Poll Position:

So, yeah, I got confused as to what day it was yesterday and accidentally published "Bad Super Costume Wednesday" on Tuesday. These things happen when you work from home, time just blurs together. Now I'm having to publish Poll Position Tuesday on Wednesday instead, thereby ripping a hole in the space-time continuum.

Which fits, actually, because I'm going to be pulling from the entire history of super-hero comics for this week's question. After contemplating Wolverine massacring hordes of screaming Teletubbies, I thought we should go a little more high-brow this time around:

{democracy:146}

Discussion after the jump.

First of all, I think there's a philosophical debate to be had about whether group titles should count when considering the single best example of the genre. On the one hand, some of these titles are constrained by the need of the publishing house to keep the individual characters' own books running strong, so the kinds of stories you get can be a little skewed. That's certainly the case with the all-star type teams like the Avengers and the Justice League. But then you have something like "X-Men", which was conceived as a team title from the very beginning and thus has a very different kind of dynamic.

On the other hand, team-ups are as much a part of the genre as tights and super powers. From the very dawn of the Golden Age virtually every other character had a side-kick of some sort, so I don't think the argument that super-heroes must be judged as individuals really holds up.

And besides, I already hit "publish" on the list that had teams in it, so nyah.

  • Avengers: Along with the "Fantastic Four", the Avengers really brought the Marvel sensibility to the concept of the team book. You had big egos, massive power levels, titanic villains, and all the daily problems and angst you'd expect from the House of Realism. For me, though, that is what keeps The Avengers from being my go-to example, and frankly what worries me about the movie. When your calling card as a publisher is making characters with real-world problems and treating them as realistically as you can while remaining in the genre, the idea that you'd need or want a dozen of these folks all in the same place at the same time is a little hard to swallow. Does a living god really need an insect-sized housewife to help him out?
  • Batman: I definitely think Batman is the best "normal powered guy" super-hero out there, bar none. He's also been dominant throughout multiple eras, in multiple media outlets, from radio to television to movies and more. That kind of staying power and versatility is truly remarkable. Furthermore he's had enormous range as a character, from the Sherlock Holmesian detective to the slapstick parody of Adam West to the grim, relentless Goddam Batman of Frank Miller. Something about this character allows him to be incredibly flexible while never losing the core essence that draws fans to him. Again, remarkable.
  • Captain America: What I like about Cap as the ultimate super hero comics character is how timeless and pure he is. Out of all the old-timers on the list, he's the only one who remained literally the same guy from the Golden Age to today, thanks to that iceberg. Superman and Batman existed in their current forms, more or less, throughout that entire time, but their histories and characters were persistent throughout, getting reset from time to time to reflect the era better. But Cap stayed true, literally transported in time to remain the same patriotic dude. And I think that patriotism, that sense of a super-hero as a nation's ideal, is what puts him on this list.
  • Iron Man: I needed another guy to flesh the list out to ten, and thus we have Stark. Plus the movie has really helped his profile out a lot. Other than that, though, let's be honest -- Iron Man has always been a sort of high B-list character. On the other hand, he's arguably the best techno-hero going, at least in terms of longevity and staying power. So that's saying something.
  • Justice League of America: This was my team book growing up. I loved the whole satellite HQ, I loved the idea that Superman (ultra powerful alien do-gooder) and Batman (normal human dark avenger) could not only coexist, but actively help each other. Like the Legion, I also loved the extended cast as time went on, allowing the reader to experience some cool but lesser-known characters. Their adventures are, I think, a good general survey of what the genre has to offer, from time travel to sci-fi space battles to crime fighting and everything in between. In that sense, the JLA would be a pretty good stand-in for what super hero comics are all about.
  • Punisher: I don't like the Punisher, but I know you all do. Make your case in the comments, because I can't. To me he's just another bad guy in good guy clothing. Well, a skull shirt, but you know what I mean.
  • Spider-Man: I think Spider-Man is the ultimate Everyman stand-in. He's like most of us who are reading -- a little dweeby, maybe, but if we could only get bitten by something radioactive, we just know we'd make a great hero! He's easy to relate to, powerful, interesting, and versatile. He can duke it out with the big boys if he needs to, but he's not so overwhelmingly powerful the stories stop making sense.
  • Superman: I don't think I need to say too much about Superman. Come on, he pretty much defined the genre from the very beginning! I think you can make a good argument that he's basically been left behind by the modern comics movements, and is thus irrelevant, but I think there's always going to be a place for Big Blue as the ultimate "power hero".
  • Wolverine: A great blend of violence and control, everyman and hero. All those times you wished Batman would just cut loose on the Joker or Superman would just rip Luthor's head off already, well, Wolverine scratches that itch just fine. The difference between him and the Punisher, at least for me, is that Wolverine strives to control his baser side, while the Punisher more or less revels in it. And being a hero, at least in my book, means someone who's trying to be better than those he fights, not become them.
  • X-Men: One of the all-time great team titles. All the juicy Marvel human drama, with all the exaggerated power levels you'd want even from DC. A huge range of powers, a huge range of personalities, and killer story lines. There's a reason this has been the best-selling series of titles of the modern era.

Clearly, I think you have to take a serious look at Superman as the best overall example of the genre. The guy's been the most popular character in multiple eras, right from the very beginning to today. The counter argument is that he's become irrelevant and doesn't translate as well to today's audience with his Boy Scout ways and his incredibly ridiculous power level. It's hard to say if the failure of "Superman Returns" was a one-off problem with that particular script, or something deeper, but he's definitely not the same bigshot he was at the beginning.

Batman, on the other hand, I think has had a much more successful run throughout the same time period in terms of being adaptable to the times. But you could argue that this is actually a weakness, that the character himself hasn't got the strength to remain strong and defined but rather is waffling and at the whim of the current fashion.

If we're talking team books, clearly for me X-Men would have to do it. However, the run was at its most influential in the Nineties, which is a definite mark against it. Much like fashion in the Seventies, comics in the Nineties are tainted.

Finally, I think Wolverine definitely merits strong consideration for the modern era. Does he have the long history spanning multiple eras of a Batman, Superman, or even Spider-Man? No. But I think he's the best example of a modern super-hero. And if I'm trying to think of the single best title I can hand someone to say "This is what a super hero comics character is at its best", Logan's a real contender.

I get the feeling this vote's basically going to come down to old-timers versus those who cut their teeth on the more recent characters. Since I'm an old fart, you'd think I'd go with Superman. But I'm not -- I think he's too static, basically, for me to want to hold him up as the exemplar.

And I think Batman is just too ... Batman. He's everywhere and does everything. He's so flexible, I'd be afraid of what era you chose to use as your example.

Which is why, to my surprise, I'm going to go with Wolverine. When I think of interesting, engaging stories based on character and comic book levels of action, Wolverine does it. His classic runs are the ones I'd most want to sit someone down with out of this list to show what super-hero comics can do.

Yes, I do read "Invincible" and I love it. But I think for something like this you need a character with a history, a pedigree, a long-term proven ability to endure.

So what do you think?

9 Responses to Poll Position:

  1. Although he’s never been cool and never had a good movie, I love Captain America. He’s retained his idealism is the face of incredible adversity. He’s been a leader in teams that included gods and cosmic entities. He’s done all this with basically human levels of ability. That is why Captain America represents the best of the superhero genres.

  2. Way to take “das ubermenschen” from the baddies, boys. My vote is for the painfully obvious Superman. Don’t get me wrong, though – when the starfush in the Gulf mutate into purple super psychic psychonauts… you too will pray for the JLA..!

  3. “starfish” can haz brains

  4. Me, Myself & I

    My vote goes for Spider Man. He embodies “Potential” which really encompasses a big part of the genre. Without his powers you get a good sense of who he’d be. You also get a good sense of who his powers have influenced him to become. Also, more than most characters, you get a feel for how the personal relationships in his life evolve and influence him.

    It is hard to imagine most other hero’s without their powers for any extended period of time. As a result Spiderman is easier to relate to. Therefore, being easier to relate to, it is easier to transition from mundane reality into the world of the super hero genre.

    By the way Jeff, I agree with you about the Punisher. I don’t care for him. He belongs in Arkham Asylum.

  5. Nick Hentschel

    It’s a toss-up between Supes and the X-Men. The X-men deserve a whole lot of credit for basing their entire premise on the battle against prejudice, adding a whole new layer to their world in the process. But Supes was just as cutting-edge, in his way, and I’ll tell you why: because HE broke the mold, not Batman.

    When Superman was created, most superheroes were wealthy playboys in dark suits, who fought gangster-style criminals with few superpowers, or none at all. Superman changed all that: he had a job, and a civilian identity that actually meant something. Psychologically, he was far more like the rest of us. He soared in the sky overhead, fighting unimaginable evil with powers beyond any other hero. There was a message there: inside every ordinary person, lies a potential hero. Nearly every subsequent hero, including the X-Men and Spidey, grew from this sentiment.
    By contrast, Batman merely condensed all of the elements of the dark, playboy heroes of his day into one package, and carried them into the next era. Far from being “new and different,’ he’s actually something of an anachronism (albeit a charismatic one). Superman, on the other hand, offered something new… and that’s why all the subsequent heroes followed *his* example.
    He started it all, and he gave it MEANING. Supes gets the nod.

  6. Amen to that, brutha. That is one bad out-fit. Woo!

  7. I have to pick superman. Not because I like him but, because when ever I hear the word “Super Hero” Superman comes to mind.

  8. super man actually super hero and he gave it meanings… thx for sharing.

  9. Had been missing my fill of Heromachine antics, but I’m back, ready to lay the comment smackdown! … Okay not really, but I’ll throw my two cents in anyway. So to embody the paragon, the penultimate of the superhero genre, most everyone would automatically say “Superman” because well, let’s be honest, he really did give it the jump start, however, the formula was much improved upon with the creation of the JLA. Despite me being a Marvelite through most of the nineties, and since I was a tween and teen in those days, the flashiness of it all appealed to me. However, nowadays, the merging of great story and art is most important, if not, at least have a very strong story and characters. That is one of the reasons I voted for JLA, and also because I feel they best represent what the “Superhero” genre should be like, a diverse group of characters that are doing their darnedest to keep people safe from those crazy characters that feel its their need to cause chaos and misery for others (I’m looking at you Joker!). Not that the X-Men don’t do the same, but there’s entirely too much drama and baggage that come with them with them being feared and hated all the time and whatnot… So there ya go! Don’t say I never contributed to keeping the Superhero genre around, because, by golly, they are a joy to read and watch!