Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Good Guy Hierarchy of Superhero Comics

Icon -- Icons have been headliners for decades by this point, and have recognition outside of comic books due to enough exposure through movies and cartoons that a person who hasn't read comics for a number of years, or who has never read comics can name them. They are known by their civilian identities almost as well as their superhero identities. They often have multiple books, and a number of headliners as satellites. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, and Robin (Dick Grayson) are all Icons. There are varying degrees of Iconism (Hal Jordan's status is arguable, for example, as DC is making the push for Iconic status, and he has recognition for Superfriends, but John Stewart has more recent recognition for JLU. However, John Stewart is not a Headliner, like Hal is, and is rarely used as more than a supporting cast member in the comics) but it's safe to say that an Icon naturally leads a Franchise. A Franchise consists of more than one book, and some exposure outside of the insulated comics community in the form of merchandising or alternate media. An Icon is the sort of character that will be proclaimed the "The REAL ____" by people who have never actually read more than a couple isolated issues of a franchise (Kalinara has a story about this one for you).

Headliner -- Headliners come in two basic forms. Independent Heroes with their own ongoing solo books (such as Firestorm, Manhunter, Black Panther, Iron Man) who do not have Icon status, or Franchise members who are not dependant on an Icon's or Team's constant presence for the storylines (though sporadic guest appearances will occur). A Franchise will often have several Headliners who receive occasional guest help from their Icons. Supergirl, Catwoman, and Kyle Rayner are Headliner members of Franchises. They get guest appearances from the other Franchise members, but the Icon's presence is not in every issue, and their plots do not revolve around their relationship to that Icon (other than, he is the lead of the Franchise).

Team Player -- Members of a teambook who do not have solo ongoing series. If a member of a teambook has their own ongoing series, they are promoted to Headliners or Icons. Team Player is the status of a character who has no home other than the teambook itself (Stargirl, Power Girl), and guest appearances or supporting roles in other Headliners's books (Jay Garrick, Alan Scott). Team Players will often have their own miniseries once they gain enough popularity, or need a storyline away from the rest of a group, but their ultimate home is the teambook itself. The Team Player works in shared spotlight, though internal group dynamics do often make some characters outshine others (You have your Leader, your Peacemaker, your Anchor for the audience to play into, your Token Characters, and your Useless Romantic Soap Character, just to throw some examples out). Team Dynamics are a post for another day.

Backup Feature -- This is a now defunct status, as most comics no longer have backup stories, but some characters were created for solo stories in the backup features of Headliner and Icon books. They had their own plots and the stories were centered on them. They have pretty much all been demoted to Professional Guest Star or Heroic Support.

Professional Guest Star -- Usually a Headliner after her book's been cancelled, or a Team Player who is no longer on the team (or the Team Book is cancelled), but sometimes someone is created specifically for this role. This is a Hero, not a Civilian, who shows up to help the Headliner or the Team. They have no home, they are a nomadic people. They do have fans, and they do show up from time to time in various books. Sometimes this is just an excuse for a writer to use a character they like. Sometimes this leads to a promotion to Team Player or Headliner as it serves as buildup for the character's new role. Sometimes it leads to a demotion to Heroic or Civilian Support. Sometimes, they die.

Heroic Support -- The hero here is a regularly occurring member of the Headliner/Icon's cast, rather than a guest star. This is lower on the hierarchy than a Professional Guest Star because you have less independance. Heroic Support is completely subordinate to the Headliner. Their character development depends entirely on how it affects/reflects/leads into the Headliner's plot. Like a Professional Guest Star, Heroic Support is often a character rescued from Limbo (when their home book was cancelled), but sometimes they are a reformed bad guy or actually created for this purpose (Sidekicks?). Yes, a Heroic Support can become an Icon through exposure (Dick Grayson), but this leads to a promotion to Headliner. You can get a miniseries, but usually not an ongoing. Oftentimes they are captured/injured/in over their head and need to be rescued by the hero, who will solve the plot themselves. Sometimes they rescue the hero (this is usually so that the hero can come back stronger next plot, or so that the next storyline the hero can reflect on their weakness and relationship with the Heroic Support who rescued them). Black Canary (Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Green Arrow) Shade (Starman), Pied Piper (The Flash), Donna Troy (Green Lantern), and Jade (Green Lantern) have all been Heroic Support in the past. Todd Rice/Obsidian (Manhunter), Nemesis (Wonder Woman), John Stewart (Green Lantern), and Storm (Black Panther) are currently Heroic Support. Most Law Enforcement professionals count as Heroic Support, because if they get names and recurring roles they are usually badass enough to pull their weight (Jim Gordon, Cameron Chase, the O'Dares, Chyre and Morillo).

Note About Villains: Villains exist in their own hierarchy, though I would say that when a hero is turned into a villain, they would fall about here on the Good Guy Hierarchy of Superhero Comics, between Heroic and Civilian Support.

Civilian Support -- The lowest level of Character Status in Superhero Comics where you can actually have a name. Yes, some civilian supporting cast members are infinitely cool (Lois Lane, Alfred) but ultimately they are Civilian Support. It's a perfectly respectable position, for a civilian. For a hero, its the pits. And usually, when a hero loses their powers, this is where they end up (Mark Shaw in Manhunter, Mikaal Tomas in early Starman -- he was promoted to Heroic Support by the end) unless they have such impressive non-super abilities they can pull their weight like a member of the Batclan. While even Civilian Support can get a miniseries or even historically an ongoing (Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen), their entire storyline revolves around the Icon to which they are attached and their relationship to the Icon is announced in the book title. Everything about Heroic Support applies, except you don't get a costume and you aren't expected to pull your weight, which makes it all the more impressive when you do get to do something.

Background Hero -- You get to fight in the background. Pretty much every unnamed Green Lantern is on this level. If they were ever named, they are Professional Guest Stars (Former Backup Features, msot likely), Heroic Support (Green Lantern and Ion), or Team Players (in Green Lantern Corps)

Background Civilian -- "Look! Up in the Sky!"


  1. Nicely organized! TI hope these become common terms for easier discussion of character status.

  2. Any time and effort saved by the use of these clearer terms would be more than wasted by fanboys of every variety arguing endlessly over which category their personal favorites fall into.

  3. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, and Robin (Dick Grayson) are all Icons

    Wonder Woman is not an icon. Being iconic implies embodying a certain aspect or shtick (Batman is dark and driven, Spider-Man is the everyman, Ben Grimm is the lonely outsider, Superman is the square-jawed do-gooder, etc.) as well or better than anyone else. Not only is this not the case with Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman can't even hold onto the same shtick for more than a few years without being wildly revamped. It's important to point this out because it's the most consistently boneheaded mistake DC has made with Wonder Woman: she has a ton of name recognition by dint of being one of the oldest continually-published characters DC owns, but she isn't about anything because her title has never been allowed to develop an actual identity. DC needs to stop taking her "iconic" status for granted and start trying to treat her like an actual icon.

  4. *Looks at comment directly above*

    I guess you're right, Ryan.

  5. Moose -- Okay, in all seriousness, Wonder Woman fits the above criteria as Icon Status in that she's been a continuous headliner, she heads a family of characters if not a full franchise, she's on loads of merchandise, and she's had enough non-comics exposure that if you asked someone on the street to name Superheroes, odds are the first female one they mentioned would be Wonder Woman.

  6. Great list and great post! I think, though, there's a level missing for people like Ted Kord's Blue Beetle and Booster Gold who I don't think I'd call Headliners (even though I love both of those characters). In reality, these characters are kind of on the D list in terms of Superheroes. They're the ones that people pull out when all else fails and make funny books about them.

    And, as for Moose saying Wonder Woman isn't an icon, my eyes are popping out of my head as I say "WHAAAAAAATTTTT?!?!?!!?" I know Ragnell has stated what fits into her category of icon, but using Moose's own example, Wonder Woman is an emmisary, the embodiment of truth and love and women's rights. No matter how they might revamp her, she's always stood for those things and she's always represented women's rights.

    She's an icon to women and, for me, she's an icon for the gay community as well. Hell, she's an icon for everybody!

  7. It was MORE than a comment, it was it's OWN POST!


  8. Ragnell, if that's how you're defining "iconic," then yeah, I guess. But that isn't what "iconic" means. That's brand recognition. It's a good thing for Wonder Woman to have, and it demonstrates that she has the capacity to become iconic if someone actually bothered to put the time and energy into making her iconic. But as things stand she's a well-known costume, not a well-known character.

    Yes, if you asked someone on the street to identify Wonder Woman, they'd be able to pick her out from a lineup of action figures. But could they tell you what she does and why she does it? They could probably tell you Bruce Wayne dresses up as a bat to avenge his murdered parents, and that the Hulk turns into a monster when he gets mad, but I'm betting the proverbial man on the street doesn't know what Wonder Woman is about. And that's not surprising, since neither does DC Comics.

    Wonder Woman is an emmisary, the embodiment of truth and love and women's rights

    So says the blurb in the press packet, but somehow actual Wonder Woman stories never have her doing this. Instead they have her doing stuff like dressing up in a secret agent catsuit and punching out Dr. Psycho. Does fighting Giganta really make Diana the "embodiment of truth, love, and woman's rights"? I recognize what the goal is here, but it's just not happening. You might as well tell me that Firestorm is an iconic advocate of peaceful civil disobedience, or that Paste Pot Pete represents the perils of unchecked globalization. Saying it doesn't make it so.

  9. I'd quibble about Storm being 'heroic support' because, thank to the cartoon and movies, even my cheerleader sister and my sweet mother known who she is. I think once the average guy on the street knows who you are you get to be an icon, no matter what's going on in your own books.

    By the same reasoning I'd argue against guys like Iron Man and Thor being granted Icon status.

  10. I would argue that Robin is not an icon, but rather an headliner.
    since Robin is recognized as batman's sidekick not as an individual.
    if you put him as an icon you have to put Lois Lane, Mary Jane, aunt May and other well known support charcters as icons.

  11. But everyone knows who Robin is and what he does (especially the Dick Grayson Robin; most people, I think, aren't aware that Tim Drake and Jason Todd even exist). Robin embodies the idea of "the sidekick" more than any other character in comic books.

  12. So would this throw Jonah Hex onto the Headliner pile?

  13. Where would Sgt Rock sit on this list? I'd argue Icon, except for the fact that he has been way downplayed since the '80s. At one point in time, though, for a period of, what, 25-30 years? he was an Icon. People knew him.

    I think Vietnam helped kill that,though.

  14. Very interesting.


    Yep. That's all I've got...

  15. Ah, well, I guess Moose N Squirrel just skipped my link. I wrote an involved post about an actual meaning of Iconic from before we coopted it for pop culture.

    But I guess you were uninterested in it.

  16. "But everyone knows who Robin is and what he does (especially the Dick Grayson Robin; most people, I think, aren't aware that Tim Drake and Jason Todd even exist)."
    What I'm saying is that people know that Robin is Batman sidekick, not who Dick Grayson is, if you told someone that Tim Drake is Robin not Dick Grayson odds are that they will just disregard it as they forgot the name.
    if you try it with Superman for example you will be looked at as if your insane.
    which is why Superman is Iconic while Robin is a well known support charcter.

    "Robin embodies the idea of "the sidekick" more than any other character in comic books."
    and Lois Lane embodies the idea of the superhero's love intrest, it doesn't mean that she is iconic, both Lois and Robin are extensions of Superman/Batman if you remove the heroes they don't have a meaning.
    they can't stand on their own which is why they aren't iconic.

  17. What I'm saying is that people know that Robin is Batman sidekick, not who Dick Grayson is, if you told someone that Tim Drake is Robin not Dick Grayson odds are that they will just disregard it as they forgot the name.

    But that doesn't really matter. How many non-comic book readers can tell you Wonder Woman's name? What matters is whether they understand the concept, and they know that Robin is Batman's teen sidekick. Again, being an icon means being a symbol. People understand the concept Robin embodies without having to know the details of which particular Robin is under the mask.

    and Lois Lane embodies the idea of the superhero's love intrest, it doesn't mean that she is iconic

    But Lois Lane is iconic. She embodies the concept of the love interest better than any other comic book character. The fact that she's a supporting character doesn't affect her status as a symbol; more people can tell you what Lois Lane is about than can tell you what Wonder Woman's about. She certainly has more cultural recognition than a "headliner" like Firestorm.

    In part we're talking past each other, because Ragnell's hierarchy is basically ranked according to popularity within printed superhero comic books, while the language of "icon" implies much broader cultural impact, where characters who haven't had their own titles in decades (like Lois Lane) are more readily understood than characters who dominate whole companies (like Wolverine). A better label for that top tier might be "franchise character."

    And sinspired, you're taking the word "icon" far too literally. An "icon" doesn't simply mean an image or a set of images; it means or has come to mean an image which stands for something. My objection to Wonder Woman as an icon is that she's a recognizable image and nothing else; if she is a symbol, it's very unclear what she's meant to represent.

  18. Shade in STARMAN is kind of an odd "heroic support" character, in that he's enormously more powerful than the title character. I can think of two times in the first five or so trades that he needed to be rescued, and at least two times that he was key to an otherwise unachievable victory (including one total deus-ex-machina appearance). I guess needing rescue 50% of the time is a lot more than you would expect of a character who is enormously-more-powerful et cetera.