So Wizard Magazine – yes, that Wizard Magazine – recently published their “top 200 characters of all time” list. The only reason I know this is because I got emails and comments in large numbers asking me for my take on this. (God knows why. I mean, I’m not Scott McCloud or anything.)
My take, firstly, is that it is Wizard. Wizard is a shitty magazine written by condescending assholes who cater to the ultimate-fanboy bloc and try to hold themselves above the teeming masses while simultaneously engaging in its basest whims. (Or, more simply: they mock fanboys then make cheap titty jokes about female characters. I can’t stand people who try to have it both ways. Either be a schmuck or don’t, but either way, embrace your choice.) Making fun of Wizard is like shooting babies in a barrel, except you feel less bad afterwards.
Also, Brainiac Five is not on it, which means it is flawed right from the get-go.
But, regardless. First, let us consider their rationale for creating this list:
What follows is a rundown of the 200 stars who have transcended their original concepts and are, whether it’s from direct influence or a distant ripple effect, those that resonate in 2008. In some cases, we’ve followed their stories for decades; others made only a single, but spectacular, impression. But all of them possess dimensions so real that we can practically imagine their lungs expanding, their triumphs and tragedies as poignant as anything on the front page.
And right off the bat, Wizard pulls out their fanboy cock and jacks it roughly.
Wolverine is interesting in that, for the vast majority of his existence, he’s more or less been a Byronic hero, complete with all the lack of substance that implies. He has a Dark Past that has made him a Troubled Man. He’s simplistic by design, because he’s a vehicle for stories far moreso than he is a driver of personal narrative. Quite simply, there’s no there there, so much so that in the last two years writers have written Wolverine at being both in the Nazi death camps in late 1944 and at Hiroshima in early 1945 (that’s a hell of a commute!). It doesn’t matter that all the backstory that’s being added to Wolverine conflicts, because good Wolverine stories aren’t intended to be part of an exacting history but rather the introduction of Wolverine as a dramatic agent into the writer’s situation of choice.
This is fine. (You can say the same thing about Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca.) But Wolverine, fun narrative tool though he might be, isn’t a particularly interesting character. He’s usually mostly a cliche – the Man With No Name (And Claws). Ask yourself what Logan’s favorite beer is. I mean, he drinks enough of it, right? You’d think any reasonably knowledgeable comics reader would know his favorite; that’s a detail that implies that the character has likes and dislikes beyond what the reader imprints upon him.
Wolverine doesn’t have that, because he’s ultimately more of a plot device than a character. At times he’s threatened to break out as a character in his own right, but he’s never really done it.
Any list of top comic book characters would naturally have all three of these in the top five; they’re all enduring classics. But I’d like to point out that Superman, in particular, has been robbed of the #1 spot. Without Superman, there is no rest of the list. Hell, without Superman there’s a good argument that there’s no comic books period after the mid-40s.
But all three are good characters in their own right, not plot devices like Wolverine usually is. Superman likes rich food (because he can’t get fat) and enjoys quiet moments with ordinary people because it’s something he doesn’t get often; Spider-Man is a science geek whose tendency to be broke means he subconsciously forces himself to prefer old-school technology; Batman is the world’s most accomplished human in just about any skill, but can’t cook worth a damn because Alfred always does it for him.
Probably it’s because they’ve all been driving their own narratives for so long that their personalities have gradually become formed into a consensus whole, which says something about the strength of their characters arising through the shared storytelling, I think.
5. The Joker
More of a plot device than a character, but he’s memorable and distinctive, if nothing else, and when written properly isn’t just an amorphous tool for writer self-insertion. He’s getting points here mostly for his existing cachet.
When was the last really good Joker story, anyway? He hasn’t been in a good story in forever, mostly because nobody seems to know how to write him worth a damn any more. (Morrison’s Joker is creepy without being funny, which misses the point of the character.) It’s endless mass-murderer stories, one after another, most of which commit the unpardonable sin of having a cheesy, unentertaining Joker. The last Joker story with a really entertaining Joker was probably Last Laugh, which suffered from being a bad idea off the bat, but at least was funny.
Sure. I wouldn’t necessarily put Rorshach in the top ten, but he’s exactly the sort of character who should make the high rankings on this list: unforgettable and unique.
7. Captain America
Cap’s a surprisingly complex fellow. He should rank highly.
I like all the Hellboy comics I’ve read, but for me they work more as an example of Mignola’s mastery of tone and storytelling more than because Hellboy is really Just That Fascinating A Guy. But I haven’t read nearly so much Hellboy as some people have, so I’m probably not the best person to judge his ranking here.
Magneto’s one of those characters who’s gotten a lot less impressive with age as writer after writer has done their level best to muddy and complexify a very simple focus: he’s a Holocaust survivor who thinks he’s seen the next one coming and will take any steps necessary to avoid it. It’s such a great hook, and it’s no surprise that people think highly of the concept, because it’s a great concept – it starts from a realistic point of desperation and takes that to a logical and villainous conclusion.
He hasn’t been written well in forever, though.
10. John Constantine
Auto-include in the top ten. You shouldn’t even have to think twice.
11. The Thing
Ben Grimm probably would have to be somewhere in the top twenty if only for his relatively inexplicable and lasting appeal to every comic fan ever born. I think it was Mark Waid who said that the Thing is one of the simplest, least complicated characters in comics, and that this is precisely why he’s so beloved and works so well.
Now this is the first truly “no, wait, what?” pick on the list, because Snake-Eyes, even moreso than Wolverine, is a cipher – intentionally so. He’s meant to be a blank slate for the reader to imprint himself upon. What do you expect – the guy was originally designed to be a cool action figure. He is an expressionless ninja with next to no personality. “Remember that time Snake-Eyes had a swordfight with Storm Shadow” is not a character moment, okay?
13. Kitty Pryde
I’m one of the few people curiously neutral about Kitty Pryde; I’m not one of the rabid fans who grew up with her and adore her to pieces as their fantasy best friend/girlfriend, and I’m not one of the anti-Kitty reactionaries who loathe her overexposure and tendency to be glorified by writers who are part of the first camp just mentioned (see Whedon, Joss). I wouldn’t have had her in my top twenty, but then again my top twenty would have looked a lot different than this one. I can see how she makes the list, though.
14. Jesse Custer
I think Cassidy is probably the most compelling and interesting character to come out of Preacher, with Tulip a close second. Jesse suffers a bit from Predictably Heroic Leading Man Syndrome. (See also: Jack from Lost, who has the same problem but worse.) Which is all right, because he was the hero of the book, but it also means he’s not as memorable as Cassidy or Tulip.
15. Wonder Woman
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz *snork* *shifts* zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: barring the runs of George Perez and Greg Rucka, Wonder Woman is a fifty-year-old boring cipher of a character with tremendously little to recommend her past her eminence as the First Major Female Character In Comics. But at some point, you have to stop and think that if someone else had been the first major female character in comics, Wonder Woman would now be nothing more than an in-joke among dedicated comics fans wanting to pointedly comment about bondage fantasies, or possibly due for rehabilitation in an Alex Ross project where all the Golden Age characters from company X band together to fight a non-descript evil of some sort.
16. Lex Luthor
One of my all-time favorite characters, because his status as a villain – really, the villain – is so explicable and definite, borne out of envy and pride as it is. Lex Luthor is in many ways the superheroic equivalent of Lucifer: he could have been the greatest of all had he not chosen to fall from grace, but what caused him to fall from grace was in part what made him great in the first place. The Joker gets all the press, but Lex is the real deal when it comes to great villains.
Aside: I really loved Grant Morrison’s portrayal of him in both All-Star Superman and also his brief appearance in Final Crisis. (“You presume I have no creed? My creed is Luthor.”) I’m hoping that Morrison follows through: Luthor shouldn’t cravenly fall in line with all the other baddies. His pride would never allow it.
Almost definitely demanded a spot in the top twenty. No further comment.
18. Doctor Doom
God knows I love me some Doctor Doom, and so does everybody else. But it’s not just because he refers to himself in the third person a lot. (Well, that’s part of it.) His appeal is much like Lex Luthor’s – were it not for his pride he would be the paramount man in all the world, but because of his pride he is so very much less. Which is exactly why he’s such a great villain.
19. The Hulk
The Hulk is interesting in that the best Hulk stories almost inevitably veer away from the basic “monster inside the man” principle to become more complex – literalist interpretations of multiple personality syndrome, innate psychological conflict, and lots of other conflicts purely mental and self-directed in nature. But although everybody likes and respects those stories, what they really want to see the Hulk do is smash.
Which in turn says a lot about the audience, doesn’t it?
I’ve never read it – I’m not going to buy the issues, you can’t find the trades anywhere and when they do they’re expensive as all get out because they’ve been out of print for literally decades, and I haven’t found a download yet. So no comment.
Wouldn’t have made my top twenty either, but definitely top fifty.
22. Commissioner James Gordon
The first “supporting character” to make the list, and it’s an interesting choice because Gordon is frequently a bit of a cipher – he’s Batman’s old-school cop friend. I’m the first to admit that thanks to numerous dedicated writers he’s transcended that in his own focused stories, but writers too frequently fall into the traps you’d expect with such a character, which means it’s very hard to write a very good Jim Gordon.
23. Yorick Brown
This is about the right placement for Yorick. He’s a fully realized character and his journey through his series is interesting and genuine, but for someone with such an epic title (“the last man on earth”), the story he was in never really quite jumped up to eleven like you’d expect. Besides, 355 is just more interesting than he is. Yorick suffers from Snoopy Syndrome.
Characters from Sin City – by design a series of recycled pulp tropes – should not make this list. Period. Marv isn’t even the most interesting one.
25. The Spirit
Wizard here seem desperate for critical credibility. “Hey! People think Will Eisner is hot shit! Let’s put the Spirit in the list! It’ll show that we know stuff!” But the Spirit himself is a genial but empty shell; he was a tool for Eisner to tell stories and tinker with the form of comics and storytelling. His inclusion in this list is the first obvious indication that, as expected, Wizard has no idea what they’re trying to do and are half-assing their way through an article idea that could have been a lot more engaging.
Swap places with Jesse Custer and you’re closer to the mark. Cassidy’s tragic arc is the best thing about Preacher – so much so that Ennis pretty obviously shifted gears to accomodate his story first and foremost, and this in a series where the original hook was “man goes to find God and beat him up” so you get a sense of how strong Cassidy’s story ended up being. Cassidy also gets all the best lines in the series, and that’s frequently a sign of a strong character.
27. Green Goblin
Dr. Octopus is the Spider-Man villain with resonance. The Goblin is honestly just a garden-variety psychopath with a silly costume and a lot of power; there’s never been anything special about the Goblin himself. One of the most overrated villains in comics and always has been. Now, if we were talking about Harry Osborn rather than Norman, this would be a different thing entirely; Harry Osborn is fascinating, and his gradual, sometimes unwilling collapse into villainy and final redemption is one of the truly great Spider-Man stories, both for his own descent and Peter’s reaction to it. (This is of course why Marvel decided to vanish it out of continuity with magical demon wishing.)
28. Fone Bone
“Wizard picks an indie character to show that they have depth,” volume II. (This would be a lot less obvious if they didn’t keep going back to the five non-big-two series they’ve actually managed to read.) Of course, cynicism aside, Bone is one of the masterworks of the medium, and Fone Bone is the deepest and most engaging character in the series. I honestly would have ranked him higher.
It’s interesting that, of all the characters in Watchmen, Wizard studiously avoided the most fascinating one in the entire series (the Comedian) as well as the most adventurous (Dr. Manhattan) and instead picked the more conventional choices: the grim vigilante, the bright-eyed hero, and the villain.
30. The Flash
They don’t exactly specify Wally per se, but they mention him so let’s just assume it’s Wally. And I have zero problem with Wally ranking fairly high on the list; he’s had a great coming-of-age journey over the last twenty-five years, from sidekick to uncertain lead (remember his slutting-around period?) to confident lead to married man to family man. Wally’s journey has been done so well that many people reacted negatively to the teasing of the recent, nigh-pointless return of Barry Allen. How often does that happen in comics fandom? “Oh god I can’t believe they brought back a popular character from the dead! That ruins things!” People accepted the return of Bucky, for crissake.
31. Tulip O’Hare
Okay, now having traded Jesse and Cassidy’s positions already, now swap Tulip with Jesse’s new position and that’s about right, although you could probably drop Jesse a little more. Tulip’s a genre-busting, expectation-smashing character who’s never compromised in the slightest by a complex, shifting plot. She kicks ass, and not in a generic Lara Croft sort of way, but in the highly personal and developed manner of a fully realized individual.
32. Green Arrow
See, if we were talking Mike Grell era Green Arrow, I’d be right on board, but you know they’re not talking about that complex character written in mature, muted tones. They’re talking about boring, one-note “I Am A Liberal Look At Me Spout My Liberal Politics” Green Arrow, who is less interesting with every passing year. It’s not the 1970s, folks, and as great as Neal Adams was I don’t see the need to keep recycling his ideas over and over again.
Was going to be on here somewhere and I’m fine with it.
34. Luke Cage
Four years ago I would have disagreed and said this was just blatant fanboy pandering. Say what you will about Brian Michael Bendis (and a lot of it is justified) – he’s done more than any writer period to flesh out and develop Luke Cage as an original individual in his own right rather than simply being a blaxploitation pastiche. I still don’t know that I would rank Cage anywhere near this high – it’s worth mentioning, yet again, how incredibly narrow-focused Wizard’s list is – but I’d consider him now, where previously I wouldn’t have.
35. Conan the Barbarian
It seems kind of weird including a character whose origin lies in other media in this sort of list. (See also: G.I. Joe characters.) Does this mean we should get offended that Darth Vader didn’t make the list? There are a lot more Star Wars comics than Conan comics, right? How about Predator? Or the Terminator? Et cetera.
36. Iron Man
On the one hand, Tony Stark is probably the most interestingly flawed character Marvel owns; a character who treats superheroism as ongoing personal therapy, and when he’s written right he’s fascinating as a warts-and-all hero. On the other hand, when he’s written wrong, he’s disastrous, and I’m not just talking about his Civil War stint as Iron Fascist, but also the time spent as the Avengers traitor in the service of Kang, and Teen Tony, and whatever the fuck Orson Scott Card is doing with Ultimate Iron Man, and… geez, there are a lot of shitty Iron Man comic books out there, huh?…
37. Barbara Gordon
Probably the only example where a maiming with slightly misogynistic overtones wholly improved a character, without question, by giving her a unique role that has become so prominent and fantastically obvious in retrospect that nowadays people keep copying it. It’s a brilliant and fairly literal application of the old “brains over brawn” maxim, and it works perfectly.
38. Spider Jerusalem
Should have been top ten. Spider might be a self-insert for Warren Ellis, but that only explains why everybody wants to go out drinking with Warren Ellis. The bruised, self-destructive prophet in continual mourning (not that he’d ever admit such a thing) and a taste for monkey burgers remains Ellis’ masterwork, and Ellis has written a lot of goddamned good comics, so that’s no small praise.
39. The Punisher
There are some characters whose place on this list I might quibble with. The Punisher is not one of them; Garth Ennis’ infamous dark-souled murderer is probably now the definitive take on the character and will last for a very, very long time indeed until writers who are not Garth Ennis display that they do not understand how to write like Garth Ennis, and the book gets cancelled, and the Punisher comes back five years later as, I dunno, a clown or something.
I’ve never been a big Thor fan. I’ve read the Walt Simonson stuff, and yeah, it’s good, but it’s not good because of Thor specifically – it’s more because of the scope of his story and the supporting cast. Balder, Beta Ray Bill, the Executioner – all of Thor’s best stories are really about other people, to me. Thor’s fun and all. I just don’t think he ranks as a “best comic character.” (Cue Chris Sims to tell me I am full of crap.)
41. Mr. Fantastic
Great character. Tends to get written simplistically a lot more than most (the fate of many a “science nerd” oriented character), but that doesn’t make him not good. Mark Waid’s note on Reed in his F4 manifesto, comparing Reed to a slightly more civilized and polite version of Doc Savage, is excellent reading in its own right, incidentally.
42. Hal Jordan
The greatest retcon in DC history is Geoff Johns somehow getting people to believe that Hal Jordan had anything resembling a personality prior to 2004. He’s improved a bit over the last couple of years, but no way would I ever put him on this list even if I ignored the fact that I dislike boring old Hal Jordan quite a bit. He’s less interesting than Guy or Kyle, less appealing than Jonh Stewart or Kilowog, and does not have a cool head fin like Tomar-Tu.
43. Jimmy Corrigan
“We read Acme Novelty Warehouse! We’re relevant!”
44. Jack Knight
A predictable pick for the top fifty, certainly. That doesn’t mean it’s not warranted. Starman is (James Robinson’s storytelling foibles aside) one of the great modern comics works, and Jack’s journey one of the great modern comics journeys – oddly comparable to Wally West’s in a number of ways but over a more compressed timeframe and with a singular voice dictating the pace of events. And moreso than many characters, Jack’s voice is distinctive and singular.
Yeah, he deserves a spot. This Ronin stuff is kind of dumb (okay, it’s really, really dumb – Hawkeye is Hawkeye, not a ninja), but historically there’s no way Hawkeye doesn’t deserve a spot; he’s brash and cocky and obstinate and loyal and funny and wholly unique, and is that rare example of a character who’s almost never been written poorly even when thrust into the most ludicrous situations imaginable. (Like being Goliath again.)
46. Jessica Jones
Maybe she makes top two hundred, but top fifty? Look, Alias was a good comic and all, but it wasn’t so good that she instantly becomes One Of The Great Characters, you know?
47. Silver Surfer
I haven’t really read a lot of Silver Surfer comics, so I don’t feel equipped to really judge whether he’s a good character or not. What Surfer I’ve read seems to illustrate a fairly standard cosmic hero (most of whom owe a large debt to Superman). Appreciates all life, as content with oneself as can be, et cetera. Kind of bland, really.
48. Professor X
Started off as a generic commander type, but over the years gradually evolved – not into something sinister per se, but definitely more manipulative and willing to commit to desperate action where necessary. Definitely still one of the good guys, but he’s gotten a lot less moralistic and a lot more pragmatic as the years have passed. I’m not sure whether it’s a sign of growth or of inconsistency or of shifting paradigms. Could be all three, really.
49. Black Adam
One of the most deeply overrated chumps to come down the pike in a very long time; started off as a second-rate Captain Marvel villain and then, through a lengthy period where multiple writers decided that what the DC Universe really, really needed was the most blatant imitation of Namor humanly possible, hamfistedly thrown into conflict with superheroes through editorial fiat that never even came close to making sense. A shame, because the basic concept of Captain Marvel-but-not-heroic is a good one; he’s never been used particularly cleverly.
50. Cobra Commander
Oh, come on.