New Character Smell1 of 12Some of the most well known characters in all of popular culture have come from comic books. Who can deny the impact that characters like Superman, Spider-Man, or Archie Andrews have had in our lives? But the youngest of those characters debuted in 1962 – well over 50 years ago.
And that’s a status that’s shared by almost all of our most iconic comic book heroes. The biggest success stories of superhero comic books all originated 40, 50, or even 70 years ago – even if some of them, like the Avengers, are only reaching their apex now.
But there are characters – icons even – that are younger than most of the characters that come to mind in comic book lore. So we decided to take a look at the most popular American comic book characters of the last 25 years.
When we set out to make this list, we knew we had to define some very specific criteria. With that in mind, these are all characters that debuted in American comic books, who made their debut in 1990 or after, and who, based on a number of metrics, rank as the most popular, most beloved, and most successful characters to appear in that timeframe. Not based just on comic book sales or cosplayers at conventions, but a more "big picture" look with several factors in mind.
This excludes some popular characters, such as Tim Drake or Gambit (who just missed the mark), and leaves out a lot of well-loved characters such as Kyle Rayner, Jesse Custer, Savage Dragon, X-23, and Scott Pilgrim who, while popular, don’t reach the heights of the ten on this list, or those like Gambit who just missed the 25 year mark.
So, without further ado, here are the ten most popular American comic book characters who debuted in the last 25 years.
Spawn2 of 12While Spawn’s star has undeniably faded in recent years, it’s hard to ignore the level of popularity he once enjoyed.
Spawn’s debut sold in the millions, and for a good portion of the ‘90’s, Spawn was one of the most popular characters in the world, spawning (get it?) an entire empire of toys, cartoons, and even a feature film.
Spawn may have faded into a proverbial lion in winter, but creator Todd McFarlane is always promising some sort of big screen revival for the once great property.
Kevin Keller3 of 12Archie and his Riverdale friends have been around for decades, since 1941. That’s almost as long as even the oldest superheroes. So it’s surprising that the only real new breakout star the Riverdale gang has had in decades is Kevin Keller, who waited until 2010 to hit the scene.
The openly gay character – Archie’s first – has anchored his own title, as well as several mini-series, and was one of the characters involved in the ill-fated Kickstarter launch for Archie’s new line. While the Kickstarter plans have fallen through due to fan backlash, Archie promises that those titles – including Keller’s – will still see the light of day.
Maria Hill & Daisy Johnson4 of 12Consider this one a “two-fer.” Maria Hill and Daisy Johnson are two of the most high profile S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in Marvel lore, with both having served as directors of the agency – a role that Maria Hill still holds.
Both characters came to prominence as a result of Civil War, a story that saw Marvel’s heroes divided into two camps over a law that would require them to register their identities with the government. Hill became director of S.H.I.E.L.D. during this time, an event which lead to former longtime director Nick Fury going underground, and recruiting Daisy Johnson as his protégé.
Now, Maria Hill is the veteran of multiple Marvel films, including both Avengers movies, and possibly the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, while Daisy Johnson plays a prominent role in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where her origins cast her as an Inhuman.
Hellboy5 of 12Hellboy – “Red” to his friends – is a paranormal investigator and super-agent for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, an agency dedicated to hunting down supernatural threats to national security.
In the years since his debut in 1993, Mike Mignola’s most beloved creation has seen multiple animated films, a pair of live-action adaptations, and an entire comic book universe built around his adventures.
Rick Grimes6 of 12Chalk this up to the popularity of the franchise – not necessarily the character on his own. That’s not to say The Walking Dead’s POV character doesn’t command some sway of his own, but he’s not a household name because of his winning personality.
Rather, this is an example of a character becoming a figurehead for something larger than himself. As the main character of The Walking Dead both on TV and in comic books, Grimes is at the center of a cultural phenomenon that most characters would kill for.
Damian Wayne (Robin)7 of 12The cloned son of Batman and Talia al Ghul may seem like an unlikely character to make a splash, but when Damian Wayne took over as Robin when his father Bruce was presumed dead, he became an instant hit.
Playing off the good-natured, significantly less stoic substitute Batman Dick Grayson, Damian was hardnosed, hardcore, and hardly the typical 11-year-old. He’s since been through a lot – death, rebirth, superpowers – and while he remains polarizing to many fans, his popularity as Robin, son of Batman, is undeniable.
Cable8 of 12Cable may have later been retconned to be Nathan Summers, a character that debuted as an infant in the 1980’s, but when he showed up in New Mutants in 1990, he was simply a soldier from the future with one name and a singular purpose.
Cable has undergone some retooling over the years to keep him relevant, and because of that, his star has faded somewhat. But in the ‘90’s, he was practically definitive of the X-Men experience, from his overblown arsenal, to his cybernetically enhanced body, to the web of draconian continuity that spiraled out from his very existence.
Cable remains a fan-favorite for those who thrived on ‘90’s X-Men comic books – and let’s be honest, there are more than a few of us – and is still one of the most demanded X-characters who has yet to appear on film, even though he's been out of the loop in comic books for some time as well.
Miles Morales (Spider-Man)9 of 12When the Peter Parker of Marvel’s Ultimate universe died in combat, it didn’t take long for a new hero to take up his mantle as Spider-Man. That hero came in the form of Miles Morales, a character who quickly overcame the controversy surrounding his ethnicity (he’s half black, half Puerto Rican) to swing his way into the hearts of Marvel fans.
Miles may owe some of his popularity to his origins – he’s reportedly visually based on president Barack Obama and comedian Donald Glover – but the real core of his success comes from creator Brian Bendis’s familiar, winning portrayal of a young hero finding his feet.
And, now that Secret Wars is over, Miles has joined the mainstream Marvel continuity as Spider-Man; a role he now shares shares with the original Peter Parker in "All-New All-Different Marvel."
Harley Quinn10 of 12We’re breaking our own rules slightly to include Harley Quinn, seeing as how she debuted on television, but she’s got a close enough relationship with comic books that we’re going to count it anyway.
Harley is something of the DC equivalent of the number one character on our list – a madcap, murderous, anti-hero who seems to only engender more love the weirder and wilder she gets. Since her days as the Joker’s sidekick, she’s grown into a phenomenon of her own, giving rise to several solo comics, along with a long-awaited starring role in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie.
Deadpool11 of 12When it comes to the last 25 years of American comic books, it’s hard to think of a bigger success story than that of Wade Wilson, A.K.A. the merc with a mouth, Deadpool.
Spinning out of New Mutants, the Rob Liefeld creation immediately took fans’ attention. Despite his initial popularity, it took several years to really codify his slapstick, fourth-wall breaking persona, though once he became the psychotically silly assassin we all know and love, his popularity truly took off.
Nowadays, Deadpool is practically a household name – maybe the last of Marvel’s creations to truly reach that status – and he’s got a high-profile film debut on the way that was made possible by fan demand.
It doesn’t get much more popular than that.
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