And finally, we arrive at the end of our countdown to my favorite fictional heroes. On this list of the final four, female characters finally outweigh the male, but only by the narrow margin of 2.0714 to 1.9286…
(Just kidding, by the way…the Rock doesn’t show up anywhere on this list)
4. Thursday Next
The Eyre Affair and it’s sequels
Thursday Next is police officer who is part of “Spec-Ops 27”, a special division of law-enforcement officers who handle literature-based crimes: the theft of rare first editions, that sort of thing. This is necessary in the alternate universe where her stories take place because there literature is a highly valued commodity, much more so than in the real world. There, Will-Speak machines sit on the street corner so anyone with a coin to spare can listen to a bit of Shakespeare on their way to work and passionate evangelists come to your door to convince you of their theories of who really wrote Hamlet. There are other odd things as well—genetic engineering is much more advanced so that whole extinct species are brought back to life, Wales is a socialist republic, and a huge multinational corporation called Goliath has its fingers in every area of British life.
In the midst of all this, Thursday is a smart officer who is very good at her job, highly adaptable and quick on her feet, and able to make her way through most situations through a combination of good instincts and quick reflexes. But what really sets her apart is when she learns how to start entering the world of fiction that exists behind-the-scenes in books. She quickly becomes a celebrity on both sides of reality (inspiring books to be written about her, and thus leading to the existence of the Written Thursday Next, as mentioned in #90. She then becomes a sought-after officer in both worlds, very capable of stopping crimes and dealing with dilemmas in both fiction and reality.
In spite of the absurdity inherent in her stories, Thursday was a relatable character who is easy to empathize with. There is tragedy in her backstory, as she was a reluctant hero in a disastrous military action that cost her brother’s life, and nearly cost her her relationship with her to-be-husband, Landon. The trauma of this experience led her to become an anti-war advocate, which was just one of the many ways that the powers-that-be in the real world saw her as a nuisance and an upstart. But Thursday never sets out to cause trouble—she simply sees the disasters that are in the making around her and does what she can to deflect and deflate them.
Often in her books (at the time of this writing, there are seven of them, by Jasper Fforde), she faces an imposing range of problems. For example, in the fourth book, Something Rotten, a quick survey of just some of the plot points that Thursday is facing includes:
- A rogue minotaur that has escaped its work of fiction and is causing chaos in the BookWorld
- The fact that her husband has been eliminated from existence by the time travelling activities of the Goliath Corporation, and she is in danger of forgetting him
- Hamlet has left his book to visit the real world, and his play is falling to pieces without him
- A hit has been taken out on Thursday, and the intended assassin is actually the wife of her good friend Spike
- The prophesy that somehow if the wrong team wins the upcoming croquet championship (an event on the level of the Superbowl or the World Cup), it will somehow lead to nuclear Armageddon
Issues like this are shown to just mount up upon the character as the chapters progress, leaving you completely unsure how she can possibly deal with them all in the pages that remain. And yet, somehow, she does, often by a combination of smarts, courage, physical toughness and flying-by-the-seat-of-her-pants problem solving. And at the same time, she’s also a dedicated wife and mother, which is the sort of thing I always appreciate in a heroic character.
3. Saturn Girl (Imra Ardeen)
Legion of Super-Heroes
The last founding member of the Legion of Super-Heroes for me to talk about, Imra Ardeen was created by Otto Binder and Al Plastino back in 1958. In the early days of the Legion, Saturn Girl was probably the most strongly defined as a character, and is easily in the top 3 most important Legionnaires over the whole franchise (along with Superboy, and maybe Brainiac 5). Saturn Girl is a telepath, and at times her powers have been shown to be fairly passive—primarily used to read people’s minds or maybe calm the odd nervous crowd. But at other times, she’s been shown to be among the most powerful members of the LSH, with mind control, crippling mental assaults, and sustained illusions all part of her repertoire. At one point, when she had suffered a bit of a mental breakdown, she unconsciously animated Cosmic Boy’s comatose body and made him fall in love with her. That’s pretty freaking powerful!
Saturn Girl is one of the earliest leaders of the Legion, having the first two terms that readers saw in their entirety. The first time she became leader, it was because she used her powers to force everyone to vote for her in an effort to actually sacrifice herself for her team. She failed when Lightning Lad took her place and died in her stead, becoming the first member of the team to fall. Much later, she tried to sacrifice herself again to bring Lightning Lad back to life, but this time she was replaced by Proty, a shape-shifting “pet” owned by one of her compatriots. This allowed both Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl to be alive, and to become one of the Legion’s most enduring romantic couples.
Throughout the Legion’s history, Saturn Girl plays a key role in a number of major stories. She’s the leader of the team when a group of them are transported into another galaxy and must contend with the Progenitor, she conspires with some of her teammates to get revenge on the Time Trapper for killing Superboy, she’s instrumental in taking down the White Triangle…and so many more. My favorite moments for Saturn Girl come in two stories. The first is The Universo Project, where Saturn Girl alone breaks free from Universo’s mental conditioning, and ultimately leads a small group of heroes to see earth set free from his control. This culminates in her using her mental powers to take down a mind-controlled Mon-El and Ultra Boy, and then taking down Universo herself with her fists. The other moments comes in Legion of the Damned, where Saturn Girl is the key figure in defeating the Blight, malevolent aliens who have also dominated the earth and mentally subjugated many of her colleagues.
Saturn Girl is also a layered and complex character. She’s been shown to have a level of darkness in her, or at least an ability to understand the darkness, without being consumed by it. This quality is most explicit when she saves her family from Darkseid. She’s had the sort of power levels that could have tempted the creators to turn her into a villain—along the lines of Phoenix or Terra—but instead she’s walked along the edge of the precipice without falling over it, which is ultimately more interesting.
2. Superman / Clark Kent (Kal-El)
You probably have never heard of “Superman”. He’s what they call a “superhero” created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The two young creators took ideas from characters like John Carter, Zorro, Popeye, and more, mixing in elements of modern day athletes and circus performers, and refashioning them as a costumed do-gooder with a dual identity—the timid and shy reporter Clark Kent being an impenetrable guise for the otherwise daring and larger-than-life Superman.
Or so it would have been to readers in 1938 when Action Comics #1 came out and began Superman’s unbroken 80 year publishing history. With Superman, Siege and Shuster may or may not have invented a comic book genre, but they certainly popularized it and legitimized it. Every superhero character, and pretty much every heroic comic book, published since then owes at least something to Superman, some more than others.
Like any other character published over such a long time, there have been a lot of approaches to how Superman has been depicted—both in comics and in film and on TV. In every version, he has had powers far beyond ordinary men and has dedicated those abilities to helping the downtrodden and the oppressed, stopping crime, saving people from accidents and natural disasters, and standing against villains and global threats. Sometimes he was a bit of a bully for the working class man, standing against the social injustice that puts people down. Other times he the earth’s greatest hero, standing against alien invasion or interdimensional threat. No matter how, he was a good guy, ready to give everything to save people, and happy to give people a winning smile and a wave afterwards.
There are so so so many great stories written about the character, even if we limit ourselves to just the modern age (when I’m most familiar with the character). Some of the notable ones:
- Death of Superman – where Superman dies stopping the otherwise unstoppable killing machine Doomsday from levelling Metropolis. This story became a media sensation and was followed-up with by a suitably mournful funeral storyline, and then a great mystery as Superman is apparently replaced by four other heroes, who to greater or lesser degrees claim to be the resurrected Man of Steel.
- Superman: Birthright – A really good take on Superman’s origin by Mark Waid, which in addition to being a remix of previous material also told a compelling story about Superman as both Kal-El the last son of Krypton and Clark Kent the child of earth, and his drive to see justice done.
- All-Star Superman – Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely imagine what if the zany imagination that went into the Silver-Age Superman had continued to the present day with a story about the end of Superman’s life and his drive to perform his final mighty feats before he succumbs to a trap by Lex Luthor.
- Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite – The antics of Mxyzptlk leads to a depowered Superman attempting to figure out how to move forward with life, including realizing it’s time to take his relationship with Lois Lane to the next step
- Up, Up and Away – A slowly re-powered Superman (completely separate from the example above) takes his place on the scene in a world that has lived without Superman for a year, contending with some fearsome menaces in the process, thanks to the writing of Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek.
- Braniac – Maybe the definitive battle between Superman and his second greatest adversary, Brainiac, the collector of worlds, by writer Geoff Johns, in a remarkably economical five-part epic.
- Kingdom Come – Mark Waid and Alex Ross craft a story of the future of the DC Universe, the centre of which is an older Superman realizing that the world still needs him, even if not everyone has always agreed.
In all of these stories, and in many more, Superman represents the highest levels of excellence for every category by which I measure characters for this list: courage, resourcefulness, sacrifice…and he is almost my favorite hero ever.
1. The Doctor
Who ranks more highly than Superman? Why…the Doctor of course.
If you could travel back in time to 1963 and tell someone that the title character of the odd children’s science fiction series—this tetchy old man who seems to be as likely to murder somebody as to save them—would ever be anyone’s favorite hero, they’d find it hard to believe. But it wasn’t long before the Doctor developed into a sympathetic figure, and then an admirable one.
At heart, the Doctor is a wanderer in space and time, heralding from a people who value non-disturbance of the status quo as the highest value. Finding himself stifled in such an environment, the Doctor had no choice but to run. Stealing a TARDIS (a trans-dimensional time machine), the Doctor began his epic journey that has spanned the galaxies and millennia. Rarely alone but often lonely, the Doctor develops deep friendships with the often human companions who travel with him, allowing them to ground him and challenge him as much as he teaches them and expands their horizons.
The Doctor knows that the universe is full of beauty and full of monsters (and occasionally, beautiful monsters) and that one must always be appreciated and the other fought. And he knows that the presence of one does not diminish the impact of the other, and has a child-like response to both. The Doctor knows how to be curious, to be delighted, and to be afraid, and this combination helps to set him apart from most characters on this list. Injustice enrages the Doctor, and the Time Lord has frequently used his fierce intelligence to change the course of whole civilizations if it meant that evil could be vanquished or the innocent protected.
Indeed, intelligence is the Doctor’s greatest weapon. It’s only recently been explicitly stated, but throughout the history of the series we’ve seen the Doctor go headlong into a perilous situation without any fully formed plan, but a trust in his ability to see a way through the situation and find an answer, whether that answer is technological, physical, or persuasive. Indeed, the Doctor becomes so effective as combating cosmic threats, that at times his mere presence is enough to deter enemies from attacking…or to send them fleeing.
Over the last 55 years, a lot of actors have brought different interpretations of the Doctor to the screen, thanks to the storytelling device of the Doctor being able to “regenerate” when he suffers otherwise fatal injuries. Each has had a unique take on the character, and each has been worth seeing, even if some have had to endure weaker storytelling than the others. Matt Smith, with his confident swagger and manic unpredictability, is probably my favorite, but I enjoy the fact that we’ve seen so many different sides to the character, and every iteration has had something interesting to offer.
Hopefully, there are many more to come.
And that’s the end of this list! 102 heroes. And the vast majority of them are white males. So…yeah, representation matters.
Incidentally, if you list the heroes who got the highest scores just for my personal preference, it’s a slightly different group. These are the characters that are actually my favorite, regardless of their other qualities:
1. The Doctor
3. Saturn Girl
4. Thursday Next
5. Flash (Wally West)
7. Fitzwilliam Darcy
8. Han Solo
9. Amy Pond
Finally, of course one of the intrinsic weaknesses of a list like this is that it is limited to the characters and stories that I’m actually familiar with. Sometimes, even if I’ve seen the movie or read the book, I don’t really remember it all that well, and so I was reluctant to include the character for consideration. One of those stories is To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel by Harper Lee or the movie starring Gregory Peck, neither of which I’ve been exposed to for decades. That is, until a couple of days ago when we re-watched the movie. Probably if I’d seen this earlier, when I was making this list, Atticus Finch would have been included, and would have made it to about #51.