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Comics 411: Underutilized Comic Book Characters

August 11, 2022 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Martian Manhunter 1 Image Credit: DC Comics

Welcome back! I’m Steve Gustafson and if you enjoy discussing anything comic book related, you’ve come to the right place. Each week we cover something in the industry and I always enjoy your input in the comment section below.

Previously on…

Last time we discussed our Favorite Black Panther Comic Book Stories. Here’s what some of you had to say:

Steed: “Never get bored of Black Panther destroying racist Klan members. I quite liked his relationship with Ororo AKA Storm as well.”

El Atomico “I don’t really remember Marvel using Black Panther much when I was buying comics, which was a shame, I always thought he was a cool character”

Thank you to everyone who commented last week!

This week we discuss…

Underutilized Comic Book Characters
Love or hate the upcoming She-Hulk: Attorney at Law series, it’s great to see some underrated characters get the love they deserve. She-Hulk has been a respected figure in Marvel for ages but thanks to uneven writing she’s never found a booming popularity. I daresay Deadpool can thank her as the Sensational She-Hulk series by John Byrne in 1989, She-Hulk was portrayed with a form of “cross-dimensional” awareness to break the fourth wall.

This led to some funny moments but the problem was when she appeared outside the series this was largely ignored and I think that hurt the character. 

That got me thinking to some other comic book characters who have been underutilized over the years. Like most lists, this is all subjective. I could throw out names like Red Tornado, Doctor Fate, and Firestorm and I’m sure someone would list off why they’re not underrated due to appearances and inclusions in certain teams and storylines. On a similar point, as a huge Doctor Fate fan, I’m stoked for his appearance on the big screen in Black Adam.

For the record, those 3 (Red Tornado, Doctor Fate, Firestorm) ARE underrated and are low hanging fruit for just the right creative team.

I’d put Captain Atom on that list as well. He’s come close to getting his due and I remember in 1991 Captain Atom was to become the hero-turned-villain Monarch in DC’s ‘Armageddon 2001’ crossover event. Even though the internet wasn’t around, everything was spoiled when word of this leaked out and DC changed the ending at the last minute. A promising crossover event landed with a thud and so did Atom’s chance at something bigger. 

In 2005/2006, Captain Atom crossed over to the Wildstorm universe and that…was something. While he’s been involved across the DC universe, he’s never been properly fleshed out with a strong supporting cast that’s memorable for the right reasons.

Similar to Martian Manhunter. Say what you want but Martian Manhunter is one of the seven original members of the Justice League of America and one of the most powerful beings in the DC Universe. Yet he’s barely a blip outside comic book fans. Yes, I’m well aware Manhunter was also part of the core cast of the Supergirl TV series and in the Justice League movie but his popularity, overall, trails Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, and Green Lantern.

He’s been in the mix for decades and has come close to having a series worth the character, specifically the latest one from writer Steve Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo. They seemed to understand the character’s strengths but it didn’t seem to connect with fans as well as it should have.

Someone who’s well known with everyone is Marvel’s Hercules. A popular member of the Avengers for years, in 2008 Hercules debuted in his own series titled The Incredible Hercules. Talk about an underrated series! It was incredibly funny with plenty of action and engaging in all the right ways. Again, Hercules should have taken off but never caught footing. We’ll see if his appearance in Thor: Love and Thunder does anything for him. 

Another underrated series with an underrated character is Aztek. The first Aztek first appeared in Aztek, The Ultimate Man #1 in August 1996, created by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar. That creative team is all you need to know. To be fair, Aztek was before his time and while it’s well remembered by those who remember, Aztek in the DC universe never fulfilled the potential the series set up for him.

Like the potential The Ray series in 1992 did for Ray Terrill as The Ray by Jack C. Harris and Joe Quesada. That character was filled with fun and nuance and while he’s hung around, he’s definitely a few rungs below where he should be.

A fourth wall breaking character is my personal favorite, Ambush Bug. If I had my choice to write any solo character, it would be him. As mentioned, I own every miniseries and special he’s appeared in. DC is missing out HUGE with this character and I’d have already had him in a movie all his own. As for the comics, keep him in tightly written miniseries. Go wild.

There are so many characters who deserve more spotlight but when it comes to DC’s Uncle Sam, the timing couldn’t be more opportune. Given the political climate, a series centered on Uncle Sam seems like it would be a given. I’d even give Marvel’s Union Jack a similar opportunity. Not only does he have one of my favorite costumes, the character’s potential has never been fully realized.

I was going to go on and list Darkhawk, Multiple Man, Marvelman…but realized I’d be writing for days since every time I think of one, 3 more pop into my head. Instead I’ll wrap up with the Ultraverse universe as a whole. It blows my mind that Marvel has a number of characters just sitting, unused. 

Yes, Ultraverse is owned by Marvel and I’m dumbfounded why they haven’t done more with this. Prime, Hardcase, Ultraforce, The Strangers…all just languishing. In June 2005, when asked by comicsrama whether Marvel had any plans to revive the Ultraverse, then Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada replied:

“Let’s just say that I wanted to bring these characters back in a very big way, but the way that the deal was initially structured, it’s next to impossible to go back and publish these books. There are rumors out there that it has to do with a certain percentage of sales that has to be doled out to the creative teams. While this is a logistical nightmare because of the way the initial deal was structured, it’s not the reason why we have chosen not to go near these characters, there is a bigger one, but I really don’t feel like it’s my place to make that dirty laundry public.”

All these characters need to come back in a very big way.

Who makes your list of most underutilized comic book characters?

That’s all the time I have. See you next week!