Friday, July 17, 2009

The Fifteen Best Comics Characters of All-Time (Part 1, 15-11)

15. Hans von Hammer "The Hammer of Hell"

"The sky is the killer of us all."

A haunted, troubled yet duty-bound man surrounded by war and murder, much of it his own making, Hans von Hammer was a World War I flying ace based on the Red Baron called to kill and kill again, after which new nighmares of death joined the previous ones during his sleeping hours. He once befriended a wolf in the Black Forest, because the both of them are both killers, and that wolf was his only real friend.

In that sense, von Hammer was a tragic and somewhat pitiful person, an example of the very broken people that war creates on the one hand, an honorable man with a strong sense of duty on the other. Hans von Hammer had noble and chivalrous instincts: he saluted enemies even after he killed them, and refused to shoot and kill even an unarmed foe.

Enemy Ace's strip was extraordinary for many reasons, not the least of which was the tragic, morally conflicted character of von Hammer himself. It was an American strip featuring a German Ace. It was the first true strip of the Vietnam era: it showed the exhaustion and disgust with war, and none of them had happy endings. It was a dark, evocative strip with art by Gil Kane and featured antagonists like the hideously disfigured French Ace, the Hangman.

BEST COMICS: STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES #148 features the death of a dog, but that's not the only reason to like it. Von Hammer befriends a dog, Schatzi, who dies when he falls out of von Hammer's biplane. In revenge, von Hammer coldly and methodically massacres a platoon of British soldiers. Honor, senseless blood-killing that is shown to the reader not as fun but with disgust, and glimmers of humanity on the part of a lonely and tragic man. All in all, good reading. There was also a wonderful and sentimental Batman and Enemy Ace "meeting" set long after World War I done by Neil Adams in DETECTIVE COMICS #442.

14. Foolkiller

"All the days of their lives have led to this moment. They will be given their chance at succeed or fail! It was ordained long ago in Heaven that this day they would meet...the Foolkiller!"

A religious fanatic with a demented sense of his own great purpose and mission, the Foolkiller was first introduced as seeking to kill the Man-Thing, who he correctly determined was formerly scientist Ted Sallis. "Only I cared enough to investigate his disappearance fully!" His great weapon is the Purification Ray, a nearly unstoppable blaster beam of white light only able to be wielded by the righteous. Naturally, only the Foolkiller himself is worthy of wielding it! The Foolkiller periodically returns to his tractor trailer to converse with his boss, Mike, a grisly corpse of a priest in formaldehyde that the Foolkiller himself murdered.

The Foolkiller murders at the drop of a hat for crimes like scoffing at his mission and denying God. He is a relentless pursuer that never forgets the slightest insult. The Foolkiller is nearly unstoppable and relentless: like the villains in slasher movies, he never stops, and as a fanatic he is truly threatening, ramming a truck through a diner to kill a disk jockey that insulted him.

BEST STORY: His sole appearance was in THE MAN THING #3-4, by Steve Gerber.

WORST STORY: None, as at least the original Foolkiller never appeared again.

13. Madame Hydra/Viper

"I said that we are not walking out of here into the jails of the police! The valiant outlaw called Cobra, the dedicated agent of the Serpent Crown...and the foolhardy agents of oppression...are going to end this story dramatically, as martyrs to the Serpent's Cause. That's all it is, you know, a story! A story to grow with time into a legend. A story not to be told as fact, but as inspiration! A story to breed more like me!"

Quite possibly the most terrifying, shockingly coldblooded female villain in the entire Marvel Universe, a study in the depths of human evil and fanatacism.

A fanatic nihilist, everything to Madame Hydra is meaninglessness instead of happenstance. She has no illusions about the importance of life, and holds her own with just as little value. She has the fanatic martyrdom of a suicide bomber, and like a suicide bomber, she realizes just how powerful martyrs become, as ideas that never die.

BEST STORY: Steve Englehart's CAPTAIN AMERICA AND THE FALCON #181-182. The story opes with Viper murdering the original Viper and donning his costume. Then, as she reveals the death of the original to his brother, who she intends to team up with, the Eel breaks down at the loss of the only family he ever had. All the while, Madame Hydra loudly proclaims the original Viper a martyr to their cause.

It that wasn't enough, in the very next issue, King Cobra, a guy just in it for the money, is trapped in a burning building where Viper intends for both of them to make their last stand. Cobra starts to go mad as he realizes the horror of being trapped with this madman, and the Viper's soul-chilling response is printed in its entirety at the quote section at the top above.

WORST STORY: As he did with other female characters, Chris Claremont formed a fascination with Madame Hydra, and from her chilling beginnings wasted her as just another femme fatale.

12. Magneto

If the Hulk was based on the blueprint of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Magneto owes his inspiration to one of the most magnetic characters of the literature of the 19th century, Captain Nemo. Like Nemo, Magneto sufered a terrible loss that caused him to reject the idea of the goodness of the human race and turns his back on it in disgust. Motivated by a great inner nobility, Magneto looks angrily at how human vices usurp our capacity for good: how much more we spend on weapons than on feeding the hungry, for instance. At the same time, he's motivated by anger and grief that has poisoned his soul that makes his guilty of terrible crimes.

BEST STORY: UNCANNY X-MEN #150. The ultimate, definitive Magneto story. Magneto issues an ultimatum to the world: give total power to him, which he would use for enlightened purposes while they wasted their energy on greed, or face destruction. In the end, Magneto is confronted by the X-Men and he snaps, loses his temper, and kills a child (Kitty Pride, since you wonder I loved this comic!). Realizing the horror of what he did, and what he intended to do, Magneto surrenders and abandoned his scheme.

Also, read X-MEN #1-3. Everyone remembers it as a Jim Lee artpalooza that sold a trillion copies, but few people remember that it was actually a very well-made Magneto story, where Magneto was drawn from his self-imposed exile by "acolytes" that worship him.

WORST STORY: This one undoubtedly goes to that appalling dimwit Grant Morrison and his lengthy rampage on the X-Books, where he had Magneto smash half of New York and toss humans into ovens. It is every bit as unintentionally funny as it sounds. Another dishonorable mention (and boy, does it hurt to type this) would be Steve Englehart in an early Avengers issue, where he featured Magneto as a cackling Hanna-Barbara supervillain in the weakest story of his entire career, centered around that most riveting of mysteries, "Why is Magneto wearing the Angel's costume?"

And speaking of the Angel...

11. Candy Southern

Possibly one of the best-realized of all "hero girlfriends," Candy Southern was much, much more than just the "love interest" for a hero that pouted when he went on dangerous missions. There were occasions when we saw Candy Southern running Warren Industries, and she often joked that Southern International, her own company, would buy him out. She was someone that was able to actually lead a hero's team when her man was knocked out, a heroic story with a tragic ending. In one comic, Candy Southern actually accompanied the X-Men when her love, Warren Worthington was in danger!

Almost all hero's girlfriends are said to be independent and competent women, but Candy Southern actually was all those things the others were said to be, but never really were.

BEST STORY: In NEW DEFENDERS #138 Candy Southern had the chutzpah to (and I can't believe I'm typing this) take charge of the Defenders. In NEW DEFENDERS #145, when the others were considering leaving in the wake of the Angel's blindness and other events, Candy Southern convinced the Defenders to stay and not disband. And most incredibly of all, she remained in charge of the team for nearly the rest of the comic's run, proclaimed by the rest as Team Leader and Chief Executive Officer of the group, having final power over who was and wasn't in the group. She even built a new security system for the team's base and recruited new members, with total control over who came in and didn't.

Others might be upset by the inclusion of Candy Southern and would prefer another supporting cast member, like J. Jonah Jameson or Lois Lane. To them, I ask this: could you possibly imagine Lois Lane doing something similar for the Justice League? Did any other hero's love interest ever do anything that significant?

Another example of a good Candy Southern story would be her first posthumous appearance in UNCANNY X-MEN #306. She was merged with the same techno-organic being as Cameron Hodge and she tore apart her own form rather than let Hodge harm the X-Men. In her last, dying moments she confessed her love for Warren Worthington.

WORST STORY: NEW DEFENDERS #130, with Candy Southern taken hostage. She's not that kind of hero's girlfriend.

More to come! Stay tuned for 10-6!


David said...

A religious fanatic with a demented sense of his own great purpose and mission...

I like him already.

Although maybe he should be called "Heathen-killer" or something, because based on that goofy outfit, he should turn the gun on himself.

Wow, did Magneto really kill Kitty Pryde? I didn't last long after Byrne left, but I thought I was around for issue 150 and I don't remember this. Why did I think Kitty was still around ruining stories years later, maybe even today?

Wait, forgot it's a Marvel comic. Of course she must've been resurrected in about 6 months.

Enemy Ace rules. One serious correction, though; the art is of course by Joe Kubert, not Gil Kane. And for my money, it's the best work he's ever done.

Julian Perez said...

Magneto did actually attack Kitty Pryde really savagely, to the point where it looked like she was dead. It was a very intense and very surprising moment.

Of course, Kitty Pryde woke up and was alright, which I thought was the ultimate cheat, for reasons other than the ones you probably think.

For one thing, if Magneto did really did accidentally kill a child in a fit of rage...Magneto would have gone on a totally different trajectory as a character. He would have been a lot more penitent, more self-reflective, and it would have been very interesting to see that from a supposed "villain." And it would have given a reason for the X-Men to never stop pursuing him. You don't just kill a kid and get to walk away.

As it was, Kitty "being okay" was a cheat that made a monkey out of the drama of that moment, and also led to one of the stupidest denouments to an X-Men story: Kitty Pryde claimed to be able to raise the blackbird with her "Force powers." Of course, it was really Colossus or something lifting it out of view. Har-Har!

This "all in a day's work" ending was especially out of place for a story as intense as #150. That's like ending a submarine drama with a fart gag and everyone laughing in unison.

...and need I say the obvious? Was Kitty really so wonderful alive? Really? Dead, she's a saint that's remembered fondly. Alive, she's Wesley friggin Crusher.

A dozen X-Men have died over the years, and the one that's still alive today is Kitty Pryde. (Granted, four of those were Jean Grey, but still.) No justice, I tell you. None! And Kitty was attacked by Magneto, no less, the most powerful mutant ever, who was shooting to kill! You don't walk away from something like that...

(Also, did I say Kane? I knew it was Kubert.)

Eduardo M. said...

As I've mentioned before Kitty pryde recently died during the Breakworld storyline in X-Men. However, her death was so unclear I wouldn't be surprised if someone was not a typewriter as we speak, writing her return. "Shadowcat" Reborn" anyone?

Magneto's insane moment at the end of Morrison's run was undone by a retcon stating the mutant Xorn that Mags was impersonating was in fact REALLY the mutant Xorn impersonating Magneto. I know, its headache inducing.

A great Candy Southern moment for me was a 90s X-Men story that laid the seeds for Phalanx Covenant and had her returning from her apparent death. Archangel was freaking out over the fact he thought she died peacefully when machines keeping her alive were wrecked by Cameron Hodge but in reality she woke up for a brief moment and saw Archangel battling Hodge. Hodge returned along with Candy but Warren's lady love sacrificed herself to help him defeat Hodge. As she lay dying again, she told Archangel she did not hate him for failing to rescue her and that she still loved him.