Updated on May 27, 2023
As a companion to my earlier post about the most famous Western animated cartoon characters, I thought I’d look at who I consider to be the most famous American comic characters.
Again, my main criteria: if I showed a picture of these characters to grade-schoolers, younger adults, and older adults, how many would recognize the characters without prompting? Thus, you won’t see certain comics on this list. While “Calvin and Hobbes” was popular, it only ran for a decade, which doesn’t make it something today’s kids would readily recognize. Similarly, most adults aren’t familiar with “Dog Man,” even if the series is popular with kids. And outside of superhero comic fans, superheroes have relatively limited recognition, outside the most famous characters or ones that had high-profile movies/TV shows.
I’m also just looking at American comics, not manga or European comics. Most Americans aren’t familiar with comics like “Asterix,” “One Piece,” or “Lucky Luke.”
Superman’s the first prominent, and world’s most famous, comic book superhero. The Man of Steel set much of the template for the superhero genre, from secret identities to costumes to powers. That said, while Superman’s popularity as a movie/comic character has waned a bit in recent years, for various reasons he’s still prominent when it comes to live-action TV.
As for which versions of Superman are the most famous, i.e. what people think of when generically describing Superman:
- The Christopher Reeve movies. By far, this is the most famous version of the Man of Tomorrow, to the point the films still hold a lopsided influence on Superman-related media even decades later.
- The Silver/Bronze Age comics. Despite DC Comics’ repeated attempts to retcon/reboot Superman, the Superman comics published between the mid-1950s and mid-1980s still hold a lingering influence, especially in parodies/popular culture. The only Modern Age comic incarnation that might appear in popular culture is “The Death of Superman” arc from the 90s. You might also sometimes see the Golden Age version referenced, but it’s usually just parodies of the cover of “Action Comics” #1.
- Whichever media version one grew up with. “Smallville,” “Lois and Clark,” “Superman: The Animated Series,” “Super Friends,” etc. This depends on one’s age.
The most famous Superman supporting cast members and villains:
- Lois Lane.
- Jimmy Olsen.
- Lex Luthor.
- General Zod and/or the Phantom Zone crooks generically.
- Superboy (unless one’s seen “Young Justice”) is either “a reference to ‘Smallville’” or the original “Superman as a boy” version. (“Superman has a son?”)
- Maybe: Ma and Pa Kent, Perry White, Krypto.
Batman’s become DC’s flagship hero in the past few decades, though he was already famous even before the Burton movies of the late 80s and 90s.
As for which versions of Batman are the most famous, i.e. what people think of when generically describing Batman:
- The 1960s “Batman” TV series, starring Adam West.
- The 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series,” starring Kevin Conroy.
- The various theatrical movies. Which movies (Burton’s, Nolan’s, etc.) are favored are subjective, so I’ll leave it to fans to debate.
Most versions of Batman seen in parodies, pop culture depictions, etc. usually are based on one or more of the versions above.
Along similar lines, Batman’s most famous supporting cast members and villains:
- Robin (Dick Grayson; see below)
- Alfred Pennyworth
- Batgirl (Barbara Gordon)
- Commissioner Gordon
- The Joker
- The Penguin
- The Riddler
- Maybe: The Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn (Harley’s more well known among kids/younger adults versus older adults, in my opinion)
Thanks to being the most famous kid sidekick, Robin’s as famous as the other heroes on this list.
The most famous incarnations of Robin:
- As one-half of the “Dynamic Duo”
- As part of the Teen Titans (in any incarnation)
As such, Robin’s most famous supporting cast members (that aren’t the Batman ones listed above) are his Teen Titans teammates, specifically the TV versions:
- Beast Boy
Older people will solely think of Robin as Batman’s sidekick; younger people will think of Robin as Batman’s sidekick and/or “the guy who pals around with Cyborg and Beast Boy.” Either way, Robin isn’t seen as a solo hero by the general public… and thus why he’s unlikely to ever get a solo film, as “Teen Titans Go to the Movies” joked about.
Robin is also seen by the general public (if they even know his alter-ego’s real name) as the Dick Grayson version, full stop, despite dropping the Robin role in the comics in 1984. Jason Todd, Tim Drake, and Damian Wayne for most of the public will be “who?” One reason Tim Drake’s coming out as bisexual saw headlines of “Robin is gay!”: the general public’s unaware there’s ever been more than one Robin.
Similarly, Dick’s identity as Nightwing still isn’t well known among the general public, despite Nightwing’s appearances in “Batman: The Animated Series” and a few other media spin-offs.
Wonder Woman’s the most famous female superhero, and has been a pop culture mainstay for decades.
That said, the most famous versions of Wonder Woman are:
- The 70s Lynda Carter live-action TV series
- The 2017 and 2020 Gal Gadot movies
I suspect Wonder Woman’s also well known for her merchandise, versus any particular media incarnation. Especially since the two versions I listed above are her only major solo media incarnations.
As for Wonder Woman’s supporting cast and villains:
- Steve Trevor
- Queen Hippolyta
- Maybe: The Cheetah and Giganta (thanks to “Super Friends”/some other media spin-offs)
That’s probably it. Good luck with Etta Candy, Nubia, Ares, or Donna Troy. Especially Donna—”DC Super Hero Girls” used a teenaged Diana instead of Donna.
Spider-Man is Marvel Comics’ flagship hero. Since his 1962 debut, Peter Parker’s become famous worldwide.
The most famous versions of Spidey:
- The various movies, which have been regularly cranked out since the original “Spider-Man” film in 2002.
- The various TV cartoons, going back to the classic (and now meme-ified) 1967 TV show. Its theme song has become Spider-Man’s de facto theme song to this day.
As for Spidey’s supporting cast and villains:
- Aunt May
- J. Jonah Jameson
- Mary Jane Watson
- Green Goblin
- Dr. Octopus
- Maybe: Miles Morales (among younger people, thanks to “Into the Spider-Verse” and a few modern TV cartoons), Gwen Stacy (per the movies, “Spider-Verse” and a few TV cartoons)
The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk is still Marvel’s second most famous superhero (after Spidey) in my opinion. A 2018 survey of people’s favorite Avengers film characters ranked the Hulk second, after Spider-Man.
The most famous versions of the Hulk:
- The classic 70s live-action TV show, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno
- The Marvel Cinematic Universe films
As for the Hulk’s supporting cast, I don’t think any of them are well known to the general public. At best, you might get a pastiche of General “Thunderbolt” Ross in parodies (“military guy wanting to capture and/or kill the Hulk parody”).
The TV show made the Hulk a household name among Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, which is why he’s on this list and not the X-Men. Someone older will likely recognize the Hulk before any of the mutants. Also, the TV show introduced the popular catchphrase “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
Meanwhile, the Hulk’s stayed prominent in modern times, thanks to the MCU films and his appearance in various kids’ TV cartoons. For the latter, he’s a supporting character in “Spidey and His Amazing Friends” on Disney Junior.
“Peanuts” and “Garfield” are probably the two most widely known comic strips. I wasn’t sure about putting “Peanuts” here, given Charles Schulz’s strip ended in 2000 (making it less familiar to today’s kids). However, the Christmas and Halloween specials have aired annually for decades, and a theatrical “Peanuts” film was released in 2015. Apple TV+ also offers new “Peanuts” material aimed at kids. So for now, Charlie Brown and Snoopy get to stay in this tier.
While “Garfield” is still an ongoing strip, its popularity peaked some time ago. Still, the orange cat has had numerous appearances in animation, including “Garfield and Friends” and “The Garfield Show,” plus some video games. There’s also an upcoming movie, with Chris Pratt voicing Garfield. Thus, Garfield, Odie, and Jon get to stay in this tier.
Runners-up: “Merely” well-known comic characters
Below is a list of comic characters I’d say fall under the “merely well-known” category. They’re comic characters that are famous, but have waned in popularity, are rising in popularity but not (yet) at the level of the characters listed above, and/or aren’t well known depending on one’s generation or background.
The Sea King has been fairly well known for years, thanks to “Super Friends,” his Filmation TV show from the 60s, plus (unfortunately) lazy jokes about being “useless.” Still, Aquaman’s stayed reasonably popular, with the 2010s seeing a boost in popularity. This all led to the 2018 film starring Jason Momoa: it’s the highest-grossing film based on a DC character, at over $1.1 billion at the box office.
As such, Aquaman’s usually who the general public thinks of when they think of an aquatic superhero, and not Marvel’s Namor. Though that could change with “Black Panther”’s sequel out in late 2022 (starring Namor) and “Aquaman 2”’s release being delayed to December 2023; we’ll see.
Despite welcome modernizing in recent years, Archie’s fallen off in prominence as a children’s comic. The current explosion in children’s graphic novels means there’s a lot more choices for such material. The newer fare also has the advantage of being more modernized in tone, characters, types of stories, central premises, etc. Some Disney Channel and Nickelodeon live-action sitcoms also replicate some of Archie’s premises without needing the Riverdale gang. Finally, the “Riverdale” TV show (as of this writing) is winding down.
As such, I’m not sure how many kids would recognize Archie, Jughead, and company these days. (Or how much of the general public is even aware that Sabrina the Teenage Witch was originally an Archie character.) I wonder if all of the above are reasons why Archie’s been targeting older readers lately?
The movies have made the Avengers a household name worldwide, after spending years as near-B-listers. While I’m not sure if they’re well known among older people, and the movie franchise’s long-term future is in doubt, they definitely belong here for now. The most well-known members are: The Hulk (see above), Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
Flash’s profile has risen in recent years, thanks to his long-running (no pun intended) CW TV show. There’s also his appearances in the 2000s “Justice League” animated series, plus the recent DC theatrical films. That said, some people might (still) confuse the Flash with the similarly-named comic strip character Flash Gordon.
The 2000s “Justice League” animated series and the infamous 2011 Ryan Reynolds “Green Lantern” film have helped boost Green Lantern’s profile. That said, some people might still confuse Green Lantern with the Green Hornet.
The Justice League of America
The Avengers have eclipsed the JLA in general public prominence as the archetypical superhero team, something that would’ve been unthinkable before the 2010s. Still, the Justice League is relatively well known: see the “Super Friends,” the 2000s animated TV series, and the now-infamous 2017 theatrical movie. Also, pop culture parodies of superhero teams often go for making them similar to the Justice League, as seen in an episode of “Futurama.”
The X-Men (or Wolverine)
The mutants’ star has fallen since their 90s/00s peak, but the team, or at least Wolverine, is still well known.
Newspaper comic strips
While the newspaper comics below are still well known, they’re not quite as famous as they once were, particularly among kids or younger people.
- Little Orphan Annie
- Dick Tracy
- Calvin and Hobbes
Photo by JD Hancock (Flickr / CC BY / cropped from original)