Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #20, and this week’s questions is…
Who are my five favorite comic book heroes and why?
Time is short and words are precious. These five characters might not be exactly my absolute favorite, but I really do like them each a lot, so we’re going with them:
Saturn Girl (Imra Ardeen Ranzz)
Created by: Otto Binder & Al Plastino
First Appearance: Adventure Comics #247 – April, 1958
Saturn Girl is a founding member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and maybe the only member who, in all of the reboots and rebrandings that that team has experienced, has never had a name change. This is true in spite of the fact that she is so-called simply because she’s from Saturn. It’d be like having a hero called “Earth-Man”. Oh wait, the Legion had one of those too.
Actually, Saturn Girl is from Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, which means I was really disappointed when she didn’t show up and save the day in Infinity War. Some versions of the character have tried to justify her name by making it clear that telepaths, who are native to Titan, are generally not trusted in the interstellar landscape of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and so Saturn Girl is so-named as a deliberate effort to change that perception.
Whatever, she’s a great character. Her powers were originally described as “Thought-Casting”, or sometimes “Super Thought-Casting”, which generally means she can read minds, give people psychic pushes to behave in certain ways, and attack people with mental blasts. She was, as I said, a founding member of the Legion, and a mainstay of the team for many years. She was the first team leader that we saw elected (twice in a row), and always shown as resilient, tough and determined.
Like all long-lasting comic book characters, there have been a variety of approaches to writing her over the years. In the 1970’s she retired from the team to marry Lightning Lad, another founder, but they were both reinstated later on after they helped save the galaxy and the Legion got around the amending their by-laws. They later retired again, and ended up rejoining again after saving everybody from another threat. She and Lightning Lad had children and were thus the first active members to be parents, which led to her being a central figure in the aftermath of the famed Great Darkness Saga when Darkseid took one of her children and turned him into one of their greatest enemies, as vengeance for his defeat. Even so, it was Saturn Girl who was able to bring her child back, not by her power by by her ability to understand and even respect the darkness of the universe.
Even though Saturn Girl’s powers were not physical (as indeed none of the early female members of the Legion were, except for Supergirl and, briefly, Lightning Lass), she eventually became one of their most powerful members. In this, we’ve seen her do lots of morally ambiguous things (she once maintained an illusion of a non-present teammate for months, and another time unconsciously re-animated a comatose colleague, giving him will and personality) without descending into outright madness or villainy.
At times we’ve seen her do such incredible things as re-animate a comatose teammate and give him a personality, and maintain an illusion of someone else who was not present over months at a time.
Her signature moment, as far as I’m concerned, came at the conclusion of The Universo Project, a four part story in Legion of Super-Heroes #32-35, by Paul Levitz and Greg Larocque. In this story, Unverso had basically taken over earth by hypnotizing its president, and had the Legion outlawed. Saturn Girl and three other members who were considered the hardest to control we imprisoned in a mental fugue in order to keep them docile, but Saturn Girl broke free of the conditioning of her own accord, woke the others, and allowed them hatch a plan to escape and fight back. At the story’s conclusion, Saturn Girl was faced with a mind-controlled Mon-El and Ultra Boy (traditionally two of the team’s most powerful members, both with “Superboy-type” powers), but instead of giving in she took them down, and then punched Universo out (as seen in the photo up top).
Mr. Miracle (Scott Free)
Created by: Jack Kirby
First Appearance: Mister Miracle #1 – April 1971
Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga spanned four lightly-interconnected titles which were all produced concurrently during the time that Kirby moved from Marvel to DC in the 1970’s. I’ve written about all of them before, but while New Gods was probably the core title of this saga, Mister Miracle was really its heart.
On a broad level, the Fourth World was about the even despot Darkseid and his search for the “Anti-Life Equation”, something which wouldn’t kill everyone (as it sounds) but rather take away their free will and individual identities. The story is that he was kept in check from his ambitions by a deal made with New Genesis, an equal but opposite power to his own. To secure this pact, Darkseid and Highfather (New Genesis’ leader) traded sons, to ensure that neither world would attack the other. Darkseid’s son was Orion, who was raised on New Genesis and found himself to be an outsider, in that his inborn warrior ways clashed with the peace-loving philosophy of New Genesis.
Highfather’s son, on the other hand, went to Darkseid, where he was given no sort of special privilege, and was given to same fate as most of the population of Apokolips, a hungry slave whose only hope was to excel as part of Darkseid’s army. However, in this oppressive environment, the boy, who had been named “Scott Free” as an act of intentional irony, grew to be someone who always maintained hope, and when the opportunity arose managed to slip out of the prison that was his adopted homeworld and make his way to earth, where he made friends and eventually adopted the superhero identity of Mister Miracle, the world’s greatest escape artist.
And not only did his undiminished optimism free himself, but it also freed Big Barda, an elite servant of Darkseid’s who found freedom from her training through the love that she and Scott shared.
Rarely has there been a hero whose modus operandi was so effectively tied into his personal backstory. Mr. Miracle’s is all about escape and freedom–it comes through his origin, through his occupation (Scott actually does performances as an escape artist) and through his approach to combating evil and oppression. That’s what I love about the character…the consistency that there is in every part of his story, and the fact that that story is built so solidly upon the idea of hope.
Jack-in-the-Box (Zachary Johnson)
Created by: Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross
First Appearance: Kurt Busiek’s Astro City #3 – October 1995
Jack-in-the-Box is, without a doubt, the character on this list who has had the least number of appearances. He is of part of writer Kurt Busiek’s magnum opus, Astro City, having debuted originally in #3 of the title’s first volume, in a small appearance, but had his first real focus in #11-12 of the second volume.
Most of the characters of Astro City, at least originally, were obviously inspired by more popular characters appearing in Marvel or DC comics. Samaritan, for example, is clearly an ersatz-Superman, while the Confessor is inspired by Batman, the First Family by the Fantastic Four, and so on.
Jack-in-the-Box is a little harder to pin down. He’s a clown-themed hero with lots of devices and weaponry, who fights mostly street level crime in a manner that criminals find terrifying. That sounds a bit like Batman. But he’s also a gaudy and a bit flamboyant in his style, hopping around acrobatically while attacking his enemies with a quick-hardening streamers, somewhat like Spider-Man. Hmm, maybe you put those two concepts together and you get someone more akin to Daredevil.
But he’s also a legacy hero, as Zachary Johnson is actually the second Jack-in-the-Box, after his father before him, and in one of his first feature stories he’s seen training his intended replacement. All that makes me think of the Flash, or even Mister Miracle.
Either way, Jack-in-the-Box has always been my favorite Astro City hero, maybe because I like stories about family. The most significant Jack-in-the-Box story was all about him coming to grips with the potential impact of his life as a hero upon his unborn son, even as his own childhood was shaped by the death of his father while he was fighting crime as the first Jack-in-the-Box.
Superman (Clark Kent / Kal-El)
Created by: Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
First Appearance: Action Comics #1 – June 1938
I know, I know…after three sort of obscure and unusual characters, to find Superman on the list is a bit of a disappointment. But I can’t ignore him–he is genuinely one of my favorite superhero characters, ever.
Like pretty much everybody else in my corner of reality, I grew up familiar with the basics of Superman. As I mentioned in a previous post, I knew him from Superfriends cartoons and George Reeves’ television portrayal. And back then…I wasn’t much of a fan. The actual Superman comics I read were a bit dull and repetitive to my eyes, and if I was blogging back then I’d never had included him on my list of favorite anythings. Even when I saw the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, which I loved, I never really got into Superman comics. I preferred the younger version that I read in Superboy comics, who I guess we have to consider a different character, as his rights were negotiated separately.
And then a little something called Crisis on Infinite Earths came out and DC “rebooted” its line, including starting Superman’s story all over from the beginning. John Byrne was given the reins of the character for a while and retold Superman’s history in a six issue series called Man of Steel. Superboy was gone, Clark Kent had an interesting personality, Lex Luthor was a respected businessman, Batman was no longer Superman’s bff, Krypton was a cold and sterile place, and there were no other living Kryptonians, anywhere. Byrne’s comics made me feel that Superman was relatable and relevant, and made his story something I was excited to be coming into the ground floor of.
And then Byrne left, and the stories…got even better. In Byrne’s time, there were a bunch of long-running plotlines in place, but not really any big epics. After he left and was replaced by a bunch of other people–including Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, George Perez, Karl Kesel, Jackson Guice, and so many more–the stories got bigger, bolder, and broader. That led to things like Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite, Panic in the Sky, and of course The Death of Superman and it’s successors.
That character moved on from that particular group of creators and has fallen into many other hands. I haven’t read all of it by any means, but there have been some good stories by Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Kurt Busiek, Grant Morrison, J. Michael Straczynski, and so many others. And then somewhere along the way, I went back and started reading a bunch of that stuff that I had originally glossed over as a kid, and found that lots of it, I loved.
Through it all I think the quality of Superman that I most enjoy is his absolute determination to do the right thing, regardless of the personal cost, and the revelation that even for Superman, the personal cost can be quite high. For many years in the life of the character, the personal cost was loneliness–the fact that Superman was a last survivor of his homeworld, or his ultimate disconnection from humanity, in spite of his efforts. Sometimes, the cost has been in more traditional, story-driven heroic sacrifices. Either way, the character always retains his values, his commitment to the heroic ideals of courage and sacrifice.
As writer Martin Pasko put it in the narration of Action Comics #500, when he explains what makes Superman the superhero he is…
Any man of a dozen, a hundred, a million – but for a trick of fate – could have been placed in a rocket bound for Earth. Any man born on Krypton can gain that power beneath the yellow sun.
Nor is it wisdom that makes him Superman. Any man can be wise – if he lives long enough – and keeps his eyes and ears open while he lives.
No it is something else that special virtue that is his and his alone: The ability to use all that God-given power and that long-nurtured wisdom in the name of kindness ethics morality – the thing men call “good” to wield that power in the pursuit of justice and, in that pursuit to vanquish evil!
The Flash (Wally West)
Created by: John Broome & Carmine Infantino
First Appearance: The Flash #110 – December 1959
If I have to pick an all-time favorite movie, it’s Singin’ in the Rain, even though on any given day I might prefer to watch something else. An all time favorite TV show? Doctor Who. Band? The Beatles.
My all-time favorite comic book superhero? Wally West, aka the Flash.
Wally West of course started off as Kid Flash, way back in 1959, and didn’t graduate tot he main title until DC decided to kill off Barry Allen during the bigger-than-big maxi-series, Crisis on Infinite Earths. In a coda that’s only a couple of panels long, Wally West, coming to grips with the loss of his mentor, decides to adopt his costume and identity, and become…the Flash.
His story then continued in another limited series, this time called Legends, where in his very first issue he is a bit angsty about whether he’ll ever be able to move out from the shadow of Barry Allen, while still being worried about the possibility of Barry’s legend dying. He then went onto his own title and a membership in Justice League Europe, where he was overall a bit of a jerk–selfish and eager to be paid for his heroic services.
Then a writer named William Messner-Loebs was put in charge, whose run I have only read smatterings of, and which sadly has never been collected. But Messner-Loebs started to actively redeem Wally, partially by revealing that his jerkiness was in part a result of Barry’s death.
Later, the book fell to Mark Waid, who continued and improved on these ideas, crafting one of the best character-driven superhero runs I’ve ever encountered. Over the initial years of Waid’s tenure as writer, Wally did something we’ve almost never seen before in mainstream superhero comics: he grew up. He put his womanizing ways behind him, and became a committed partner to the strong and engaging Linda Park. He stopped being afraid of surpassing Barry Allen, and instead realized that it was the best way to honor him. He embraced his own identity and became a great superhero, without neglecting the more youthful and fun aspects of his personality.
The best place we ever saw this was in Waid’s classic tale, The Return of Barry Allen, in which Barry apparently comes back from death only to dash all of Wally’s idealized memories of him. The story is one of the best I’ve ever read at marrying plot with character, but it’s only one of a bunch of strong stories in Waid’s run.
After Mark Waid left, Geoff Johns became the main writer of The Flash and also did a good job, though his version could get a little gruesome from time to time (as a lot of Johns’ books do). And Wally also became part of the classic, big-7 JLA, where Grant Morrison made him awesome (just like he did with everyone else).