Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Favorite Marvel Heroes)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top 5 list and debate the merits therein.

Nick: It’s the Hard-Traveling Fanboys back again after yet another brief medical hiatus, this time due to a vicious tooth infection suffered by yours truly.

Greg: They’re going around this time of year.

Nick: When last we left you, we were talking about the events in comics  during the mid 2000s that led to each of us getting firmly back into comics. For me, my first foray into mainstream comics was the Marvel crossover event Civil War, and it made me a hardcore Marvel fanboy for the better part of five years.

Because of all that, we’re tackling our top 5 favorite Marvel heroes in this edition of Countdown. There are literally thousands to choose from, so it should make for an interesting discussion.

Greg: I admit to not being nearly as versed in the modern Marvel Universe as I should be, but I read Marvel books extensively as a kid and still try to keep up with current events.

Nick: With that, we’ll kick the list off with Greg’s number 5 Marvel hero.

Greg’s No. 5: The Hulk

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Nick: That’s right! The Immortal Hulk Hogan makes his debut in our column!

Oh wait … you mean this guy?

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Greg: Hurm. My first exposure to Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant was through syndicated reruns of the Bill Bixby TV series, which I loved. After that, I read some of Peter David’s early ’90s Hulk run, watched the sometimes-good cartoon, a terrible movie and a good one, and I kept up with events such as World War Hulk and Stay Angry in the comics. Something about the Jekyl-and-Hyde nature of Bruce Banner always appealed to me, and the show did a brilliant job exploring the humanity of the character. He’s certainly much more than just a big bruiser.

Though the similarity of his name to my then-favorite wrestler’s was probably a big factor why 4-year-old Greg first watched the show.

Nick: Very true, and it’s that human side of the character that I really find interesting, which is why I’m higher on Ang Lee’s Hulk movie than most. He’s a character that lends himself naturally to great action scenes, yet he’s capable of bringing some real drama to a story, much like the wrestler that undoubtedly served as the inspiration for his name, dude.

On a serious note, with Mark Ruffalo’s outstanding outing as Bruce Banner in The Avengers, the arrow certainly seems to be pointing up for the Jade Giant in terms of mainstream popularity.

Greg: Indeed so, and I am glad the character was treated so well in that movie. As much as I enjoyed David’s run, I’ve always liked the character best when the Hulk is a dumb, childlike ball of anger that is always in danger of erupting from Banner. Smart Hulk is OK, but in very small doses for me.

Nick: Also, when he’s not watered down with knockoff side characters with identical power sets (Red Hulk, Skaar, A-Bomb, the very existence of the new Hulk cartoon, etc.)

Greg: Hulk’s one of those great characters that works either in a solo title or in a team book. I always enjoy seeing his interactions with Thor, Spider-Man and Iron Man, in particular.

Nick: Anyway, on to my number 5.

Nick’s No. 5. Iron Man

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Even when I was a kid, before I ever got into comics, one of the books that I always flipped through whenever the local grocery store happened to have an issue in stock was Iron Man.

Greg: Iron Man’s popularity has certainly boomed in recent years to unprecedented levels thanks to the excellent movies.

Nick: First and foremost, as a kid, that red and yellow costume drew me in instantly because of the strong visual connection it brought to mind to my favorite wrestler at the time. However, years later, when I was finally able to get into comics fulltime and do a little background research, I discovered the Demon in a Bottle storyline, which deserves every bit of hype it gets.

Not only that, but as we said before, my first major crossover event was Civil War, and there was no character more fascinating during that event than Tony Stark. I love when characters are portrayed as borderline villains, yet have real understandable motivations for their actions, and Tony certainly had plenty of those during Civil War, which is why I was firmly in the pro-registration camp during that event.

Greg: He was definitely the key cog to Civil War, filling a role not unlike Batman’s role during Infinite Crisis. Why did you find yourself siding with and gravitating toward Tony?

Nick: If you go back and look at Civil War, the entire event came about as a result of a catastrophic event that saw hundreds of children killed. It was highly unexpected, much in the way that 9/11 was in real life. After 9/11, I was one of those people who didn’t have a huge issue with stuff like the Patriot Act because of the level of fear that was flowing through the public at the time. So, when Civil War kind of tapped that vein for its story, I understood Stark’s motivations and his desire to ensure that another Stamford disaster never happened, no matter the cost.

Now, they eventually did some things to hint that Tony was not completely in the dark as to the inner workings behind the Stamford disaster and my understanding is that they eventually explained away all of these interesting character decisions (imagine that — something didn’t stick), but it still made for fascinating reading at the time.

As you said, though, since then, Iron Man has enjoyed perhaps the biggest surge in popularity of any superhero ever. Ten years ago, the mainstream public had no idea who this guy was, yet he’s now one of the five most recognizable superheroes in the world. For all his faults, arrogance, struggles and redemption stories, Tony Stark takes the fifth spot on my list.

Greg’s No. 4: Colossus

Colossus

Nick: The first of what I’m sure will be a few X-Men entries on your list.

Greg: I’m referring to Piotr Rasputin, not the “Colossus of Boggo Road” Nathan Jones, of course.

Simply glorious.
Simply glorious.

Nick: Damn, now we have to go back and make a wrestler pun for Iron Man.

Greg: Hebnerize it into Arn Man? I dunno.

Nick: Aaaaaanyway, Colossus.

Greg: In any event, Colossus is indeed one of several X-Men on my list. I’ve always loved Piotr as a character, from the time I first played the X-Men arcade game. First of all, what a cool power! The ability to turn your skin to steel and throw large things is pretty cool. He had a cool look, and I found the fact that he WASN’T American to be fascinating as a child. Peter, as his pals call him, always had other people’s interests at heart, but family came first, something many can relate to.

His accent, cultural background and naivety led to wonderfully entertaining relationships with Wolverine, Nightcrawler and, especially, Kitty Pryde. Their relationship provided the backbone to many of the great X-Men arcs of the ’80s and ’90s.

Nick: His relationship with his sister, Ilyana, was well-handled over the years as well. They always made it clear that Piotr loved and was devoted to her.

Greg: Yes they did, and that was one of the reasons that I totally understood his defection to Magneto’s Acolytes. I loved Colossus so much that I was like “yeah, screw them!” when he abandoned the X-Men to join their nemesis for a while. Like Magneto, Colossus will do anything for his family and his people, and at that time, the other X-Men had kind of lost sight of that.

I’m hoping the upcoming film version of “Days of Future Past” will bring Piotr some of the attention his fellow X-Men have received in recent years.

Nick: Yeah, he wasn’t exactly given his proper screen time in The Last Stand, so hopefully Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise is a good omen for Colossus.

Nick’s No. 4: Ultimate Kitty Pryde

ultimatekitty

Greg: I’m quite familiar with the mainstream Kitty, but I know nothing of her Ultimate counterpart, so take it away!

Nick: There was some discussion between the two of us as to whether the Ultimate versions of characters should be counted as separate characters altogether, and we determined that if there was enough difference to allow each version to stand on its own merits, we’d allow it. Well, there’s a world of stuff to talk about in regards to Ultimate Kitty Pryde.

As I’ve written in the past, the Ultimate universe is still my first love that keeps calling to me even when I try to give it up time and time again. And while the Ultimate U for most of the first nine years of its existence was really all about Ultimate Peter Parker, it’s Kitty Pryde who I feel like has taken center stage since Peter’s tragic death.

The death of Ultimate Peter was a great story not so much for the death itself, but rather for the way writer Brian Michael Bendis did a great job of establishing how it truly affected almost every character in the universe on a deeply personal level, and perhaps none was affected more than Kitty.

Now, Greg, you haven’t read the later volumes of Ultimate Spidey, but I’ll say that as that book goes on, they bring in Kitty as a side character who develops a connection to Peter that leads to a lot of hurt feelings and animosity. Before all of that can be cleared up and Kitty can get any closure on the situation between the two, Peter dies. And that’s a really strong story to tell. Sometimes you don’t get closure in life. Sometimes you have to live knowing you’ll never get that one last chance to set things right. But, in the wake of Peter’s death, Kitty, much like new Spider-Man Miles Morales, is determined to honor Peter’s legacy and has become the de facto leader of the X-Men, a leadership role she never would have wanted or been capable of filling if not for her time with Peter.

Greg: Traditionally, Kitty serves as the reader’s eyes into the world around her, and as the conscience of the X-Men in many ways. Is that the case with Ultimate Kitty as well?

Nick: To answer your question, yes and no. In the Ultimate universe, we’re introduced to most of the X-Men after they have already been established. They’ve discovered their powers and are now largely learning how to deal with the public eye. Kitty, meanwhile, is the character who kind of provides the readers a view at what the entire process of accepting your mutation must be like, as she is portrayed as a normal, fairly popular girl who now must deal with being ostracized and ridiculed. But, through all of that, she never loses the will and the positivity that make her who she is. Really, she, more than any other character still going in the Ultimate U, is the one I’ll miss the most if (or more likely when) the universe ends in a few months.

Greg: So she’s been allowed to have genuine growth as a character.

Nick: I’d argue she’s grown more than any other X character in the Ultimate U, with perhaps the exception of Jean Grey.

Greg’s No. 3: Gambit

Gambit

Nick: Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit, of course.

A truly transcendent performance.
A truly transcendent performance.

Greg: Yes, the Cajun-Australian-Californian Gambit is definitely my favorite.

For real, though, Remy Lebeau came along right around the time I started reading comics. Thanks to the potent combination of Fox’s X-Men cartoon and Jim Lee’s stunning X-Men comic, Gambit quickly became one of my favorite characters in all of comics. As shallow as it is, I have to once again go back to one thing that initially drew me to him as a kid — he had one of the coolest character designs in comics.

From the trench coat to the unique armor, from the long hair to the Mankind-like gloves, the dude just oozed cool. He also had a really cool power that piqued the imaginations of my friends and I.

Nick: And that’s what a lot of critics of the character say — that he’s just a cool costume and a cool accent who throws playing cards. For such a popular character, he catches a lot of flak. How do you respond to these criticisms?

Greg: I think a lot of those complaints are levied against any character who is of the Clint Eastwood badass mold — Wolverine, Cable and even Batman. Not every superhero needs to be a Mary Sue or riddled with angst. There’s room for the loner character, and whether online comic hipsters want to admit it or not, a character’s look is vital to its success.

Plus, those complaints are only as true as the writers allow them to be. Gambit appealed to me because of his look, yes, and because of his accent, true, but also because his motivations were mysterious. His teammates were often unsure whether they could trust him, and sometimes that bled over into the reader as well. Frankly, that was more interesting than the good soldiers like Cyclops or Beast to me. And Gambit was a character who, like Colossus, would do anything for his real friends. He may not do the right thing just for the sake of it, but he would step in front of a train for the love of his life, Rogue. Like many great characters, he spends much of his time trying to atone for past mistakes, long past the point where it should be expected. When push comes to shove, the master thief is truly a superhero, and he’s proven it in his best stories. Unfortunately, some writers seem obsessed with the villainous aspect of the character.

Nick: Yeah, he and Angel seem to be two of the X-characters who writers have developed a villain obsession for.

Greg: Gambit may draw comparisons to many antihero types from the ’90s, but it’s important to remember that he was among the first. And unlike many that came after, he developed the strong personal ties that make any character great.

Nick’s No. 3: Wolverine

wolverineblue

It’s really hard at a certain point to talk about characters like Wolverine or Superman or Batman and give long, drawn-out reasons why they appeal to you. Certain characters have an almost universal appeal, and Wolverine is certainly one of those.

Greg: I certainly agree. So long as he’s not rabid.

Nick: His power set, his mysterious origins (I choose to ignore any pre-Weapon X origin that is presented as canon) and his surly attitude make him a character that it’s just hard not to like or not to be intrigued by.

Plus, like many kids of my generation, I was introduced to him through the outstanding ’90s animated series, and at that time, I thought the blue and yellow costume was just one of the coolest things that ever did exist. Flash forward a few years later to Hugh Jackman’s big screen portrayal, which has always been great, even if the movie around him hasn’t been.

Greg: How important was the ambiguous origin aspect to you when you first became a fan of the character?

Nick: Huge. To me, that is at least 40 percent of the character’s appeal. Having Wolverine without the motivation of discovering his past is like having Batman without his parents dying. Attempts to take that away are foolish, in my view.

Much like The Joker, the more left to the reader’s imagination, the better. After decades of build up, it’d be nigh impossible to create an origin that wasn’t thoroughly underwhelming, which Wolverine: Origin certainly was.

Greg: What is it about the character that keeps you (and others) hooked to this day, even through all the tinkering?

Nick: Honestly, it’s just that attitude. Wolverine has always been “cool,” even throughout the years when “cool” has had a shifting definition and meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If you were in a bad situation and you had to choose one guy to watch your back, it’d be hard to pick anyone other than Wolverine.

Greg: I’ll have a little more to say about our furry friend later on, but for now, I’ll just say “Ditto.”

Greg’s No. 2: Thor

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Nick: Hmmmm. An interesting place to put the God of Thunder, seeing as how…

thorbeard

Nick’s No. 2: Thor

Let’s just double team this one, shall we? I’ll let you lead off.

Greg: Thor is a character I wrote off for years. I’d walk right past any comic about the God of Thunder as a kid, and the Avengers always seemed lame to me. Boy has my mind changed in the last 10 years. Not only did I miss a lot of good stuff back then, but the character itself is just so fantastic and open to different interpretations.

It’s one of those great Jack Kirby-Stan Lee characters that A) stands the test of time and B) becomes richer and more fascinating as generations pass.

Nick: Yeah, I didn’t discover Thor until J. Michael Straczynski’s run after the end of Civil War. I gave it a shot mainly because I loved JMS’ Spider-Man stuff, and what I got was one of my favorite slow burn comic stories ever. In the years since, I’ve read tons of old Thor stuff, including the entire iconic Walt Simonson run.

As you said, though, it’s the different interpretations that make him such a great character. You can do traditional earth-based superhero stories, mythology-based stories, cosmic stories, straight up all-out action stories. Thor is the kind of character that just about any writer can find something fun to do with. Yet, there’s a challenge there as well. How do you make it seem as if a god is in peril at any point or actually stands a chance of losing?

And it’s there that the great Thor writers have made their mark by establishing that you may not be able to destroy the God of Thunder, but you can destroy the things he loves, namely Midgard, the Lady Sif, Jane Foster and his longtime Earth-based friends, The Avengers.

Greg: I actually read a few of your JMS Thor books, and they were intriguing, but it was actually The Ultimates that got me interested in Thor in the first place. I think it was the Norse-speak that won me over, and that opened me to other interpretations such as the film version and Jason Aaron’s outstanding Thor: God of Thunder series. I also love Thor’s interactions with his fellow heroes and their villains. Whether he’s written as the god in unfamiliar surroundings or the more well-adjusted superhero, he never fails to be interesting. As is a theme in these Marvel characters, he works great in a team environment or on his own battling cosmic and mythological threats..

Nick: Much like Superman over at DC, Thor is drawn to Earth and humanity as a whole, but unlike Superman, he’s never quite understood them or wanted to be one of them. Yet, the people of Earth will always hold a special place in the heart of the God of Thunder. Greg, what are your feelings on Thor and his connection to Earth?

Greg: I love how Thor is truly an outsider on Earth. He loves its people (for the most part) but doesn’t really understand its customs completely. Depending on the interpretation, I love Thor attempting to understand Earth as a foreign exchange student would try to grasp American customs.

Nick: Also, I try not to instantly place ongoing works on the list of greatest runs ever, but Jason Aaron’s Thor: God of Thunder is the strongest 12 issues of any Thor book I’ve ever read. Seriously, I’ll take those first 12 issues over any 12-issue run by any other writer who’s ever taken on the character. It’s THAT good, and should be read by any and all comic book fans.

ThorGOT

Greg: Though I haven’t read nearly as many Thor comics as you have, I can say it’s the best Marvel series I’ve read in many years. I love everything about it thus far, at least from the six issues I’ve read.

Nick: Issue 12, in particular, is one of the best one-shot issues I’ve ever read. It rolls up everything great about the character and his mentality into one phenomenal story that truly shows what it must be like to be a god, both in a good way and some of the most heartbreaking ways.

But, we’ve gushed over the Odinson enough. Let’s move on to your number 1 choice, and I have a feeling I know who it is…

Greg’s No. 1: Wolverine

wolverinejimlee

Nick: I’ve said my piece on the greatest of all the X-Men, so I’ll let you take the stage solo on this one.

Greg: While I’d already been exposed to the character prior to the animated series, my experience was similar to yours. It was that show that really made me a diehard fan of the Ol’ Canucklehead. But at the same time, I was discovering the wonderful world of comics, and he was just as intriguing, if not moreso, inside those pages.

With Marvel, I’ve always gravitated towards the mysterious loner types, but Logan goes beyond the stereotypes. No character in all of superhero comics has more interesting characteristics than Wolverine. On one hand, he’s a feral, savage creature inside and has to constantly battle to suppress that side of his personality. But on the other, he’s a true modern Ronin, and he has a nobler spirit than many of the more obvious superheroes that surround him. He won’t bat an eye at beheading a bad guy, but he has a code of honor he’ll break for nobody.

The nature of his powers means he’ll never be able to find true permanent happiness, because everyone he loves will die before him. While he has more luck with the ladies than most of us, it never ends well for him.

Most of the great X-Men stories have him either as the centerpiece or, at least, heavily involved. So many iconic moments in the X-verse focus on Wolverine, from the brawl with the Hellfire Club to the final death of Jean Grey and the removal of his adamantium.

Moreso than nearly any other character, I find myself rooting for Logan and understanding his viewpoint. In a weird way, he inspires me more than Captain America or Spider-Man ever could. And like you, I choose to ignore his pre-Weapon X origins.

Nick’s No. 1: Ultimate Spider-Man

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This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been reading the column, but I’ll never pass up an opportunity to sing the praises of Ultimate Peter and the work that Brian Michael Bendis did with the character and the universe for a decade.

Greg: In a move certain to cause controversy, the mainstream Peter Parker appeared on neither of our lists (though he narrowly missed mine).

Nick: As I’ve said before, Ultimate Peter is perhaps the most relatable character I’ve ever read in any work of fiction. His journey through high school was certainly one I understood, even if I never had the trouble of deciding between two ultra-hot girls while also finding time to swing via rooftop.

But it’s Peter’s never wavering sense of morality and his sense of duty to the memory of his Uncle Ben that always drew me in, And yes, I know those elements are present in 616 Peter as well, but they were never presented in a fashion quite like Bendis presented them in the early 2000s. The Ultimate Universe revolved around Peter, and we got to see him grow into a hero that was undoubtedly the universe’s finest. The tragedy of his story is that as he was finally nearing his goal of standing alongside the likes of Iron Man and Captain America, he lost his life. And he lost it doing the one thing he had always promised he’d do — saving the lives of the people he loved.

Greg: What makes that particular version of Peter different from his mainstream counterpart? It seems their journeys share many similarities.

Nick: Honestly, Ultimate Peter and 616 Peter are pretty similar, but if I had to give the biggest difference, it’s just the level of maturity and the relatability of Ultimate Peter. Whereas 616 Peter understands the danger he puts not only himself but his family in by doing the things he does, Bendis gave us an Ultimate Peter that had to learn those lessons the hard way. And without 50 years of backstory weighing the reader down, we got to see Peter grow, learn and ultimately become better as a result of his struggles.

Greg: I think that might be a key — Ultimate Peter was allowed to develop without being dragged down by events surrounding him, and without the albatross of rotating creative teams.

Also, while I’ve only read the earliest issues, Ultimate Peter is every bit as relatable to the youth of the early 2000s as the original Peter was for ’60s teens. And, like all the other great Marvel characters on this list, he has all these wonderful relationships that strengthen not only the characters involved but the universe as a whole.

Nick: YES.

Ultimate Peter’s strength as a character isn’t all about him. It’s about Mary Jane, Gwen Stacy, Aunt May…. hell, even Flash Thompson.

The ladies in Ultimate Peter's life.
The ladies in Ultimate Peter’s life.

Greg: Just like Wolverine with Mariko, Yukio, Cyclops, Jean, Xavier, Jubilee and even 616 Spidey.

Nick: And ultimately, it’s about the legacy he left behind. The example he provided to all the heroes of the Ultimate U, even those who were considered to be the universe’s finest.

But again, the greatest thing about the character is that we grew with him. We were there every step of the way. Readers who were there for that decade of stories didn’t have to look at Wikipedia to know the key moments of the character’s history — we lived through them with Peter. Through all the ups and downs, we grew to feel like we knew Peter on a personal level. He’s an unlikely choice, but he’ll always be number 1 for me in the Marvel line of books.

Well, that about ties a bow on this edition of Countdown. It was probably the broadest topic we’ve covered so far, so there’s plenty of room for other opinions. Got a different top 5? Hit us up on the PTB Facebook page, or at either of our Twitter accounts. Mine’s @nickduke87, and Greg’s is….

Greg: @gphillips8652. And for those averse to social networking, there’s always our PTBN email accounts. You never know when your responses might show up in a future column!

Nick: Oh yeah, the ancient form of communication known as email! Anyway, we’ll be back sometime in the next week, as we’re making up for lost time since we missed last week’s column.

Next time out, we’ll be taking a look at the first volume of Starman in the latest edition of The Longbook Hunters. And, don’t forget that the second Thursday of October will feature a new edition of Countdown. Thanks for reading!

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.