A big part about growing up as a Comic Book geek in my childhood were the debates with my friends/fellow fans. Some of those questions, such as who is the best or which hero’s powers you would like to possess, were entirely subjective and could never be won, no matter how wrong the other person’s “facts” were. The question of the most important superhero, well, the more that I thought about it, the more I thought that there was a data-driven way to prove who is the most important character to ever don spandex.
Like any other person, I had a hunch, and mine was Superman. After all, he was the very first superhero and he’s been around the longest. I could see a plausible case for Batman, since he’s been around almost as long as Supes and he’s the oldest enduring “normal human” hero (Lee Travis’ Crimson Avenger takes the honor of the oldest non-powered costume vigilante, debuting in October 1938; seven months before Bruce Wayne dressed up like a flying rodent). I’m sure that there are a couple of evangelical Marvel-heads out there who will swear on Spider-Man (or god-forbid Moon Knight) as the choice; but there’s no arguing with fools.
So, how are we supposed to answer this seemingly unanswerable question? With Data!!!
First, I thought of all the different ways of showing that one character was more important than the other. Before I get into the countdown, let me briefly go over each criteria and tell you why I think it’s important and what surprised me about the resulting data set. For those of you who only care about the rankings, just click on the links below:
Criteria #1: Total Number of Appearances
The easiest way to say that a character is important, is how often he or she appears in a comic book. I mean, you can argue that Buford Hollis (a.k.a. Razorback) is the most important character because you’re a fan of Arkansas football; but everyone is going to laugh in your face because he has only appeared 17 times in the past 31 years. No, a truly important character is one that is presented in comics again and again; because the readers want to see him or her.
So, taking a look at the Top 20 Characters, it’s pretty familiar, but a couple of things really surprised me:
1) Bruce Wayne (Batman) – 6892
2) Kal-El (Superman) – 6781
3) Peter Parker (Spider-Man) – 5057
4) Steven Rogers (Captain America) – 3725
5) Anthony Stark (Iron Man) – 3570
6) James Howlett (Wolverine) – 3526
7) Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing) – 3343
8) Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman) – 3021
9) Thor – 2565
10) Benjamin Grimm (Thing) – 2540
11) Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) – 2368
12) Jonathan Storm (Human Torch) – 2323
13) Lois Lane – 2305
14) Bruce Banner (Hulk) – 2206
15) Scott Summers (Cyclops) – 2180
16) Henry McCoy (Beast) – 2170
17) James Gordon – 2143
18) Alfred Pennyworth – 1973
19) Susan Storm (Invisible Woman) – 1948
20) Ororo Munroe (Storm) – 1937
1) First of all, Batman somehow managed to beat Superman for the total number of appearances. I may do a deep dive into Superman vs. Batman later; but up until the 1990s, Superman consistently beat Batman for the most number of appearances; but what I failed to consider was the explosion of popularity for the Caped Crusader beginning in the late 80s, once the campy 60’s TV Show was forgotten by a new generation of readers who embraced the grittier version of Batman that started with Frank Miller’s classic Dark Knight series.
2) That Wonder Woman, who has been in print since 1941, would rank that far behind some of the Marvel heroes who came a generation later.
3) The blatant sexism of comic book readers. While the male members of the Fantastic Four held down spots 10 through 12; Sue Storm (a.k.a. Invisible Girl/Woman) lingers down at position 19; some 400-500 issues behind her peers. What’s up with that?
Criteria #2: Average Appearances per Year:
Some of you are probably saying to yourself, “Hey, so what if Batman appeared in 2,000 more issues than Spider-Man? He got a 23-year head start so of course he’s going to appear in more issues. Well, my friends, this is the category for you. It shows the average number of comic books that a character appears in since they first debuted. I set up a filter so that only characters who appeared in at least 100 issues appear in order to rule out blink-and-you-missed-them characters.
Here’s what the data looks like
1) Peter Parker (Spider-Man) – 90.30
2) Bruce Wayne (Batman) – 87.24
3) Kal-El (Superman) – 84.76
4) James Howlett (Wolverine) – 80.14
5) Anthony Stark (Iron Man) – 64.91
6) Steven Rogers (Hydra Supreme) – 50.50
7) Tim Drake (Robin/Red Robin) – 48.379
8) Steven Rogers (Captain America) – 48.376
9) Ororo Munroe (Storm) – 45.05
10) Benjamin Grimm (Thing) – 44.06
11) Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing) – 42.86
12) Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) – 41.54
13) Jonathan Storm (Human Torch) – 40.75
14) Scott Summers (Cyclops) – 39.64
15) Henry McCoy (Beast) – 39.45
16) Bruce Banner (Hulk) – 39.39
17) Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman) – 39.23
18) Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) – 39.2
19) Thor – 37.72
20) Miles Morales (Spider-Man) – 37.29
And here’s what stands out:
1) The top three names from what I saw in Total Appearances occupy the top three here, but the big difference is that Peter Parker (better known as your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man) occupies the top spot with over 90.30 issues per year.
2) Take a look at #6. The evil Steve Rogers who became Hydra Supreme due to some twists in the space-time continuum. Now, I separated this version of Steve from his heroic Captain America counterpart (Who’s two spots lower at #8) because this version of Steve acts so much different from his do-gooder counterpart.
Now, this version of Steve Rogers only started in 2016 and had a heavy storyline; but since he was returned to normal, this average will only go down in the years to come and is a prime example while you need to consider every statistic, you can’t place too much faith in any one piece of data, especially one for a limited time period.
3) This is the one place where diversity truly shines. First at #9 we have Ororo Monroe, better known as the weather-controlling mutant Storm; who has averaged nearly 4 issues per month since her debut in 1975. Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American girl who took up the mantle of Ms. Marvel in 2012 ranks 18th and the Ultimate version of Spider-Man (Miles Morales, who was later integrated into the “regular” Marvel Universe) holds down the 20th spot.
Criteria #3: Total Rank Points
Hold on, here’s where I start getting numbers-geeky. To put this simply, did this character rank in the Top Ten for appearances in a year? If so, the character who came in first gets 10 points, the character who came in second gets 9 points all the way down until the character in tenth places gets 1 point. I also coded this so that all characters who tie get the same amount of points.
The reason for this is to normalize the results over the years. There were only 213 total issues made in 1940, but over 8 times that in 2010. This way, characters who appeared in lots of issues during an era when there weren’t many comics being made avoids being penalized.
Here’s what we can see for this statistic:
1) Kal-El (Superman) – 687
2) Bruce Wayne (Batman) – 657
3) Peter Parker (Spider-Man) – 395
4) Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing) – 302
5) Steven Rogers (Captain America) – 280
6) Anthony Stark (Iron Man) – 211
7) James Howlett (Wolverine) – 181
T-8) Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman) – 137
T-8) Lois Lane – 137
9) Thor – 125
10) Frederick Freeman (Captain Marvel Jr.) – 100
11) William Batson (Shazam) – 98
12) Benjamin Grimm (Thing) – 97
13) Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) – 83
14) Jonathan Storm (Human Torch) – 74
15) James Gordon – 73
16) Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) – 70
17) Namor McKenzie (Sub-Mariner) – 57
T-18) Bruce Banner (Hulk) – 52
T-18) Thomas Raymond (Toro) – 52
T-19) Barry Allen (Flash) – 51
T-19) Human Torch (Android) – 51
20) Jimmy Olsen – 49
Some interesting tidbits:
1) Once again, the same top three; albeit in a different order, with Superman at the top this time.
2) For the first time, we have a non-superpowered character in the Top Ten, with Lois Lane at #8. All you need to know is that during the 1950s when Supes and Batman were keeping DC Comics in business; they did (comparatively speaking) a lot of Superman-related comic books; with Lois starring in her own series which ran for 137 issues between 1958 and 1974. Her Daily Planet coworker Jimmy Olsen was similarly blessed and appears at #20, while her boss, Perry White, occupied positin #21. Gotham Police Commission James Gordon is at position 16 for the same reason.
3) Freddy Freeman (a.k.a. Captain Marvel Jr.) beating out his mentor Billy Batson (a.k.a. Shazam). This is largely because of the prominence of “teen heroes” during the World War II era; which strikes me as a bit weird since Billy is a kid himself. I guess kids of that era just liked seeing heroes who looked more like them. Similarly, Thomas Raymond (better known as Toro, the bursting-into-fire companion of the original Human Torch) shows up at #20 on the list, beating his own mentor by two slots.
Criteria #4: Average Rank Points per Year
I’m guessing you can figure this one out on your own:
1) Kal-El (Superman) – 8.59
2) Bruce Wayne (Batman) – 8.32
3) Peter Parker (Spider-Man) – 7.05
4) James Howlett (Wolverine) – 4.11
5) Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing) – 3.87
6) Anthony Stark (Iron Man) – 3.84
7) Steven Rogers (Captain America) – 3.64
8) Thor – 1.84
9) Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman) – 1.78
10) Lois Lane – 1.71
11) Benjamin Grimm (Thing) – 1.70
12) Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) – 1.46
13) Frederick Freeman (Captain Marvel Jr.) – 1.32
14) Jonathan Storm (Human Torch) – 1.30
15) William Batson (Shazam) – 1.24
16) Bruce Banner (Hulk) – 0.32
17) James Gordon – 0.32
18) Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) – 0.91
19) Tim Drake (Robin/Red Robin) – 0.86
20) Barry Allen (Flash) – 0.82
This list is pretty similar to Total Rank Points, so the only thing that I’ll comment on is the presence of Tim Drake at the 20th spot. For those of you who aren’t DC know-it-alls, Tim Drake was the third person to take on the mantle of Robin, after Dick Grayson became Nightwing and Jason Todd got killed off (before being resurrected) and before Bruce’s love-child Damian took on the role. He later became Red Robin. He’s also the most recent addition to this list, having debuted in 1989. The next closest character is Wolverine, who was created back in 1974.
Criteria #5: Firsts
Simply put, the number of times the Character was the most prevalent character in the calendar year:
1) Kal-El (Superman) – 38
2) Bruce Wayne (Batman) – 19
3) Peter Parker (Spider-Man) – 8
4) Frederick Freeman (Captain Marvel Jr.) – 6
T-5) James Howlett (Wolverine) – 3
T-5) Thomas Raymond (Toro) – 3
T-6) Slam Bradley – 2
T-6) Adolf Hitler – 2
A couple of fascinating findings here:
1) Look at the number for Superman. 38 times he was the most popular character. That’s nearly half of the 80 possible years he was in first place and twice as much as Batman, his next closest challenger; who has twice as many as Spider-Man, the third-place finisher. Talk about absolute domination.
2) Adolf-freaking-Hitler “won” two years (1942 and 1943). At first this seems preposterous, but then you’ve got to remember that he was fighting against characters from DC, Timely (as Marvel was called at the time), Quality, Whiz, Fox and others, so sometimes being the guy that everybody hates works for you. Hitler would be the only villain and the only historic figure to ever top a year list.
3) Who the heck are Slam Bradley, Doctor Occult and Shorty Morgan? Slam Bradley, who was tied for first in 1937 and 1938, was a pulp detective who appeared in the first issue of Detective Comics (later the home of Batman since 1939) and Shorty Morgan was his sidekick who tied with Slam for 1938. Doctor Occult was a cross between a detective and a mystic who was part of a tie for 1936.
3) No woman or person of color has ever topped the yearly list. #Diversity_Not
Criteria #6: Connections
My final statistic is the number of connections that the characters have. In this case, how many different characters has this character interacted with at least 100 times (by virtue of being in the same comic book).
And here’s the Data:
1) Kal-El (Superman) – 1051
2) Bruce Wayne (Batman) – 951
3) Peter Parker (Spider-Man) – 927
4) Steven Rogers (Captain America) – 842
5) Anthony Stark (Iron Man) – 828
6) James Howlett (Wolverine) – 798
7) Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman) – 752
8) Henry McCoy (Beast) – 658
9) Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing) – 640
10) Thor – 627
11) Scott Summers (Cyclops) – 620
12) Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) – 618
13) Benjamin Grimm (Thing) – 576
14) Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) – 551
15) Ororo Munroe (Storm) – 547
16) Bruce Banner (Hulk) – 533
T-17) J’onn J’onzz (Martian Manhunter) – 528
T-17) Clinton Barton (Hawkeye) – 528
18) Jonathan Storm (Human Torch) – 523
19) Wally West (Flash) – 515
20) Namor McKenzie (Sub-Mariner) – 488
1) Once again, the top three are Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. The fact that these three keep dominating the same lists shows me that my underlying theories about who is important and what proves their importance is right.
2) Lots of names here worth mentioning: Hank McCoy (a.k.a. Beast) was a member of both the X-Men and Avengers so naturally has worked with a bunch of characters. Fellow X-Man Scott Summers (Cyclops) has long been the field leader of the X-Men. Other Marvel mainstays are previously mentioned Ororo Monroe (Storm) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Namor.
3) On the DC side of the aisle, you have Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern whose worked with both Justice League and the thousands of members of the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps. J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter has been in nearly every version of the Justice League. Finally, Wally West served in the Teen Titans as Kid Flash before replacing his mentor Barry Allen as both The Flash and a member of the Justice League.
So, now that I got all these data points, what to do with them? Simply put, I took the maximum value for each of these criteria and then divided the character’s value by that maximum value and then multiplied by 100, meaning that each character has a value between 1 and 100 for each criteria. Add them all up and you have a maximum score of 600 points.
Written by David Curewitz