Who's the best superhero in the long, illustrious history of DC Comics? It's a tough, borderline impossible question to answer — but I'm going to try anyway. In the 79 years since "Action Comics #1" was published, thousands of heroes have graced the pages of DC. Compiling a list of just twenty characters to rank was tough, but also a lot of fun, and a reminder that nobody does it quite like Detective Comics.
A word about how this list was compiled: I decided that #DC characters who are not superheroes but are historically associated with them (like, say, butlers) would be eligible. I also included some anti-heroes or DC characters who haven't always been good, but excluded those who are best known for their villainy — the big bads of the DC universe will get their own list soon enough. And finally, this is all based on the comics, rather than being influenced by the countless DC movies, TV shows, video games and animated series.
Ready? Let's begin. And remember, you'll probably disagree with everything, and that's alright.
20. The Phantom Stranger
An almost intoxicating air of mystery orbits the Phantom Stranger. Created in 1952 and last seen in a little-loved New 52 run, DC's supernatural man of mystery began life exposing criminals who feigned supernatural abilities, before graduating to become a reluctant member of the Justice League for a time.
The Phantom Stranger makes the list because his entire existence is an enigma. He appears to be immortal and can travel to distant planets such as Apokolips in the blink of an eye. His eyes and upper face are always masked by the shadow of his hat. He has vast knowledge, possibly omniscience, but guides others rather than directly intervening in times of crisis. But who is he? Horribly underrated, the mythology around the Phantom Stranger deserves to be expanded in DC Rebirth.
19. Swamp Thing
You might not often hear Swamp Thing's name mentioned when people talk about DC's all-time greats, but a typically warped origin story from writer Alan Moore, who transformed him from a man-turned-monster to a straight-up beast, kickstarted the popularity of "The Saga of the Swamp Thing" in the '80s.
Often associated with Constantine (he once fathered the occult detective's child while possessing Constantine's body... don't ask), Swamp Thing would be a candidate for introduction in a future #DCEU movie, like the upcoming Dark Universe.
18. Lois Lane
Perhaps a controversial inclusion in this list, but it's hard to deny that, measured by impact on pop culture, Lois Lane is one of DC's top five characters of all time. I included her here because without Lois, there's really no Superman.
It's worth remembering that Lois, first introduced alongside Superman in "Action Comics #1" (1938), really paved the way for both DC and Marvel to develop strong female characters — even if her own solo series "Lois Lane, Girl Reporter", had a questionable title, what mattered was that she was solving crime alone. 80 years later, Lois remains one of DC's most iconic and most beloved characters, proving that endurance is sometimes the only power necessary.
Although he's one sixth of the team in DC's upcoming #JusticeLeague movie, Cyborg is best known as a member of the Teen Titans. Created in 1980, Victor Stone already has a strained relationship with his father when a Mother Box explodes at S.T.A.R. Labs, almost killing Vic. His dad saves him by fashioning the body of a cyborg out of the tech available to him, turning his son into a machine.
What's interesting is that Victor views being "saved" more as a lifelong punishment, his inhuman physique rendering him an outsider in society. Existential angst aside, Cyborg has all the usual superpowers — strength, speed, even flight — but most interesting are his white sound blaster, potent enough to break rock, and the highly useful connection he shares with Darkseid, courtesy of that Mother Box.
Rachel Roth, otherwise known as Raven, is just one in a long line of heroines and villainesses to wander through the pages of DC Comics looking like the kind of gothic goddess you wouldn't fuck with — which, as the hybrid daughter of a human and a demon, seems wholly appropriate in her case.
As an empath, Raven can interpret and manipulate the emotions of those around her. She can project her soul-self into the physical form of an actual raven, which can travel great distance and gifts her the skill of teleportation. Scandalously absent from live-action DC media until now, Raven will finally suit up in the upcoming Titans.
15. Alfred Pennyworth
Every billionaire needs staff, but few staff become quite such an integral part of their employers' lives as Alfred Pennyworth, the Englishman and former SAS man who raises Bruce Wayne after the infamous double murder of Martha and Thomas.
Alfred doesn't just make Batman's porridge — he equips the Batcave with tech more advanced than even the boardroom of Wayne Industries could imagine, bandages Bruce up when he comes back black and blue, again, and is capable of throwing a punch without dropping his gentlemanly facade, when strictly necessary.
He also enjoys gardening, but nobody's perfect, right?
14. Black Canary
Frequently drawn on the pages of DC Comics like a playboy bunny with a taste for S&M, there's much more to Dinah Lance than her fishnets. The daughter of a Gotham City detective, Dinah chose to fight crime in a different way — with only her martial arts skills and a glass-shattering sonic scream known as the Canary Cry.
Her on-off relationship with Oliver Queen has endured since Dinah's introduction in 1947, and the strength of that romance is evident even when they're not together — as in the current DC Rebirth continuity, which finds both alone and questioning what's missing from their lives. DC has a lot of headline female heroes, but few have as much heart as Black Canary. Isn't it time she had her moment on the big screen?
13. Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)
There aren't many characters who could feature in a list of DC's greatest superheroes multiple times, but Green Lantern can, and should. Hal Jordan, leader of the Green Lantern Corps, is pretty much the prototypical DC hero — strong, macho, unplagued by the existential angst that frequently pervades Batman and Superman stories.
Paradoxically, his uncomplicated personality is also the reason he's not the best Lantern of all. But even when Jordan lacks excitement, he's the kind of dependable hero the DC universe needs. And he can fly so, you know. He wins.
12. The Flash (Barry Allen)
Speed is, fundamentally, not the most thrilling superpower. It's kind of a novelty. So it's a huge testament to Barry Allen that the Flash's popularity has endured since his debut in 1956. In fact, thanks to the TV series, Barry has never been more popular. For DCEU fans, that creates a paradox — how much does the world need a second iteration of the character when Grant Gustin already does such a killer job on TV?
But while small-screen Barry has a tendency to get caught up in angst, Ezra Miller's version seems more energized and a whole lot funnier. The contrast of Barry's youth with the more wizened perspectives of Bruce and Diana is one of the reasons he works so well as a member of the Justice League. Here's hoping Zack Snyder's make-or-break movie captures that dynamic.
Questionable sexual and gender politics have reared their heads on the pages of DC Comics on various occasions over the years, and no character embodies the paradox of whether a female character can be considered feminist better than Barbara Gordon. To this date, the most defining moment in her history comes in The Killing Joke, when the Joker shoots her for the sole purpose of antagonizing Jim Gordon.
That near-fatal act leaves Barbara paralyzed, paving the way for a reinvention as the wheelchair-bound tech genius Oracle, whose involvement with the Birds of Prey both proves invaluable in saving lives and serves as a prolonged reminder that when women are de-powered in comics, often in ritualistic fashion, there's rarely a Batman-style speedy recover on the cards. Regardless, as Batgirl or Oracle, Barbara has proven herself an invaluable part of the crime-fighting fabric of Gotham City.
10. Martian Manhunter
"Give him more powers. No, it's not enough. Invisibility? Genius intellect, flight? It's not enough!" J'onn J'onnz, the alien from Mars better known as Martian Manhunter, is a prime example of a comic book writer throwing skill after skill at his creation until the final product is an insanely overpowered being who could destroy entire worlds between breakfast and lunch. That's not a criticism.
Just in case Martian Manhunter was deemed too infallible, the writers did make him vulnerable to fire, a minor concession in the grand scheme of things. A founding member of the Justice League in 1960, J'onnz is frequently voted one of the best superheroes of all-time, from DC or Marvel, and it's vaguely insulting that he still hasn't shown up in DC Rebirth. No disrespect to anyone else, but the most badass big green guy in comics deserves better.
It's a blessing and a curse to be mentored by Batman. The blessing is that everything you're taught about being a superhero is coming from a man who's mastered what that means, and done it without possessing any superpowers of his own (unless you count the billions in the bank). The curse is that he's Batman. You might be great, but you will never escape his shadow.
The beauty of Nightwing as a character is that he's been able to achieve exactly that. A martial artist with a particular skill for aerial combat, Dick Grayson is now almost as formidable as his old mentor, and arguably even more stylish while fighting crime. He's also widely considered DC's number one male sex symbol. Good for him!
8. Green Arrow
From the all-powerful to a man who saves his city with just a bow and arrow and the occasional use of his fists — fighting for justice while also finding time to run Queen Industries and maintain a loving relationship with Dinah Lance — Green Arrow is living proof that not every billionaire is a massive douchebag.
His brilliant sense of humor, Justice League membership card and presence in various iconic stories and visuals, not least his unforgettably aged-up, one-armed appearance in The Dark Knight Returns, have combined to make Oliver Queen one of the most beloved characters in the DC universe. With The CW's Arrow series approaching its natural end, surely it's time the archer made the leap to the big screen?
Defined above all by the ambiguity of her moral code, Selina Kyle is a petty thief who's not easily categorized. For a long time thought of as a member of the Gotham rogues gallery, the last 30 years have seen Catwoman viewed through the more forgiving lens of an anti-hero. Crucial to that reinvention is the development of her relationship (often sexual, never conventional) with Batman (in the superb 12-part story arc Hush, he breaks his own code by allowing Selina into the Batcave).
Frequently portrayed in TV and film, Catwoman's tongue-in-cheek sexuality and shameless bad girl behavior have made her an enduring favorite on the screen — as good as Anne Hathaway was in The Dark Knight Rises, though, nobody has topped Michelle Pfeiffer's deliciously feline portrayal in Batman Returns. Now, let's all take a moment to remember that time Catwoman and Batman had awkwardly chafetastic sex with their costumes on.
6. Red Hood (Jason Todd)
Jason Todd's short tenure as Robin has to be a contender for one of the most monumental screw-ups in DC history. As a replacement for Dick Grayson, the original Robin, Jason Todd always had the odds stacked against him, and fans experienced difficulty warming up to Robin 2.0. So in 1988, five years after his rocky introduction, DC decided to roll the dice, having Jason Todd brutally beaten by the Joker halfway through the four-issue "A Death In The Family" arc, and giving readers a 1-900 number to call to determine whether Todd should live or die.
That insane act of "interactive storytelling" went wrong when the "die" vote won by the slimmest of margins, cementing Jason's reputation as a terrible, reckless Robin who wasn't fit to walk in Dick Grayson's shoes.
But it's not Robin who's number six on this list.
Controversial as the cynical means of Robin's death was, it gave rise to an infinitely better character. Thanks to the convenient plot-rewinding mechanism DC like to call the Lazarus Pit, Todd was resurrected by Talia al Ghul and promptly regenerated into a character far bigger and bolder than his forgettable Robin. Now going by the name of Red Hood, Todd's rewired brain alchemy was channeled into a violent form of anti-heroism which allowed him to take on the likes of Black Mask (and his murderer, the Joker) without any of the restrictive morality Batman had imbued in him.
Put simply, Red Hood answers to nobody — which is precisely how Jason Todd escaped his notorious past to became one of DC's best superheroes.
5. Green Lantern (John Stewart)
Hal Jordan may be the dependable leader of the Green Lantern Corps, but contained within is somebody far more important. At the time of John Stewart's creation in 1971, the pages of DC Comics featured precisely zero black superheroes.
That Stewart endured while other black characters created in the '70s (such as Black Lightning) failed to ignite such a following speaks to the fact that the color of his skin has never been the defining aspect of his character. He's a great Lantern because, like Batman, he's a thinker, a tactician, somebody whose power lies not just in the ability to take flight or to fight for days, but in what's going on upstairs.
The real power is inside of him, which is why he's now the definitive Green Lantern.
4. John Constantine
Confession time: I love John Constantine. I love his aesthetic. I love that there's a large chunk of comic book readers who probably believe that England is nothing more than a series of graveyards stalked by a foul-mouthed chainsmoker in a trench coat, where it's always grim and it's always night. Nonetheless, Constantine is here because he's one of DC's greatest heroes.
There's nobody else even remotely comparable to Constantine. Even Marvel, who have an equivalent version of every DC hero, don't have an answer to the occult detective from Liverpool and leader of the Justice League Dark (unless you count Gambit, which you shouldn't). He has powers, varied and potent, but rarely uses them because he prefers to rely on his own speed of thought, manipulation, cunning and strategy. He's smarter than the enemy, he's smarter than you. He's Constantine.
The bigger your fame, the more haters you accumulate along the way. Superman has always had to deal with accusations of being too good, too pure, too powerful for a fight with a regular superhero to raise any eyebrows. But Kal-El, the alien from Krypton with a life on Earth and a questionable disguise nobody can see through, has never been fazed by criticism. He's here to do a job.
Superman is not of this Earth, but he made it his home, made its people his people. His bravery is unlimited, his pursuit of justice tireless. Of course he's pure, how could he not be? He represents a vision of America which could yet exist one day, in which everybody is equal and an immigrant can be welcomed as the people's ultimate hero. In that respect, he's more vital now than at any point in his 79-year history — and should the age of heroes ever come to an end, it's Superman, so inseparable from pop culture, whose popularity will endure.
2. Wonder Woman
So many stories can be broken down and traced back, at their roots, to Greek mythology. The Greeks had infinite gods and goddess, deities who represented every facet of life — hope and passion, wisdom and beauty, weather and warfare.
DC needed only one character to embody the best of humanity, and it dug deep into mythology to create Diana, Princess of Themyscira. By giving her an origin story free of the troubles which plague mankind — she was sculpted from clay, given life by Aphrodite, and raised on a peaceful, all-female paradise — DC ensured that its demigoddess could enter the world of man, both as a solo hero and a founding member of the Justice League, in possession of an unwavering humanity.
Her artefacts are impressive, her powers undeniable, her moment in the spotlight on the big screen well overdue, but it's Wonder Woman's strength of character which places her second on the list of DC's best superheroes of all time.
Really? Did you ever imagine it would be anybody else? Batman is the ultimate bridge between comic books and mainstream pop culture, the coolest superhero of all, and easily the most impossible to categorize.
He's a figure of Shakespearean tragedy, defined for his entire adolescence and adult life by the loss of his parents in comics' most iconic origin story. His deadpan sense of humor is often a more unexpected weapon than anything in his vast arsenal of billionaire tech. He's at turns romantic and a bag of sleaze. He's a mentor who gives his students everything they could ever need to become better than him. But they never do. He's the Batman.
And, of course, he has the greatest villains — no other superhero even comes close to possessing such a wild array of iconic antagonists. Bane, Catwoman, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Penguin, Two-Face, Ra's al Ghul — any of these alone would be any other hero's greatest foe, but in Batman's world, all play second fiddle to the Joker. That's a discussion for another day, but suffice to say, his gallery of rogues is the fuel that keeps Bruce Wayne going. That's what makes him DC's greatest hero of all.
Who do you think is DC's best superhero? How would you rearrange the list, and who should have featured? Sound off in the comments.