Fourteen Top Costumed Characters
The Costumed Hero
Costumed heroes and villains have been part of our fantasy lives for well over a century. Picking our fourteen worthy of special honor from the rest was not easy.
I have based my fourteen on heroes that have either spawned other heroes or who have been around so long they have become household names.
Very few reader, for example, wouldn't know about Superman, the Hulk or Tarzan. In terms of female characters most people would know of Cat Woman, Modesty Blaise, and Wonder Woman.
In some instances the villains also require some recognition and there have been costumed characters such as Cat Woman who have, interestingly enough, fallen into the category of sometime hero and sometime villain.
It was once theorized by Australian writer Don Boyd that the tights and cape often associated with costumed heroes has its origins in the colorful costumes worn by American wrestlers and boxers in the 1920s and 1930s.
Certainly some of the early creators, such as Lee Falk, are known to of had an interest in such sports. The early movie serials with their cliffhanger endings, such as The Perils of Pauline, also had their influence.
The masks worn by the costumed hero seem strange in that often they don't seem to hide enough of the face to do much good. Then there is the reverse spin where Superman, for example, does not wear a mask at all but, in his identity as Clark Kent, reporter, dons a pair of classes.
Is it so difficult to see Superman under Clark Kent's glasses? Apparently in the comic book world this is definitely so.
Wonder Woman, likewise, cannot be detected posing as Diana Prince when Diana has her glasses on. All this must seem very odd to newcomers to the comic book scene. It was a running joke in the television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
The Ghost Who Walks plus the Warrior in the Loincloth
1. THE PHANTOM
Created in the 1930s by Lee Falk as a comic strip hero, The Phantom has managed to survive the great down turn in newspaper daily and weekend adventure strips by moving into other entertainment fields.
In Australia Frew have been publishing The Phantom as a comic book character since the 1940s. The Phantom has also been successfully published in Italy and Scandinavia.
The 'ghost who walks, man who cannot die' is a fists and guns blazing, old fashioned swashbuckler based in part upon Tarzan and also the earlier movie serials with cliffhanger endings.
According to Lee Falk, for over 400 years a masked man (actually the original and his descendants) have ruled over a rather distant and hard to get to jungle as The Phantom. He and his descendants have also fought against piracy and evil in general for over 400 years.
Strangely enough, today The Phantom is more popular in Australia, Scandinavia and New Zealand than in America where he first came into existence.
Arguably, The Phantom stories and art coming out of Scandinavia are superior to The Phantom material originating in the USA. There have been a couple of Phantom stories set in Australia and Australian artists and writers have been involved from time to time in the writing of the adventures of The Phantom.
Outside of comic strips and comic books, The Phantom has appeared in one movie serial and one motion picture. He has also appeared in paperback novels and in cartoon television shows.
Edgar rice Burroughs' Tarzan started off in All-Story magazine, one of the first pulps. Then the novels came out and the comic strips. An English boy alone in an African wilderness grows up with the apes, becoming a force to be reckoned with. There have been numerous motion pictures and comic books. There was even a television series, an two animated features plus an adhesive named Tarzan's Grip.
Armed and Dangerous
Females have a special place in terms of both costumed heroics and costumed villainy.
It is pretty obvious that Diana Rigg added color and excitement to the British television show, The Avengers, with her portrayal of Emma Peel. Where her co-star Patrick Macnee as John Steed was rather conservative and very British, she was out there modern or perhaps we should say Mod.
The costumes Rigg wore for the show were very sleek and undeniably 'with it'. Slinky, feline and feminine sum up Emma rather nicely. Both Rigg and Macnee complimented each other in what they did and, as the show got more and more bizarre, it was obvious to viewers they were having more and more fun with what they were doing and inviting the viewer to join them.
3. Modesty Blaise
Modesty blaise, a rather saucy British comic strip of the 'sixties, made sure the 'sixties did, in fact, swing. She was beautiful, clever and very much liberated and her own person. Like The Saint, her history was rather spotted and only the reader knew for sure she was, in any mission, on the right side. There was a Modesty Blaise movie that came out in 1966. It is best described as an enjoyable outing that had its faults script wise but happens to still be worth watching on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Arguably, Modesty always looked best in shiny, skin hugging black.
In the Japanese television show, The Samurai, the occasional female ninja appeared. In the Japanese television show, Phantom Agents, a feisty female ninja who could hold her own in a fight but every week was admonished for using a gun instead of some less noisy weapon appeared regularly. All in black, she was easy on the eyes.
4. Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman started her run in the 1940s when her creator, William Marston, decided there weren't any female superheroes around that young women could connect with.
Strangely enough, over the years Wonder Woman has proven to be more popular among male readers than female. This may have something to do with her great physique and skimpy outfit. Possessed of amazing strength and a lasso that compels people to tell the truth, she has graced many a comic book cover.
In the 1970s, she was played by Lynda Carter who turned out to be just the right person to do a really good job in the hit series Wonder Woman. There's talk of a new live action Wonder Woman television series coming out in the near future.
All About Style
Invented as a foe for Batman in the 1940s, Catwoman has been many things. She's also had many costumes, most if not all of them sleek.
It seems that every decade or so an artist comes along who feels its about time Catwoman had a new look. Regardless, she has always been feminine, feline and dangerous.
There have been times when Catwoman has played the costumed heroine, even the hero's aid or part of a team of super heroines, but she is best at being a very crafty thief with a soul.
Certainly there have been times when Batman has found himself perplexed as to what to do with her, for her and/or about her. And there have certainly been times when Catwoman has luxuriated in having Batman totally confused.
Julie Numar no doubt enjoyed her stint on the Batman television series as Catwoman. Her claws were sharp and she tended to play with Batman the way a cat does with a ball of twine. She also tended to find Batman's desire to reform her rather amusing.
Eartha Kitt also played Catwoman to good affect. She is probably best known for her role in Up the Chastity Belt (1971) or her role on Eric the Viking (1989).
Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry played movie versions of comicdom's favorite feline giving the role heart.
Michelle Pfeiffer had to learn how to use and control the whip in order to give her Catwoman justice.
Despite Yvonne Craig's charming performance as Batgirl in Batman, Catwoman roped in more fans. There must be something about a cheeky, irrepressiable, not likely to reform any day now bad gal that get to people.
To be able to Fly
The Ability to Fly
Not all costumed heroes have had the ability to fly without mechanical aid. Not all costumed heroes that have the power of flight started off that way.
Certainly the two that come readily to mind when it comes to artificial flight but with style are D. C. comics Hawkman and Hawkgirl (Hawkwoman nowadays). Law enforcement agents from another planet, they came to earth to study our methodology when it comes to law enforcement and to generally help out. Many of the early adventures of this duo are not only unique in the way they are able to use their artificial wings but their use of antique earth weapons against criminals and super villains.
Angel of the X-Men is a Marvel comics mutant with genuine wings who came into existence in the 1960s. He was, in fact, one of the original X-Men. He has been in many comic books and one motion picture.
Superman began his run in the 1930s as a comic book hero. It is said that he was the first of the genuine superheroes.
Over the decades he has been more popular on radio, in movie serials and movies and on television than in the comic books. In the beginning Superman didn't have the power of flight but could leap tall buildings at a single bound instead.
In the beginning Superman was literally the man of steel but, by the early 1940s he was pretty much invulnerable to conventional weapons.
Weaknesses for Superman had to be created to make the stories more interesting to the reader. Thus kryptonite came about.
In the 1970s it was possible to buy green kryptonite to keep out of the clutches of the bad guys and also away from Superman. In real terms this was like collecting pet rocks or, if you were a Star Trek fan, toy Tribbles. In any event, it was all in good fun.
Superman is also weak under a red rather than a yellow sun and, if he remains away from a yellow sun for too long, this may also weaken him.
Superman's final major weakness that took a while to surface is that he really doesn't have any defense against magic.
Dark Avengers Abound in the Comics
Not all costumed heroes got a great start in life. Bruce Wayne's parents, for example, were gunned down by a robber in front of him when he was just a lad. This made Bruce want revenge on the criminals of the fictional Gotham City and revenge on the criminal who had done the evil deed in particular.
Bruce became The Batman. He did eventually find the killer and he did deal with him. The boy who came to partner him as Robin also had his parents killed by criminals and they, too, were dealt with.
Wolverine was experimented on and given a super strong metal skeleton which included claws. Since as a mutant he had extraordinary healing powers he was able to survive what was done to him but the pain was great. It changed him in mind as well as body.
8. The Submariner
Prince Namor, the Submariner was born half human and half Atlantian.
Able to breathe under water and fly through the air, he was anything but earth bound. When surface dwellers attacked under water Atlantis and other under water cities, this incensed Namor to act against the surface dwellers. Since he had incredible strength he posed quite a threat.
During World War 2 he was told that the Nazis and the Japanese were mainly responsible for the undersea devastation and so he came to fight for the USA as well as his own under water people. In the '60s Namor, the Submariner became the Marvel superhero closely connected with issues such as conservation and the need to protect the oceans from over use.
Protector of Gotham City
9. THE BATMAN
Created in the 1930s, The Batman started off as a rather violent caped crusader. He thought nothing of machine-gunning gangsters. Then Robin arrived on the scene and The Batman's adventures became somewhat less brutal and his dealings with criminals less homicidal.
When the comics code authority came into power the adventures had to be toned down even more for the comics to pass inspection. By the early 1960s very few readers cared about Batman. It took the rather offbeat and whimsical Batman television series to revive interest.
By the mid-1970s, the comics code had weakened enough for The Batman to become more aggressive in his actions and his place of business, Gotham City, to become darker, more sinister. During Frank Miller's stint on The Batman the caped crusader became rather a grim night dweller and Gotham City a very gothic and troubled place to dwell.
The Batman's most colorful foes include The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin, Two-Face and, of course, Catwoman.
The Batman has appeared in numerous comic books, paper back novels, at least two movie serials, movies, and television shows.
See the rise of the Gotham bad guys in the new TV show Gotham.
Originally vampires, European style, were generally female. That changed in the 19th Century.
For a very long time the undead have graced our screens. Just when you think they really are down and out they manage to make a successful comeback.
Likewise, vampire slayers such as Van Helsing and Buffy are hard to put down. If they leave the screen it is only to appear in paperback novels and in comic books.
Nosferatu may have been the first on screen vampire but Dracula is the best known followed, no doubt, by Spike and Angel.
The Night to Dawn magazine, put out by Barbara Custer (USA), deals with creatures that go bump in the night including poltergeist, ghouls, walking mummies and, yes, vampires.
For wandering spirits, werewolves and, yes, vampire action check out my novels Disco Evil and Ghost Dance.
Since the 19th Century novel by Bram Stoker that launched him came out, Dracula has been with us in printed form, on the stage, the screen and in various comic books.
Usually dressed in 19th Century gentleman's garb with opera cape, he has been anything but unrecognizable. Universal Pictures (USA) did their thing with him then Hammer (U.K.) took over.
In the 1970s, Gene Colan (artist) and Marv Wolfman (writer) made Marvel's Tomb of Dracula comic book series a real winner. Here Dracula was always the blood sucker prince but not always the lead bad guy. Sometimes he had to join forces with those hunting him in order to destroy a greater evil that was endangering them all.
Dracula still makes the occasional television or movie appearance and there is always a novelist or comic book maker keen to make use of his services.
Tampering with Nature
Reinventing the Werewolf
Near the tail end of the 19th Century, Robert Louis Stevenson created Mr. Hyde. He was in essence the evil that lurked inside the genteel Doctor Jekll only given form and substance.
Doctor Jekyll wanted to rid humanity of evil and make humans angels on earth. He experimented on himself but, instead of becoming an angel with no evil intent or desire remaining, things went terribly wrong and he became a force for evil. Simple malicious desires emerged but also sexual wants that a proper 19th Century British gentleman tended to keep a very tight lid on.
For quite a long time, fiction man into fictional beast occurred through supernatural means. For Stevenson's Doctor Jekll, the the transformation happened through a unique chemical cocktail.
Now very few readers in late 19th Century England were willing to believe in the possibility of evil in a bottle or beaker. They could, however, suspend their disbelief with the knowledge that certain drugs could and did affect the brain. Doctor Jekyll became a convincing addict to his evil concoction because Stevenson knew first hand about addictions.
In the 1960s, Stan Lee thought of man into monster due to radiation as an up to date take on both the werewolf and also Stevenson's Doctor Jekll into Mr. Hyde.
In the D.C. comics universe, a battling lawyer became demented Two-Face thanks to acid being thrown in his face. It was thus that Gotham City lost a good mouth-piece and The Batman gained one of his deadliest foes.
The Hulking Superhero!
11. The Incredible Hulk
In the 1960s, Stan Lee writer and Jack Kirby artist wanted to create a creature that was reminiscent of their earlier monster run but could fit into the then developing Marvel universe of superheroes and villains.
Stan Lee came up with the Hulk, a creature that came about through the strange whims of the atom.
Originally, Doctor Robert Bruce Banner, a scientist, was accidentally exposed to the radiation from a gamma bomb explosion and, during a full moon, changed into a rampaging night creature.
The Hulk was meant to be gray but, as it turned out, green at the time was an easier color to maintain. The first Hulk comic book was short lived. When the Hulk was brought back, it was decided that the change from Banner to Hulk should either occur due to more exposure to gamma rays or when Banner is upset. A change brought on by emotion was good for both artist and reader.
In the TV series, how banner first became the Hulk was altered and his first name was changed to David.
Not all the movies made about the Hulk have been winners. There was one that dealt with how Banner first became a monster in such a convoluted way that most viewers were fast asleep by the time the transformation occurred and the action began. This was a pity because the lead actor was Eric Bana, an Australian with talent who definitely deserved a better script to work with and a director who understood the meaning of the word pace.
It should be noted here that only in the world of Marvel are there gamma bombs. Hence it is perfectly all right and quite reasonable for a fictional man to be bombarded by high concentrations of gamma rays from the explosion of such a bomb and thus become a creature not altogether human. It is, after all, up to the creator of a fictional atomic style bomb to dictate what the bomb is capable of doing.
In the '60s and '70s, the Hulk was Marvel's answer to D.Cs' Superman. The Hulk couldn't fly but he could leap great distances. As he got angrier the Hulk got stronger. Whereas kryptonite was a real problem for Superman, the Hulk's major weakness was his clouded brain. He could easily be conned by bad guys but, once he understood he'd been conned, his revenge could be awesome.
So what was the Hulk's costume? In the '60s and '70s in the comics, it was usually a torn pair of purple pants. Why purple? Possibly Jack Kirby and the artists who came after him thought purple worked best with the Hulk's green skin.
THE LITTLE GREY CELLS RULE!
The brain Trust
There's something to be said for the power of the mind. Certainly there have been heroes whose knowledge of the mystic arts or just plain slight of hand have won the day. The examples that come readily to mind are Lee Falk's Mandrake the magician and Stan Lee's Doctor Strange.
In terms of mutants with high IQs, there's Charles Xavier from the X-Men and the ill-fated Marvel Girl/Phoenix.
Detectives seem to crop up every now and then with noticeable eccentricities in wardrobe as well as methodology. Hercule Poirot with his trade mark waxed moustache, for example, or Columbo with his ratty looking cigar and slovenly coat.
Past gumshoes of note that are colorful include The Thin Man, Charlie Chan, Blackie Boston, The Saint, The Baron, Doc Savage, Tin Tin, and Johnny Quest. It might be possible to throw in Asterix but maybe that's going too far.
Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel must rate as a brain bordering on genius. He certainly masterminded more than his fair share of escapes from the guillotine during a time in their history when the French peasantry had gone mad with blood lust. A fictional and somewhat romantic character, the Scarlet Pimpernel did his best work while in disguise.
The Man of Bronze
12. DOC SAVAGE
Being an expert in every field of human endeavor, Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, started his fictional life as a pulp magazine hero adventurer. It was the '30s and mobsters were getting into new electronic devices to foil the authorities. Hell, some of the more ambitious among them even had plans for world conquest.
Doc was only ever as strong as a man can be with the right training and physical exercise. In no other sense was he a superman though the crims and crackpots he went up against might strongly argue against such a view. He got his money from patenting inventions and from a gold mine he owned.
From the 1930s right through the '40s Doc managed to accrue a submarine, a helicopter (not hid name for it) and a penthouse suite with all sorts of electronic protective devices. Based in New York, Doc Savage and his men could and did go anywhere in the world on various missions.
Doc's magazine came to an end in 1949 but this was not the end of him. In the 1960s his old adventures were packaged into paperbacks with excellent and rather dynamic covers. On the covers of these paperbacks he was often depicted with torn shirt, skull cap and skin and eyes the color of bronze.
In the '70s Marvel comics put forward Doc Savage as a comic book character. This had been done in the 1940s but not with this much style and certainly not with such a great sense of nostalgia.
Later on D. C. comics took their turn at depicting Doc and they also did a grand job though they dumped the nostalgia angle. There were new writers in new Doc Savage novels in the 1980s and '90s. There was a Doc Savage movie made in 1975 but it wasn't very good. Doc Savage was also, for a time a radio personality. It has been a while now since anyone has done anything with Doc and his comrades but you never know what the future may hold.
Captain America fought the Nazis in World War Two
13. CAPTAIN AMERICA
A young Steve Rogers who is a 4F reject is experimented on by the US army. He is given the super soldier serum and becomes as strong as a man can be. Later on, due to the masked villain Viper's poison reacting wildly with the super soldier serum, Steve Rogers becomes a true superhero.
Steve Rogers, as Captain America, fought the Nazis and the Japs during WW2. Due to a rather strange accident he ended up suspended in ice to be revived in the swinging sixties. It was in the '70s that Captain America fought the Viper and had his strength enhanced.
The good captain's best known foes are the Red Skull, the forces of Hydra and the forces of A. I. M (Advanced Idea Mechanics). Then there's Baron Zemo and Batrok the leaper to consider. Possibly the Superadaptoid came closest to ending the captain's life though the Red Skull could have done it easily when he had his hands on the cosmic cube. He failed because he, quite frankly, gloated too much when he should have simply got on with it.
During WW2 Captain America fought alongside army mascot Bucky Barnes. In the '60s he teamed up with the Mighty Avengers, a group of superheroes.
Over the decades stories written about Captain America have touched upon the meaning of patriotism and honor in various time periods.
By the late 1960s and early '70s, anti-war feeling toward the Vietnam War had made its way into the pages of Captain America's comic book. Could someone who would not take up arms and fight in a war he did not believe in still have courage?
How was America changing during the era of the Vietnam War and beyond and was it change for the right reasons? Could Captain America continue to represent in his way a highly diversified nation that was and is becoming even more diversified?
Captain America's original shield was not round. Legend has it that Stan Lee came up with the idea of the round shield that could be expertly thrown and would return to its owner. Anyway, from shield to tiny wings on the sides of his face mask to his red gloves and boots it cannot be argued that the good captain wasn't and isn't extremely colorful. He was and is red, white and blue with stripes. What could be more American?
Created by Stan Lee in the swinging sixties, Spider-man is very much a product of that decade. A lonely science student is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains superpowers. One of his powers is the ability to swing from roof top to roof top on his own webs.
In the comic books, Peter Parker (Spider-man) invents his web-shooters. In the latest batch of movies, however, the webs are part of his super abilities.
Over the decades, Spider-man has appeared in many comic books and has even appeared in a Japanese comic book salute.
On thing about Spider-man's costume is that his face is completely hidden. He can out of the eye pieces but no one can see in. This is sensible and at the same time highly unusual.
I have limited the number of costumed characters to what I felt I could successfully handle. I have taken you, the reader, from the early years of the 20th Century to the present in terms of costumed cut-ups. I have also touched upon ideas and characters in the 19th Century that still have some relevancy for today. I hope you have enjoyed the journey.
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