Marvel and DC superheroes are some of the most prevalent forces in pop culture right now, in comic books, movies, on TV, and across other media – but there are important characters created outside of those two publishers (some of which were later absorbed by Marvel and DC) that have had just as much impact and who are just as compelling
Featuring an NYPD homicide detective with a magic gauntlet, a Japanese schoolgirl, and a half-demon that looks good in red, here are our picks for the best comic book superheroes who didn’t start at Marvel or DC.
Just one quick note – this is strictly a list for superheroes, so don’t be surprised if you feel like a few big names are missing. We’re going with characters that originated in comic books, and who fall within certain parameters of what defines a ‘superhero.’
While this rules out characters like the Shadow, the Incredibles, Flash Gordon, or Tank Girl (all classic heroes and characters in their own right), it makes for a much more concise list.
Many credible heroes came out of Wildstorm’s Image years, including the Wildcats and the Authority. Nowadays, they’re all technically owned by DC – and some of them have even been integrated into the DC Universe – but they all got their starts as indie characters
DC incorporated some of WildStorm’s heroes into the DC Universe, and some of them went through changes of attitude, venue, or even bigger alterations. However, Midnighter of the Authority has held onto the spirit and style that made him a fan-favorite in his WildStorm years, even as he’s headlined his own DC Universe-set Midnighter (opens in new tab) title.
Midnighter is also notable as one of the first openly gay superheroes in comic books, and one of the first to be in a gay super-couple with his longtime romantic and crimefighting partner Apollo, with the pair co-starring in their own Midnighter and Apollo (opens in new tab) series.
Witchblade may have started as part of the ’90s ‘bad girl’ craze that saw scantily clad superhero vixens take over the stands, but her legacy goes far beyond those roots, with a mythology all her own – including at one time being the top-selling book in all of comics.
Witchblade’s staying power also resulted in several spin-offs from Top Cow, where numerous superheroes still reside. The original Witchblade (opens in new tab) ongoing title lasted for 20 years and even resulted in a short-lived live-action TV series, and an anime.
8. Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon may not have originated in American comic books, but that doesn’t mean she’s any less a superhero – she’s got a secret identity, powers, even a whole team of other heroes at her side. And when it comes to her profile, she’s still as strong as ever in the American market, her home turf in Japan, and worldwide.
Many Americans first became aware of Sailor Moon through her animated series, but she actually started in a long-running manga that was published concurrently with the TV show for much of its run. The original manga was recently collected in a new series of premium volumes titled Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon: Eternal Edition (opens in new tab).
Sailor Moon is a hero, a team, and a brand, and in many ways she defined the magical girl hero subgenre.
For ’90s comic book fans the Milestone Media superhero universe means something special – and at the imprint’s forefront is Static, the Milestone line’s young flagship hero with electricity powers and a story that puts a modern spin on the archetype of a young teen hero in the vein of Spider-Man.
Static’s popularity as a hero extends beyond the page into his own late ’90s/early ’00s animated series set in the DC Animated Universe alongside Batman: The Animated Series thanks to Milestone being licensed by DC. And even in recent years, there have been several announcements of a Static feature film in development, though it has yet to materialize.
Now, the Milestone characters are back under the control of the original Milestone founders, with new titles now rolling out starting with – what else? – Static: Season One (opens in new tab).
6. Plastic Man
Few people realize that Plastic Man (opens in new tab) didn’t actually start out at DC. In fact, he got his start at Quality Comics – a name you probably haven’t heard much about. Not surprising, considering they went out of business in the ’50s.
Even though they’re no longer publishing, their characters endure. Beyond DC’s mirthful, malleable man of mystery, the next entry on our list also spent some time at Quality.
As for Plas himself, the oddball mystery man has become a staple of the DC Universe, with many writers fascinated with how strange – and unexpectedly powerful – he actually is.
5. The Spirit
The Spirit (opens in new tab) is far from the only enduring ‘mystery man’ in comic books, but unlike characters like the Green Hornet or the Shadow – you know, the other fedora and trenchcoat types – the Spirit actually debuted in comic books.
Will Eisner’s two-fisted crime fighter originated numerous tropes that are still in play today. In fact, Eisner’s work is so indisputable that one of comic books’ biggest awards is named in his honor.
The Spirit has had modern titles from a variety of publishers, with the most recent coming from Dynamite Entertainment.
Hellboy is a perfect example of a third-party superhero made good. With two movies and a slew of spin-off comic books under his belt, Hellboy is less a character and more a franchise all his own.
Since his debut in 1993, Hellboy’s profile has only gotten bigger, and even though he died and went to Hell a few years ago, his legacy is still alive, with a recent Young Hellboy (opens in new tab) limited series.
He’s also received multiple films, first a pair of movies from director Guillermo del Toro, and then a franchise reboot in 2019.
When it comes to third-party superheroes, Spawn (opens in new tab) is about as big a name as it gets. While his star has faded somewhat in recent memory, at one point, you couldn’t walk into a comic store without seeing his face – and that massive cape.
With a movie, an animated series, and a toy line that launched an empire – not to mention one of the top-selling comics of all time – Spawn is almost as good as it gets for a non-Marvel or DC superhero.
And it’s getting even better for the ’90s favorite son, as his spin-off titles like King Spawn (opens in new tab) are selling in significant numbers.
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are one of comic books’ greatest success stories, with their roots as a self-published parody of hard-boiled ’80s comics quickly giving way to a multi-media empire of toys, movies, and a massively popular cartoon series.
In fact, the Turtles’ future looks a lot like their past, with two recent films, an acclaimed animated series on the air, and a new toy line on the shelves, not to mention several ongoing titles from IDW.
In the last couple of years IDW launched TMNT: The Last Ronin (opens in new tab), a dark, dystopian future story that revived some classic TMNT concepts with new twists.
Captain Marvel, or Shazam as he’s called these days, might be best known as one of DC’s premier powerhouses, having been a mainstay of the Justice League for some time, and with a high-profile movie in the works, but he didn’t start out there.
Shazam began life as a response to the popularity of Superman, but believe it or not, Shazam’s popularity actually eclipsed that of the Man of Steel for a brief time. And let’s just say DC – or National, as it was known at the time – was none too pleased.
National took Fawcett Comics, who owned Shazam, to court, resulting in Captain Marvel and his family of characters disappearing until DC actually acquired the rights to the characters, where they now reside. Some of those early Fawcett era stories are reprinted in the collection Shazam!: A Celebration of 75 Years (opens in new tab).
Shazam is headed for a film sequel, while his arch-enemy Black Adam also has a high-profile movie releasing in 2022. And at the same time, in comics, the mantle of Shazam itself is being passed to Billy Batson’s sister Mary Marvel, making her the new Shazam.