The genesis of this column began a couple of years ago when I compiled a list of the 100 greatest characters of the past 20 years. Since then, I’ve worked my way back through the decades two at a time, presenting a new list every six months or so. Now, I’ve finally arrived at the beginning. Comic books were created as a format in the 1930s, though their artistic roots go back further than that. This is my list of the best characters from the early years of comic books. Your list, in all likelihood, is different from mine but that’s part of what makes an exercise like this so much fun. Read, enjoy, and feel free to share your own thoughts below.
1. Airboy (Hillman, 1942): It’s hard to imagine now but one of the most popular genres in the nascent days of comic books was aerial adventure. Fiction House found success with Flight Comics and Hillman had a stable of star pilots like Black Angel, Iron Ace and the Sky Wolf. But no one was better than Airboy, the tousle haired youth who flew his “Birdie” against the Axis powers.
2. Alfred Pennyworth (DC, 1943): This sage servant has
offered service, advice and first aid to Batman for almost 70 years. He’s a confidant, a mentor
and even a surrogate grandfather to the many young men and women who have donned the Robin costume.
3. Aquaman (DC, 1941): He’s borne the brunt of more jokes than any other hero yet that’s also a testament to his indelible imprint. The King of the Seas has starred in several solo series and participated in every version of the Justice League. While some fans and writers make fun of the orange shirt, his costume also makes him one of the most recognizable characters in comics.
4. Archie Andrews (MLJ, 1941): He’s conquered more
superheroes than Lex Luthor or the Red Skull. Archie started out as a back-up comedy character in MLJ’s Pep Comics but he soon proved more popular than the superhero leads. Actually, he proved more popular than their entire line of superheroes which is why the company eventually changed their name to Archie Comics. He’s starred in dozens of series, launched co-stars into series of their own and even crossed over to cartoons.
6. Betty & Veronica (MLJ, 1941 and 1942): They represent an essential dilemma for every guy: do you
chase the unattainable beauty or notice the pretty girl next door? Yet these two women have become so much more than a metaphor for Archie’s difficult decision. They’re best friends and worst enemies. They’re fashion-friendly feminists. They’re everything they want to be. And they’re an indelible part of American culture.
7. Black Adam (Fawcett, 1945): A lot of superheroes are asked to fight their mirror images- the villain who has the exact same set of powers. But Black Adam surpasses his origin as a counterpart to Captain Marvel. He has a great look, an interesting origin of his own and, in recent years, the kind of conflicted motivation that makes for an interesting anti-hero.
8. Black Canary (DC, 1947): Like a lot of female super-heroines, Black Canary is a study in contrasts. She’s one of the few heroines, in the Golden Age or since, who stands on her own. She’s not the sidekick, understudy or female version of a male hero. For that reason, she’s been a female icon and personal favorite, especially in recent titles such as Birds of Prey. But she also runs around in fishnet stockings and high heels, demonstrating that even female icons are subjected to male fantasies.
9. Black Cat (Harvey, 1941): She’s arguably the first female superhero. Linda Turner was the daughter of a silent film star and a stuntwoman. She learned a host of skills from her parents and became a daredevil in disguise to fight Nazi conspirators and other criminals. She lost her title to the horror and mystery genres at the end of the Golden Age but enjoyed a couple of comebacks in 1961 and ‘88.
10. Black Condor (Quality, 1940): It almost seems quaint now but at one time, a hero could get by with only the power of flight. Black Condor flew into the pages of Crack Comics for Quality and was one of that company’s biggest stars. After being acquired by DC Comics, he joined with the other Quality alumni to form the Freedom Fighters.
11. Blackhawk (Quality, 1941): This military hero was Quality’s biggest star, inspiring a radio serial, a television series and even a feature film. He led a team of ex-patriots who had been displaced by the Nazis as part of an exotic aerial squadron. At various times, Blackhawk has been American, Polish or an American of Polish descent.
12. Black Terror (Nedor, 1941): He may have looked like a villain, with a skull and crossbones as his chest insignia, but the Black Terror was one of Nedor’s biggest heroes. He starred in Exciting Comics before heading over to the anthology America’s Best Comics. The Black Terror was Bob Benton and together with his sidekick, Tim Roland, formed the terror twins. In recent years, the Black Terror has been resurrected in Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics and Alex Ross’s Project Superpowers.
13. Blonde Phantom (Marvel, 1946): The post-war period saw a boom in female crime fighters and Marvel’s Blonde Phantom was one of the most prolific. By the fall of 1948, she was starring in five titles and guest starring in two others. The Blonde Phantom straddled the boundaries between superheroes and film noir as she was a pistol-wielding investigator who had no actual powers.
Sidebar: Marvel has long had the reputation of saturating the comic book market and they were certainly one of the biggest culprits in inundating the market with new female heroes. In addition to the Blonde Phantom and a couple of others on this list, Marvel introduced female counterparts to Captain America, Namor and the Human Torch: Golden Girl (1947), Namora (1947) and Sun Girl (1948).
14. Blue Beetle (Fox, 1939)
15. Blue Bolt (Novelty, 1940): The two “blue” characters were some of the first superheroes to step onto the stage after the success of Superman. Blue Bolt was created by Joe Simon and co-written by Jack Kirby. He took as much inspiration from science-fiction heroes such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon as he did from superheroes like Superman and served as an excellent hybrid of the two genres. The original Blue Beetle was a bit of a mish-mash as well. At first, he was a masked hero like the Shadow. Later, he gained superpowers and a chainmail costume. Blue Beetle was one of Fox’s most popular characters despite the incongruous combination and served as the inspiration for a more coherent version in the Silver Age.
16. Boy King (Hillman, 1943): The Boy King was the star of Hillman’s Clue Comics. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the Boy King wasn’t a sidekick. He didn’t need an adult hero to help him punch out gangsters, monsters or Nazis.
17. Bucky (Marvel, 1941): Bucky fought alongside Captain America in his very first appearance in 1941. At the time, Bucky was almost as big a star as Captain America. He wielded weapons on some of the most memorable covers, pointing machine guns at Nazis and Japanese soldiers alike. He even put together his own team on the side, the Young Allies, starring the sidekicks of Marvel’s major heroes.
Sidebar: Bucky may have led his own team in the Young Allies but they weren’t the only boy band running around in the Golden Age. Simon and Kirby were responsible for most (and the best) of them, creating the Boy Commandos and the Newsboy Legion for DC. Competitors at Holyoke, MLJ and Lev Gleason came up with the Little Leaders, the Boy Buddies and the Little Wise Guys. While it’s hard to mention any one character, let alone any single group, it’s still worthwhile to give a shout to the boy groups of the 1940s.
18. Bulletman & Bulletgirl (Fawcett, 1940): A number of heroes picked up female partners along the way but Bulletman was one of the few to include his girlfriend from the get-go. Police officer Jim Barr invented an indestructible helmet that helped him fly. He then made a second one for his girlfriend, Susan Kent. The two fought crime-lords and, naturally, Nazis with the power of a speeding bullet.
19. Captain America (Marvel, 1941): He’s the standard by which other heroes are measured. Captain America may wear the stars and stripes of the American flag, but he really represents the heart and soul of the country. He’s a patriot and a hero, willing to fight for his country and die if necessary. He’s also noble and conscientious, willing to stand up to his country when he thinks it’s heading in the wrong direction. He represents us as a nation at our ideal best.
Sidebar: Captain America wasn’t the only hero to don patriotic colors. Stand and salute, American Crusader, American Eagle, Captain Courageous, Captain Fearless, Captain Flag, Captain Glory, Captain Jack Commando, Commando Yank, the Conqueror, the Crusader, the Eagle, the Flag, the Liberator, Liberty Belle, Major Liberty, Major Victory, Minute-Man, Miss Victory, the Patriot, the Spirit of ’76, the Star-Spangled Kid, the Unknown Soldier, U.S.A., U.S. Jones, V-Man, Yank & Doodle, Yankee Boy and Yankee Doodle Jones.
20. Captain Haddock (Casterman, 1941): Thundering typhoons! Tintin’s friend and frequent companion made his first appearance in “The Crab with the Golden Claws.” He was as faithful as he was foul-tempered. He was as courageous as he was complicated. He was a wonderfully colorful addition to Tintin’s adventures. Blistering barnacles!
22. Captain Marvel Jr. (Fawcett, 1941): Captain Marvel Jr. was more than a miniature version of the famous hero. Captain Marvel is a child in a man’s body, but Captain Marvel Jr. is crippled in his alter ego of Freddie Freeman. Freddie’s desire to escape from his disability resulted in unique sympathy for the character. His adventures were usually a little more serious than Big Red’s highly comic affairs. Furthermore, his battles with the villainous Captain Nazi were some of the first ongoing stories and crossovers in comics.
23. Cat-Man & Kitten (Holyoke, 1940): They were Holyoke’s biggest, and arguably, only stars. Catman and Kitten were fairly typical superheroes, dressing up in costumes and fighting bad guys for no particular reason. However, they were atypical in one way as it was unusual for a male hero to have a female sidekick. Catman and his partner appeared in a number of eye-catching covers that helped boost the character’s popularity. Plus, Kitten appeared to go through a surge of puberty as she had significantly more curves by 1944 than she did on the covers from 1942.
25. Crimebuster (Lev Gleason, 1942)
26. Daredevil (Lev Gleason, 1940): Lev Gleason built his comic book empire around these two popular characters. Crimebuster was a young boy who dressed in a hockey uniform and cape to fight crime. The series took a naturalistic approach to the superhero genre and could be considered the precursor to modern comics like Kick-@$$. Daredevil wore a red and black costume with a spiked belt. He started out as a straight adventurer, but eventually added comedic elements when he teamed up with the Little Wise Guys.
27. Destroyer (Marvel, 1941): The Destroyer was one of Stan Lee’s first creations and was one of the better characters in Marvel’s second-tier. His stories were well written with surprising twists that kept both the Nazis and the readers on their toes. Kevin “Keen” Marlow also had a cool anti-hero vibe with a demon mask, skull insignia and (yes) striped pants.
28. Doctor Fate (DC, 1940)
29. Doctor Mid-Nite (DC, 1941): DC’s two doctors were very different characters. Dr. Fate was a mystical sorcerer. He spoke in incantations and worked magic. He also wore the coolest helmet this side of Sparta. Dr. Mid-Nite was a scientist. Although he was legally blind, he invented blackout bombs that allowed him to see while simultaneously impairing his foes.
30. Doll Man (Quality, 1939): Here’s another hero whose powers seem useless now but which were unique and inventive at the time. Doll Man was the first miniature hero in comic books. He’d fight crime syndicates, mad scientists and the occasional giant spider.
31. The Face (Columbia, 1940): The Golden Age of comics was generally a time of square-jawed virtuous heroes. The nation was fighting a war at the time and had an image to maintain. That makes The Face a particularly distinctive figure. Tony Trent put on a demon’s masks in order to frighten the criminals he was fighting in his war for justice. But the scary mask made him one of comics’
first anti-heroes and he’s been treated as such in recent revivals.
32. Fighting Yank (Nedor, 1941): The Fighting Yank is another patriotic hero and one of Nedor’s most popular characters. His costume incorporated colonial as well as patriotic themes. He eventually joined the Black Terror in Nedor’s successful anthology, America’s Best Comics.
33. Flash (DC, 1940): He’s the fastest man alive and the first in a long legacy of scarlet speedsters.
34. Ghost Rider (Marvel, 1949): The original Ghost Rider was a western anti-hero who rode a white horse and wore an all-white costume. The spectral look struck fear into varmints on the western trail. After Marvel came up with
the modern flaming skull Ghost Rider, the original western character changed his name first to Night Rider and then to Phantom Rider.
35. Green Arrow (DC, 1941): Okay, DC started out by ripping off their more popular hero, Batman. Green Arrow showed up with a sidekick, an arrow cave and even an arrow car. But over the years, he’s developed into one of the more interesting characters in comics. He’s been a loudmouth liberal, an urban vigilante and a modern Robin Hood. Plus, thanks to his Errol Flynn inspiration, he has one of the coolest costumes around.
36. Green Lantern (DC, 1940): Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, has one of the worst costumes in history. His red and green combo clashes horrendously. He has a high-collared cape and a big belt. Plus, he has an
unnecessary lantern insignia. But the inspiration behind the character more than made up for the awful attire. Here was a character who could do anything. Thanks to his magic ring, he could create constructs out of thin air even if, in the Golden Age, he usually resorted to punching people. Superheroes capture the audience’s imagination partly through wish fulfillment and a kid couldn’t wish for more than a ring that can do anything.
37. The Hangman (MLJ, 1942): Nowadays, we like to think that Marvel or DC invented comic book continuity. But, in the Golden Age, other companies like Fawcett and MLJ introduced the kind of interconnectedness we now take for granted. In 1942, MLJ killed off one of their heroes, the Comet. Then, they introduced the Comet’s brother who donned a costume of his own. As the Hangman, he was vengeful force against crime.
39. Hop Harrigan (DC, 1939): Earlier, I mentioned that one of the biggest Golden Age genres was aerial adventure. It may surprise you to learn that DC had one of the biggest stars in that
genre: the young aviator, Hop Harrigan. Hop
wasn’t the first aviator adventurer- they’d been appearing in comic strips for some time- but he was one of the first
characters of any stripe to make his debut in comic books. He starred in All-American Comics, a title he eventually shared with Green Lantern. Hop was so popular at the time that he crossed over to both radio and the movies, beating Green Lantern to the silver screen by 65 years.
40. Hourman (DC, 1940): Hourman was one of DC’s second-tier characters. He was elevated by his appearance in the Justice Society of America and by the subsequent heroes who have shared his name. He also had one of the more interesting limitations: he could only use his powers for one hour at a time, resulting in an enjoyably intense pace for most of his adventures.
41. Human Torch (Marvel, 1939)
42. Hydroman (Eastern, 1940): There’s something pure about the conflict between fire and water. The Human Torch was created for Marvel Comics by Carl Burgos. The original version was an android who burst into flames in the presence of oxygen. Other than that, he was a pureblooded hero who fought the Nazis in World War II. Hydroman was created for Eastern Comics by Bill Everett. Everett also created a water-based hero for Marvel named Sub-Mariner. Unlike Sub-Mariner, Hydroman was able to turn his body into living water.
43. Ibis the Invincible (Fawcett, 1940): Mandrake the Magician was one of the most popular comic strips back in the day and a number of comic book companies tried to emulate his success. One of the better versions came from Fawcett. Ibis the Invincible used his magical Ibistick to cast spells, cast light and cast out evildoers.
44. Jimmy Olsen (DC, 1941): I didn’t want to include Jimmy Olsen. He’s kind of dorky. He’s almost too dorky for even a dorky kid like myself to find relatable. Yet Jimmy Olsen is one of the most recognizable characters in comics and there’s a reason why he’s joined Superman in radio, in cartoons, in movies and on television. There’s something appealing about his earnestness, his can-do attitude and his loyalty to Superman.
45. Johnny Canuck (Bell, 1942): Johnny Canuck was a staple of Canadian political
cartoons, kind of a counterpoint to their southern neighbor’s Uncle Sam. In 1942, Bell Features turned him into a
comic book hero. Sometimes, he wore the brown coat and wide-brimmed hat of a frontiersman. Sometimes, he wore a military uniform. He fought petty criminals and Nazi spies. And he was the biggest star in Canada’s black and white comics of the war era.
Sidebar: I have a confession to make. I love international comic book characters. Maybe it’s because I’m a dual citizen. Or maybe I just like to travel. But I always like to see heroes from other lands, whether they’re from France or Japan or my native Canada. I included Captain Canuck and Lone Wolf & Cub in my list of the best characters from the ‘70s and ‘80s. And I eagerly included Johnny Canuck and Captain Haddock in this list. But I have another confession to make. I completely forgot about international characters when I was coming up with the list for the ‘50s and ‘60s. My apologies to fans of Astro Boy (1952), Asterix & Obelisk (1959) and even Dan Dare (1950).
46. The Joker (DC, 1940): Is he a genius or is he insane? The eternal question and the elusive answer is that he’s always a little bit of both. He’s a criminal mastermind who’s also maddeningly unpredictable. He’s a criminal madman who’s also surprisingly clever. He’s one of the greatest villains ever created. He is the “Clown Prince of Crime.”
47. Jughead (MLJ, 1941): I always wanted a best friend like Jughead. Well, except for the times when I wanted to be Jughead myself. He’s cool. He’s unflappable. He has his own unique style and he doesn’t care what anybody thinks about him. He also has an insatiable appetite for hamburgers. But if you’re going to famous for something, why not be famous for liking fun food?
48. Katy Keene (MLJ, 1945): Katy Keene was the undisputed queen of romance comics. While most romance comics were anthologies, Katy headlined her own title for a dozen years. She was a great wish fulfillment character for young girls- she was a model, an actress and a singer who wore stunning clothes.
49. Kid Colt (Marvel, 1948): Marvel, or Timely as they were known at the time, was the king of western heroes. While other companies specialized in licensed stories based on movie stars, Marvel developed their own stable of gunslingers. Kid Colt was one of Marvel’s big three western heroes. With his white hat and calfskin jacket, he was instantly recognizable. Kid Colt was one of the longest-running western heroes as well. His own title lasted for 31 years until the end of the ‘70s.
50. Kid Eternity (Quality, 1942): It’s not easy to stand out in the superhero genre but Kid Eternity had a place all to himself. Christopher Freeman had his own personal genie who would summon historical figures to help him in his adventures. The Kid Eternity comic book combined education, entertainment and incredible art.
Special sidebar: This is as far back as I go. The comic book was invented in 1933. However, original characters didn’t start appearing until about 1938 as the earliest comic books were reprinted collections of comic strips. So I can’t really put together a list of the greatest comic book of the ‘20s as the format didn’t exist yet. Yet, even though I can’t compile a list, I can at least pay tribute to the great characters who paved the way. Say hello to the Yellow Kid, Little Nemo from Slumberland, Popeye, Buck Rogers, Tintin and so many more.