Last year, I wrote a pair of columns about the greatest characters of the past 20 years. I had a lot of fun coming up with the list and discussing it with everyone here. It was so much fun I’m going to do it again. This time, I’m looking at the 20 years before the past 20 years: otherwise known as the ‘70s and ‘80s. Sit back, read along and have fun. After all, that’s what these kinds of lists are all about.
1. Abigail Arcane (DC, 1972): There are a lot of romantic leads in comics but few are as important to their title as Abigail Arcane is to Swamp Thing. She’s our lens into the world of horror and mystery. She’s the heart of the story. And with her distinctive white hair, she’s as recognizable as the muck monster himself.
2. Adam Warlock (Marvel, 1972): Roy Thomas took a blank slate from a 1968 Fantastic Four story and completely revamped him. “Him” was reborn as Adam Warlock, given a great Gil Kane costume, written as a cosmic messiah and placed in some of the most interesting stories of the ‘70s.
3. Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld (DC, 1983): Proving that wish fulfillment isn’t only the purview of adolescent boys, DC had a minor hit with Amethyst- the adolescent girl who is magically transported to the colorful kingdom of Gemworld and transformed into the beautiful princess Amethyst.
4. Arion, Lord of Atlantis (DC, 1982): The immortal magician starred in an idealized version of ancient Atlantis but became more compelling as a conniving magical manipulator in the present.
5. Bernie Rosenthal (Marvel, 1980): Bernie was a striking contrast to Steve Rogers, and therefore an intoxicating love interest. She was a lawyer. She was Jewish. She was slightly bohemian. And she was definitely more than a prototypical girlfriend.
Side-Bar: Although many superhero girlfriends dated back to the character’s origin, this era witnessed the introduction of quite a few love interests, romantic rivals and steady girlfriends for established heroes. They don’t all deserve their own entry, but they’re worth mentioning. So here’s to you, Silver St. Cloud, Cat Grant, Madelyne Pryor and all the other girls we’ve loved before.
6. Beta Ray Bill (Marvel, 1983): He’s a space alien who looks like a skeletal horse and he’s worthy of lifting Thor’s hammer. It sounds silly when you say it out loud, but it was brilliantly executed and Beta Ray Bill quickly became a fan favorite.
7. Black Lightning (DC, 1977): Jefferson Pierce may have been new to the scene in 1977, but he was a classic hero that you could admire. His day job was as a schoolteacher. And he had a strong moral code in his own series or as one of the Outsiders.
8. Blade (Marvel, 1973): Blade is a classic example of a supporting character who soon outshines his leads and becomes a star in his own right. Introduced in Tomb of Dracula, the vampire hunter graduated to his own title and eventually his own movie trilogy.
9. Blue Devil (DC, 1984): Even as grim and gritty superheroes were putting a stranglehold on the market, a counter-current of comedic heroes was claiming a different corner of the stage. The Blue Devil was one of the best of these comedic heroes, combining excellent adventures with a gleeful sense of humor.
10. Booster Gold (DC, 1986): He was supposed to be a commentary on the “greed is good” 1980s as the first superhero to seek corporate sponsorship. But, paired with Blue Beetle in JLI, he became one half of comics’ greatest comedy duo.
11. Cannonball (Marvel, 1982): He started out as an empty-headed Southern stereotype. He soon evolved into a team leader and someone who could make friends with everyone from Sunspot to Shatterstar. Whether he was with the New Mutants, X-Force or a rookie with the X-Men, Cannonball was a great hero.
12. Captain Britain (Marvel, 1976)
It was only natural, considering the lasting success of Captain America, for the other English speaking countries to have heroes of their own. However, these two characters took up more than their country’s flags. Captain Britain became the central figure in an inter-dimensional corps and the star in inventive stories by Alan Moore and Alan Davis. Captain Canuck was one of the earliest, and most enduring, independent heroes.
14. Chunk (DC, 1988): The superhero stage was fairly full by the late 1980s, yet there is always room for interesting supporting characters. Flash befriended Chunk, who had the power to teleport objects or people to another dimension and who proved to be an intriguing physical contrast.
15. Cinnamon (DC, 1978): Westerns were supposed to be past their prime by the 1970s. The movie genre was pretty much played out. But DC managed to introduce a couple of significant gun-slingers anyway. Jonah Hex became their biggest star though I find Cinnamon to be the more intriguing character.
17. Cyborg (DC, 1980):
They were the two greatest teams of the era. One was all-new and all-different. The other was simply new. But they were both the best. Colossus and Cyborg may be the first Uncanny X-Man and New Teen Titan to make the list but they won’t be the last.
19. Dani Moonstar (Marvel, 1982): Writers had a hard time deciding on her powers. She could cause someone to see their greatest fears. She was a Valkyrie who could foresee death. She could shoot psychic arrows that temporarily shorted out someone’s brain. But readers didn’t have a hard time taking an interest in her- including this fan.
20. Darkseid (DC, 1970): One of the greatest super-villains ever imagined. Period.
21. Dawnstar (DC, 1977): The major comic book companies were becoming more aware of the need for minority characters in the 1970s. Some of their attempts were laughable, but not all of them. Dawnstar does a great job of borrowing from Native American traditions and attire while standing on her own as an interstellar tracker in the far-off future.
22. Dazzler (Marvel, 1980): She’s a punch-line to many fans, yet Dazzler has outlasted the jokes. She was well cast as a reluctant hero in Claremont and Silvestri’s X-Men. More recently, she’s been depicted as a well-rounded human being- with actual interests on the side other than beating up bad guys.
23. Death (DC, 1989): She’s the person you would want to meet when you die. She’s sweet. She’s compassionate, yet honest. And she finds something of value in everyone and everything.
24. Deathstroke (DC, 1980): What a great villain. He’s an older man, with white hair and adult children. He’s deadly with a blade, or any other instrument he can get his hands on. He’s blind in one eye, but he doesn’t care who knows and his costume even draws attention to his infirmity. He’s a wonderful blend of arrogance and competence.
25. Demon-Hunter (Atlas, 1975): This is an admittedly obscure selection from the short-lived Atlas line of comics. However, Demon-Hunter was interesting enough that Marvel gave him a second life (as the poorly received Demon-Slayer) and he was a forerunner of many of today’s demon hunters, from Van Helsing to
26. Dream (DC, 1989): He’s the Sandman. He can make your dreams come true, but not his own.
28. Elektra (Marvel, 1981): Ignore the mediocre movie (I could say that about lot of heroes). She can hold her own in any fight, but her motives may not always be right. That makes Elektra a wonderful ally or adversary.
29. Emma Frost (Marvel, 1980): The wicked witch of the west has nothing on the White Queen. She’s not above kidnapping children. She’s betrayed her allies and sacrificed her own team to save herself. She’s been broken, but she’s never lost her mean streak or her sharp tongue. And now, she’s wearing a metaphorical white hat as one of the X-Men.
30. Firestar (Marvel, 1981): I gave myself a precedent when I selected another cartoon character who immigrated to comics when I chose Harley Quinn in the earlier article. Firestar may have started out as one of Spider-Man’s Amazing Friends but her home has been in comics for nearly thirty years as a New Warrior and an Avenger.
31. Firestorm (DC, 1978): Though he was introduced in 1978, Firestorm has always been one of the characters who defined the ‘80s for me. I loved his bold colors, his youthful enthusiasm and his flaming head.
32. Ghost Rider (Marvel, 1972): And now we have the flaming skull. Ghost Rider was a character who straddled the line between good and evil and straddled genres between horror and superhero. Once again, ignore the awful movie.
34. Granny Goodness (DC, 1971): Jack Kirby included a bunch of memorable villains as part of Darkseid’s retinue- DeSaad, Glorious Godfrey, Kalibak and more. Yet Granny Goodness stands above the rest. Like Nurse Ratchett in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she embodies the kind of evil that hides under the veneer of care. Plus, she was voiced by Ed Asner in the Justice League cartoon.
Side-Bar: This seems like as good a time as any to reiterate this is my list. As our beloved Captain Comics likes to say, your mileage may vary. For example, the lovely anacoqui thinks I should have included Big Barda instead of Granny Goodness (or any number of other characters). She loves that Barda is a married super-heroine who isn’t a mirror of her husband’s powers and who isn’t afraid to join a team without him as she did during Grant Morrison’s run on JLA.
35. Grendel (Comico, 1983)
36. Groo (Pacific, 1982): The early ‘80s was a great time for independent comics. Established creators were able to introduce concepts that might not have fit under the banners of “the big two” and new creators were allowed to stretch their wings. Matt Wagner chose to follow the villain rather than the hero and the result was the intriguing Grendel. Sergio Aragones chose to send up barbarian comics with the farcical Groo.
37. Henry Peter Gyrich (Marvel, 1977): Never underestimate the value of a good foil. Henry Peter Gyrich was a stubborn, bossy, self-righteous pain in the butt. His presence provided delightful dramatic tension for the readers, if not for the Avengers.
38. Hobgoblin (Marvel, 1983): Every once in a while, an otherwise derivative character takes on a life of his own. Such is the case with the Hobgoblin. He became more than an orange Green Goblin. He brought mystery, surprise and anarchy into the Spider-Man comics for years.
39. Huntress II (DC, 1989): The first Huntress was introduced years earlier but she had little personality beyond being Batman’s daughter. The second Huntress dropped the blood connection and was much more interesting because of it. The new Huntress was the daughter of a mafioso who repudiated her lineage in order to fight on the right side of the law. However, she couldn’t entirely escape her past and often ran afoul of other heroes because of her rough approach.
40. Iron Fist (Marvel, 1974): Iron Fist has a foot in two camps. He’s both superhero and kung fu warrior, blending two genres into one character at home in either world.
41. Ironjaw (Atlas, 1975): No apologies this time. Ironjaw was an incredible character. He took the rough barbarian type and the sword and sorcery setting to their extreme end. His series was completely over the top, and wonderfully so.
43. James Rhodes (Marvel, 1979): The superhero stage may have been crowded by this point but there was plenty of room for interesting supporting characters and allies. James Rhodes was Iron Man’s pilot, replacement and friend.
44. Jean DeWolff (Marvel, 1976): Sometimes a good death can make for a memorable character. Jean was one of Spider-Man’s supporters, working with him on cases from time to time and providing cover from other authorities. But her untimely loss is the biggest part of her story.
45. Jenny Weaver (Eclipse, 1984): The series may have been named after the superhero but Jenny was the real star. Zot! proved that the travails of a teenage girl could be more interesting than a villainous plot to take over the world.
46. John Constantine (DC, 1985): I can only borrow the best description of John Constantine from someone else: “He’s either a putz pretending to be a master magician or a master magician pretending to be a putz.”
47. John Stewart (DC, 1972): John Stewart has established his credentials as a Green Lantern. He took on the lead of a comic book series in the ‘80s version of Green Lantern Corps and 1990’s Green Lantern Mosaic. And he became a television star as part of the Justice League Unlimited.
48. Julia and Vanessa Kapatelis (DC, 1987): They were a college professor specializing in Greek history and a high school student. They were frumpy or skinny, instead of supermodels. They were the normal people who befriended Wonder Woman and grounded her series in the real world.
50. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael (Tundra, 1984): I’m not sure I could tell them apart but I know I’ve seen them everywhere- in comics, cartoons, movies, on lunchboxes, puzzles and toy boxes. They’re the heroes of the half-shell and they’re one of comics’ greatest success stories.
Special Side-Bar: I’ve included a number of independent characters- loosely defined as anybody that didn’t come from the big two of Marvel and DC. However, I was born in the ‘70s and I grew up in the ‘80s; I wasn’t exactly looking for a lot of independent comics as a kid. A few crossed my path at the time. Others I searched out as an adult. But there are a lot of independent heroes that I just haven’t read. I think I might have liked at least some of them. So I’ll go ahead and tip my cap to the characters who would have made a lot of other people’s lists: Vanth Dreadstar, Reuben Flagg, Grimjack, Jon Sable, Kevin Matchstick and the cast of Love and Rockets.