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Top Ten Marvel Comics Characters

Longbox Graveyard #16

A month ago I posted my Top Ten DC Comics Characters list, and today I weigh in with my favorite Marvel characters. That DC post ended up being one of the most popular entries here at Longbox Graveyard, with a nice little nerd skirmish breaking out in the comments section — hopefully this entry will provoke even more Geek Rage!

Thanks to Brian Cronin’s “Comics Should Be Good” column at Comic Book Resources for the survey that inspired these entries (and those CBR results are in now if you want to check them out).

Marvel Comics Top Ten

I had a hard time coming up with ten characters for my DC list, but as a “Marvel guy” I had the opposite problem this week. I could easily list two or three times as many characters than those mentioned here, but rather than resort to trickery like the scoundrel who runs the otherwise-excellent Mars Will Send No More blog, I’ve knuckled down and made the hard choices, holding myself to just ten Marvel characters! Agony! Pain!

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#10 Black Panther

When I filled out my list for CBR’s survey, I was fresh back from San Diego Comic-Con with a stack of Jungle Action back issues and all hot for the Black Panther. I could have picked any number of characters for this #10 slot, but with that pile of books on my nightstand, Panther got the nod.

Since then, I’ve read those books, and found them a little … overwrought.

above scan snagged from the aptly-named (and recommended) Diversions of a Groovy Kind blog

The “Panthers Rage” saga from Jungle Action #6-18 is regarded as a minor classic, and even holds some claim to being the field’s first graphic novel. The run is certainly a cut above for 1970s-era Marvel, with inventive layouts and a storyline set entirely in Africa that was largely bereft of the usual superhero action. My problem with the series was that I thought Don McGregor’s script just didn’t flow. I found the books over-written, and presented in a kind of fractured syntax that I couldn’t quite grok.

“and the words lose their meaning,” indeed

Even if I found the series a disappointment, it only slightly dented my enthusiasm for the character, who is intriguing on a lot of levels. He’s the king of a hidden African kingdom, heir to the mystical powers of a panther cult, and his country is a weird mix of tribal tradition and sci-fi high technology thanks to the wealth afforded by Wakanda’s stock of the precious metal, Vibranium. Panther’s powers aren’t much (he’s just a guy who jumps around in a cat suit), but I respond to the character’s nobility, and in the 1970s it was a rare thing when a black Marvel hero wasn’t shouting “Christmas!” to remind us how “street” he was (sorry, Luke Cage). After struggling through those Jungle Action books I am a bit less attached but no less intrigued by the character, so maybe I’ll fast forward a bit and try the Christopher Priest run from the 1990s (which I sampled and remember as being too clever by half).

#9 Warlock

Like Black Panther, Warlock was born from Jack Kirby‘s pencil, and like the Panther, Warlock definitely had his best days on another author’s watch. Jim Starlin is one of my favorite comics creators (for all that I graded down his Captain Marvel), and of his Marvel work, I think his run on Warlock is his best.

Warlock himself is kind of a pain in the ass … he swans about the space lanes, swinging wildly between ennui and rage, stumbling into allegorical adventures against a weird gallery of villains (including his own future self). He’s a limited, doom-driven character in the mold of Michael Moorcock’s Elric. There are probably fewer than a dozen of his books that are genuinely worth reading. But as a tormented teen I identified with him … and he’s just so damn glam with that blonde perm and the SKULL clasping his cape to signal how he’s — you know — all grim and deep and stuff.

I could totally see myself walking around a Los Angeles airport hotel for a 1977 science fiction convention wearing that outfit.

#8 Hulk

One of the reasons I prefer Marvel to DC is because of Marvel’s many anti-heroes, with the Hulk being the best-known of the bunch. Hulk was the first comic character I ever knew about (probably thanks to those crappy 1960s cartoons), and purchase of a Hulk Aurora model kit got me started buying comic books stuff (followed shortly by actual comic books) in the first place.

aside from being unpainted, with gaps where the parts didn’t fit, and covered with glue thumb-prints, the Hulk kit I made in 1974 looked EXACTLY like this pro build!

I love the idea of the Hulk — the Jekyll/Hyde rage thing, the Hulkbusters out in the desert, the radiation-saturated villains, purple pants, “Hulk Smash!”, the works. Unfortunately, as I found when sorting through my Accumulation, I don’t own a lot of worthwhile Hulk comics. I came to comics too late for the Roy Thomas run, and was out of comics entirely during the Peter David era. I still have a pile of really bad Hulk books, though, which means I kept buying the comic, month after month, even though I knew it would be terrible.

What a damn idiot.

#7 Daredevil

Sure, Daredevil is really just Spider-Man with his eyes closed, but Spidey never grabbed me, while I found myself collecting Daredevil books even before Frank Miller came along and made his magic. With his dark, street-level villains, and his subtle powers based on elevated senses of everything except sight, Daredevil seemed a more down-to-earth hero than Spider-Man (who blasphemously does not make my Top Ten).

I want to attribute some of my affection to Gene Colan’s flowing pencils …

… but the truth is I came to the book during Bob Brown’s less-than-memorable 1970s run. Memory is a funny thing, I could have sworn I had a bunch of Gene Colan Daredevils … guess I will have to knock over a bank so I can own those Silver Age classics. (And in the meantime I still have Colan’s run on Tomb of Dracula — one of my favorite Marvel books, though Drac himself doesn’t rate for today’s list).

#6 Red Skull

I won’t even try to suggest that the Red Skull is the best villain in a comic line that is home to Doctor Doom, Magneto, and Galactus … but he is my favorite, in all his two-dimensional glory. The Red Skull benefits by drafting behind Captain America, who (SPOILER!) heads this list, but the Skull is here mostly for punching above his weight.

The Red Skull doesn’t have a battlesuit, or magnetic powers, or a colossal physique letting him eat whole planets. Nope, he’s just a rage-filled bell-boy armed with a Luger, fear gas, and the impossible-to-satisfy expectations of Adolph Hitler.

With those scant powers, the Skull has gone on to battle Captain America to a standstill for three quarters of a century. And while most every other Marvel villain has had an issue or two where they seemed vaguely sympathetic, the Skull remains an unreconstructed Nazi bastard. I love to hate the Skull! That’s why I have a Funko Red Skull Bobblehead on my desk at work (one of only two bits of superhero swag I keep in my workplace).

#5 Thor

To understand my affection for Thor, look no further than my recent columns (parts one and two) on Walt Simonson’s take on the character … but I loved the character from the moment I discovered his book in 1974, a decade prior to Simonson’s brilliant run.

That first Thor book blew my twelve-year-old mind. It had ancient mythological gods, in a space ship, fighting an insane living planet, told as a superhero story. Crazy, man. It scratched my interest for fantasy in a safe superhero setting (it would be a few years before I’d get into Conan), and it immediately broadened my mind to what a comic book could be. The Marvel Universe wasn’t just Spider-Man swinging around Manhattan — it was an actual universe, a wide-ranging cosmos of gods and men! That idea thrilled me.

Still does.

#4 Sub-Mariner

An outright dick.

Seriously, Subby is a dick, and I love him for it. Perpetually pissed-off, trying to steal Reed Richards’ wife, leading sea monster invasions of New York City … and that’s when he’s a good guy. When Sub-Mariner is batting for the other team — as in the so-bad-it’s-good Super-Villain Team-Up — Subby emerges as Marvel’s greatest anti-hero, putting even the Hulk in the shade. I mean, Hulk is a moron, and not really responsible for his actions. But the Sub-Mariner? Guilty!

Sub-Mariner is ancient even by comic book standards, dating to World War II-era comic strips by creator Bill Everett. Originally re-introduced to the Marvel Universe as a quasi-villain in the pages of Fantastic Four, Subby has been like a professional wrestler, by turns a good guy and a bad guy as the story and audience demanded.

Subby was extra-cranky during his fashion disaster Pimp Suit era

During the war, Subby put aside his differences with surface-dwellers to battle Hitler, but he was still a prickly ally. When Ed Brubaker took over Captain America, he caught the soul of Sub-Mariner in this 21st century Christmas Eve exchange between Subby and the Winter Soldier (himself a resurrected wartime Bucky Barnes):

I love the concept of this character — the superpowered fishman, king of Atlantis, acting out his rage against everything that lives on the other 30% of the Earth’s surface. But here’s a crazy thing — for all that I rank this character #4 on my list, I don’t think I own more than a single Sub-Mariner comic book. I love him as a guest star, or a bad guy, or a crappy team-mate in the Defenders or the Invaders, but I never got into his solo books.

If the group wisdom of my readership would like to suggest a half-dozen best Subby stories, I’d sure like to read them. Give a shout in comments.

#3 The Thing

I have enormous affection for this character, the rocky elemental from the Fantastic Four that is the archetypal tough guy with the soul of a pussy cat. Defined by powers he regards as a curse, the Thing wears his heart on his sleeve and is the warmest, most approachable, and most heartbreaking of Marvel’s epic-scaled characters.

He reminds me of my Dad, and my old pal Bear Peters from Arizona, of my video game colleague Jeff Brown, my buddy Sarge at Appy, and of all the craggy, larger-than-life characters I’ve known through the years. In his long, slow coming to terms with his monstrous appearance, the Thing makes a powerful statement for diversity and identity. One of the best-developed characters in the Marvel line, it feels strange to call him “The Thing” — he’s a character that has evolved beyond his powers and his form. It’s much more natural to call him Ben Grimm.

Of all the characters on this list, he’s the guy with whom you’d most like to share a beer.

#2 Conan

Maybe this is a cheat, because Conan isn’t even published by Marvel any more, but the classic 1970s run for this character was a Marvel production through-and-through.

in the 1970s, Conan was one of Marvel’s biggest books, garnering a cover feature of Marvel’s in-house fanzine, Foom

I’ve already enthused about the Barry Windsor-Smith era on this book, and the truth is I could write about Conan every week, but my sad devotion to Robert E. Howard’s barbarian already led me to waste fifty bones on that dreadful 3D movie earlier this year, so I shouldn’t push my luck by further trying the patience of a readership that’s already soldiered through two Conan blogs in the first ten issues of Longbox Graveyard. Suffice to say that Conan has virtue enough strictly as a comic character to rate highly on this list, even if he is a rapidly-diminishing part of Marvel’s history. Like Thor, Conan was a genre-stretching book that changed what comics could be.

(And in December, I’ll write about him again!)

#1 Captain America

Even if I didn’t telegraph my number one choice when talking about Red Skull, it should come as no surprise to Longbox Graveyard readers that Captain America tops my list, given that I’ve already devoted columns to writing about the character, both old and new. Another character that I’ve stuck with since childhood, Cap’s always been my favorite, owing to his iconic nature, spectacular costume, and his connection with another great fascination of my life — World War II.

As living legend, leader of the Avengers, and the most badass guy in any room full of costumes, Captain America is the hero that other heroes find heroic — the superhero’s superhero, and unchallenged champion of my Top Ten list of Marvel Comics characters!

All right, for better or worse, that’s my list … the comments section is open for you to tell me how I got it wrong!

NEXT WEEK: #17 Supergods

LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS

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