Spider-Man! Batman! Superman! Everyone loves these heroes of comics and screen. These three names alone have been responsible for some of the most exciting stories of the past 100 years, alongside some lesser-known characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Doom Patrol.
That said, DC and Marvel don’t hold a monopoly on great superheroes. Independent creators and other publishers have been popping out inventive heroes since the days when DC and Marvel called themselves National and Timely. Anyone who wants to broaden their cape and cowl horizons should check out some of the best superheroes from off the beaten path.
1. Tom Strong
For all that Alan Moore has done to deconstruct superheroes, the irascible English writer has also proclaimed his love for the genre with his America’s Best Comics work, the surreal Promethea or the genre mash-ups of Top Ten and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. However, none of Moore’s works celebrate genre fiction like Tom Strong. Moore draws from pre-comics pulp novels for Tom Strong, invoking the best parts of Doc Savage and other super-scientists and putting them through the writer’s boundless imagination. Although Tom Strong did drop by the DC Universe in the underrated series The Terrifics, he remains the greatest superhero not most associated with the big two.
No one would call Invincible the most original superhero of all time. He has generic powers that include super strength and near invincibility, and his coming-of-age story has plenty of echoes in Spider-Man or Speedball tales from decades before. However, Invincible stands out thanks to the inventive ways that creators Robert Kirkman, Corey Walker, and Ryan Ottley remix familiar tropes into all-new adventures.
Invincible follows the adventures of Mark Grayson, son of Earth’s greatest hero Omni-Man. When Mark’s powers kick in as a teen, he takes the name Invincible to train under his dad, just to learn his father’s secret: that he came to Earth as part of an empire sent to conquer the planet. Fighting off his dad while making his own way, Invincible makes old story beats feel new again.
Except for maybe Jack Kirby, no artist better suits the comic book medium like Mike Allred. His static yet expressive figure work, covered by heavy inks, evokes the best of Kirby, Curt Swan, and other Silver Age legends without ever feeling like a pastiche. Allred has done great work for both major publishers, but the purest expression of his aesthetic appears in Madman, the story of a reanimated corpse who gains superpowers and tries to recover his past life. Madman captures everything great about the pop art era of 60s comics and gives it an undeniable modern spin. That him makes him one of the best superheroes, and one of the most nostalgic.
Artist Mike Mignola spent many years penciling mainstream comics featuring Batman and the Fantastic Four, establishing himself as a master of the Jack Kirby style of blocky action. And like Kirby, Mignola became a king of drawing monsters, majestic and dignified and terrifying. So when it came time for Mignola to launch his own series, he combined that love of monsters and heroes to create Hellboy.
A demon conjured by fascists but raised by the kind Professor Broome, Hellboy protects the planet from supernatural threats, ranging from reanimated corpses to the Baba-Yaga. Throughout it all, Hellboy keeps the no-nonsense attitude of a blue-collar worker, treating universal threats like another day at the factory.
5. Judge Dredd
Birthed in the pages of the British magazine 2000 AD, Judge Dredd takes a cynical view of the power fantasies driving most superhero stories. Since his first appearance in a 1977 story by writer John Wagner, artist Carlos Ezquerra, and editor Pat Mills, Judge Dredd has dispensed justice without mercy to the citizens of the futuristic Mega City One. While Dredd may look like a superhero, an assumption supported by frequent appearances of clones and psychics in his stories, he functions more like a satire, suggesting that Superman and other vigilantes serve authoritarian ends more than they save the day.
6. The Spirit
Will Eisner didn’t want to make a superhero. A master of sequential art and visual storytelling, Eisner wanted to push comics further than funny gags and simple morality tales, something he’ll do with later works such as A Contract With God, one of the first “graphic novels.” However, publishers in 1940 wanted superheroes, so Eisner debuted the Spirit in Sunday editions of newspapers from the Register and Tribune Syndicate. The Spirit had a mask and a costume and a tragic backstory (dead cop adopts a new name and seeks justice), but Eisner just used those conventions as a scaffolding for other tales, stories about regular humans, albeit wrapped in the guise of superhero adventure and hardboiled fiction.
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
One evening, Kevin Eastman sketched a picture of a nunchuck-wielding turtle to amuse his roommate Peter Laird. That goofy doodle launched the media empire of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one that includes cartoon shows, movies, and so many action figures. Eastman and Laird fleshed out their idea by borrowing from Daredevil comics made by Frank Miller, giving a funny animal twist to Miller’s grim stories. Since then, the Turtles have proven quite versatile, appearing in stories made for young children and more mature adventures without sacrificing their humorous core. How could anyone ignore them as some of the best superheroes ever?
8. The Incredibles
The Fantastic Four might be the greatest heroes of Marvel Comics, but not even the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe has found a way to portray a satisfying version of the team. Rather than wait around, writer and director Brad Bird gave the world his own version in The Incredibles, a nuclear family of crime fighters who battle domestic ennui when not fighting supervillains. Well-observed in terms of both character dynamics and action set-pieces, the two Incredibles movies celebrate everything great about superheroes.
9. The Savage Dragon
The Savage Dragon came into existence when artist Erik Larsen left Marvel to make his own comics, helping to launch Image Comics. But where his fellow Image founders soon returned to DC and Marvel, Larsen continues to slug away at Savage Dragon comics, still crafting an absurd epic about a lizard man/Chicago cop even today. Continuing the story over three decades has forced Larsen to take the Dragon to absurd extremes, some that work better than others. But even when the new takes or tales do not work, Larsen’s kinetic line work always promises a rock ‘em, sock ‘em good time.
10. Stardust the Super Wizard
The arrival of Superman in 1938’s Action Comics #1 launched a whole host of imitators, countless masked crusaders who did good works by punching baddies in the face. As redundant as these characters may seem to modern audiences, the first superheroes ran the gamut in power sets and personalities, as creators did not know what constituted a good super-story yet.
Enter Fletcher Hanks, the artist and writer behind Stardust the Super Wizard. Stardust resembles a standard Superman-type, with his blue knickers and yellow logo. However, he differs from the Man of Steel in the magical origin of his powers and in his pure cruelty. Over sixteen issues of Fantastic Comics, published from 1939 – 1941, Stardust offed his enemies with brutal and bizarre efficiency, especially for the Golden Age of superheroes.
11. Mystery Men
The most dedicated superhero movie fans might recall Mystery Men, the 1999 film starring Ben Stiller and William H. Macy as unimpressive superheroes. But it takes an even greater pop culture genius to know that the Mystery Men come from the world of independent comics, first appearing in the absurd underground series Flaming Carrot Comics. Those comics have their own odd-ball charm, but they have nothing on the movie’s heartfelt look at guys with dumb powers — “I shovel well, I shovel very well,” explains Macy’s the Shoveler — doing their best to save the day.
When Spawn #1 first hit comic racks in 1992, fans couldn’t help but sneer at the name artist and writer Todd McFarlane chose for his hero. With his many-angled cape and wide white eyes, Spawn felt like the offspring of McFarlane’s favorite DC and Marvel characters, Batman and Spider-Man. The first few years of Spawn comics didn’t help, as McFarlane never found a way to match his inventive figure work with stories of equal power. However, as other writers (and artists) have taken cracks at Spawn, the character has grown more complex, soon becoming one of the more interesting mixtures of horror, fantasy, and superheroes.
13. The Seven
To be clear, the Seven are not the heroes of the comic book series The Boys, nor of the (much better) live-action television series. In the original comics, the lazy Justice League stand-ins (Homelander = Superman, Queen Maeve = Wonder Woman, etc.) that comprise the Seven allow writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson to express their hatred to the source characters and to excavate the most unpleasant parts of their imagination.
The TV adaptation keeps the obvious corollaries to the Justice League, but uses them in a more fruitful direction. Within the TV series, the patriotic talk of Homelander or the desperation of the Deep becomes grounds to explore modern concerns with fame and politics, using the genre to dissect our culture’s obsession with power.
14. The Shadow
The Shadow began not as a superhero, but as a narrator. Orson Welles first voiced the character as the host of the radio show Detective Story Hour in 1930, haunting viewers as he introduced hard-boiled tales from Detective Story Magazine. The character proved so popular that he soon launched into his own stories in the magazine, and then into pulp novels, comic books, and a (pretty good!) movie from the 1990s. All of this media hopping gave the Shadow a convoluted power set and backstory, but nothing can diminish the unmistakable power of the character’s look, complete with a black floppy hat and billowing purple scarf.
15. Fighting American
Casual superhero fans know that Captain America disappeared at the end of World War II. They may not know that Marvel, then called Atlas Comics, brought the character back in the 1950s, reimagining Cap as a reactionary hero who fought Communists. That imitation didn’t sit well with Cap’s creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, so the duo made a new character to fill the void. The Fighting American’s tales didn’t outdo later Captain America stories from the 1960s on out, but they stand above Simon and Kirby’s original takes.
Before Sam Raimi created some of the best superhero movies of all time with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, he wanted to make a movie about The Shadow. When the studio passed on Raimi’s pitch, the legendary director decided to show them what they missed with 1990’s Darkman. On the surface, Darkman looks just like the Shadow, complete with a flop hat and trench coat. But his ability to mold false faces, covering his own rotting visage, sets him apart from his predecessor. Played with a wounded ferocity by Liam Neeson, at least in the first movie, Darkman proved Raimi one of the best superhero movie-maker of all time.
Readers looking for a compelling Batman riff can look almost everywhere, within and without the big two publishers. Few capture the imagination like the Confessor, created by extraordinary writer Kurt Busiek, along with artists Brent Anderson and Alex Ross, for his series Astro City. Veteran writer Busiek knows more about superheroes than almost anyone alive and has worked on all of the big names. Astro City allowed him to tell his own, more humanistic spins on these characters, as he does with the dark vigilante and his young sidekick Altar Boy. Busiek uses Batman tropes and religious iconography to tell a unique story about redemption and guilt.
As this list suggests, the majority of independent superheroes aim for adult audiences. Not so for Bandette, the plucky thief created by writer Paul Tobin and artist Colleen Coover. Teenager Maxime Plouffe plays the role of a modern-day Robin Hood by stealing from the rich and distributing the wealth to her group of urchins. Coover’s energetic pencils give the stories a fun and inviting atmosphere, the perfect compliment to Tobin’s winning dialogue.
On the other hand, there’s the Nexus. Created in 1981 by Steve Rude, Nexus combines a superhero structure with high-concept science fiction. Set in the far future, the Nexus follows the adventures of Horatio Valdemar Hellpop, who receives superpowers and a mission to execute mass murderers chosen by his alien handler Merk. Rude’s clean art style recalls that of Alex Toth, which emphasizes the sleek and alien nature of the hero. The art belies the complex morality of most Nexus stories, which feel like Star Trek debates with action beats.
20. Archer & Armstrong
Created by Barry Windsor-Smith as part of the launch of Valiant Comics in 1992, Archer & Armstrong wrapped philosophical and theological inquiry around a buddy comedy take on a superhero story. When the centuries-old Babylonian Aram Anni-Padda, going by the name Armstrong in the modern era, meets young fundamentalist Obadiah Archer, the two match wits and worldviews in the most wonderful way. The current continuity based on a 2012 reboot gives a delightful satirical edge to the proceedings, making Archer & Armstrong an even more entertaining duo.
When Rob Leifeld created Supreme for his Image Comics series in 1992, the character existed for no other reason than to allow the edgy 90s creator to play with Superman. However, Liefeld turned the character over to other creators, including Keith Giffen and Alan Moore, who used Supreme in metatextual stories that explored the nature of superhero storytelling. Moore’s writing on Supreme features some of his best superhero writing, on par with Tom Strong and even Watchmen.
22. The Rocketeer
Artist Dave Stevens made no secret about the works that influenced his jetpack-wearing character Rocketeer, including Republic serials and pin-up model Bettie Page. Nor did he hide the fact that his interests lay more in visuals than narrative, from the Rocketeer’s debut in Starslayer #2 (1982) to the last Stevens-penned tale in 1995’s The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine. Yet, none of that mattered because nobody drew like Dave Stevens. His realistic figure work and sense of art deco design made the Rocketeer an instant classic, the hero of a great live-action film, and a beloved series.
23. The Comet
Like most publishers in the 1930s, MLJ Magazines jumped right into the comics boom with their own roster of superheroes. However, MLJ soon found its niche with Archie Andrews and the teens of Riverdale, putting superheroes on the back burner. Every once in a while, Archie Comics (as MLJ now calls itself) pulls out its old hero roster, even putting the Hangman in the hit soap series Riverdale.
Of all of Archie’s heroes, none have the promise of the Comet, created by Jack Cole in 1940. Cole took to the Comet the same whacky approach that made his character Plastic Man such a hit, including a weird origin (gas injected into his bloodstream) and a predilection towards violence, giving the character a Three Stooges vibe.
24. Kareem Jenkins
At first glance, Kareem Jenkins feels too generic to make the list. He doesn’t have a costume or a cool name, and his story has been covered in countless stories about X-Men and other young heroes. In 2016’s Black #1, Jenkins stands up after being shot and realizes that has superpowers. The twist comes in the world that creators Kwanza Osajyefo & Tim Smith 3, in which only Black people have superpowers. That setup allows Osajyefo and his artist collaborators Jamal Igle and Khary Randolph to breathe new life into familiar concepts, giving the superhero genre new relevancy.
25. The Crow
Ask anyone who saw the 1994 movie as a teenager and they’ll admit that The Crow is a product of its time. The dark and moody story of a young man resurrected by a mystical crow to seek vengeance against the thugs who killed him and his fiancee. Between its grunge rock soundtrack, its charismatic and doomed lead performance from Brandon Lee, and its sleek black imagery, The Crow became a 90s classic. However, the comic book series by James O’Barr that launched the character in 1989 cannot be dismissed on the same terms. O’Barr channels his anger at a real-world attack into every page and line in the comic, giving it a power that remains relevant even today.