Poll Position: The unpowered

In our ongoing "Greatest Ever" series, I wanted to take a look at unpowered heroes, the men and women who go out there and tangle with bigger, badder, meaner, more powerful enemies boasting a wide array of astonishing super powers armed with nothing but the tools their own ingenuity, skill, and hard work have given them.

Before getting to the actual poll, here are some of the criteria I used to decide who should and who should not make the list. I'm grateful for the inspiration I got from Aaron in this post at "Underneath the Mask".

  1. No sidekicks, understudies, replacements, or other substitutes. I'm an "original recipe" kind of guy. That means no Nightwing, Bucky, Speedy, etc.
  2. No artificial enhancement by means other than that devised by the character. That means no Captain America (super soldier serum has "super" right in the name, and he didn't invent it himself), no Green Lantern (ring given to him by the Oans), and no War Machine (it's StarkTech).
  3. No characters with even one legitimate super-power. So no Black Canary (sonic scream, though she rarely uses it), Hawkeye (superhuman eyesight), or Doctor Strange (magic counts as a super power in my book).

Having said that, here's the Top Ten I came up with in alphabetical order, so you can pick the one you think is The Greatest:


  1. Batman (Bruce Wayne): I almost didn't do this poll because I think Batman is so firmly entrenched in the public's mind as "the" unpowered super hero he'll probably run away with this. So allow me to make the case against Batman.

    The way Batman has been written over the last thirty years or so, it can be argued, has had the effect of giving him de facto super powers. He's smarter than anyone else, he's wiser than anyone else, he's a better detective than anyone else, he can invent as well as anyone else, he's as strong as a normal human can possibly be and as fast and as agile and as athletic and as well trained in martial arts and and and. It's just too much. Yes, he gets hurt, but anyone who can get his spine broken and bounce back no worse for wear is simply not a normal human.

    To claim Batman, written as he's come to be written, is a "normal" human is simply ludicrous. He's beyond the pinnacle of what an unenhanced human could ever attain, mentally and physically, and for that reason he has powers for all intents and purposes.

    I didn't say it would be a good case, I just said I'd make it.

  2. Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff): I love both the Ultimates version of the Black Widow and the regular Marvel U version. She's incredibly sexy, smart, athletic, determined, and steely-hearted. She doesn't have the wealth or privilege of a Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne, but she's as tough as any of them. She ultimately defied her country to do what she thought was right, showing the true moral courage a hero must have.

  3. Green Arrow (Oliver Queen): I've never been a huge Green Arrow fan, but there's no denying he's extremely effective with a completely out-of-date weapon. The old saying is "never bring a knife to a gun fight", but Ollie does that with his ancient bow and arrow every day.

    You can certainly say "He's just Batman with his utility belt in a quiver", which has a lot of truth to it. But over the years, he's become his own character through his liberal politics, his inspired Mike Grell reinterpretation, and his much more mature, adult interpersonal relationships (largely with Black Canary). In many ways, he's a far more realistic, relatable, human character than Batman.

  4. The Green Hornet (Various): You can't be the greatest unpowered super hero of all time if your sidekick is cooler than you. Period.

  5. Iron Man (Tony Stark): I include Iron Man on this list because Tony Stark invented the armor himself. He's not just a flunky with an alien power ring (sorry GL), he's a self-made man who uses technology he created to help him fight injustice. Plus, dude has a heart condition!

    If you want to disqualify him because when suited up he can go toe to toe with gods, then you have to kick out Batman too -- need I mention the number of times Bats has taken down Superman?

    I also think Tony's bouts with alcoholism, his struggle to redeem the illegal use of his technology, his stormy interpersonal relationships, and his financial ups-and-downs make him much more relatable to a normal human than Bruce Wayne.

  6. Nick Fury: Dude gets it done with only one eye! That's radical. Mostly, though, I have him on here for the James Bond style, 1960's "Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D" era, when he was without a doubt the coolest character in the Marvel Universe.

  7. The Punisher (Frank Castle): A lot of people -- and I'm one of them -- don't really think of the Punisher as a "hero" at all, given the staggering body count he leaves in his wake. But a lot of other people feel he's just what Batman would be if he wasn't sat on by wimpy editors and publishers. Or even that Frank Castle is a superior hero to the "code versus killing" characters because he is willing to ensure that, for instance, the Joker never lives to kill again. How many of the dead in Gotham can be laid at Batman's feet for constantly letting his homicidal enemies go, only for them to escape over and over to kill again? With the Punisher, that's not an issue.

  8. The Question (Charles Victor Szasz): If you're not familiar with The Question, he was a really cool detective/reporter/martial artist type of guy who was at the forefront of the "mature" revitalization at DC a couple of decades ago. I was happy to see him make a couple of guest appearances in the Justice League animated series -- he's a neat character. I grant you, he's probably not up to the level of some of the other names on the list, but I didn't want to relegate him to the dustbin of comics history without a little loving.

  9. Rorschach (Walter Kovacs): Rorschach is so bad-ass it hurts. Seeing him side-by-side with Doctor Manhattan points up the disparity in power levels we usually just sort of gloss over when reading comics, and yet even in the much more "realistic" setting of "Watchmen" he is outstanding. I also love how he's the only character in the series to retain his moral sense untarnished by compromise, and how the journal at the end throws into question the whole idea of whether or not an untarnished moral sense is really a good thing after all. By embodying absolute blacks and whites, Rorschach exemplifies both the horrors and the glory of the super-hero concept.

  10. The Spirit (Denny Colt): The Spirit deserves to win because he is the archetype on which most of the other members of the list were built. He had style, class, pluck, and a flashy sense of style. Plus he was created and drawn by arguably the greatest comic book storyteller of all time, Will Eisner.

OK, there you have my thoughts, but I want to hear what you think! So let 'er rip in the comments, including any characters you think should have been on the list but who were left off; why my criteria are stupid; or why bald people suck. It's all good!

31 Responses to Poll Position: The unpowered

  1. Jake says:

    I’d argue that if Rorschach and the Punisher belong on this list, then so does Ozymandias.

  2. Brons says:

    1: You definitely picked the best ever issue for Nick Fury, or if not that at least the archetypal issue. Steranko’s work at that point was great!

    2: The Spirit appeared a little more than a year after The Batman. If you want an archetype of the non-super, fedora and mask crowd, the Green Hornet is much closer, and of course HE owes a lot of his origin to his great uncle John, the Lone Ranger, who in turn is indebted to Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel. The Black Bat and The Spider and the earlier Phantom Detective are all ancestral to the Batman, the Green Hornet, the Crimson Avenger and the Spirit (of whom the Spirit is the youngest).

    Don’t get me wrong. Eisner is decided way cool, as is the Spirit. But all these predecessors have just as solid claims to the title of “archetype”. At least that’s my 2 bits worth.

  3. The Frank says:

    i voted for batman… because i didnt read.. if i could i would go back and maybe choose iron man or the watchmen guy.

  4. Jeff Hebert says:

    Jake (1): Did you know that if your right hand is one key off on the keyboard, your name becomes “kale”? Random, yet there it is. I thought about Ozymandias, but I classify him more as a villain than a hero. Certainly in terms of the story itself, he’s the force the main “heroic” characters array themselves against, though as I alluded to, I think destroying the wall between “good guys” and “bad guys” is part of what Moore was trying to do in the first place.

    Brons (2): Good points. I guess what I meant more than anything was that the … um, “spirit” of the Spirit was a key part of the way the archetype developed over the ensuing years, partly just because Eisner himself was so influential in how sequential storytelling really came into its own.

  5. Haxxx says:

    All the supers have some form of above human skills, strangh or agility. Ozymadias, Iron man, and Batman has the super skills, while Rorschach and The Punisher have some form of minor super strength or agility. Green Arrow has some super eyesight.
    Though there are people in peek physical condition who could most of them would be bad-bound for months after the abuse unpowered supers get in comics while the supers just go on after a mere days or even hours.

    However, the investigator types, like the Question and Green Hornet, have some very minor super smarts and close to none above average strength and agility.

    So in conclusion, you only got about two supers with no powers at all.

  6. Haxxx says:

    *Could do what the supers do*

  7. Wade says:

    Why is Iron Man on the list if War Machine can’t be? Its still Starktech.

  8. deadeas says:

    Stark ha superpowers now, so…

  9. deadeas says:

    Correction: has

  10. McKnight87 says:

    Here are a few more to choose from

    Wildcat – Ted Grant
    Sandman – Wesley Dodds version
    Mister Terrific – Either the Terry Sloane or Michael Holt
    Mister America – Jeffrey Graves
    Iron Fist – Danny Rand
    Moon Knight – Marc Spector
    Hawkeye – Clint Barton

  11. Myro says:

    Few things before I set off on this. I was initially going to be peeved by the lack of Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle, not being on here. Then I realized that your qualifications were that the hero had to be the original, and Ted wasn’t. And that the original, Dan Garret had super-powers. Bestowed from a Blue Scarab icon. Which he got from an Egyptian God. Sooooo, I’m abandoning this argument.
    Second, why is the Green Hornet listed as “Various” when a name has been given to everyone else? Was Britt Reid not the first Green Hornet?
    Third, were you aware that Rorschach was modeled by Alan Moore after The Question, only made, in my opinion, to be more of a tool? Would that disqualify his originality? Just a thought, but I was never going to vote for Rorschach anyway.
    I actually wanted to pick The Question. Like really wanted to. Then I realized, you can’t be great when even some comic book nerds don’t even know who you are. And as much as I tried to give credence to your argument against, I’m still not compelled enough to resist going against Batman. Bruce Wayne it is.

  12. Jeff Hebert says:

    Haxxx (5): I think your definition of a super power is off. Ozymandias was “the smartest human on the planet” but he was still human, and didn’t get his smarts from any artificial means. “Super skills” doesn’t really mean anything. Rorschach and The Punisher are both normal people, if highly trained. Green Arrow does not have super eyesight.

    So in conclusion, you’re wrong! See that spittle fly!!

    Wade (7): Oops, I meant Iron Monger and his ilk, the derivatives of Tony’s designs.

    McKnight87 (10): I don’t think anyone on that list deserves a spot over my 10, though of course that’s a personal opinion. However, Iron Fist, Moon Knight, and Hawkeye all have at least one super power, disqualifying them under my criteria.

    Myro (11): I don’t think “modeled after” is in the same realm as being a successor, so Rorschach being based on The Question doesn’t qualify in my mind. I don’t know why I put “various”, I should have gone with the original’s name.

    Good point on even comic book nerds not really knowing who The Question is.

  13. zaheelee says:

    BATMAN ALL THE WAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. EnderX says:

    Does Nick Fury belong on this list? I’m fairly sure it’s been stated that he’s using some kind of age-negating formula to keep going. After all, the man was the leader of a commando unit during WW2 – even assuming he was only in his twenties then (a bad assumption, in my opinion; comics from that time show him looking in his mid-thirties or so), he’s still got to be pushing ninety by now.

    As noted by deadeas above, Stark’s got (or had, at least) the Extremis enhancement boosting him – and it’s not something he designed. Don’t remember who the original designer was, but I can guarantee SHE wasn’t Tony Stark.

    I’m fairly sure that Szazs didn’t design either the pseudo-skin he uses for his mask or the gas that lets it work and changes the color of his hair and outfit, either. Iffy on whether this one counts as a ‘power’, though.

    And finally, to round it out with a joke, both Wayne and the original version of the Green Arrow do sort of have a power – the same one Most Excellent Superbat ascribed to himself. “I am so rich, I can do anything.”

  15. Joshua says:

    I will honestly be shocked if The Batman doesn’t score the win on this one.


  16. William A. Peterson says:

    Just to update things, a bit…
    Not really sure what’s going on with Tony at the moment, but he’s at least a clone of a clone, by now, who’s recently had his memory erased (due to fear of Norman Osborn!)…
    The Question is now Renee Montoya, Charlie having been killed off a couple of years ago…
    Not sure if it’s ‘really’ a Superpower, but Nick Fury has been given the Infinity Formula, a derivative of the Super Soldier Serum, as an explanation of why he isn’t either buried, or at least in assisted living, by now…
    And, yeah, either Mister Terrific belongs on the list, preferably both!

  17. CPrime says:

    I think you really have to take Iron Man out of the discussion. He is now truly one with his suit. He has had the underarmor surgically implanted under his skin. He’s pretty much a cyborg at this point.

  18. Jeff Hebert says:

    Since for the majority of his career Stark was just a guy in a suit, that’s what I am going with. All that’ll be retconned out any day now anyway, you know it’s true!

  19. Jeff Hebert says:

    Yeah, not sure what to make of Fury’s agelessness. I mean, it’s not really a “power” in that it doesn’t let him DO anything, but it’s certainly not normal human. Anyway, I was thinking more of the 1960s Steranko era Fury rather than the modern one. Yes, I realize all these “the character exists only in the time period I deem appropriate” caveats are capricious and arbitrary, but that’s how I roll, baby.

  20. Gero says:

    @Ender & William: Glad I wasn’t the only one thinking that!

    @CPrime: For most of his publication history, Stark didn’t have any powers. The sub-dermal suit is a relatively recent thing. If you’re gonna say take him out for that, I could show you a good 50 or so Batman comics where he’s temperarily had powers of some kind. Just wait a while and Stark’s nano-suit-thing will probably be gone by some convoluted means…

  21. Too many arguments *against* making an unpowered hero the greatest. So I went with The Question (though I never read many).

    I just like his name, Szasz… SSsssszzzzassszzzz.

    One side effect of the Infinity Formula – it turns you into Samuel L. Jackson.

  22. X-stacy says:

    I went with the Question, because I kinda grew to love the guy while reading 52.

    (I dunno about the first Mister Terrific, but Holt has a superpower: he’s invisible to technology. I realize that Infinite Crisis is the only place where he identifies it as a superpower instead of tech–but in Checkmate he was on the meta half of the meta/non-meta balance.)

  23. Kit says:

    You missed the best. The Phantom, hands down. Has no super powers, isn’t mopey, and his creator openly admits he was influenced by Zorro. What’s not to love?

  24. Worf says:

    @Jeff: Sorry to say but your anti-Batman argument didn’t convince a lot of people.. Batman is WAY ahead with 55% of the votes…. closest in second with 15% is Iron Man.

    And even though I’m not one for herds, I went with Batman, just because I’m a big fan.

  25. Steve M. says:

    I went with Green Arrow on this one. I agree with your points, Jeff, regarding Batman. The way I look at it was actually summed up pretty good regarding one of his sidekicks. A bunch of fed techs were evaluating Batgirl Cassandra Cain in Batgirl #14, and said she didn’t have a metagene. But then one had this bit of dialog:
    “Her individual moves are borderline human. It’s her aggregate speed that’s metahuman. Look—humans can throw a 100 miles-per-hour fastball, smash concrete blocks with their heads, and run 4.2 forties. What they can’t do is all of that at once. It’s not so much physical as… as mentally impossible. Too much to coordinate.” I personally put Bats in the same category. As for the rest: Fury and Widow have both been enhanced, Fury with the Infinity Formula, Widow with the Red Room’s version of the Super Soldier Serum; Stark’s a cyborg now, and like Wayne, could be considered superhumanly smart; Castle is more of a vigilante/anti-hero than hero in a traditional sense; The Spirit, Question, Green Hornet, and Rorschach are all too similar in style to me, personally, to stand out from one another. The only other argument I can make on this list, Jeff, is your rationale for excluding Hawkeye. His vision and accuracy are above-average, but I wouldn’t say they’re superhuman. Unless you’re looking specifically at Ultimate Hawkeye, I’d qualify 616 Hawkeye as a top marksman.

  26. Invisiboy says:

    I’m going with Iron Man, simply because he has it more organized and isn’t just some schmoe in a mask. I would go with Batman for the same reason, but as Jeff pointed out, he doesn’t really qualify.

  27. Vampyrist says:

    If you’re keeping Fury on the list even with the Infinity Formula, why isn’t Cap on the list as well. He’s always been one of the best human characters, an average guy who literally represents America. He also works alongside and can often beat gods and technicall heavyweights like Stark. In my opinion, he should be on the list and he should win.

  28. Jeff Hebert says:

    As I said in the intro, Cap has the Super Soldier formula, and is clearly super-powered. If you weigh 98 pounds and struggle to complete basic training, then get shot in the ass with goop, and suddenly you can beat the snot out of the Red Skull and a whole army of bad guys, you have super powers.

    Even if you want to stretch the point and argue that they’re just “human max” powers, he didn’t invent the serum and he didn’t train those muscles up himself. They were given to him. That disqualifies him from this particular list.

  29. EnderX says:

    Even in the ’60s, Fury would most likely have been near fifty. His appearance hadn’t really changed, by that point, from his time with the Howlers. On the evidence, therefore, and with the canon’s stating he had already been exposed to the Infinity Formula, I’m going to turn your own point around on you. If Steve Rogers doesn’t belong on this list, then Nick Fury doesn’t belong on it either.

  30. Jeff Hebert says:

    I’m sorry, EnderX, but unless the Infinity Formula did a lot more than I’m aware of (which is entirely possible), “doesn’t age”, while awesome, is not a “super power” in my book, except in a very very broad sense.

    “Doesn’t age” is not the same thing as “can run, jump, flip, hit, pull, see, react, think, and respond at a meta-human level while being able to dodge a hail of bullets”.

    I got a fleck of gold from a mountain stream, but that doesn’t mean I own the vein.

  31. paul says:

    I argue that the Punisher is the best. He has consistantly been the go to guy for the What Ifs and one shot series where it was him vs. the entire marvel universe. The recent one where all the supers powered beings went Will Smith I am Legend was epic and showed his true resourcefulness. He is the man!