What traits make for a great superhero?

It’s sad to say, but there really hasn’t been a new, truly iconic superhero for God knows how long. I don’t collect comics as fanatically as I used to, and only rarely stop in at Forbidden Planet to peruse what’s on sale. Still, I’ve noticed that there has been no true sensation title to compare to, say, the X-Men when I was a mere teen in the early 1980s. I see lots and lots of new titles, most featuring re-workings of long established characters, but nothing that seems really fresh and different.

It got me to thinking what qualities a new character must have right off the bat, from issue #1, in order to break away from the pack of generic folks in spandex, and establish himself as a comic book superstar? (e.g., Why did Spider-Man become a popular bit of modern folklore, while the Blue Beetle become an also-ran?)

  • Obviously, he must be powerful, and have a varied assortment of superpowers. (If a team of heroes, they usually have one specific power apiece, but a solo hero has to possess a range of abilities. Using the same single power over and over again would be instantly monotonous.) These powers must have a general motif, and can’t be just a random scattering of abilities

  • A flashy costume. Something flashy and colorful, but not an eyesore. This is easier said than done, given that as tastes in fashions in the real world change, some costumes tend to look more dated than others. (cough *Legion of Super-Heroes *cough) A truly iconic hero may have their costumes slightly tweaked as the times change, (Wonder Woman lopping the high heels on her boots, and ditching the ear-rings, for example), but has to remain relatively constant.

  • A compelling theme. Batman is a dark knight avenger, so driven to avenge his parents murders that he has transformed himself into something not quite human. Spider-Man is a nerdy shnook who just can’t get a break no matter how hard he tries. The JLA are superheroes so super, they appear godlike to normal people, while the X-Men are freakish oddballs. The stories can’t just be foiling the bad guys latest fiendish plot, they must deal with an idea that resonates with readers.

  • A coherent backstory. Heroes, of course, plummet in popularity as their established histories become murkier. The “Spider-clone” storyline of the 90’s being the archetypal disaster scenario. It’s doubtful that we’ll see any clones showing up in future Spider-man sequels.

  • Interesting / likeable supporting characters. Where would Batman be without Robin and Alfred? Would Spider-Man really have been such a success without Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson to contend with, as well as Dr. Octopus? Methinks not.

  • Truly menacing opponents. Especially, an arch-nemesis that is the antithesis of everything the hero stands for. Batman is a law & order zealot, the Joker is anarchy incarnate. Superman is the apex of physical perfection, Lex Luthor is the craftiest, shrewdest player of mindgames ever. Reed Richards is rational, and dedicated to scientific exploration with selfless motivations of the greatest good for all humanity, Dr. Doom uses technology to advance his own utterly narcissistic goals.

  • A base of operations. The Batcave, Xavier’s school, Avenger’s Mansion, the Fortress of Solitude, Paradise Island. (the New York City of Marvel Comics is uniquely Spider-Man’s domain.)

Anything else I forget?

One of the plot points of *Unbreakable * was the fact that most superheros have a weakness, or some form of vulnerability. I.E., Superman has kryptonite, The Hulk can’t control when he transforms, the X-Man are persecuted as mutants, and so on.

And what about love interest? Or would Lois Lane, Mary Jane, etc. be considered “supporting characters?”

The willingness to sacrifice themselves for the people they are sworn to protect.

Well, I think you’ve got it pretty well covered.

I’ve been mentally kicking around a superheroine whose story I will probably never write for almost two decades now.

To make her stand out from the crowd, I’ve decided on one thing- modesty in costuming. To the point that her fellow vigilantes tease her about fighting crime in a burqua. Obviously, it won’t be that extreme, because of the physical impracticalities of fighting crime in a burqua, but in a comicverse inhabited by females whose costumes show more flesh than is really necessary, or are so form-fitting that you can practically see the outlines of their areolas, I figure that either snug-but not too tight leather pants and jacket ensemble, or a lightweight but loose fitting miniskirt length tunic over the spandex leotard and tights, as well as a veil (just because I think veils are cool). I haven’t decided on the cape yet. Probably will have one, though. I think capes are cool, too. Not too big on the bright colors, though. Hell, the Batman gets by just fine in that grey-and-black ensemble. I’m thinking that if I go with the Salamander motif I’m currently kicking around, probably jet black with yellow or red spots, depending on what kind of mood she’s in on any given night.

OK, let’s talk vehicles.

Me, I’m partial to motorcycles. Especially if your hero/heroine is a mechanical engineer with the skills to build one with an engine so quiet it would make the luxury car of your choice blush. Motorcycles are maneuverable and in a pinch, much easier to hide than a car.

Of course, eventually she will have to pick up a teen sidekick, just so that when she meets him she can have the following exchanges.

(kid, on seeing motorcycle)
Sweet ride, what do you call it?

(Superheroine, tenatively called Salamander)
A motorcycle.

(Kid, on seeing base of operations for the first time)
So, this is your secret lair?
No, this is my garage.

I’m also not really a fan of superpowers. Which means, of course that either the hero/heroine must either have vast financial resources to purchase/commission the manufacture of lots and lots of cool weapons and gadgets, or the skills to make them him/herself. I’ve opted for the latter, with an electronics geek on standby. Martial arts training is, of course, a must. I’m thinking black belt in tae kwon do, just because it is one of the less-well-known martial arts, but not totally obscure, and also because I made it to purple belt before the classes and belt rank testing fees got too expensive and I had to quit.

Also, I really dig crossbows, so this would be the weapon of choice.

Backstory- best friend calls late at night stranded when car breaks down, can’t find a garage that’s open to get a tow and a ride home. Soon to be heroine arrives to find that said friend has been raped and murdered. Cops can’t seem to find the killer, suspicions that the killer was either a cop or well-connected to either higher-ups in police department or city government. Desire for justice and vigilantism ensues.

OK, back-up/interesting back-up characters-

I’m thinking a Lone-Gunmen type trio of electronics/computer geeks to help out with hacking into computers to get vital information to help solve crimes as well as build gadgets. Also, there must be someone on the police department who has sussed out the secret identity, and can help provide info as well as teach detective skills. Teen sidekick wants to be called Newt, but she puts the kibosh on that because Salamander and Newt is totally lame, and instead dubs him Sue. He’s too young to get the Johnny Cash reference.

As far as arch nemesis goes, I’m thinking a corrupt chief of police who is extrmely good at covering his tracks, so that our heroine can never quite get enough on him for to stand up in a court of law, with an eventual rogues gallery that would include someone who is constantly building machinery to used to pull off major crimes and threaten the well-being of the citizens of the city which is just a bit smaller than Bludhaven. She, of course, must find the fundamental design flaws in the machines so she can render them ineffectual.


Batman has no powers (gadgets don’t count). He’s pretty much as intelligent and skilled as a normal human can get, but he’s non-powered.

Superman, Wonder Woman, and Martian Manhunter have all been members of the Justice League - all have ranges of powers. (And Superman and WW were in the Justice Society, Way Back When.)

Various incarnations The Flash and Hawk<people> have carried solo books quite well, despite being mono-powered.

Green Lantern is an odd-ball for this discussion - they technically have one power, but that power is literally the power to do just about anything they wish.

Just the same, the GLs have been both team-members and carried solo books.

Flashy isn’t quite the right word - it doesn’t discribe Batman’s at all.

Also, the X-men are a popular team, but their costumes change every time you turn around (and the best ones aren’t particularly flashy), and don’t always keep consistant elements. One minute they’re uniforms with a big X across the chest, the next they’re in individual costumes with a subtle X somewhere, the next they’re in uniforms with narry an X to be found… etc.


Hmm. Just thought of something.

I would say that a belief that The System Isn’t Working to catch the evildoers in society would be a big factor. Not in the right-wing sense that the legal system is soft on crime, more that the system is corrupt/on the take/protects the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

I don’t know if “Why did Spider-Man become a popular bit of modern folklore, while the Blue Beetle become an also-ran?” was meant to be a serious comparison, but I think there are several factors here, besides just the characters, their costumes and their powers.

First off, is whether or not the reader relates to the character. Peter Parker is someone a lot of readers can relate to. He has real world problems that a lot of the readers would have. In my opinion in the “early days” or Marvel and DC, Marvel did a much better job of making the characters more like real people. That being said, there are aspects of a lot of the major characters people can relate to. Being an outsider, being different, these are common teenage feelings.

So, a lot of what makes a good character, is the writing. Now this isn’t an attribute of the character, but a well written story sure makes a difference.

I think Tengu is right too, “flashy” isn’t the right word. “Cool factor” might be more accurate. Popular characters like Wolverine, Punisher, Spider-man, Batman all have that cool factor.

Alright, points taken!
I’ll revise some of my earlier points.

  • Super-Powers: A superhero must have well-defined abillities, which as a category would be inclusive of super-powers, and human skills. Batman for example is a master detective, a brillliant combat strategist, an inventing genius, and unparralelled hand-to-hand combatant. In fact, I’d even count “gadgets” as an ability, as a hero must be peerless in his use of it (as say Green Arrow & Hawkeye are with a bow & arrow). Perhaps I ought to have said a character has to have a cohesive “gimmick.”

As for Hawkman, the Flash & Green Lantern - while all of them have only one power, they also have unique skills or identifying traits. Hawkman is a man from space with a starship, and fights with ancient earth weapons. Flash can not just run fast, but cause super vibrations in other objects, and has the in-depth knowledge of physics to exploit that ability to the fullest. Green Lantern, well Kyle Rayner at least, is a cartoon artist, and can conjure up whatever he could imagine drawing. So, it’s a combination of abilities & skills that add up to a memorable character.

  • Costumes. Okay, I shouldn’t have said “flashy”. Distinctive is a better word. It can’t just be spandex longjohns and a cape. Batman of course has a distinctive bat logo on his chest and a remarkably memorable looking outfit.

The X-men do change costumes a lot, but they tend to always come back to the same blue / black & gold / yellow motif eventually.


*Weaknesses: how could I forget that? They have to have an Achilles’ Heel.

*Love Interest: Yeah, I’d consider the love interest as a supporting character, but you are right this is a requisite supporting character.

Sidekicks: I’d say they’re optional. Spider-Man, Hulk, & Daredevil don’t have or need sidekicks. And sometimes, the sidekick character is more a liability than a help to the character’s appeal (Wonder Girl, Jason Todd, the multitude of “Super” and “Bat” characters that were wisely retconned out of existence during the “Crisis.”

It’s not what the OP wanted, but I find Astro City to be damn iconic. If it came out on a more frequent (read: regular) schedule, I wouldn’t need anything from Marvel or DC. After seeing how Samaritan totally twisted the “most powerful superhero in the world” meme on its head in issue #1, I was completely hooked.

[Fixed the coding oops]

These are definitely requirements for a successful character. I can’t think of an exception, anyway. (Even with the constantly changing costumes of the X-Men (or LSH), they remain distinctive.) (I’m willing to give MM a pass for his suite of powers as an example of the ‘alien’ gimmick.)

They’re not as good for dividing the successful from the ‘also-rans’ as they are for weeding out the characters with no chance, though.

A lot of also-rans (such as Blue Beetle) have all the inherant qualities needed to be successful, but they just…don’t make the cut - they get relegated to second-tier status, or fail to even get THAT much success.

I think badomen (I can’t believe how long it took me to parse that name >_< ) has hit on the most important distinction:

The writing. An established character can survive a bout of bad writing, but a new character who’s badly written…they’re doomed. No matter how interesting their supporting characters should have been, how menacing their villains should have been…they’ll be banal. No matter how coherant and cool the character’s powers/gimmick, it will seem muddled and lame. And since they’ll fail to catch the reader’s imaginations, they’ll disappear until another (hopefully better) writer decides to revive the character - probably as a supporting character (sticking them with second-tier status - for a while, at least), but possibly attempting to salvage them as a lead.

Then, of course, there’s just the luck of the draw, or being too similar to another established character the same company uses (Blue Beetle and Captain Marvel both got caught in this trap at DC, I would think).

Setting aside issues like hardware, super-powers, headquarters, personal motivations, transportation and costumes for a moment-- none of which gets to the essence of what the superhero is – there are seven behavioral motivators which tend to separate the “great” heroes from the ones that merely pass inspection. I’d say a truly great superhero tend to consistently adhere to six of these seven principles, while second tier and lower characters can barely muster four.

This is my list; nitpick as you please.

Moderate social views. In order to avoid the appearance of facism, a superhero has to be conservative enough to overall respect the rule of the law and the political authority without resorting to anarchy or flagrant vigilatism; also liberal enough to recognize and protect the rights of those whom certain individual law enforcement officials may not extend that right to. Captain America, despite the jingoistic outlook, firmly fits this category, as do Wonder Woman, and certainly Superman. The more extreme a heroes’ outlook is – be it right-wing military soldier Captain Atom, the autocratic T’Challa the Black Panther or hippie-plant god Swamp Thing, the less likely you can call that superhero great, irrespective of their actual power levels. Indifference, like Thor’s, is costly, too – until you factor in his ruling Asgard.

Killing as a last resort, if at all. The truly great superheroes respect all life and tend to preserve it. Which is a tenet that holds back many anti-heroes like Marvel’s Punisher, Wolverine and Deadpool, DC’s Huntress, Etrigan the Demon and Vigilante. Wildstorm’s Authority or Image’s Spawn. Movie Batman is far less heroic than the comic book Batman.

An exploitable weakness, whether physical or moral. Superman? Kryptonite. Wolverine? His struggle to contain the animal within. Green Lantern? It used to be yellow… now, I’d have to say its his confidence and will. Every non-bulletproof hero who puts his or her neck on the line gets an automatic bye here; near-immortals like Thor and Wonder Woman take a hit, as well as already dead people like Deadman and Spawn.

Self-sacrifice: literal, physical, financial. Luke Cage will always be in this for the odd buck. So will Booster Gold, Catwoman, Iron Fist. Can you think of an instance where they willingly sacrificed something precious to them – for the right to be a hero? No? They’re not as great as you think.

Great independence. Truly great superheroes can and do act on their own, outside of team affiliations or crimefighting duos. Not one great hero that was an inseparable part of a twosome ever made it big. Cloak and Dagger? Please. Hawk and Dove? Okay, you made me laugh. Tons of mutants end up taking a hit here because of how they’re set up as teams in the Marvel Universe with little chance at shining on their own. Yes, by my logic Cable is a greater superhero than Cyclops.

It works for some obstensibly solo heroes, too. J’onn J’onnz, Manhunter from Mars is so married to the JLA that three attempts at his own title have all failed. He, as well as the Avengers’ Vision, badly fail the independence test, as well as the next one…

Determination. How far are you willing to go? A great many third-tier and second tier heroes have never demonstrated an outstanding level of commitment. J’onn J’onnz is one. Daredevil arguably never rose to this level until the events of Miller’s Born Again storyline and again during Bendis’ Out.

Competence and reliability. I’d say a lot of second-and third-tier superheroes, especially women, end up here by default simply because they don’t get their big moments to shine. It’s hard to guage how competant and reliable they are when some man is saving them from debris from an exploded spaceship or something. We know the Invisible Woman is competant; Lois Lane with superpowers would be a mess.

Also: I say this with great cynical accuracy, it helps to be a white male.

I’m not exactly sure what you’re using to determine first- and second-tier characters.

Taking just some of your examples from the non-killing part:

The Punisher has had his own title (often more than one) pretty consistantly for approximately 20 years, he’s spawned 2 movies (not that either is terribly well recieved), and, IIRC, he’s been in several cross-universe crossovers.

Wolverine is a fanboy favourite who has his own book for years (At least 10).

Granted, neither of them is Spiderman, but, then, neither is Cap.

Thor rules Asgard? What happened to Odin?

Easy. Look again. I didn’t say “first-tier.”

In my post, I cited “great superheroes”, second tier, and third tier. But I did not refer to first-tier characters at all in order to simply my reasoning. Because while Wonder Woman is an icon, she’s not first tier, hasn’t been for decades, except that brief rise in popularity when George Perez took over her title after Crisis during the revamp.

Wolverine is a solid first tier character, yes? Hugely popular. Compelling protagonist. But he’s not a “great” superhero in the classic sense. He’s not an icon.

Aesiron. How can you call yourself one of the aesir and not know Odin’s been dead for like a year now? Or did I blink and the marvel Universe change again?

I just wanted to say that this is the most evocative phrase I have read in months. :stuck_out_tongue:

They also have to do that thing where they Narrate… their actions… while under… duress!


I think a truly great hero would also need to have an unflagging devotion to truth and justice (if not the American Way).-“And you taught us all-- Never to ignore the evidence, even if it points you in a direction you don’t want to go.” Barbara Gordon to the Batman, in the “intervention” in the Batcave from Bruce Wayne: Murderer?

I also think it helps if you’re just a little bit psychotic. Not too much, just a little bit.

If Wolverine - a compelling, popular character, recognised by fans and non-fans alike, used as one of Marvel’s identifying marks - is not an Icon, what IS an icon?

The OP was asking why certain characters break away from the pack - become popular, successful, superstars, known - his definition of ‘iconic’ seems to match mine. Batman vs Blue Beetle - two very similar characters, but one just didn’t get handled as well.

You’ve made points towards the OP, made tangential points, then confused the issue by phrasing things like they were more than tangentially related.

Tengu. Let me take another crack at it.

Superhero icons are enduring characters that define what a superhero is, mostly in terms of personal behavior and beliefs, which, like Japanese bushido code, Miss America contestants or the Catholic priesthood, are fairly rigid. Superhero icons also have various genre trappings like costumes, weaponry, vehicles, headquarters, team affiliations, etc. These are all genre trappings.

A superhero’s defining characteristics are largely behavioral and ideological, not paraphernalia or powers. Otherwise any costumed nut who can level cities at a glance is a superhero. Motivation is key. Your list, and Art Vandelay’s, focus on outward appearances for the most part and ignore the underlying behavioral modes. While it’s true appearances play a large part of a superhero’s sales success and popularity, it’s arguable that they are as important as how a character acts.

The terms first-tier, second-tier and third-tier relate to a character’s fan popularity and sales success. The “tangential” relationship is this: the correlation between successful first tier superheroes and superheroic iconic behaviors is extremely high. A quick look at the following characteristics – which admittedly could use some fine tuning, possibly even paring down – shows that few successful superheroes have less than six of the seven qualities.

[li]Moderate social views[/li][li]Killing as a last resort, if at all. [/li][li]An exploitable weakness, whether physical or moral. [/li][li]Self-sacrifice: literal, physical, financial.[/li][li]Great independence. [/li][li]Determination. [/li][li]Competence and reliability.[/li][/ul]

You seem to take issue with my pronouncement that Wolverine is not an icon. Let me slightly rephrase: Wolverine is not a superhero icon. Oh, I grant you he hangs around superheroes, and takes part in superhero crossovers, possesses his share of superhero genre conventions and makes guest appearances in superhero books. But his temperament, loner status, berzerker rage, training, willingness – sometimes eagerness to kill, world weary longevity, and drinking, fightin’, smokin’, cussing – are not very superheroic. In a genre where Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Superman and Wonder Woman are legacies to American values, even his japanophilia is suspect.

He’s in the same mode as The Punisher, Halo Jones, Martha Washington, 80s Miller- DKR Batman, Hitman, Spawn, Rorschach and the Comedian, Huntress, Jesse Custer, Tulip O’ Hare and Cassidy the Vampire, Magog, The Authority, the members of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, almost the entire Wildstorm and Image lines.


Now anti-heroes can have fewer than than the seven qualities. Most average around 3-4. They usually strike out at the first three and share the rest.

Superhero icons are a small, select group established decades ago. Trying to find an superhero icon after 60-plus years of permutations is hard. The best you’d get is what Moore did by playing with the pulp origins of that anteceded superheroes and come up with suff like Tom Strong and the steampunk LoEG. Alternately, you get antiheroes who don’t live up to the rigid superhero code and still get to play with their powers.

Now where I tend to agree with Art is his suggestion that classic superheroes tend to have a strong supporting cast and formidable villains, usually their ideological opposites. Where I tend to agree with you Tengu, is the almost overwhelming importance of strong writing.


I’d argue taht there are only four iconic superheroes, ever, and unlikely to ever be any more, since anything novel to work would cease to be a superhero (see Sandman). They are:

Superman: Inhuman power harnessed for the good of mankind.
Batman: The pinnacle of human potential tapped for the good of mankind.
Spider-Man: A character with inhuman powers and human problems struggles to help mankind.
Wonder Woman: She’s a girl.

These are the archetypes. the characters to which all others are held in comparison. What do they have in common? They were first. Superman has the first ever. Spider-Man started the trend of angsty characters. Batman was the updating of older pulp tropes to Supes’ spandex standard. Wonder Woman is a girl.

What makes a super-hero? A costume and a double (if not secret) identity. What makes a successful and popular hero? Good writing, and a compelling character (including character gimmicks and power/ability sets). What makes for a legendary character? Consistantly good writing and character that stays fresh throughout the years.