Top 10 Comic Book Anti-Heroes (Marvel & DC)

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I have been fascinated with the concept of antiheroes since I was ten years old and Han Solo shot first.  Good guys are not supposed to do bad things, good guys are supposed to be just and noble and always do what is right, yet Han Solo far and away was the much cooler character than Luke Skywalker.

According to dictionary.com, an antihero is “characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities, such as idealism or courage”.  What makes them so popular, I think, is they are more relatable than most heroes.  Like us the antihero is flawed, so we can identify with them, even sympathize with them.

But mostly it is because we like seeing them be bad and get away with it.

I composed the list below by factoring in several elements: character longevity, popularity, success in crossing over into other mediums, inspiration on other characters, and a certain “cool” factor.  It is, of course, highly subjective.

(Editor’s Note: We have also compiled a Independent Comic Anti-Hero list)

10. Deadpool

Cancer victim Wade Wilson volunteered for the Weapon X program to gain a healing factor to cure his cancer.  Thing was, the healing factor caused his cancer to create tumorous growths all over his body, making him look hideous.  It also made him nuts.  He first appeared as a villain in the pages of Rob Liefeld‘s New Mutants and right off the bat he was seen for what he was: a rip off of DC Comics‘ Deathstroke, The Terminator.

Love him or hate him, the “merc with a mouth” has proven to have legs.  Marvel comics has milked the one note villain for all he is worth and just when you think the writers have run out of ways to use him, someone else comes along with a fresh twist to keep the money rolling in.

9. Cat Woman

She started off as a member of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, whose only remarkable feature was her gender. Yet, over the years Selina’s motivations have grown from simple cat-inspired crimes to something more complex, graduating from villain to vigilante and antihero due in no small part to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One story (written at a time before Frank Miller descended into self parody) where her origin was changed from an amnesiac to a prostitute inspired by Batman’s “gimmick”.  Selina’s popularity has further grown through a successful solo series run.  Even with the end of her series she is still a popular character, appearing in such DC Comics as Salvation Run, Detective and most recently, Gotham City Sirens.  Cat Woman plays at both being the hero and the villain, alternating between a desire to do good, an annoying sense of responsibility, and cheap thrills… (Artist: Darwyn Cooke.)

8. Wolverine

He is the best he is at what he does, if what you mean by what he does is sell comics.  Wolverine is Marvel‘s cash cow, a mutant killing machine that racks up an implausibly high body count wherever he goes.  He would rank higher on this list, except Wolverine is too much the team player.  Seriously, he is on at least two X-Men teams as well as The Avengers, not to mention the guest appearance of the week.  Add to that his tendency to take teenage girls under his wing and this Wolverine is practically…domesticated… (Image: comicvine.com.)

7. The Incredible Hulk

The green one, I mean…who is sometimes gray…

Doc Bruce Banner was belted by gamma rays and thus his monstrous alter ego was born, a creature formed as much by his subconscious fears and rage as he was by a world intent on destroying him.  The Hulk has played many roles over the years: rampaging monster, full-fledged superhero, Las Vegas mob enforcer, revolutionary on an alien world, and later a global threat intent on revenge against the Illuminati he felt destroyed his planet and wife.  The Hulk in all his incarnations has proven popular enough to have sustained a pretty consistent run in comics from his first appearance in Tales to Astonish back in ’64.  Not bad for a guy who spent quite a few years saying little more than “Hulk Smash!”

6. The Sub Mariner

Namor, The Sub Mariner first appeared in the spring of ’39 and proved to be a complex character in a four color world and may very well be the first comic book antihero, setting the standard for complex villains such as Magneto, for example.  The Sub Mariner is every bit as interesting today as he was when he first fought the original Human Torch, and he has maintained his shades-of-gray status by being both a member of Iron Man and Norman Osborn’s Illuminati organizations.

5. John Constantine

A man who faces demons, both inner and real, Constantine has faced horrors that would drive most men mad (and in John’s case actually has on at least one occasion).  Just knowing John Constantine is likely to get you killed: during his comic’s run just about every member of his supporting cast has either been killed, maimed, mutilated, tortured, and coerced into making deals with fiends from The Pit.  And yet Constantine goes on, a supernatural warrior willing to pay almost any price to keep the darkest evil at bay.

In recent times Constantine has gotten rid of the guilt and self-loathing plaguing him by magically giving it the physical form of a baby and throwing it off a cliff.  What a magnificent bastard…

4. Iron Man

Tony Stark is very much a self-made man with a host of flaws.  An alcoholic unable to maintain a steady relationship with a woman, he is a control freak willing to do anything to forward his personal agenda.  It is only fortunate for the Marvel universe his agenda usually coincides with that of most heroes.  Stark is manipulative (he faked his own death and guilted James Rhodes into both running Stark International and becoming War Machine). He founded the Illuminati, a group of like-minded arrogant bastards intent on solving problems “lesser” heroes could not. Iron Man inadvertently killed The Gremlin during Armor Wars in an attempt to take back complete control of his armor technology and then avoided prosecution by claiming his “employee” had died). He also became a government stooge to take control of The Initiative after the Super Hero Registration Act was passed.  Stark became such a totally irredeemable bastard Marvel Comics had to reboot him, wiping out the past five years of his memory is a massive do-over.  Sad thing is, it is not the first time something like that has happened…

3. Rorschach

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s dark creation was just one of many outstanding characters introduced during the landmark Watchmen series, but he is far and away the most popular and fascinating.  The child of a broken home, Walter Kovacs was a typical costumed hero (if there is such a thing) until one day he discovered a crime so horrific (a girl was kidnapped, and when the kidnapper realized he would get no money for her, he killed her, chopped up her body and fed it to his dogs) that it put him over the edge.  That day, as he explained to his prison psychiatrist, Walter Kovacs died and Rorschach was born.  A paranoid reactionary more than willing to break a man’s fingers for a scrap of information, Rorschach was uncompromising in his principles to the point where he was willing to die rather than live and perpetuate the Utopian lie Ozymandias had created.

Perhaps part of what makes Rorschach such an outstanding character is the fact that he only appeared in twelve issues so his image has remained unsullied.

Sometimes less truly is more.

2. The Punisher

Starting off as merely a Mack Bolan (the Executioner) clone, Frank Castle has become so much more.  He is the unstoppable vigilante, a mere human fueled by an unquenchable desire to murder each and every piece of criminal scum on the planet.  Never mind that he has probably already killed the men who killed his wife and children, for Frank the war has become an end in itself, a way of life this soldier is unable to give up.

The Punisher has had his ups and downs over the years, ranging from over-saturation during the nineties (a period where every other hero wore black and/or had a gun, not to mention the rash of mullets) to the period when Frank became an angelic avenger (Marvel’s valiant attempt to completely destroy a good thing).  Garth Ennis’ outstanding work in recent years has once again elevated Frank Castle to the status of the greatest antihero of all time…Well, almost.  There is one greater…

1. Conan

Mercenary, thief, adventurer… men want to be him and women want to belong to him.  The smoldering-eyed Cimmerian may have his own code of honor, but it does not get in the way of heavy drinking, womanizing and making sure his sword (or dagger, or fists, or whatever weapon is handy) is soaked in some poor bastard’s blood.  While other vigilantes may have a higher body count, none can match Conan’s sheer savagery and courage.  There is no healing factor, no automatic rifle.  For Conan it is blade to blade against brigand, sorcerer and hell spawn horror!  Conan is the oldest and most enduring character on this list and is the quintessential antihero, as much an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons role players as is Lord of The Rings, as well as numerous fantasy novels populating bookshelves.     He has had two successful comic book runs: first with Marvel Comics and currently with Dark Horse.  Unlike many pulp characters of his era Conan’s popularity seldom wanes for long and his influence endures.

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By Thomas Stockel. Check out his blog, GM’s Revenge.


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60 Comments

  1. Keith Watabayashi on

    Should have been way more specific and said "top ten COMIC BOOK anti-heroes", even though Conan wouldn't count. Great idea for a list but short-sighted in my opinion. Even excluding literature, plays, film, and general mythology/folklore (Pied Piper of Hamlin, Anansi, Hercules, etc.) there are some pretty blaring characters missing. Batman, first and foremost, V from V for Vendetta, Morpheus from Sandman, Jonah Hex, pretty much the entire cast from Preacher, and so on and so on.

    • Darn it, I thought I had called it "Top Ten Comic Book Anti-Heroes"…

      I had considered Batman for the list but he has a strict code versus killing, as well as being a founding member of the Justice League as well as the patron of the Bat family. The reasons I considered Wolverine belonging at number eight factored into me keeping Batman out of the top ten.

      Your other suggestions are good ones, but I weighed popularity with notoriety and longevity. And in some cases-like Sandman, for example-there has been more than one. Otherwise Grendel may have made the list.

  2. themufc1999 on

    Where is Judge Dredd. He'd kick any of the above's asses. Well maybe Rorshach would give him a run for his money.

  3. Night-Watcher on

    Elektra is missing , beside ironman doesnt count in my opinion but still good list , thanks for posting

  4. Oh my Gawd you people are geeks! Well, I guess I am too because I kinda thought this list was cool. 🙂

  5. In regards to Elektra, I appreciate her part in the MU and as part of Daredevil's mythos, but overall she does not have quite the impact that someone like Catwoman has over the years.

    Spawn. Good choice, and if I had made a top twenty list he probably would be on it.

    Lobo? I like the main man in small amounts and he had his own series and he is as two-dimensional as Deadpool, but DP has had better success.

    • Two dimensional? Lobo raised space dophins…have you ever raised a dophin? Lobo whipped everyone in DC..got bored crossed over to marveland kicked Logan in the face..then beat up Santa Claus for good measure.

      Deadpool was forever damned and lost because of his love affair with Death…the actual angel of Death. Just because your not a fan or haven’t read the comics does not mean they are two dimensional.

  6. I think Iron Man may be the lest anti-hero on this list. I guess his recent actions have him closer than before but I wouldn't consider him an anti-hero. I think Venom is more likely to be on this list. But he switches evil to good to neutral and so forth, so who knows what he is now? Chaotic-Neutral?

  7. I went with more than just recent actions. My examples above happened some years ago, when War Machine first appeared back in '92. Then there is the Armor Wars issue and Gremlin's death, which happened before that.

    There was also an Iron Man annual where he teamed up with Captain America and he used a piece of technology to wipe his secret identity from the minds of everyone on the planet who knew it. That happened during the Heroes Return era, so that was maybe ten years ago now?

    So Stark's actions are nothing new, just a little more extreme.

    Venom? He had a big run in the nineties but he simply did not have the legs, there was no longevity to him. Brock is now, what, Anti-Venom? And The Scorpion is now the new Venom? Brock is an also-ran.

    Jonah Hex is an excellent choice. I especially liked the horror western stuff DC published during the nineties. I have been a fan of Tim Truman's art going back to his Grimjack days.

    And darn it, if Grimjack was still being published and written by John Ostrander I would have put him on the list.

  8. A great anti-hero, though understandably not on the list, is Penance that arose frome the Marvel Civil War comics. He had his own 5 part storyline thereafter and became a member of the Thunderbolts. Great character with a really dark back story. Look him up!

  9. in all actuality, this list should be entitled ‘Top Ten Anti-Heroes from marvel and dc’.
    i forgive you, but when are people going to realize that marvel and dc are not the end of the comicbook stand?
    try johnny c. from ‘johnny the homicidal maniac’ by slave labor
    the mask from ‘the mask’ & ‘return of the mask’ by dark horse
    or something from darkhorse that’s a little more mainstream, marv from ‘sin city’

    while i disagree with your pick of iron man, i did enjoy the list. however, i would like to recommend you branch out a little. unless of course you have read the above comics and just didn’t care for them; in which case, we have very different tastes.

  10. penile papules on

    Damn too many badasses, Hulk definitely takes the cake. Indestructible! The more you push, the harder he pushes back and thats exactly what my mentality is all about!

  11. Iron Man an anti-hero?? I agree with someone earlier that said he’s the least anti-hero-like on this list.

    I also disagree with including Conan. Yes, he gained popularity thanks to the comic published by Marvel, but he was not an original Marvel creation. He started in pulp magazines in the early 1930s. By the same token, you could count Han Solo since Marvel published the Star Wars comic in the 70s and 80s.

    Drop Iron Man and Conan and add Elektra and someone from Preacher (either Jesse, Cassidy, or the Saint of Killers).

    I was a bit surprised that Deadpool is included on the list, but not Deathstroke the Terminator. I’m assuming the writer dismissed the original because he’s seen as more villain than hero.

  12. The Man Who Should Not Be King on

    Nice work. Possibly the only comic-character-list-thing I have ever liked. Dunno about conan as number 1. You get all these total bad-asses that everyone are familiar with, as you get down the list you’re guessing who will be number 1, and it’s…conan?

    And now for some helpful hints.

    Drop Conan, Add lobo (not in first place though).

    Put John Constantine in front of Iron Man (he’s a way bigger bastard. He’s also way cooler).

    Deadpool, as a rule, must not come last.

    I’m really uneasy about cat-woman.

    where’s green arrow (the broke, street-wise green arrow that is. Connor Hawke annoyed the @#$%! out of me).

    Where is judge dredd, man? you can’t have cat-woman while not having ol’ dredd.

    But don’t let all that make you take the comment the wrong way. This is a REALLY good list, and best all, Thor isn’t at number 1!

    -The Man Who Must Not Be King (He tolerates you)

  13. No Venom???? Come on, man! Venom is a way cooler anti-hero than Catwoman or Sub-Mariner, for sure! I mean, he’s the “Lethal Protector”! Still, a pretty good list besides that.

  14. You guys forgot one, a guy that gave Superman a lot of hell, do you all remember LOBO, the main man. Bet you did not even think of him, he was even classified to be an immortal or untouchable by heaven itself, to him hell was a vacation and heaven was a place where he can just cause havoc for the fun of it. Who in their sane minds would take on lobo. Except maybe supergirl who had him wrapped around her little finger and maybe the hulk and perhaps wolverine aswell. So Here’s to lobo.

  15. Idk man, not a bad list but I HIGHLY disagree with Ironman and Conan too, I don’t think Ironman is an anti-hero, Conan is one, I just don’t like him, I would do it more like this

    10. Deadpool

    9. The Hulk

    8. Ghost Rider

    7. Venom

    6. Moon Knight

    5. Rorschach

    4. Deathstroke

    3. The Punisher

    2. Lobo

    1. Wolverine

    And John Constantine, Elektra, The Comedian, Magneto, Bane, Black Adam, Namor, Catwoman, Black Widow and Gambit would make top 20, Spawn and Dredd too, but you said only Marvel and DC so they don’t count. Oh yeah, you said something about Batman? He’s just about as far away from an anti-hero as they get.

  16. I would also have included Poison Ivy, I know she’s mostly a villain, but she really wants to save the Eco system (which is a good thing) but she does it in a flawed way, the perfect definition of an anti-hero, and wasn’t she part of a superhero team with Catwoman and Zatanna at some point, I’m pretty sure she was.

  17. I saw Punisher on Daredevil, and, well, Dardevil is a vigilante by night, since he beats up a lot of people, even though he should let the law handle it, since he is, after all, a lawyer like Foggy. I don’t like the Punisher’s way of handling things. I mean, it’s one thing if it’s war or if someone is in danger, but other than that, you should let the law handle it.

  18. you forgot New Goblin in Spiderman 3 (2007). Harry Osborn is Peter Parker’s best friend.
    he is one of the marvel’s anti heroes.

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