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Pulp Culture
Ranking the five greatest
comic-book superheroes

November 7, 2002
By Franklin Harris

Who is the greatest comic-book superhero of all? Most people say Superman. After all, he is the best known superhero. But on my list, the Man of Steel comes in at No. 5, which is a good place to start my countdown.

  • No. 5. Superman. Since his debut in "Action Comics" No. 1 in 1938, Superman has been the prototypical superhero, although astute observers know that he has precursors, notably Doc Savage.

    SupermanSuperman was the first "total package." He had the spandex costume, the secret identity and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

    Given all of that, there must be a good reason why I don't rank Superman higher. There is. Superman is boring.

    While Superman was a popular character in the 1940s he didn't hit his stride until the '60s. It was then that Superman became the character we know today, with his Fortress of Solitude and outlandish adversaries. (In the '40s, Lex Luthor was Superman's only memorable foe.)

    But in the mid '80s, DC Comics stripped away most of what made the '60s Superman interesting. This "back to basics" approach amounted to "back to boring." And recent attempts to resurrect some of Superman's Silver Age glory have foundered. The damage is hard to undo.

    For some of Superman's finest moments, see the trade paperback collection "Superman in the '60s."

  • No. 4. Plastic Man. Here is a character who hasn't been treated properly for 50 years, but his glory days are so great he must rank among the top superheroes.

    The reason for Plastic Man's greatness is one man, Jack Cole.

    Cole was probably the best cartoonist of the Golden Age, and under his guidance, Plastic Man became the first surreal superhero.

    Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman writes, "Jack Cole's 'Plastic Man' belongs high on any adult's How to Avoid Prozac list, up there with the best of S.J. Perelman, Laurel and Hardy, Damon Runyan, Tex Avery and the Marx Brothers."

    For the best of Plastic Man, see Spiegelman and Chip Kidd's "Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits" and the four volumes of DC Comics' "Plastic Man Archives."

    Plastic Man also is showcased in the recent "JLA" No. 65.

  • No. 3. Spider-Man. With Spider-Man, writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko perfected the "everyman" superhero and changed comics forever.

    Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, started out as a high-school nerd with no love life and money problems. Today, he is a high-school science teacher with a messed-up love life and money problems. But he still dons his red-and-blue tights to fight the likes of the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. Why? Because "with great power comes great responsibility."

  • No. 2. Captain Marvel. Not the Marvel Comics version of Captain Marvel, but the original Captain Marvel.

    Often derided as a Superman clone, Captain Marvel is anything but.

    First, Captain Marvel has a unique secret identity. He is really Billy Batson, a boy who becomes the World's Mightiest Mortal by saying the magic word "Shazam!"

    Plastic ManSecond, from the beginning, Captain Marvel had a strong supporting cast of villains and sidekicks, something Superman wouldn't have until the '60s.

    Third, Captain Marvel benefited from the talents of the best creators of the Golden Age, including artist C.C. Beck.

    Readers during the '40s agreed. "Captain Marvel" and "Whiz Comics," both starring Captain Marvel, outsold "Superman" and "Action Comics."

    For the best of Captain Marvel's adventures, see the three volumes of "Shazam! Archives," published by DC Comics.

  • No. 1. Batman. Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman combined the superheroics of Superman, the playboy secret identity of the Shadow, the outlandish rogues gallery of Dick Tracy and the atmosphere of German silent movies to become the greatest costumed crimefighter of all.

    To learn what makes Batman the best, see Frank Miller's graphic novel, "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" (not "The Dark Knight Strikes Again") and the trade paperback collection "Batman in the '70s."

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    Web site designed by Franklin Harris.
    Send feedback to franklin@pulpculture.net.