The Greatest Comic Book Character of All Time

At a certain point in my comic book reading life, I discovered that I really, really loved old comic books.

Part of my love for old comics stems from the fact that they made no attempt at anything resembling realism and, if they ever thought to incorporate any kind of current events into a story, it was always blown completely out of proportion.  Old comics were epic in their ridiculousness.  You don't see that these days.

Nicole has suggested that I also like old comic books because they're a window into that time period, which I guess is true.  Comic books, like most forms of art, are a reflection of what's going on in the real world.

I think it's this reflection of the world around it that was the biggest factor in my determination of who the greatest comic book character of all time is.



The Contenders

Now, I know that there are a number of characters that enter into this discussion, many of which are dependent upon a person's knowledge of the medium.  And this all depends upon the definition of "greatness," particularly given that what impacts the comic book industry is different from what impacts the medium which is different from what impacts mainstream pop culture. 

It would be pretty easy to make the case for Superman, given that he, in theory, started it all.  But keep in mind that Superman wasn't the first comic book character, just the first superhero, and while Superman also drifted heavily into science fiction over the years, even by stretching things Superman only dips into specific genres of the medium, albeit the most popular ones.

That said, Superman has also been on the cover of Time magazine and was arguably the first comic book character to appear in a successful movie.  And from a purely psychological point of view, who doesn't wish Superman existed?  Who hasn't wanted to fly?

It would also be pretty easy to make a case for Spider-man and I'll admit to having a soft spot for Peter Parker.  I'll also admit that my favorite period of the character's life was the college years, although sadly it seems like I'm one of the few who feels that way.

It's hard to argue against Spider-man's impact on comics, although those in the know would point out that the Fantastic Four are actually the harbingers of the Marvel age of comics.  Many would also argue that the Fantastic Four better represent the Stan Lee writing style, given the group dynamics.

While perhaps a bit more dynamic than Superman (Peter Parker has an easier time delving into slice of life stories than Clark Kent), Spider-man still face a similar problem in that he locked into particularly types of stories.  He's so locked in, in fact, that Marvel went so far as to devolve him, magically erasing his marriage, because evidently that's too far removed from what Spider-man is about.

But it's hard to point to a character that meant more to a certain generation when they had a 1 as the first number in their age.

The fact that I've managed to undercut Superman and Spider-man is probably a good hint as to who, for me, wins this particular contest.  Yes, Batman is the greatest comic book character of all time.

Batman

More so than any other comic book character, Batman reflects society.  He has roots firmly in the noir and detective stories of the late 30's, only to merge with the superhero movement of the 40's, the moving to any and all fads during the 50's and early 60's.  He later bought into his own hype, reflecting the hugely successful television show.  In the 70's, he returned to at least some of his roots, yet still embraced the counter culture, social upheaval of the time.  In the 80's we got the Dark Knight and saw a darker Batman influence an entire generation of comic book creators and their work.  In the 90's he jumped from one massive change to another in an effort to boost sales, reflecting exactly what the rest of the comic book industry was doing, and even what was happening in Silicon Valley.  After the turn of the century, we saw Batman become a movie icon again and the comics attempted to cash in on the new publicity with little to no success.

While most comic book characters hold rather steadfast to their identities, Batman's MO has been to constantly change.  Yes, the old chestnut of a boy who watches his parents murdered and uses his fortune to fight crime still holds, but even that has changed over the years.  No, Batman is a vigilante -- the vigilante -- and that is, ultimately, the extent of what we need to know.

Is he a detective?  A superhero?  A criminal?  Is he friends with law enforcement?  A loner?  A playboy?  Is he as much of a problem as he is a solution?  Is he a down in the dirt, street level fighter, or a guy in a space ship traveling to other worlds?

Batman is all of those things and more.  Even better, Batman can be all of those things and more and none of it is outside the realm of who and what the character is.

Batman is limitless and timeless and almost always a reflection.  And that's why he's the greatest comic book character of all time.