and she more represented the era in which she was starring. She was given prominent roles in the 90’s animated series, the Jim Lee offshoot X-Book, the wildly popular Wolverine solo series, and the X-spinoff, Generation X.
As the 90’s turned to the 2000’s, and Jubilee lost her initial “in” factor, she was shuttled off to the background before coming back, being turned into a vampire, and adopting a baby. She is a character who gets unfairly slapped with a “dated” tag, but good writers have really evolved her and kept her interesting.
HONORABLE MENTION: No one is honorable enough to compare to Jubilee. But maybe Rogue. I guess she was an important addition to the X-Men, too. I really thought she debuted in the late 70’s as a villain until I did my research.
9. Booster Gold
Booster Gold is a great character to serve as a figurehead hero in the Greed Is Good 1980’s. Booster wanted to be a hero, sure, but not for purely altruistic reasons: he wanted fame and money! I mean, that’s better than becoming a villain and just stealing what you want and hurting people, but it’s hardly “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”. Gold was the perfect flawed hero for the times.
He had a great run in Justice League International and was a fun member of the jobber JLA from the 90’s–wherein he got to name Doomsday!–before fading out of prominence a bit before the 52 series, wherein he became a huge player.
In the wake of 52, Gold got a solo run by Dan Jurgens that was a ton of fun while keeping up the growth from 52. I… don’t really know where he has been since then. New 52 era DC always just gives me a headache.
HONORABLE MENTION: Terry McGuinness, another great DC hero from the future!
Lobo is another character whom I would have thought was around longer than he was, but nope: he first appeared in 1983.
I’m not going to pretend to being super well-versed in Lobo as a character; I haven’t read a lot of his stuff. Even as a teen in the 90’s, Lobo seemed a bit too “edgelord” for me, and honestly, I did not yet appreciate the artwork of his books. Honestly, the most Lobo I have read comes from his Lil Lobo / Slobo days as a part of Young Justice. But what I have read, I have enjoyed. Lobo is a guilty pleasure character who can get away with stuff that others can’t.
In a different world, at a different time, he may well have been what the #1 character on this list ended up becoming, but more on that later…
HONORABLE MENTION: John Constantine. Another edgy DC character that people love who I just never QUITE got into.
7. Renee Montoya
This is my third character in a row who was prominently featured in DC’s 52 title, and now is a good time to remind everyone that I really, REALLY love that book.
Montoya has had a few great runs in DC ever since her debut… which came NOT in the comics, but as part of the Batman The Animated Series universe. She was a core character of the brilliant Gotham Central book, and her struggles with an infatuated Two-Face, who outed her as a lesbian, is the high point of that stellar run. She was then given a fall-and-redemption arc in 52 which culminated in her becoming the second iteration of The Question.
Wherever she has been, Renee is a stand-out. She is relatable in her flaws and humanity, and she is one of the many characters who show how empty Super Hero worlds would be without the regular folks there to remind us of the stakes.
HONORABLE MENTION: Elektra, another powerful and flawed female character without any super powers to help her survive a meta-world.
6. Tim Drake
This is our first big step-up. I am open to any and all arguments against Lobo, Montoya, and Gold’s inclusions on this list (NOT Jubilee’s), but starting with Tim here at #6, I think the rest of this list is pretty locked-in for their importance in the last forty years.
Tim made Robin relevant again. Jason Todd was a failure with the fans. Dick Grayson had to escape his bare-legged past as constant hostage bait to be taken seriously. By the time Tim Drake emerged in the Bat Books, the title of Robin was a joke at best, and a curse at worst.
Tim grabbed the mantle and made it his own. Gone were the underwear and pixie boots. No longer did the character exist just to be tied up and used as a pawn against The Bat. This iteration of Robin was competent, intelligent, and fun! He figured out Batman’s identity all on his own and proved a capable student for Bruce who could handle foes in combat on his own.
Tim did well across a few mini-series, a lengthy regular series run, as the leader of Young Justice, and as Batman’s sidekick. He was appearing in a ton of books, but never felt played out.
The biggest flaw to Tim is that he was SO GOOD at being Robin, he’s been unable to really leave the ID behind. Runs as “Red Robin” and “Drake” have underwhelmed, and DC has him back in the Robin mantle again now.
HONORABLE MENTION: Damien Wayne. Tim walked so Damien could run. Damien was hard to buy as a Tim replacement for a while, but ultimately, he was made a good enough character that he caught on, too.
5. Kamala Khan
Give Marvel credit: they have gone ALL IN on Kamala (whose name I am probably FINALLY pronouncing right thanks to our new Vice President) ever since introducing her. She was even given a starring role in the Avengers video game (not her fault it was apparently an abhorrent game), and she’s getting a series based on the MCU. She’s also at least somewhat likely to appear in future MCU flicks such as Captain Marvel 2.
I REALLY, REALLY want to say that Kamala is essentially a Spider-Man for a new generation, but that would feel like a disservice to the next person up on this list. But regardless, she has all the trademarks of such a role: she’s young, spunky, and just has a star of a personality. And Marvel is just as behind her as they were Peter back in the 60’s.
Kamala is also interesting because she has a legacy identity, but her powers are in almost no way similar to Carol’s. Nor is her costume. Kamala took on the Ms. Marvel ID out of admiration and respect, not just because she was a carbon copy.
HONORABLE MENTION: Cassandra Cain and Stargirl, more stand-out legacy characters who stood apart from those that came before.
4. Miles Morales
Okay, so yes: Miles Morales is the ACTUAL Spider-Man for a new generation. He even has the name. He and Kamala both feel like Peter’s modern heirs apparent, though, don’t they?
What has Miles done besides star in a movie that I, personally consider:
- easily the best Spider-Man movie ever made
- definitely one of the very best animated movies ever made
- clearly one of the best superhero movies ever made?
Well, he’s been a focal point of both the Ultimate and 616 Marvel universes since his debut. He’s incredibly popular. He’s starred in his own video game (which was better than poor Kamala’s). He’s really just blown up in recent years.
I mentioned during my write-up on Tim that he started a step up from the others before him on this list. Miles is the next leap. If you want to argue that Miles (or any of the next three) should be #1, I wouldn’t have too powerful of an argument against it.
HONORABLE MENTION: Spider-Gwen and Spider-Man 2099, more great characters from the Spider-Verse.
This almost feels TOO high. Is Venom really still that popular? But then I remember that as I write this, Marvel is in the middle of a company-wide event several years in the making that wouldn’t be happening if not for Eddie and his symbiote friend, so… yeah. Venom is still way up there in terms of popularity and relevance.
Venom was enormous when he debuted. Created in part by the red-hot Todd McFarlane, Venom is genuinely one of a very few relevant Spider-Man villains created since the 70’s. Seriously… who else is there? Hobgoblin, sure. Carnage? But he’s just a Venom derivative. And… maybe Morlun? But that’s it, and none of those three even begin to broach Venom’s impact and success.
Venom has been a hero and a villain. He has been bonded to Eddie Brock and separated with other hosts. His history is terribly convoluted because Marvel just couldn’t stop throwing him into books since the demand for him was so high!
And yep… that continues to this day with Donny Cates’ work on him and the King In Black arc.
2. Harley Quinn
If you are looking for some big surprises at my #1 and #2 spots, I’m afraid I’ll be disappointing you. Go back to arguing that I’m an idiot for including Booster Gold instead of, like, Cable. But the king and queen of this list? Harley Quinn is one of the first two names that immediately came to mind when I started this.
What needs to be said about Harley? She’s a merchandising empire unto herself. She’s starred in a ton of books, two movies, a cartoon. She’s one of the most popular cosplay acts at any Con you go to. And she’s one of those characters even non-fans just KNOW.
She has a great, memorable look, and even her subsequent new designs have been striking (if a bit too fan-servicey in some cases). She is a lot of fun, and while Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey weren’t particularly good, her cartoon series is great!
It couldn’t realistically be anyone else, right? Harley might be more popular. Venom might be more omnipresent. And Miles might be more important. But Deadpool is just slightly behind each of them (if actually behind at all).
Two mega-hit movies and thousands upon thousands of comic appearances since his debut in the early 90’s have really cemented Deadpool as one of THE comic characters. He really is up there with Batman and Spider-Man these days as one of the few dependable book movers.
I had mentioned earlier that Lobo could have had this success, and it’s possibly all a matter of timing and buzz. Lobo debuted in Omega Man, not the best-selling X-Force. Lobo came out in the early 80’s when comics were still “just for kids”, not in the more biting 90’s. Had a few chips fallen the other way, The Main Man might be the star and The Merc With The Mouth would be the niche comedy character. But as it is, DP is part of the cultural zeitgeist now, and nothing about that is shaping up to change.
That’s my Top Ten Characters Since 1981! What do you think? Should I have included Cable? I don’t really like Cable. But who else did I miss? Who shouldn’t be here? Let me know in the comments!
Meanwhile, I’ve got to find more lists onto which I can squeeze Jubilee. Coming soon: Best X-Men! Best Asian Characters! Best Teenage Heroes! Best Characters Who Wear Sunglasses!
Nothing can stop me.
Until next time… take care!