My Top Ten Superhero List
One of the things I love doing is making lists. Favorite novels, favorite films, ex-girlfriends, cool places I’ve visited, the list of lists goes on and on. Since I’m in superhero mode today, I’ve decided to post an annotated list of my favorite superheroes and the reasons I love them, with a few images borrowed from around the web. This “top ten” list is in reverse order:
10. Luke Cage (Powerman)
I’ve loved Powerman since I was a kid, and formed a close bond with him when I was eighteen years old and wrote a screenplay about him. Luke Cage’s origin story is call, and his approach to the hero business–farming himself out as a “hero for hire” was novel and very cool. I think Cage is massively underrated, and I’d love to have a chance to do more with him, or to see one of the great writers out there really take the character and make something happen. If Marvel is wondering which of their properties deserves a film next, it’s kind of wacky that they’ve overlooked their best African-American hero for so long. And if they need help, I think I can still dig up a copy of that twenty-five year old screenplay somewhere. The writing of that screenplay also made for a great chapter in my somewhat autobiographical novel, TREMBLE, and I think it’s one of the funniest chapters in the book.
9. The Silver Surfer
The power cosmic. I love the Surfer because he opened up the Universe to me. All the power and majesty of the stars belong to the Silver Surfer, and every good Surfer story blends everything there is to like about things like Star Trek and Star Wars with a good trip on mushrooms and a dose of high-powered fantasy role-playing gaming mixed in. And he’s so damn tragic a figure, it’s hard not to connect.
I love Superman. And I hate him. I’m not a big fan of inconsistency, and the way Superman’s power level has fluctuated over the decades is really annoying. But the truth is that Superman is the fiercely beating heart of what it means to be a Superhero. One of my current works in progress, a novel called “Crossover’ is a sort of Superman tale, and as I’ve been working on it, I’ve come to love Superman even more. Grant Morrison’s brilliant treatment of the character in Supergods is also fabulous, down to his awesome analysis of the first comic book cover to feature the Man of Steel. With the new movie coming up, it’s hard not to get at least a bit excited over Smallville’s favorite adopted son.
Batman was the first superhero I ever met. There’s a photo of me somewhere, I’m about four years old, and I’m asleep at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, with a batman comic covering my chest (and , I imagine, protecting me from a nasty sunburn). Batman is one of the most complex of superheroes ever created, and he’s also the one who challenges each of us the most. After all, he has no powers. The only difference between you, me, and Batman, is a big hefty pair of balls. (OK, it helps to be superwealthy.) Politically and psychologically, the vast number of Batman stories that have been told, from the terrible to the awesome (see Scott Snyder’s work), have barely scratched the surface of what can be done with the Dark Knight.
Spidey has been around for as long as I have (almost exactly), although he looks a lot better these days than I do. I grew up with Spidey, and will also love him. Spiderman’s simple and basic realization that “with great power comes great responsibility” may be comicdom’s greatest contribution to our culture in terms of understanding why it’s right to do the right thing. This lesson needs to be constantly reinforced, and in a world where too many school children suffer from bullying, Spidey is their best choice for a hero to help them find the courage to see it through. Spiderman never gives up. In the image I’ve chosen here, he’s taking on Firelord, an incredibly powerful herald of Galactus (who eats planets), and as you can see, he doesn’t give up. So neither can I, and neither can you.
5. Kitty Pride
Amazing that she sneaks on tot his list, I know, but it is Christmas time, and Kitty’s Christmas adventure is a comic book tale I have never forgotten. She’s young, her power isn’t all that, but she can stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the X-Men in terms of courage and pluckiness. Whatever superhero name she goes by, and however old she’s become, the teenage Kitty Pride, with her average looks, super-sharp mind, and power that puts her right on the edge of cowardice and bravery all the time, will always be one of my faves. And I hope to see more done with her in years to come.
4. Iron Man
OK, so I currently sport a Robert Downey Jr./Iron Man style beard (which you can learn how to grow here). I always loved Iron Man, even though so many of his most important stories pushed me towards hating him. Much like Batman, Iron Man is a normal guy (with a heart condition) who puts on a suit of armor and goes out and gets the job done. He could be me; he could be any of us. And he’s the first superhero, and possibly the only superhero in my opinion, to improve his rep and appeal through the films. I saw the first Iron Man movie in Singapore, in a theater packed with Singaporeans, the film running with Chinese subtitles, and everyone in the theater loved it. For me, there was the sense that that film was the first to truly nail the character, and the first time special effects were able to build on the work of the countless artists who have drawn shellhead, and present us with an amazing visual treat. I could watch Tony Stark putting the armor on, and taking the armor off, over and over again. For me though, “Demon in a Bottle” will always be the seminal Iron Man story, one of the best of the few comics that show us the very human weaknesses of these incredible characters.
Poor Thor. He’s had a rough ride and he’s been a challenge to every creative who has tried his or her hand at the title. Sure, he’s a Norse god. Sure, he’s extremely powerful. But he manages to avoid the storytelling pitfalls of a Superman by existing in a Universe where there are many things more powerful than he is, and that’s what gives the reader a chance to see what he is really all about: indomitable courage. In the image I’ve chosen, Thor is battling the Celestials, spacegods far more powerful than Thor and the other Norse gods. And he won’t give up. Ever. It’s a theme with the best of our heroes, that they teach us this lesson over and over again. But when you think about it, it’s the most important lesson we can learn. Never give up. Not your dreams. Not your sense of honor. Not your hope. Not your principles. These heroes never do.
2. Captain America
I think the reason that Cap is so high on my list is that Cap and I believe in the same thing: The American Dream. Not the U.S. government, not the reality of life in the U.S. today, not the mistakes we’ve made on the world stage, but the Dream in its purest form. Equality. Justice. Peace. And a chance for every individual regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or physical limitations to achieve their dreams. Captain America is not a political icon. He is a singular symbol of what we all need most when things have taken a turn towards the really crappy: Hope. Cap is courage, and bravery, and honor, but beyond that, far beyond that, he is hope. As silly as it may have been, the image I’ve chosen here is from a “What if” (meaning it never happened) tale in which Cap/Steve Rogers actually becomes President. The ending hurt when I was a kid, and it still hurts today. The best literature is not the best written stories, or the most famous, or the stories with the best dialogue or descriptions. The mark of true literature is that the story stays with you forever, and returns to haunt you over and over throughout your life. For reasons that may or not be obvious here at the end of 2012, this Captain America story is, for me, one of those tales.
I really hate Wolverine. I hate him because he’s so brilliantly conceived, at least now that multiple creators have had the chance to tweak him. From a conceptual level, it is probably impossible to devise a better character than Wolverine. The healing factor combined with the adamantium bones give us an unkillable hero that we can cut, slash, burn, poison, and flay to our hearts content–but we can’t keep him down. The synergy of those two powers–the bones and the healing factor–creates the perfect hero. And the claws are immensely cool. There is no samurai sword you can unsheath, no gun you can unholster, no uru hammer you can twirl, that will ever be as cool as those claws. Add to all of that the fact that he doesn’t age and you can tell stories about Wolverine from any time period you might want, and…he can smoke without risk of damaging his health. If you’re a smoker, or you’ve ever been a smoker, that has to make you jealous. Wolverine is the “Jack Reacher” of the comic book world, too. A man with a personal code that he will never break, and a code that you can’t help but admire. Every hero on this list would have your back in times of trouble, but the bottom line is, Wolverine is the one you’d want. He’s the Timex watch of the superhero world: taking licking after licking, but still ticking. Beyond that, he’s an incredibly real, incredibly deep man. The image here is a panel from a comic I’ve never forgotten, a panel that floats to the front of my mind every time the gun control controversy is making headlines, every time someone dies because someone else left a gun–ostensibly one for hunting–someplace where the wrong person could get his or her hands on it. People think of Wolverine as an implacable killer, but the truth is, he may be the gentlest hero of them all.