Batman? Superman? Groot, even? The greatest comic-book characters in the canon have been debated and argued over for decades. The creations of Bon Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Stan Lee and co. undoubtedly form a might canon – in every sense. Empire has delved into it and picked 50 super-powered specimens we believe stand are the greatest in the pantheon.
50. SPAWN (Spawn)
AKA: AL SIMMONS
In 1992 a group of Marvel's top artists, frustrated with having their work exploited, walked out to form Image Comics, a place where creators would retain the rights to the characters they created. Among their numerous launch titles, Spawn would prove to be by far the most popular. Created by Spider-Man legend Todd MacFarlane, Spawn was a murdered CIA operative who makes a deal with the demon Malebolgia, returning to Earth as an immortal, Hellspawn. While he began as a traditional – if unorthodox – vigilante hero, Spawn grew increasingly dark over time, slipping further into an anti-hero role as the theology-heavy storylines became increasingly twisted. His popularity has since waned, but Spawn remains an iconic crusader, both for the characters in his stories and creator-owned comic books.
Trademarks: A Billowing, semi-sentient cape, trailing chains, glowing green eyes and hell-derived magical powers.
On Screen: An award-winning HBO animated series ran in the late '90s, as well as a markedly less successful live action movie starring Michael Jai White. A sequel is currently in development and has been since 1998.
Did You Know?: The scope of Spawn's hell magic is limited only by his imagination. The energy fuelling it, however, is not and if Spawn ever exhausts his reserves it's a one-way ticket back to hell.
49. CAPTAIN HADDOCK (Tintin)
Tintin's most enduring sidekick turned up in the ninth of the young reporter's adventures, and became more and more prominent thereafter – eventually becoming practically the main character. The full-bearded alcoholic, rageaholic, commitment-phobic British sea captain lucked into a fortune (Red Rackham's Treasure) and wound up drinking himself insensible in Marlinspike Hall, occasionally giving vent to amazingly picturesque salty language (often through a megaphone) when assailed by bashi-bazouks, troglodytes, prize purple jellyfish, Incan mummies and Signorina Bianca Castafiore, 'the Milanese nightingale'. Pursuit of whisky is his defining motive – he even got drunk on a trip to the Moon! One of the most human and perversely admirable characters in fiction.
Trademarks: Captain's hat, bushy beard, tumbler of whisky and a roll-neck pullover. Catchphrase: "billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!" ("Mille millions de mille milliards de mille sabords.")
On Screen: Georges Wilson and Jean Blouise played him in 1960s French films (Tintin And The Golden Fleece, Tintin And The Blue Oranges), Paul Frees dubbed the voice in internationally-seen cartoons (providing definitive live readings of the "blistering barnacles" business), and some bloke called Steven Spielberg directed the bequiffed Belgian in stop-motion animation The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn.
Did You Know?: The Captain's name was suggested by Hergé's wife, who explained that a haddock was "a sad English fish".
48. HARVEY PEKAR (American Splendor)
AKA: LUCAS TRENT
Harvey Pekar, a fairly miserable and obsessive fellow who works as a file clerk in a Veterans' Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, is the creation of Harvey Pekar, a writer who sets out to chronicle his everyday life in comic form, recruiting artist Robert Crumb and others to illustrate anecdotes about the cranky hero's mundane, frustrating life. Eventually, the irregularly-published comic book - and its several sequels (Our Cancer Year, Our Movie Year, The Quitter) - made Pekar a fringe celeb, better-known for his fractious, controversial appearances on The David Letterman Show until the film adaptation brought attention to his ongoing comics. Besides covering his courtships, marriage, illnesses, career reversals and brushes with fame, Pekar has opened up the comic to chronicle the lives of his friends.
Trademarks: Poor fashion sense, middle-aged frustration, dour outlook and general whining.
On Screen: Cinematic sad sack Paul Giamatti plays Pekar in the film version of American Splendor.
Did You Know?: Jonathan Demme tried to adapt American Splendor in the '80s, but the project never came to fruition as Demme wasn't yet an established director.
47. APOLLO AND THE MIDNIGHTER (Stormwatch)
Technically this is clearly two characters, but how could we separate comics' most significant out-and-proud couple? In the often simplistically macho world of superheroes, these two were introduced as an off-kilter Superman and Batman into Warren Ellis' excellent Stormwatch series, but after a series of gradual hints were revealed as a couple in the Authority series which followed, hopefully shaking at least a few fanboy prejudices out of existence. Now married, with an adoptive (super)daughter, the pair have starred in a number of controversial storylines (including an implied rape) as befits the darker tone of the more adult Authority, but have recently been reunited after a mind-wipe took Midnighter away and broke up their home (these things are why the superhero divorce rate is so high). Now reunited, expect them to keep flying the rainbow flag and beating up anyone who gets in their way.
Trademarks: Apollo can absorb solar energy and convert it to superstrength, flight and heat beams from his eyes; The Midnighter has enhanced physical abilities, a spare heart, and the capacity to anticipate his opponent's moves.
On Screen: Think a blonde Superman-type for Apollo - maybe Matthew McConaughey? – and a brooding, darker figure for The Midnighter – say, Josh Brolin.
Did You Know? Marvel's gay pride poster-boy is Alpha Flight's North Star. Only implicitly gay when the series was launched in 1983, Northstar has since come out and even developed a crush on Iceman during a stint with the X-Men in 2002.
46. J. JONAH JAMESON (Spider-Man)
Throughout his career, Spider-Man's major nemesis has not been Dr Octopus, the Green Goblin, the Kingpin or any other conventional super-foe, but J. Jonah Jameson, editor-publisher of the New York Daily Bugle – a newspaper which has run a campaign against Spider-Man (and other masked vigilantes) that has often turned the public against superheroes. Initially annoyed that Spider-Man got more acclaim than his astronaut son, whom he wanted to boost as 'a real hero', Jameson's hatred of Peter Parker's alter ego has grown into an overpowering obsession which has threatened his health and business. Ironically, he is also Parker's most frequent employer, buying the freelance photographer's blurry, out of focus shots of Spider-Man in action for the front page – and paying as little as possible for them.
Trademarks: Hitler moustache, brush-cut and an ever-present cigar.
On Screen: J.K. Simmons perfectly captures JJJ in the Spider-Man films. David White played the part in the 1970s TV pilot but was replaced by Robert F. Simon in the subsequent action series, and various Spider-Man cartoons have cast Keith Carradine, William Woodson, Ed Asner, Paul Kligman and Darran Norris.
Did You Know?: JJJ financed several super-villains, including the robot Spider-Slayers and the Scorpion.
45. DEADPOOL (Deadpool)
AKA: WADE WILSON
When he first appeared on the scene in 1991, Deadpool was a minor character, hailed as the mutant answer to Spider-Man. Or, rather, the mutant rip-off of Spider-Man, right down to the red costume with coloured rings around the eyes, the extraordinary agility and a propensity for delivering one-liners in the middle of a fight. But the Rob Liefeld/Fabian Nicieza creation quickly became a fan favourite and established a demented identity of his own. The constant regeneration of his brain cells has turned the former Weapon X subject certifiably insane – so much so that he realises he's in a comic book, and frequently refers to the fact. Although he began life as a villain, the Merc With A Mouth was given his own title in 1997 (although cancelled in 2002, Marvel's having another crack later this year) and is now officially a hero. Well, an anti-hero. And one of the most entertaining ones around.
Trademarks: Mutant with a healing factor (which constantly regenerates his cancer-ridden body), enhanced strength and agility, a variety of swords and daggers and the ability to wisecrack like no-one else.
On Screen: After that X-Men Origins: Wolverine appearance, Ryan Reynolds finally got his bona fide Deadpool solo movie made. And, boy, did it connect with fans, electrifying first Comic-Con and then the box office to sequel-guaranteeing effect.
Did You Know?: He once had his head cut off - and survived. His healing factor kicking in once the errant noggin was reattached.
44. JENNY SPARKS (Stormwatch)
Born on January 1, 1900, Sparks died exactly a hundred years later – though she stopped ageing in her early twenties because she was mostly made of electricity, the motive force of the 20th century. Though she was introduced as a new recruit to fairly conventional superhero team Stormwatch, she became a key player in the more ambitious, ambiguous and generally cooler line-up mostly known as The Authority. Various flashbacks have filled in her previous history as a World War II spy, a 1950s space-woman and a 1960s British superheroine, involved in a longstanding conflict with an alternate reality (Sliding Albion) where England rules the world thanks to collaboration with aristocratic aliens.
Trademarks: Union jack t-shirt, bad temper, alcoholism, tough-but-posh British accent and control over electricity.
On Screen: We're thinking Keira Knightley or Rosamund Pike.
Did You Know?: When she died, she was replaced by another newborn century baby, Jenny Quantum.
43. ASTRO BOY (Ambassador Atom)
AKA: TETSUWAN ATOMO
A perky, atomic-powered robot created by Dr Tenma (translated as Professor Boyton or Professor Balfus) to replace his deceased son, Tetsuwan Atomo (Astro Boy) proved unsatisfactory and was sold to a circus – but emerged as a long-running hero working for the Ministry of Science. Besides having superheroic powers, the naive young robot grappled with human emotions and personal interaction. He also got into at least one destructive fight with another robot or super-powered baddie each issue.
Trademarks: Spiky shiny 'hair', red boots and his theme song: "There you go, Astro Boy! On your flight into space!," etc.
On Screen: There was a live-action TV series in Japan in 1959-60, and several episodes were cut together into a feature film, but Tetsuwan Atomo became internationally known (well, famous in America) thanks to an animated TV show which began in 1963 and was imported to the US as Astro Boy.
Did You Know?: The English name Astro Boy was selected after the closer translation 'the Mighty Atom' was rejected as "too generic" (and, perhaps as infringement of the DC Comics shrinking hero.
42. THE SAINT OF KILLERS (Preacher)
Garth Ennis' masterpiece, Preacher, is so good that two characters from it make our list (the other is – well, you'll see...). Choosing from the likes of Cassidy, Arseface, Herr Starr and Jesse Custer was tough, but if we hadn't plumped for the Saint Of Killers, he might have found us and killed us. A grim, taciturn, implacable killing machine charged by God himself to be his gun for hire, the Saint is an engine of pure hatred, driven by his thirst for vengeance (his family were killed, which precipitated his fall from grace). He's like the Terminator with a mullet. Indestructible and inexorable – like death himself – he's so badass that he manages to kill both the Devil and – spoiler warning! – God. Which makes him just about the most powerful character in the history of comic books, as far as we're concerned.
Trademarks: The Angel of Death reinvented as a cowboy: stone-cold snarl, battered hat and a green trenchcoat concealing Colts that can slay a small army in seconds.
On Screen: Ennis always saw the character as a combo of Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood (although his artist, Steve Dillon, and Preacher cover artist Glenn Fabry made him look ten times more physically imposing). The man who's playing him in AMC's miniseries is the suitably grizzled Graham McTavish, erstwhile dwarf in The Hobbit trilogy. Cult status already looks assured.
Did You Know?: He made a very brief cameo appearance in Ennis' excellent DC series, Hitman, about a wise-cracking assassin plying his trade in Gotham City.
41. GREEN LANTERN (All-American Comics / Justice League / Green Lantern)
AKA: HAL JORDAN
In the 1950s, DC revived discontinued titles from a decade earlier – reinventing The Flash, Hawkman and the Atom as 'all-new' characters, often using now-modish science fiction ideas rather than magic to explain their powers. The 'old' Green Lantern (Allan Scott) had a magic ring, but fearless test pilot Hal Jordon was given his 'power ring' by a dying alien who recruited him to take his place in a corps of space cops run by the Guardians of the Universe. As long as he kept the ring charged while reciting his oath, GL could project all manner of giant green objects (boxing gloves, etc) and travel through space. Over the years, Jordan has been stripped of his ring (and his life) – but currently he's back in action as the primary GL of the DC Universe. Connoisseurs reckon he was at his best partnered with left-wing liberal superhero Green Arrow in a socially-conscious 1960s run by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams collected as 'Hard Travelling Heroes'.
Trademarks: Power ring, domino mask, figure-hugging suit and his catch-oath: "In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight, let those who worship evil's might, beware my power, Green Lantern's light!"
On Screen: Gerald Mohr, Michael Rye, Adam Baldwin and Dermot Mulroney voiced Jordan/GL on various DC cartoon team-up shows, but a different Lantern – Phil LaMarr as John Stewart – features in the recent Justice League animated series. And that was it. There was definitely no Green Lantern movie starring, say, Ryan Reynolds in, say, 2011. No siree. Never happened. Nothing to see here.
Did You Know?: Gil Kane originally modelled the look of Hal Jordan on Paul Newman.
40. SCOTT PILGRIM (Scott Pilgrim)
Bryan Lee O'Malley's creation is one of the most authentic twentysomethings ever committed to comic booky paper. At once self-assured yet nervous about his social interactions and encounters with Ramona Flowers, the girl who appears in Scott's dreams before he meets her, Scott is an enormously likeable character: droll and funny, spicing his conversation with pop culture references (and, like Deadpool, he seems to be aware that he's in a comic book from time to time), finding inner depths, emotions and resources he never knew he had, as his slacking ways are rudely challenged by the small matter of defeating those evil ex-boyfriends. The six volume comic (part four was released this year), in case you've never picked it up, reflects Scott: it's a mish-mash of styles and tones, mixing observational comedy with, say, videogame-inspired fight scenes, with the tone zigzagging about wildly and joyously. Go discover it. Now.
Trademarks: A 23-year-old Toronto youth who's just like you – except for the Manga eyes, the gay room-mate, the band called Sex Bob-omb, and the girl of his dreams (literally), whose seven evil ex-boyfriends he must battle before they can become an item.
On Screen: Scott is played by Michael Cera – whose nervous energy offered a perfect fit – in Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, an adaptation that's by turns manic and marvellous.
Did You Know?: Scott is named after a song by the Canadian all-girl band, Plumtree.
39. THE MEKON (Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future)
Take that, Dan Dare. You may be the one who gets to save mankind all the time, but it's your arch-enemy, the mega-meloned Mekon who makes our list! And rightly so – certainly, when Empire was growing up, we used to flick nonchalantly through Dan Dare stories until the Mekon turned up, usually making threats that ended with some variation of "I will kill you/blow you up/take your mother, Dorothy Dare out for a seafood dinner and then never call her again, Dan Dare!" As created by Frank Hampson, The Mighty Mekon of Mekonta is an emotion-free genius, always coming up with nifty weapons (a weaponised black hole is one of his latest whizzes) with which he spectacularly fails to kill Dan Dare and his chubby pal, Digby.
Trademarks: A giant swollen green head to accommodate his mighty, over-sized genetically engineered Venusian brain; a levitating chair to hump his atrophied limbs around on. Oh, and lots of evil plotting.
On Screen: The Mekon has yet to be brought to the big screen, though there was talk of a Dan Dare movie, with Garth Ennis rumoured to be working on the script. If it ever happens we're sure it'll be CG, but we'd love to see someone in heavy-duty prosthetics, to be honest. And that man is... David Thewlis.
Did You Know? Elton John's song, Dan Dare (Pilot Of The Future), contains the Bernie Taupin-penned line, "Dan Dare doesn't know it, but I like The Mekon!" In retaliation, Dare produced a single containing the line, "Elton John doesn't know it... but I like his partner, David Furnish."
38. CEREBUS (Cerebus)
AKA: CEREBUS THE AARDVARK
Canadian artist Dave Sim, an outspoken proponent for the creative rights of comic book creators, a frequent marijuana (and occasional LSD) user and the man responsible for creating the longest-running, single-creative-team-driven series in comic-book history, is the person to thank for giving us one of pop culture's strangest and most complex characters: a misanthropic, anthropomorphic three-foot tall gray aardvark with a chequered history that has seen him playing the roles of pope, prime minister, mercenary and unwanted houseguest. The saga of Cerebus is made even more compelling by the fact that he's a borderline alcoholic hermaphrodite with (according to his creator) a voice like George C. Scott and a general dislike for everything and everyone he comes into contact with. A character born of bizarre brilliance.
Trademarks: Possessing of a bad temper, fine skills at hand-to-hand combat and a predilection for speaking in the third person. Oh, and he's an aardvark.
On Screen: Despite numerous cross-fertilisation appearances in the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Flaming Carrot comics, Cerebus has never (and is rather unlikely) to ever make the leap to the big screen - just look what happened to Howard The Duck. If it did ever happen, however, we're thinking Warwick Davis in the aardvark suit and Danny Huston providing the voice.
Did You Know?: Cerebus' name was originally an accidental misspelling of Cerberus, the mythical three-headed dog who guarded the gate of Hades in ancient Greek myth.
37. DAREDEVIL (Daredevil)
AKA: MATT MURDOCK
One of the superheroes created by Stan n' Jack during their burst of unparalleled creativity in the mid-1960s, Daredevil was one of the first down-and-dirty superheroes, choosing to base himself in New York's less than salubrious Hell's Kitchen. A mess of contradictions – he's a devout Catholic who dresses up as a devil, he's a lawyer by day, while getting up to some pretty intense, and illegal, vigilantism by night – Daredevil has never enjoyed the following of a Hulk or a Spidey, but he's a compelling, layered and visually striking character who's attracted some of the best talent in the business. It was on Daredevil that Frank Miller came to prominence, while the likes of Brian Michael Bendis, Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale and Kevin Smith have taken a shot at the noble but tortured hero in recent years.
Trademarks: Snazzy red outfit, complete with collapsible cane/billy club, enhanced hearing, smell, and a unique radar. He also has incredible agility and balance.
On Screen: Although he was by no means the first choice, Ben Affleck actually had a decent stab at playing DD in Mark Steven Johnson's 2003 flick. Charlie Cox has taken the part and run with it in a Netflix adaption that's afforded plenty of screentime for both Daredevil and his real-life alter ego. There's more to come too.
Did You Know?: Danny Rand - aka Iron Fist - donned Daredevil's horns recently, while Matt Murdock was in FBI custody.
36. AGENT GRAVES (100 Bullets)
AKA: PHILLIP GRAVES
Apart from being the coolest cat on several continents, Agent Graves also serves as the harbinger of moral dilemma. Appearing as the protagonist of Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets, Graves offers those who have been wronged the chance for revenge without consequences, if only they're prepared to take it. A briefcase, a gun, 100 'untraceable' bullets and incontrovertible proof against the single person behind their woes, these are what Graves has to offer. Interestingly, neither Graves nor the writers pass judgment on whether taking up the offer is right or wrong. Graves' motives are never made clear but he used to be a member of a group called The Minutemen and harbours a great deal of resentment for the shadowy organisation known as The Trust, who betrayed him in the past.
Trademarks: An older man in a nondescript, government official-style suit, Graves is meticulous, calculating and rarely displays his emotions.
On Screen: Someone unflappable, ice cold and possessed of extreme gravitas – we're thinking Chris Cooper or Alan Dale.
Did You Know?: The character's full name, Phillip Graves, is a homophone of 'fill up graves'.
35. HELLBOY (Hellboy)
AKA: ANUNG UN RAMA
There are few characters more original or striking (literally – Hellboy punches first, asks questions – well, almost never) than Hellboy, the genius creation of Mike Mignola, who uses the character as the outlet for his obsession with pulp comics, Lovecraftian horror and tales of ancient folklore and the supernatural. Enhanced greatly by Mignola's artwork – pitch-black shadows and popping reds – Hellboy is a lumbering but lovable giant of few words (although, "aw, crap" is usually high on the list) who interacts with talking corpses and giant tentacled horrors while trying to deny the destiny he was created for. For the movies, Guillermo del Toro gave Hellboy more inner turmoil and emotions, but the comics version is a blast as he investigates the paranormal in much the same way Gene Hunt investigates crime – fists first.
Trademarks: Red skin, horn stubs, yellow eyes, prehensile tail, massive right hand made out of unbreakable stone and a penchant for cigars.
On Screen: Two words: Ron Perlman. There's rarely been quite as immaculate a marriage of actor to character, with Perlman perfectly capturing Hellboy's contrary air of world-weary cynicism, and boundless, childlike optimism, while giving him a truly human edge. No wonder del Toro refused to make it with anyone else.
Did You Know?: His first appearance in his own comic, The Right Hand Of Doom, was actually written by industry legend, John Byrne, with Mignola restricting himself to story and art duties until he felt capable of writing his own dialogue.
34. DOCTOR STRANGE (Doctor Strange / Strange Tales)
AKA: STEPHEN STRANGE
This universe's 'sorcerer supreme' was originally an arrogant, money-grubbing surgeon who lost the use of his hands in a drunken car wreck and sought a miracle cure in the Tibetan lamasery of 'the Ancient One'. He then learned to master the mystic arts and moved into a mansion in Greenwich Village, New York, to take up the job of freelance psychic investigator and protector of the universe from menaces like 'the dread Dormammu' and even Count Dracula. Never a big-seller, Strange has consistently featured in outstanding comics, especially when drawn by Ditko and Gene Colan. As the Marvel Universe's leading magician, he remains a mainstay of the company's crossover stories – and organiser of the occasional group of testy superheroes the Defenders (with the Hulk, Silver Surfer and Sub-Mariner).
Trademarks: Cloak of levitation, Eye of Agamotto amulet, magical abilities, orange conjuring gloves, white-tinged facial hair. Catch-phrase: 'by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!'
On Screen: Peter Hooten played a bouffant-haired intern with magic powers in a 1978 TV movie Dr. Strange, Bryce Johnson voices the lead in a 2007 direct-to-DVD animated feature, and John Vernon intoned spells on the Spider-Man cartoon. Next up? Benedict Cumberbatch in Marvel's high-risk adaptation of Doctor Strange, which lands later this year.
Did You Know?: Marvel had an evil Doctor Strange, who appeared two months before the magician's debut, as an Iron Man villain. Also, one of Batman's earliest enemies, from the 1930s, was Dr. Hugo Strange (no relation).
33. VENOM (Spider-Man)
AKA: EDDIE BROCK, ANGELO FORTUNATO, MAC GARGAN
An alien symbiote with a thirst for violence and flesh, Venom started out as a living costume for Spider-Man, who thought the black-and-white threads were just that: threads. When Spidey rejected Venom's attempts for control, he latched onto the Daily Bugle's Eddie Brock, spawning a decades-long quest for vengeance. Arguably Spider-Man's biggest nemesis, Venom is the comic-book equivalent of a movie boogeyman like Freddy Krueger – he's meant to be terrifying and villainous, but readers thought he was so cool that eventually the symbiote became less obviously evil (he always tries never to hurt bystanders), appearing in his own title. In fact, he was so neutered that not only did he occasionally team up with Spider-Man, but Marvel created an even more evil symbiote, the mass murderer, Carnage, in order to mitigate Venom's crimes. Currently, the symbiote is not bonded with Brock, but that remains his most famous persona.
Trademarks: Black, organic fabric with shapeshifting capacity and all of Spider-Man's abilities.
On Screen: Spider-Man 3 has many flaws, and the casting of Topher Grace as Venom was one. Too weedy to pose a physical threat, and not able to pull off the grief and dementia that drives Brock/Venom, he plain sucked. Age the role 20 years, cast Kurt Russell, job's a good 'un.
Did You Know?: Spider-Man happened upon the alien costume during Marvel's classic 1984 cross-over, Secret Wars; after his red-and-blue costume was destroyed, an alien gizmo rustled up the black version. And, even though it flowed over his skin like oil, Spidey never questioned where it came from. Fool.
32. LEX LUTHOR (Superman)
AKA: ALEXANDER JOSEPH LUTHOR, MOCKINGBIRD
When you're as strong, fast, invulnerable and flat-out powerful as Superman, it's hard to find a nemesis of sufficient menace to actually provide you with a workout. Enter Lex Luthor, the bad guy's bad guy. He doesn't (usually) have superpowers, but then he doesn't need them, even against the Man of Steel. No prison can hold him, it seems, no setback is too great to overcome, and there's pretty much no scheme too outlandish for his considerable brain power to cook up. Since Superman remains reluctant to just break Luthor's neck, there's always tomorrow for this perpetual rebounder. Talk about try, try and try again – Robert the Bruce's Spider had nothing on Luthor.
Trademarks: Usually bald, smartest human on Earth, Machiavellian planning ability and a frequent prison escapee.
On Screen: Gene Hackman played him in the Christopher Reeve films, with Kevin Spacey taking the role for Bryan Singer. On TV, John Shea and Michael Rosenbaum have played the character in recent years, while Clancy Brown and James Marsters (Buffy's Spike) have voiced him in animated serials. The Smallville incarnation has been one of the most interesting, if also the most inconsistent, although Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor has added a intriguing tech genius streak to the usual Luther pathology.
Did You Know?: Lex Luthor, son of Lionel Luthor and Leticia Luthor, has on occasion dated both Lois Lane and Lana Lang. Sheesh.
31. USAGI YOJIMBO (Albedo Anthropomorphics)
AKA: MIYAMOTO USAGI
Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Usagi is a cute animal with a black belt in ass-kickery. But unlike those green-backed heroes in a half-shell, the ronin rabbit has kept to his adult-orientated roots with a saga that comprises all manner of murder, mayhem and the odd sexy scene in an anthropomorphic version of feudal Japan. This iconic bunny with a blade was originally conceived as a human and based upon historical Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. However, inspired by a doodle of rabbit ears atop his hero's head, Sakai was inspired to create a more unique and ultimately enduring comic book icon. The noble leporine's longevity can be put down to an intriguing mix of historical and cinematic influence, cute fluffy bunniness and an ability to slice and dice with stunning efficiency.
Trademarks: Highly skilled swords-rabbit with a deep-seated sense of justice and a bit of a mischievous streak.
On Screen: Usagi popped up on several occasions in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series in which he was voiced by Townsend Coleman, AKA the guy who gave voice to the title character in The Tick – incidentally he'd be a good fit for the role if a cartoon feature ever gets off the ground.
Did You Know?: Usagi is Japanese for rabbit.
30. EMMA FROST (X-Men)
AKA: THE WHITE QUEEN
Bad girls in comics are always so useful that they tend to reform and become at least semi-goodies (cf: Catwoman, Elektra). Emma Frost was introduced as an exceptionally nasty – and explicitly perverse – villainess, running a school for evil mutants in competition with Professor Xavier and high in the councils of the nefarious Hellfire Club (in homage to the famous 'Touch of Brimstone' episode of The Avengers). Marvel made her a qualified goodie in the X-Men spin-off Generation X, and writer Grant Morrison reinvented the character when he took over New X-Men and wasn't allowed to use his original choice, Storm. Now an actual X-Man, Emma remained the manipulative character fans loved to hate – and caused a minor kerfuffle when she began a 'telepathic' affair with Cyclops, long-term partner of Jean Grey. Despite strong competition, Emma has consistently worn the most striking lingerie (and little else) in comics – the covers for her brief solo series Emma Frost are basically porn star poses.
Trademarks: Extremely revealing white fetish gear, icy personality, enormous mental abilities, psychic ability, is a qualified sex therapist (always useful) and can now turn to diamond and be her own best friend.
On Screen: Finola Hughes plays Emma in Generation X, a 1996 TV movie which – three years before Bryan Singer's X-Men – was the first live-action X-project. January Jones takes on the, um, frosty mantle in X-Men: First Class.
Did You Know?: When Singer was thinking about making X-Men: The Last Stand, he wanted Sigourney Weaver for the role.
29. SWAMP THING (Swamp Thing)
AKA: ALEC HOLLAND
Scientist Holland gets splashed with a 'bio-restorative formula' when baddies attack his Louisiana swampland laboratory, and is transmuted into a big monster – who has a certain similarity with earlier comics creatures the Heap and Man-Thing. The first run of the comic featured marvellously grotesque Wrightson art, but it wasn't until writer Alan Moore took up the book – which was relaunched to tie in with the Wes Craven film – that ST really became a major player, even if he had to play straight man to Moore's John Constantine. It turns out that ST isn't a transformed human, but animated swamp with the consciousness of the late Holland. He has had a long-term relationship with a human woman, which some have criticised as perverted or icky.
Trademarks: A big shambling, roughly man-shaped hunk of muck and vegetation with a distinctive nose, ST is the only superhero capable of producing halluconogenic fruit from his body.
On Screen: Ray Wise is Holland and Dick Durock Swampy in the film; Durock reappears in The Return Of Swamp Thing and the short-lived Swamp Thing TV show.
Did You Know?: Matthew the Raven, a key character in Sandman, first appeared (and died) as a human being in the Swamp Thing comic.
28. THE TICK (The Tick)
Ben Edlund was just 18 – the bastard – when he came up with The Tick, a character that may be, quite simply, the funniest superhero spoof of all time. Blessed with a fantastic supporting cast of outlandishly-named nemeses – Chairface Chippendale, take a bow – and self-involved allies, from Die Fledermaus in the comics to Batmanuel in the tragically short-lived live-action TV show, The Tick is a lovable lunk, given to overly dramatic declarations on behalf of justice. He doesn't know his own strength, which is prodigious and, indeed, fails to grasp even the most rudimentary basics of social interaction. Edlund's The Tick – his involvement runs through the comics, the animated series and the TV show – is characterised by sharply observed gags and a gift for hilarious hyperbole.
Trademarks: A blue costume with giant movable antennae, The Tick is, to quote the TV show, "the sterling silver ladle of justice, pouring his creamy foam over the freshly-picked strawberries of crime". His strength is mighty, his IQ is double figures. Low double figures. Catchphrase: "SPOON!"
On Screen: In the animated series, he's voiced by Townsend Coleman. In Fox's utterly brilliant live-action show (nine episodes! Nine episodes!), he was played to perfection by the deep-voiced and pretty vacant Patrick Warburton. Next up, it's Peter Serafinowicz's turn in Amazon Prime's new series.
Did You Know?: The actor who plays Batmanuel, Nestor Carbonell, shows up in The Dark Knight as the Mayor of Gotham. That's Batmanuel – in a Batman movie. Gotta love that.
27. JOHNNY ALPHA (2000 AD)
The second most iconic 2000 AD character after Judge Dredd himself, Johnny Alpha was the poster child for Strontium Dog, an extremely popular series about a group of mutant bounty hunters. Although originating in Starlord, Strontium Dog switched to 2000 AD after the former's closure and soon became a staple series thanks mainly to the presence of Alpha and his cohorts Durham Red, Middenface McNulty and Wulf Sternhammer. Alpha himself was, of course, a mercenary but despite working largely for greenbacks he was possessed of a strong sense of duty and honour. Equally, though, Alpha demonstrated a stubbornly unforgiving streak, brooking no slight or double-cross and punishing transgressions harshly – as the vampiric Durham Red discovered to her great regret. In 1990 Alpha was killed off in a story that martyred him in order to saves all mutants from extermination. Ezquerra was so mortified by the decision that he refused outright to draw the story and replacements were brought in to carry out the deed. Wagner later admitted that Ezquerra was right and that killing Alpha had been a huge mistake. The character was subsequently revived by both of his creators for a brief resurgence in 1999.
Trademarks: Glowing eyes, granite jaw, distinctive metal headpiece, trademark variable cartridge blaster handgun and electroknux.
On Screen: An aborted Strontium Dog TV treatment by Wagner never came to fruition and the closest Alpha has come to the screen is a series of audio dramas (radio plays released on CD) where he is voiced by 2000 AD fan Simon Pegg.
Did You Know?: One of Alpha's landmark achievements was tracking and capturing Adolf Hitler back in the past and subsequently returning him to the future to stand trial for his crimes.
26. MARV (Sin City)
When Frank Miller began Sin City – his series of ultra-noir set in the eponymous hotbed of crime – he needed archetypes that were almost Olympian in their grandeur. Marv is his grade-A patsy, the fall guy, the hapless hero at the centre of a conspiracy that he can't even begin to understand – but with a traditional Miller tweak. This dumb brute can more than take care of himself, and fully embraces the self-destructive path he starts down when he vows to avenge the brutal murder of Goldie, a prostitute who showed him kindness, despite his face. Marv is a force of nature, cutting a path through the corrupt power-brokers of the city, until his pound of flesh (and more) has been exacted. His death scene – he's juiced repeatedly in the electric chair, obstinately refusing to die right away – sums him up: stubborn, intractable, intent on doing things his way. Miller killed him, but brought him back for several Sin City prequels. Not even he could stand to see the big lug truly die.
Trademarks: A face only criss-crossed with ugly scars, a pancaked nose and a chin that could open cans of tuna – Marv is the archetypal hard man with a heart of gold, a bruiser who's a sucker for a dame.
On Screen: Mickey Rourke, under heavy prosthetics, played Marv to perfection in the Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez-directed Sin City and 2014's A Dame To Kill For.
Did You Know?: Miller, when creating the character, wanted Marv to be like "Conan in a trench coat".
25. DR. DOOM (Fantastic Four)
AKA: VICTOR VON DOOM
What a villain. There's a lot of Dr. Doom in Darth Vader, and pretty much every Bond villain of the last 40 years. Of all Marvel's villains, Doom has appeared most, across countless titles. Where most villains stick to their designated hero, Doom, nominally the arch-enemy of the Fantastic Four, will go toe-to-toe (or, more likely, he'll send a Doombot to go toe-to-toe; he doesn't like to get his hands dirty with mere serfs) with anyone. A truly brilliant scientist, Doom likes to combine his unquenchable thirst for ultimate power (he once stole the energy of the near-omnipotent Beyonder) with a bizarre double life, as the altruistic leader of the European country of Latveria. Which makes arresting him on American soil doubly difficult, due to that pesky diplomatic immunity. He has a noble side, like many of the best bad guys, but he's as disfigured psychologically as he is physically. And then there's that surname, which is pretty hard to get around. How life might have been different if he'd been born Victor Von Awesome.
Trademarks: Arguably the most famous of all Marvel's villains, Doctor Doom is certainly the most visually striking – a snub-nosed metal mask housing a badly disfigured face and a black heart, topped off with a regal green cloak which covers weaponised body armour to make Iron Man's heart weep with envy.
On Screen: The spectacularly badly-cast Julian McMahon mangled scenery and didn't even attempt a Latverian accent in either Fantastic Four movies. Toby Kebbell played him in the 2015 reboot, but the less about that one the better.
Did You Know?: The Wolves of Calla, from the Stephen King Dark Tower book of the same name, are – SPOILER WARNING! – strongly implied to be futuristic robots based on Dr. Doom.
24. DEENA PILGRIM (Powers)
Powers is a police drama – loosely modelled on Homicide: Life On The Street – set in a world with superheroes and villains, and Deena is the rookie partner of former immortal hero turned homicide cop Christian Walker. Formerly partnered with crooked Captain Adlard, Deena is now tagging along with the upright Walker but gets in deep with Internal Affairs for her frequent recourse to violence to get information from suspects and is keeping very quiet about the way her abusive former boyfriend got mysteriously electrocuted during an argument. Powers is currently the coolest comic that only comic book readers have heard of.
Trademarks: Midriff-baring shirt, cute pixie-ish haircut, slight prejudice against super-powered beings and secretive about recently-acquired electrical abilities.
On Screen: We'd probably go with Natalie Portman – if she was willing to have the V For Vendetta haircut, she'd be happy to have the Deena bob.
Did You Know?: Writer Bendis and artist Oeming base Deena on a combination of their wives... aaahhh.
23. OBELIX (Asterix)
More fun than lead character Asterix, almost as cute as his pet Dogmatix, and the comic engine for the entire series, Obelix is arguably the best reason to love the French – yes, right up there with the wine, the cheeses, and Gérard Depardieu (who, not coincidentally, has also played him onscreen). The menhir-delivery man takes a childlike glee in beating up hordes of Romans – something he considers a right rather than a duty – and is blasé about the super-strength gained when he fell into a cauldron of magic potion when he was a little boy. His inability to look beyond the moment – he leaves such ponderings to Asterix or his smart, tree-obsessed dog Dogmatix – and tendency to fall in love with unattainable women make him one of the cutest characters on the list. Even if he could beat up your whole family without breaking a sweat.
Trademarks: Pleasantly plump (don't call him fat), red moustache and beard, often carries a menhir, invincible and super-strong with a perchant for beating up Romans.
On Screen: In a very successful series of European productions, Depardieu has donned a fat suit to play him. In cartoon form, he's been voiced by Brad Garrett among others.
Did You Know?: There's a Parc Asterix just outside Paris, where you can go on Asterix and Obelix-themed rides. We recommend the Menhir Express.
22. HUNTER ROSE (Grendel)
The original and best in Matt Wagner's long-running series of masked anti-heroes, Hunter Rose was a young genius gifted with extraordinary physical and mental prowess and just a little too much time to spare. Finding that excellence breeds boredom if not channelled correctly, Rose set about becoming a crime kingpin, hired killer and all-round roguish gadabout before dying at the age of 21 by the hands of his lycanthropic nemesis, Argent. More Grendels have followed in Hunter Rose's footsteps but few have done the job with such an innate sense of style.
Trademarks: Effete novelist by day, criminal mastermind and world-class assassin by night.
On Screen: Wagner's nefarious creation hasn't worried the big screen as of yet. If an actor were to make Hunter Rose come alive, we'd put our money on Jamie Bell providing the right amount of romantic menace.
Did You Know?: Grendel has faced off against Batman twice – in the comic-book crossovers Devil's Riddle & Devil's Masque and Devil's Bones & Devil's Dance.
21. CAPTAIN AMERICA (Captain America / Avengers)
AKA: STEVE ROGERS
Thanks to the super-soldier serum, Captain America is the best that a human being can be – super-strong, super-fast, super-agile, doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, and has a Nintendo DS Brain Training age of 20. Not bad for a guy who's technically in his eighties now. And, well, dead. Yes, Captain America – at least, Steve Rogers, the Captain America that people have been growing up with ever since Double-yuh Double-yuh Two – is no more. He was shot by a sniper at the end of 2007's massive Civil War cross-over and unusually for a comic book icon, is still dead. But let's take this opportunity to briefly remember the hero that he was: created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon as a ra-ra tool in World War II, Cap really came into his own in the 1960s, when Kirby and Lee thawed him out and put him in charge of The Avengers. In a post-9/11 world, the juxtaposition of a man with a rigid moral compass in a world going to hell in a handbasket led to some of the best Captain America comics in years. For that reason, it can't be too long before the old super-soldier serum flows through Steve Rogers' veins once more.
Trademarks: He is America. Or, rather, he is the American flag. Clad in red, white and blue chainmail, with a red, white and blue invincible shield demarcated by a giant star and initialed, wing-tipped head piece.
On Screen: Matt Salinger – son of J.D.! – played him in the low-budget version. In the much-bigger-budget, Marvel version, Chris Evans has made the role of Steve Rogers his own across five Cap and Avengers movies.
Did You Know?: Stephen Colbert is a huge Cap fan. When Rogers was killed, Colbert eulogised him on his show – and he has one of two replica metal Cap shields, commissioned by Marvel to mark the event, hanging in his studio.
20. WONDER WOMAN (Wonder Woman / Justice League)
AKA: PRINCESS DIANA OF THEMYSCIRA, DIANA PRINCE
This feminist icon is the most important woman in comics. Naturally, that means she's often been given short shrift, frequently demoted to menial status (she was a founder member of the Justice Society, but only as secretary) and depowered and repowered more often than all the X-Men combined. But on form, she's almost as powerful as Superman, looks better in hotpants and has the additional superpower of reducing fanboys to putty. Over the years, Gloria Steinem has extolled her role as a strong female role model – she was the first cover girl on Ms. magazine – and novelist Jodi Picoult recently essayed a critically acclaimed series of stories for her.
Trademarks: Beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, swifter than Hermes, and stronger than Hercules. Can fly and wields the lasso of truth and magic bracelets.
On Screen: Lynda Carter wowed a generation in the '70s TV show, while a 2009 animated film saw her voiced by Keri Russell. After years stuck in limbo, the live-action film version is finally coming with Gal Gadot starring and Patty Jenkins directing. Wonder Woman was the best thing in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice and the trailer looks suitably juicy.
Did You Know?: Controversy over comic books in the '50s saw Wonder Woman accused of being a lesbian.
19. THE PUNISHER (Spider-Man / The Punisher)
AKA: FRANK CASTLE
Yet another Marvel character who started off as a villain – notably a Spider-Man villain (although he was more of a goon when he first cameoed in Amazing Spider-Man) – before graduating to his own title and anti-hero status. The Punisher is now one of the most iconic characters in the entire Marvel stable. A 'Nam vet driven by his family's murder to punish all criminals by death, it's perhaps not unsurprising that the dark, disillusioned '70s was the decade that saw a brutal, uncompromising psychopath (for that's what Castle is, no debate) become a fan favourite. Although, truth be told, operating within the confines of the toothless main Marvel titles never sat well with The Punisher – in recent years, with the move to the MAX label, and Garth Ennis' soon-to-finish installation as Punisher guru, the dark heart and psychology of Frank Castle has been fully explored, giving a new insight into this grimmest and most compelling of characters.
Trademarks: A giant white skull on his black-shirted chest. An eternal desire for revenge. And guns. Lots of guns.
On Screen: Three Punisher movies, three different Punishers. For all the apparent simplicity of the character, Frank Castle has proved a hard nut to crack. Ray Stevenson, star of The Punisher: Welcome Back Frank, fared little better than Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane in the role. Jon Bernthal could be the first to nail that gruff demeanour, violent tendencies and wounded humanity in Netflix's spin-off from the MCU. Daredevil Season 2 certainly had early promise that Marvel’s The Punisher will try to deliver on.
Did You Know?: Unlike other Marvel characters, who seem to age at a rate of one year for every five years of comics (at least), The Punisher ages – at least in the MAX line – in real time. Which currently makes him a 58-year-old kicking ass, as he was born on February 16, 1950.
18. HALO JONES (2000 AD)
Writers Moore and Gibson thought that 2000 AD could do with a female-led strip to counterpoint the comic's generally testosterone-heavy violence fests, and co-created 50th century everygirl Halo Jones, who just tries to get by in a dangerous future where going to the shops is a major trial. The original intent was to chronicle the heroine's whole life but only three serials were completed before the strip was curtailed by the usual who's-got-the-rights argument. The three stories find Halo as a teenager on that shopping trip, working as a stewardess on a spaceship and (grimly) fighting a Starship Troopers-type war in an all-female army. Halo is exponentially cooler than knock-offs like Tank Girl, mostly because she remains a fed-up real person amid the wild space opera of her universe.
Trademarks: Pout, white '80s-look hair (yes, we know it was a black and white strip and she got blonded in the horrible US colourised reprints – but her hair was white on the original 2000 AD colour covers), loyalty to doomed friends, robot dog sidekick, catchphrase: "I can't take a shopping expedition."
On Screen: That mouth could only be Billie Piper – though she'd have to dye the hair.
Did You Know?: There was an Edinburgh fringe stage production in 1987, with Claire Fairley as Halo.
17. IRON MAN (Iron Man / Avengers)
AKA: TONY STARK
Created as a Cold War-based, commie-bashing triumph of American technology over conniving, inefficient Russians, Iron Man has proved as durable as his rust-proof armour over the years. This is partly because he's a very adaptable character – not just in terms of power levels – and partly because, let's face it, he looks damned cool. But it's the man inside the suit who has arguably been more fascinating. Tony Stark, billionaire playboy, has been by turns a reckless maverick, a hopeless drunk, dead (not one of Marvel's brightest ideas), teenaged (again?), his own bodyguard, a responsible leader and, more recently, the semi-villainous, politically hard-edged instigator of the Civil War which left the Marvel Universe in tatters, and Captain America dead. Iron Man is relatively simple – point and shoot – but Stark is as complex as they come. As long as that remains the case, Iron Man will remain one to watch.
Trademarks: Shiny red-and-gold armour (mostly – he's been known to go all-grey, all-gold and red-and-silver), super-strength, supersonic flight jets, an array of incredible weapons and the recently developed ability to interface with pretty much any OS on the planet. Oh, and he's a genius, too.
On Screen: Played, triumphantly, by Robert Downey Jr. in three Iron Man movies, two Avengers movies and Captain America: Civil War, with the actor's flamboyant, indelible, charismatic turn a chief factor in their huge success.
Did You Know?: According to Forbes, Stark is the tenth richest fictional character in the world, with a net worth of $100 billion. Only 100?
16. RORSCHACH (Watchmen)
AKA: WALTER KOVACS
Choosing just one of the Minutemen – the stars of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic comic, Watchmen – was tough. But from a purely iconic point of view, it had to be Rorschach. Who was in the first picture released from Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie? Rorschach. Who dominated online casting debates? Rorschach. Like The Punisher, Rorschach can be easily dismissed as a fascist whose belief in moral absolutes – there are no shades of grey; only black, white, good and evil – drives him to take the law into his own hands. But in the hands of Moore, the freckled, ginger Walter Kovacs is a taut, tortured, complex creation who, as well as being at the centre of some of Watchmen's most memorable sequences (the prison riot, for one), ends up being perhaps the most pure out of the graphic novel's characters, the only one who – SPOILER WARNING – isn't interested in compromising himself for the greater good.
Trademarks: Clad in a trenchcoat and a spotted mask which appears to constantly change configuration, much like a Rorschach test, this unyielding vigilante dishes out punishment to evildoers any way he sees fit. (Usually death.)
On Screen: He's played – with all the requisite dark charisma – by Jackie Earle Haley in Snyder's polarising Watchmen.
Did You Know?: Like most Watchmen characters, Rorschach was based on a couple of old superheroes from the Charlton Comics era – in this case, two heroes, The Question and Mr. A.
15. DEATH (Sandman)
It's a strange one, this; mystifying, on the face of it. Death's own comic is just good, not brilliant; she doesn't appear much in Sandman, and she's not nearly as nuanced a character as Sandman himself, or their younger sister Delirium (formerly Delight). But from the moment she appeared, she's been wildly popular with fans, won over by this bright, cheery figure in place of the traditional skeletal Reaper. Perhaps it's because Death duties make such cheerfulness double-edged, and because she has an air of mystery about her that gives her incalculable depth. What's more, she's the wise elder sister that everyone wishes they had, far more pulled together and at peace than any of the other Endless (except, perhaps, Destiny), and she gets to tie the whole series together come its final act. A perfect demonstration that the best characters needn't be overworked, and that the grim reaper doesn't have to be grim.
Trademarks: Cute Goth girl, tends to wear all black except for a silver Ankh necklace and a design like the Eye of Horus around the corner of her eye.
On Screen: No screen version yet, but Christina Ricci in Penelope mode would do it, or Jennifer Garner if you like to think outside the box.
Did You Know?: Death has an extensive collection of floppy hats, and two goldfish, called Slim and Wandsworth.
14. THE HULK (The Incredible Hulk / Avengers)
AKA: BRUCE BANNER
Instantly recognisable the world over – it's hard to stay incognito when you're ten feet tall and bright green – The Hulk has sometimes been a simplistic character, simply punching things again and again (the recent story arc, World War Hulk, was particularly guilty of this). But when writers like Peter David – the definitive Hulk scribe, as far as we're concerned – get hold of him, Hulk and Banner become a psychologically complex, nuanced being with an incredibly complicated history involving Banner's battle for control, which has led to Hulks green and grey. It's been fun watching the Hulk become a major, major player in the Marvel Universe of late, with Planet Hulk, the aforementioned World War Hulk and the Red Hulk storyline. Long may Hulk continue to (be a) smash.
Trademarks: Big. Green (usually). Angry. Sometimes smart, sometimes savage, sometimes somewhere inbetween. Oh, and incredibly, incredibly strong – in fact, the madder he gets, the stronger he gets.
On Screen: Lou Ferrigno was famously the first to play The Hulk, donning green bodypaint to do so. Ang Lee's Hulk was Eric Bana, before Edward Norton took on the role in Louis Leterrier's 2008 flop. Norton, surprisingly at the time, handed over the rage baton to Mark Ruffalo, who has since become a fan favourite in the MCU.
Did You Know?: The Hulk has a healing factor that's even faster than Wolverine's. He's believed to be able to survive a near-direct hit from a nuclear missile.
13. VLADEK SPIEGELMAN (Maus: A Survivor's Tale)
A real-life hero who survived insurmountable odds and devastating adversity to create a new life with his family in a new world, Vladek Spiegelman's life bursts out of the pages of his son's seminal series to heartbreaking effect. Depicted as a mouse, his concentration camp incarceration under the yoke of Nazi felines and subsequent escape to a new world populated by dogs, frogs and fish is overflowing with a humanity that has yet to be equalled in comic book lore. That Art Spiegelman was able to recount such a harrowing chapter in history in comic book form and in such a stylised manner is impressive enough, but through a rodentised image of his father he embodied the fear, desperation and hope of the Holocaust in one person. Even the subsequent change in character, as Vladek morphs from idealistic young adult to embittered old codger, cannot lessen the impact he makes upon the reader.
Trademarks: Tenacity in the face of adversity as a young man, a grumpy old sod in his later years.
On Screen: If George Orwell's Animal Farm can be made into a decent animated flick, Spiegelman's tale would be phenomenal – no word on a big-screen adaptation yet, though.
Did You Know?: Maus won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 – it missed out on the main gong because the voting board members found the cartoonist's depiction of Nazi Germany hard to classify.
12. SPIDER JERUSALEM (Transmetropolitan)
Like Preacher, Transmetropolitan had a short life – but for 60 brilliant, dazzlingly inventive issues, writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson brought their A-game. And the creation of Spider Jerusalem, gonzo journalist, imbiber of enough drugs to floor a struggling musician, and seeker of truth, was at the centre of it all. A foul-mouthed tribute to, most obviously, Hunter S. Thompson, Jerusalem is known as the God-King of journalists, who devotes his life to delivering the truth to his readers (one article simply repeated the word "fuck" 8000 times - we have to try that sometime), no matter how unpalatable it may be for the establishment (which, incidentally, he's trying to bring down). Not averse to taking the odd life in his quest (mostly in self-defence), Spider is a true one-off, a character so fearless and vibrant and nonchalantly cool that Patrick Stewart is his biggest fan. And if that's not a recommendation, we don't know what is.
Trademarks: Virtually hairless (after an encounter with a faulty cleaner), foul-mouthed and dogged about rooting out the truth. He's festooned with tattoos, including – yes! – a spider and wears red-and-green spectacles.
On Screen: Much to his publicly expressed chagrin, Patrick Stewart is too old to play Spider in anything other than an animated flick. Our vote? Colin Farrell's got the right edge of mania and earnestness. We can just see his mad eyes twinkling behind a pair of glasses, one lens green and rectangular, the other red and round...
Did You Know?: Spider's middle names are Django Heraclitus. Nice.
11. JESSE CUSTER (Preacher)
You know that old saying, men want to be him and women want to bed him? Usually it's applied to James Bond, but it really should refer exclusively to Jesse Custer, the anchor of Garth Ennis' masterpiece, Preacher. In a comic filled with extraordinary supporting characters, Ennis and the artist Steve Dillon had to work some to make sure that the title character stood out. Jesse is at once a throwback to the good ol' days of the Wild West, a rootin', tootin', ready-with-his-fists guy, ready to do what's right and stand up for what he believes in. He communes with the ghost of John Wayne and looks like Jim Morrison took to the church. But he's also - and this is the clever part - one of the most noble, romantic characters in modern comics, with almost everything he does motivated by love, friendship and self-sacrifice: love for his girlfriend, Tulip, and the friendship of his Irish vampire chum, Cassidy. Almost everything else, like his desire to find God and punish him, is driven by dismay at the state of the modern world. Controversial, but understandable. Oh, and he even looks great with an eyepatch.
Trademarks: For a man of God, Jesse Custer has something of the devil in him – he's a drinkin', smokin', cussin' ex-preacher with a taste for pleasures of the flesh. He also happens to be possessed by Genesis, the enormously powerful offspring of an angel and a demon that gives him the ability to make anyone do what he says.
On Screen: There was talk of a Preacher movie for more than a decade now – Sam Mendes was one of the filmmakers attached – but it's finally burst to life on Amazon Prime with Dominic Cooper donning the cloth as the classic comic book antihero. Season 2 is already on its way.
Did You Know?: Jesse turns against the hypocrisy of the church after a chance encounter with comedian Bill Hicks.
10. THE THING (Fantastic Four)
AKA: BEN GRIMM
One of the most beloved characters in comics, The Thing is the heart of the Fantastic Four – a wisecracking trier, with a heart the size of the Brooklyn Bridge. Case in point: the many classic battles over the years between The Thing and the much stronger Hulk. Despite the disparity in their strength levels, The Thing has never shied away from the fight. Yet, despite the sense of humour, there's a tragic element to The Thing, as well. Trapped – for the most part – in a body he loathes (he was mutated in the cosmic ray storm that created the FF), Ben Grimm can be prone to bouts of depression in a nod to classic stories like Frankenstein and Beauty And The Beast (his blind girlfriend, Alicia Masters, providing the beauty). But hey, the ultimate message is the sort you normally find in a DreamWorks Animation film: just be yourself, and things will work out for the best. Aww...
Trademarks: A large creature with incredible levels of endurance and strength, this gruff, irascible but lovable New Yorker – catchphrase: "It's clobberin' time!" – has orange-coloured skin made out of rock, complete with a monobrow like a cliff-face.
On Screen: Michael Chiklis beat off the likes of Bobby Cannavale to wear the orange prosthetic suit for the first two Fantastic Four films. For Josh Trank's earthier reboot, it was Jamie Bell who rocked out in an ultimately ill-fated adaptation.
Did You Know?: Aspects of Ben's personality were based on Jack Kirby, who also grew up in a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of New York.
9. MAGNETO (X-Men)
AKA: ERIK MAGNUS LEHNSHERR
Magneto is... complicated. A Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who is determined to save his fellow homo superior from the fate of his fellow Jew, he sometimes seems fated to repeat some of the Nazis' mistakes, pursuing the subjugation of homo sapiens in favour of homo superior. He is – as producer Tom DeSanto told Bryan Singer when he was trying to persuade him to make the first X-Men movie – Malcolm X to Professor X's Martin Luther King. His 'by any means necessary' approach has seen him commit hideous atrocities in the past, including the sinking of a submarine full of sailors, and yet he's not evil – not in the traditional sense of the word, anyway. Even though he's traditionally their number one nemesis, he has been known to actively align with the X-Men, even taking over as the team's leader/teacher in the absence of Charles Xavier, while he's previously had a relationship with Rogue. Currently in the films, he's depowered, and living life as a human – which, for him, is purgatory. But we're sure his powerless state won't last for long.
Trademarks: White hair hidden beneath an ornate helmet, part of an imposing red/purple costume that comes complete with a sweeping cape. He controls magnetic fields, manipulates all forms of metal, and is said to be so powerful that he could rip the Earth in two if he so desired. Obviously, he never has, because that would be stupid.
On Screen: It was Ian McKellen who filled Magneto's helmet for the X-Men trilogy, before Michael Fassbender scored the role of younger, more conflicted Magneto in X-Men: First Class.
Did You Know?: Magneto is the father of fellow mutants, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – herself one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe.
8. THE JOKER (Batman)
AKA: JACK NAPIER
The greatest comic book villain ever, and as versatile a character as his nemesis, the Batman. The Joker has been a merry prankster of crime (poisoning all the fish in Gotham Bay so they sport his literally trademarked grin, then suing fishmongers for copyright infringement) and a gleefully sadistic bastard (responsible for permanently crippling Batgirl and temporarily killing at least one Robin), and always done his best to get under the ultra-grim Batman's skin by taunting him with sick jokes. There's a sense that Joker is the only one of the rogues' gallery Bruce Wayne really hates – many comics (eg: Frank Miller Jr's The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum, Michael Green and Denys Cowan's Lovers & Madmen) revolve around Batman and the Joker as opposites or mirror images. The original look of the character was based on Conrad Veidt's fixed grin in the silent picture The Man Who Laughs.
Trademarks: Green hair, white face, fixed grin, purple zoot suit and evil, insane laughter.
On Screen: Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and now Jared Leto have been the live-action Joker; Mark Hamill has done extraordinarily fine work as the voice of the Joker on various animated TV shows, the cartoon feature Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm and the short-lived live-action Batman spinoff Birds Of Prey.
Did You Know?: Before falling into that vat of chemicals, the Joker was a regular thief known as 'the Red Hood'.
7. JUDGE DREDD (2000 AD)
AKA: JOE DREDD
Created at least partially to ram home the point that comic book superheroes and gun-wielding cops are inherently fascist, Judge Dredd – like Dirty Harry, the Punisher and Charles Bronson in Death Wish – wound up as an enormous success, demonstrating that even liberal audiences find certain types of fascism inherently appealing. In the chaotic future of Mega-City One, Dredd is part of a corps of judges who act simultaneously as arresting officer, legal system and executioner when dealing with criminal scum. Like another long-standing British comics institution, Desperate Dan, the Judge Dredd strip is partially a British viewpoint satire on the excesses of America and Americanism – and Dredd, like the cow pie-eating cowboy, is a violent, deranged but inherently decent take on the concept of the right-thinking American hero. A problem for writers on the strips has been coming up with villains so unreasonable that Dredd looks good – but they managed the trick with Judge Death.
Trademarks: Big stubbly chin (with Clinty sneer), shiny helmet and leathers, enough chains to earn him a back-up spot in The Village People, inflexible attitude to criminal behaviour. Catchphrase: "I am the Law."
On Screen: Sylvester Stallone played the Judge in a film which started off okay, but collapsed as soon as Sly took off the helmet to break a longstanding Dredd tradition by showing his face. Karl Urban's iteration didn't make the same mistake in 2012's solid but underseen Dredd.
Did You Know?: Celebrity Dredd fans have included Jonathan Ross, Simon Le Bon, Lemmy and Terry Pratchett.
6. DREAM (The Sandman)
AKA: MORPHEUS, THE SANDMAN, ONEIROS, THE DREAM KING, THE LORD SHAPER, KAI'CKUL, ETC...
Ironically, Dream is not the most popular character in his own series (Death, already mentioned, takes that honour), but he is the best. Neil Gaiman's creation bore little resemblance to previous iterations, being a tall, pasty-faced Goth-type with unruly dark hair (usually – his appearance is subject to change without notice) rather than the hitherto-traditional white bearded sage. Despite his near omnipotence, he is continually embroiled in schemes by his family (Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Destruction and Delirium) and the subjects of his dream kingdom, as well as having duties to protect (or destroy) humans with whom he comes into contact. Over the course of his series, which takes him from prison to the ends of the universe, Dream truly learns and grows – which is rare enough on its own among comics to entirely justify his book's reputation – but also takes us through mythology, history and pure, barmy, Gaiman invention. As tragic heroes go, he is, quite literally, godlike.
Trademarks: Older than the Gods; controls all dreams, storytelling and imagination. Power limited by nothing but family rules and his respect for his duty.
On Screen: No screen version to date, but were it to be done, you want to either a) cast a bunch of people, as in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus or b) animate it, ideally, with the voice of maybe Johnny Depp.
Did You Know?: Over the run, Dream's appearance has been based on David Bowie, Bauhaus' Peter Murphy, The Cure's Robert Smith and author Neil Gaiman.
5. SPIDER-MAN (Spider-Man / Avengers)
AKA: PETER PARKER
Spider-Man, Spider-Man... you know the rest. Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (not Jack Kirby, as so many assume), the face of Marvel Comics started life as a true original: a teenage boy with money problems, girl problems and family problems, who's imbued with extraordinary powers that make things more rather than less difficult for him. Peter Parker was very different from the Supermen, Batmen and Fantastic Fours running around the comics world at that point. Since then, of course, Spidey has matured, learning that with great wotsit comes great something-or-other, and becoming a husband to Mary-Jane. He's died and come back with enhanced powers, he's been cloned (that was a popular arc), he's been attacked by alien symbiotes and irate newspaper editors, he's even revealed his secret identity in the recent Civil War crossover series, and yet Spidey retains his sense of humour at all times, firing off often genuinely witty wisecracks in the heat of battle (a trait the movies have finally learnt to capture), while striking iconic poses that must be many a top artist's dream (Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen, to name but two, became superstar artists thanks to their work on Spidey). The character and comics have often ventured to dark places, but soul-searching and brooding introspection doesn't really suit your friendly neighbourhood webslinger. This is one spider that thrives in the bright light.
Trademarks: Red-and-blue costume (usually), daubed with webbing and large white eyepatches. Spider-Man has the proportionate strength and agility of a spider, a fully functional spider-sense which warns him of danger. He also manufactures his own webbing. Smart kid.
On Screen: Nicholas Hammond played him in a late '70s TV show. He's been voiced in cartoons by the likes of The Brady Bunch's Christopher Daniel Barnes, while Tobey Maguire played him in Sam Raimi's lopsided, though occasionally brilliant, big-budget trilogy. His successor Andrew Garfield, although an initial success in the role, was let down by a weak second instalment, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, that repeated some of the earlier franchise's errors. Tom Holland, judging by his Captain America: Civil War cameo, will be a more-than-decent successor in Marc Webb's Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Did You Know?: Spidey's public unmasking was one of the great shocks of Marvel's Civil War. It didn't last, though: Spidey subsequently made a deal with the demon Mephisto to alter the timeline and restore his secret identity.
4. WOLVERINE (X-Men)
AKA: LOGAN, JAMES HOWLETT, PATCH, WEAPON X
Originally conceived as a villainous means of giving Hulk a bit of a workout, but swiftly retooled as a conflicted hero, Wolverine's always been a character comfortable with shades of grey, and it's his contradictions and complications that enable him to be all things to all geeks. So he has an unmatched capacity for violence (even berserkery) and finely honed animal instinct, but is capable of tempering his highly emotional reactions with cold-blooded calculation where required. And he's no mere thug: his studies in Japan and long history of travel, espionage and trouble-finding have given him a knowledge of differing cultures, he speaks a number of languages, and has a deep appreciation of ice-cold beer (see, for example, Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, where beer brings Wolverine back from a hypnotised state). Also, he has the sort of facial hair that generations of young men have grown up aspiring to.
Trademarks: Ability to heal virtually any injury, adamantium-covered bones and retractable claws. The best there is at what he does – but what he does isn't very nice.
On Screen: Well played by Hugh Jackman in five X-Men films, two Wolverine spin-offs and a brief cameo in X-Men: Apocalypse. Jackman is a foot taller than the comic incarnation, but he's got the temper and one-liners down pat. His final outing – working title 'Wolverine 3' – will be a sad farewell.
Did You Know?: Originally, Wolverine was conceived as a mutated wolverine rather than a mutant human. Presumably, that was too silly even for the comics.
3. JOHN CONSTANTINE (Hellblazer / Constantine)
The name's Constantine, but the comic's called Hellblazer. Created by Alan Moore as a supporting character during his run on Swamp Thing, the intent was to create a blue-collar warlock. If Doctor Strange grew up in Toxteth – that's John Constantine, and his attitude's every bit as acerbic as you might expect. A complex character, Constantine is a loner who somehow accrues a large network of friends and loved ones, most of whom end up dead. He's a good man at heart, but prone to the easy, lazy decision that ensures that good may not always prosper. And he's the kind of guy who will not just look Death in the face and laugh, but tell him to shove it up his arse too. Curiously, though Moore imbued Constantine with many of his defining characteristics, he rocketed to prominence under the care of writers like Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis, whose Deadly Habits arc, where Constantine contracts terminal lung cancer, is rightly one of the most celebrated in comic book history.
Trademarks: Blond hair, trenchcoat, snarky attitude, ever-present cigarette dangling from his lip, Liverpudlian accent, damned soul and magical proficiency.
On Screen: Got a dye job and a plane ticket to relocate from Liverpool to Los Angeles, when Keanu Reeves played him in Francis Lawrence's surprisingly good Hellblazer adaptation.
Did You Know?: Constantine once played in a punk band called Mucous Membrane. We checked the internet and there's a punk band called Mucus Membrane, but we're not sure that they're Hellblazer fans.
2. BATMAN (Batman / Justice League)
AKA: BRUCE WAYNE, THE DARK KNIGHT, THE CAPED CRUSADER
It's a fair bet that when Bob Kane came up with the idea for a billionaire playboy who, by night, dressed up like a bat and fought crime, he had no idea where it would lead. Almost seventy years later, and we're jumping up and down – with good reason – about another Batman film, while The Caped Crusader (or Dark Knight, whichever you prefer) remains one of the most famous and iconic comic book characters of them all. What is the appeal of the Batman? Well, he's undeniably cool, for one thing. Visually striking, for another. There's a wish fulfillment thing going on there, too unlike most heroes, Batman has no powers and relies only on his wits, cunning, and hard work to hone his body and fitness. He's got a great rogues' gallery. And he's been exposed more on TV and in film than any other hero, which helps keep him in the public eye. And, of course, the character has been through so many iterations over the years, from camp crusader to Frank Miller's very, very dark knight, that there's a Batman for everyone.
Trademarks: Long, flowing cape; grey and black costume dominated by a Bat insignia smack-bang in the chest; prowess in hand-to-hand combat and a keen analytical mind.
On Screen: No other superhero has been portrayed on screen quite as often. Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Kevin Conroy (voice only) and Christian Bale have all donned the Batcowl and given it their best menacing growl. Now it's Ben Affleck, parlaying an older, wearier Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice and The Justice League, and Will Arnett doing something completely different in the LEGO version.
Did You Know? Bob Kane originally designed Batman's costume with red splashes. Way to blend with the shadows there, Bruce.
1. SUPERMAN (Superman / Justice League)
AKA: KAL-EL, CLARK KENT
Being first counts for a lot, but it's going the distance that elevates Superman from the run of flying caped superguys who followed him. How many other characters from disposable 1938 fictions have appeared consistently for 80 years and are still as famous as ever? Superman's peers aren't really Spider-Man or Wolverine, but Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and James Bond – pop culture mainstays who stay current through consistent reinvention but are classically themselves all the same. Superman has taken a beating from time to time: his fight for 'truth, justice and the American Way' is nobler but less easy to relate to than Batman's vengeance-driven war on crime (especially when we get antsy about what 'the American Way' actually means); his powers are so vast that it's hard to come up with threats worth his time (so it's incredible that for decades, his biggest problem was a pudgy bald guy with a laboratory); and his clean-cut, super-square looks and attitude are always being challenged by someone who momentarily seems more contemporary, edgy or pragmatic. That's perhaps why the comics have often experimented with his essential ingredients, recasting him as a Commie (Red Son) or a Brit (True Brit) or creating twisted, dark reflections of the eternal do-gooder, like Bizarro, in endless permutations that attest to his popularity and instant recognisability. If it weren't for Superman, there wouldn't be an entire genre of superhero stories – every single tights-and-powers character who has come along after him is defined by how similar or how different they are from Kal-El.
Trademarks: Red cloak, blue tights, 'S' chest-symbol, variable range of superpowers (flight, invulnerability, X-ray/heat vision, super-speed, etc), dual identity as bespectacled mild-mannered reporter, spit-curl, allergy to kryptonite. Catchphrases: "Up, up and away"; "faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound", etc.
On Screen: On film and TV Superman has been played by Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Brandon Routh and Tom Welling, among others. The incumbent is Henry Cavill, currently 'dead' but likely to get better in time for his second solo outing.
Did You Know?: Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent both have mothers called Martha – though Mrs Kent used to be called Sarah.