It’s weird that it’s taken so long to get here.
A hundred-plus comic reviews. Dozens upon dozens of articles on the genre. Lists of all sorts. And I’ve never just sat down and written up a list of my ten favorite comic book characters?
That’s not entirely true. On the Ghosts of the Stratosphere podcast, there is a “lost” episode that will never air. It was sloppy, the sound quality was atrocious, and we went on far too long. But that episode was each of our ten favorite characters in the medium. It was our way of introducing ourselves, but it didn’t materialize because we were real bad at it.
And I just never went back to it from there.
Maybe because it feels a touch too self-serving. I can do preference-based lists and call them the “top ten” or “the ten best” of something all day, whether it’s type of movies or songs from an era or episodes of television shows. But at no point am I going to convince anyone these are the ten BEST comic book characters. Also, it’s too broad! I am not even ranking against a specific category or criteria.
But here it comes: a list of just my favorite characters.
It might be a more immature view on things, but I tend to find that CHARACTERS matter more to me than CREATORS as far as comics go. There are absolutely comic creators I love or shy away from, but ultimately, I read more books because of who the starring creations are, not because of who writes or draws them.
I got into comics because of the X-MEN, not because of CHRIS CLAREMONT. Now, Claremont gave me most of what I loved about those characters, but honestly? How many years was I reading those books before I even really knew Chris’ name? It didn’t matter to nine year old me as much as Wolverine himself did. That is perhaps both an insult and a high compliment to Mr. Claremont himself.
When I watch TV, I’m watching for the characters, not the screenwriters. You could argue movies are more director-driven, but they don’t typically feature an on-going cast like comics or television series do. When these stars take on a full life of their own over years and years… THAT’S what I’m here for.
So yeah, I’ll probably do a Top Ten Pencilers and a Top Ten Writers another day. I promise I will, actually. But for now? Let’s look at my first love, my true love: the characters themselves.
10. The Young Justice Quartet (Robin, Wonder Girl, Superboy, Bart Allen)
Trying to pick one out of this group seems impossible, but I also couldn’t realistically leave all of them off. So in the interest of fairness, they get a four-way tie to finish off the list. Come on… it’s not like I’m tying four unrelated characters here; you think of these characters as a unit as much as you think of them separately. Work with me.
I love these characters individually. I love them even more together. The first Young Justice was a fantastic series that blended irreverent humor and whacky situations with the occasional real heart (like the issue where Red Tornado’s daughter is being called a terrorist by her classmates).
The shift from Peter David’s Young Justice into Geoff Johns’ Teen Titans worked better than it should have, as it allowed the teen heroes to grow in a book that was still fun but had a lot higher stakes and more drama.
And then after years of neglect and misuse, Rebirth gifted us a new Young Justice title written by Brian Michael Bendis starring these four. These four heroes in particular were the core of each of those books. The supporting case changed with some frequency, but it was ultimately all about Bart, Tim, Cassie, and Conner. Four characters with a surprising amount of depth who have come together as their own little family unit.
This would never have been the case years ago.
I spent the vast majority of my comic book reading life thinking of Superman as the crusty, boring, too-powerful, too-goody-good plain vanilla of the comic book world.
It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I have come to appreciate all of the political nuance of his character.
I’ve written on this matter before. So I won’t bore you too much by getting into it again. But despite the public perception of Clark Kent as a bland cardboard cut-out of a hero, he is maybe the deepest and most symbolic character in the genre.
So as I consider what all Superman works as a stand-in for, I appreciate him more and more. Three years ago, he might not have cracked a top 50 of comic characters I love. But now? Yeah, I finally get it.
8. Barbara Gordon
Even though some of my favorite Barbara Gordon books are from the New 52 and Rebirth eras, I have to admit I almost wish they had never happened.
Barbara Gordon was such a great, empowering character because she was a typical human, who–much like most of the Bat-family–was just doing her best to defend people in a corrupt world. And along the way, in a tragedy unrelated to her heroism, she was crippled.
But instead of letting her crippling “fridge” her, Barbara Gordon went on to become an integral member of the DC superhero universe, despite her disability. She lost the ability to walk, but she refused to stop moving forward. Taking up the name Oracle, Barbara worked tirelessly to guide Gotham’s (and the world’s) heroes from behind-the-scenes. Without her, they would have been blind to the threats around them; it was the former Batgirl who kept them coordinated.
There have been other disabled heroes in comics. Professor Xavier. Silhouette from the New Warriors. But they overcame their losses by using super powers. Barbara pushed on without any such boons. She was important because she was a role model for readers.
But yeah, they magic-science’d away her disability in the New 52. And I’d be madder about that, but she has had such good books ever since then.
7. Kyle Rayner
Kyle will always be my Green Lantern.
I didn’t start reading DC Comics on anything resembling a heavy basis until I was in college. And one of the titles from that era I invested in was Green Lantern. I was there for the end of Ron Marz’ run and through much of Judd Winick’s. I was reading Grant Morrison’s JLA when Kyle was a regular member of the team.
Kyle was, to me, a relatable character who made the whole “cosmic hero” thing I’d never really cared for a lot more palatable. He had a terrible lovelife, but he fell hard when he was in a romance. He had an LGBTQ friend who was beaten to near-death. He felt overshadowed by everyone around him and the one who came before him. But he still did his best.
It wouldn’t actually be too long after I started reading GL that Hal would be dragged back, relegating Kyle, John, and Guy to the backseat of the Lantern vehicles. Kyle still has moments. Even when DC goes out of their way to ruin him.
But yeah, when I got into DC, Kyle was one of the characters that made them feel like home. I’ll always be a fan.
6. Savage Dragon
Re-reading my Savage Dragon collection, it occurs to me that Dragon might have always been a bit TOO cool. A bit TOO snarky and on top of things. He had a comeback for everything and just felt like that guy you knew who you were never going to be wittier than.
Still, Erik Larsen kept Dragon humanized the same way another famously snarky character with biting repartee stayed relatable: by putting his creation through the ringer. Dragon was constantly beaten down, overwhelmed, sliced apart, ganged up on, impaled, shrunken, and everything in between.
Dragon loses A LOT. And when he wins, it’s just as often through a fluke or assistance as anything else. But he’s so damn charming, you can’t help but always cheer for him.
From Savage Dragon to a character I first learned about when he guest starred in Savage Dragon.
Hellboy is not entirely unlike Dragon. He’s often in WAY over his head. He’s got a hell of a temper. It makes sense that the two would be pals in the comics.
The slight edge I’ll give to HB is in creativity. Dragon is a great character, but he’s still a typical comic book hero (even if he eschews spandex and costumes). Hellboy’s world is more a hodge-podge of comic heroes, Lovecraftian horror, war history, and old world fables. So when he is frustrated by all of the madness around him, it’s even more believable.
Hellboy walks the perfect line in being humorously sympathetic and kind of an asshole who hates the stuff he gets pulled into against his will. It’s easy to cheer for him while also wishing he wasn’t so passive (but in a GOOD way, as Mike Mignola makes him more like us and less like the typical comic protagonist who loves diving headlong into trouble).
4. Kitty Pryde
Kitty Pryde is one of the most fully-realized characters in comics history (along with the very next entry on this list). She started as a wide-eyed, innocent girl who was new to the X-Men and their universe, created by Chris Claremont to be the reader avatar. New readers could start picking up his series and see themselves in Kitty who was often in the “what the heck have I gotten myself into?” boat.
But ever since her debut, Kitty has left the childlike wonder behind and became an important, unforgettable member of the Marvel Universe. She has led the Guardians of the Galaxy. Her Ultimate Universe self became a fixture in that line’s Spider-Man book. Kitty is one of the very few X-Men to grow beyond the boundaries of the X-Universe and feel welcome at every turn.
Kitty is low-key one of the deepest and most resonating characters Marvel has.
3. Wally West
Along with Kitty, Wally is a fascinatingly fully developed character.
Like her, he started off as a youngster in awe of everything around him. Like her, he grew slowly overtime until you barely realized that he was a competent, starring role character all on his own.
Wally is also MY Flash in the same way Kyle is my Green Lantern. The difference being that while I liked Kyle as a character, his book was mostly just “Okay”. When I was reading Wally, it was during the Mark Waid and Geoff Johns runs, and both of those are unimpeachably great tenures.
New 52 was what it was for poor Wally, but even since Rebirth, Wally has been handled mostly okay. He came back as a character whose family was torn away from him but found solace in his friends even as he tried to get past Linda having forgotten him. Then, after Heroes In Crisis looked like everything was mucked up again, Flash Forward pulled him back from the edge.
Everything’s not as rosey as Pre-Crisis era DC was for Wally, but at least they seem to be trying again.
This comes as no surprise to anyone, unless you are shocked she isn’t #1.
Jubilee is arguably my favorite comic book character. When I think of who my favorite characters are, I think of this: who is a character I will ALWAYS buy a book of when they are starring in it?
That’s Jubilee to me.
There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. I can’t sit here and defend my passion for Jubes on any kind of sensible level. I have always just enjoyed her. I thought she was fun in X-Men. She was a tremendous foil for Wolverine in his solo book for about 30-40 issues in the 1990’s. She was charming in Generation X.
She has grown a lot over the years. The vampirism and adoption of Shogo did a lot for her. Even now that she’s alive and a mutant again, she still carries that growth with her. She was funny. Shew grew as a heroine. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m a fan.
And yeah, as long as she’s in a book, I’mma buy it.
Objectively, Spider-Man is the greatest character in comic book history.
He was the first character for whom his human identity was every bit as important as his costumed one. He was the first comic super hero to whom the readers were designed to relate and not just marvel. To be frank, a lot of Silver Age comics don’t hold up, but the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man stuff? To this day, those are layered and entertaining.
The weird thing is that Spidey doesn’t have a ton of great stories. Compare him to, say, Superman or Batman. Superman and Batman each have at least half a dozen stories that are no less than legendary. Spidey’s got… Kraven’s Last Hunt, which is atypically Spidey in its darkness. Same for the Death of Jean DeWolff. The Night Gwen Stacy died is more important than it is great.
But it doesn’t matter, because his regular adventures are better than almost any other heroes’. Would I rather read Superman’s best stories than Spidey’s? Yep. Would I rather read a typical run on Superman over the same for Spidey? Not on your life! Spidey is more engaging and entertaining than anyone else in the genre, and he is a model for consistency.
TOO MANY HONORABLE MENTIONS!
Look, this article was somehow simultaneously painfully hard and ridiculously easy.
I started off with a cutdown list of over thirty characters, most of whom came right to me without having to dive too deep into my recollection at all. I ended up having to stop myself from pouring over books to come up with more “Oh yeah, them!” moments.
And yet, even with such a huge cutdown list, the Top Ten was just so clearly defined. There wasn’t very much movement between my first list and my final list; there was only one full-on replacement.
But man… I really do love a LOT of characters in the world of comics. So hang in there with me for a spell while I give some quick love to the characters just outside the final list.
–The Tick: I honestly think of Tick as more of a cartoon and TV character, but damn I loved those series. And his comic was plenty good, too.
–Wolverine: My first ever favorite comic character; I own and have owned more books starring Wolverine than anyone but Spidey.
–Black Cat: A great romantic and heroic and villainous foil for Spider-Man. Spidey has an army of stellar supporting characters, and Felicia is one of the best of them all.
–Emma Frost: Ever since her babyface turn in the 1990’s, Emma has become a fascinating character. Her relationship with Scott Summers made both of them so much more interesting than they had ever been previously.
–Nightcrawler: He is the prototype of the team-based hero. X-Men books always work better with Kurt involved. He has the most fun dynamics with everyone else and feels like the glue a good X-book needs.
–Captain America: Very much like Superman from the past two years, I only very recently have pondered, “Do I REALLY like Cap?”. I loved Man Out of Time. Loved Brubaker’s Winter Soldier run. Thought Secret Empire was a highly underrated gem. Was a fan of Remender’s work on him. At some pointy, when I start liking EVERYTHING I read about a character… I probably really like that hero.
–Dick Grayson: Dick is a character I like, but have shamefully bought very little of his solo stuff. He is up there with Kitty and Wally in the elite echelon of characters who are so well-developed they almost feel flesh-and-blood real.
–Storm: Under Claremont, Storm was a glorious character who had some terrific characterization as she came onto the team flooded with naivete, but ended up a hardened warrior who went through so much. She’s been very hit-or-miss under others, but when she is used well, she’s powerful.
–Miguel O’Hara: The Spider-Man of 2099 isn’t the complete character that Peter Parker is, but he brings a brand of cynicism and more biting snark to the Spidey role.
That’s… a LOT of characters for a Top Ten. I regret nothing; I love comic books and have read so damn many over the years. When they have provided me with as much joy as they have, it’s hard to not give credit to all of the creations who have inspired me.
I’ve rambled on enough, though. Who are YOUR ten favorite comic book characters? Let me know in the comments. What are some of your favorites runs or issues of those characters?
Until next time… take care!