Quantifying Comics – Continuity Census

When we talk about storylines in comics, or discuss iconic features of a character (a supporting character, a villain, a prop) it gets hard to discuss things as a whole. Comics, especially Spider-Man, are a mosaic and a tapestry designed by many minds and many hands. Not all of them agree. So it’s hard to form a consensus. Then personal taste and sentiments get thrown into the argument, i.e. one’s personal attachment as a fan to a story or character, (especially with Spider-Man). The level to which a lot of approaches to Spider-Man in comics is driven by personal attachment is especially hard to ignore or jettison entirely. One way out is to make this a question about numbers.

In 2019, Marvel Entertainment’s YouTube channel put out a video called “Top 10 Marvel Super Hero Appearances” [1]. This video generally didn’t make any kind of waves anywhere but it did spark a series of debates on online comics forums at Comic Books Resources (CBR [2]) and Spider-Man Crawlspace [3]. FULL DISCLOSURE: under the handle “Revolutionary_Jack” I posted at both forums, so this is a participant report.

What was interesting about this video and the forum debates is the fact that comics fans on the internet hit on something that most comics scholars haven’t considered important or relevant. Namely quantifying continuity. It’s one thing to argue so-and-so is a valuable character and important figure but place a number against it and we can have a practical sense of a character’s importance and value in a tangible sense. Namely how much does a character get used, get referred to, show up. In a serialized ongoing narrative like superhero comics, such numbers can inform us a great deal about the value of continuity, the power of trends, the impact of change, and what is truly popular with readers of comics.

To be sure, some amount of quantifying work has shown up in comics writing before. The Claremont Run by Jonathan Deman for instance has “Project Data” which shows lists compiled on parameters such as “Character Behaviour, Cover Logging, and Issue Setting” , “Character Visualization and Speech” , “Uncanny X-men Bechdel Test Results” , “Bechdel Test Comparators” [6]. Having fewer resources in comparison and starting out far earlier, the hope is eventually to use data in a similar manner. But we have to start somewhere so let’s begin.

WHO COUNTS? WHAT COUNTS? WHICH COUNTS?

Dave Cockrum’s original Storm pages

So anyway, the YouTube video by Marvel Entertainment listed the following as the Marvel Characters with the most appearances:

  1. Spider-Man
  2. Wolverine
  3. Captain America
  4. Cyclops
  5. Iron Man
  6. Storm
  7. Beast
  8. Thor
  9. Thing
  10. Iceman

As with any list dealing with numbers, the issues aren’t simply what counts, but how does one count and measure. As my fellow CBR poster “Icefanatic” noted:

They are using Comicvine’s numbers for total number of times a character is published. Their numbers include alternate realities and I believe reprints in titles like X-Men Classic/Classic X-Men.

Icefanatic

In other words, this list includes Marvel characters who are published across all comics, including not only the official “616 Continuity” but also Alternate Universes and Reprints. Marvel Comics is unique for maintaining a single line-wide continuity dating to the 1940s which was updated and revived in the 1960s. Every Marvel character – Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four – exist in the same shared universe. Since 616 is most long-lasting and has far greater issues, it makes sense some argue to focus just on this continuity alone. A 616 list of Appearances would feature Hulk in place of Iceman and shuffle some rankings (Captain America is second after Spider-Man for instance in 616 while Wolverine is now at 4th place) but even then there are more constants than variables.

Across all continuities the only constants are [A]Spider-Man is Marvel’s leading character and [B] Storm is the only woman. But in the 616 Continuity, she’s at #10 rather than #6 while Hulk doesn’t crack the top 10 across all comics continuities.

INFERENCES

This illustrates how alternate continuities (including movie and cartoon tie-ins, comics for children, continuity reboots like Ultimate Marvel etc) which arrived relatively recently in Marvel Comics privileges later characters but not significantly so. The X-Men’s status as Marvel’s leading team book is confirmed with four and five members in the top ten of both 616 and All Comics. The youngest two characters – Storm and Wolverine – appeared in the mid-70s more than a decade in advance of other characters in that list. This shows that seniority and longevity aren’t impossible hurdles by any means, that it’s possible for an established character to be supplanted by some newcomer.

Of the top 10 Marvel characters, we have just one female superhero and she’s at #6. This superhero is Storm of the X-Men, not Jean Grey (historically the first female member of the team), and not characters who are senior to her in publication history like Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four or The Wasp the only female founder of The Avengers, both of whom are more than ten years senior. Not Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers who was the first female superhero to headline a solo superhero movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rather it’s a mutant who made her debut in Giant Size X-Men #1.

From this we can draw at least two inferences:

  • Negative: Historically Marvel has published far more male protagonists than female ones.
  • Positive: Diversity is far more representative than many comics fans, media-watchers, and others believe.

The interesting fact is that Storm is rarely promoted as Marvel’s greatest female superhero in comics, when her high number of appearances would more than merit her that claim.

At this point several posters carried out informal surveys and I joined the fray. Drawing on websites like Travis Starnes’ Complete Marvel Reading Order (CMRO) and the Marvel Database, we were able to draw more narrow and particular lists. Marvel Database was especially useful because it draws a distinction between Appearances and “Minor Appearances” (i.e. single panel group shots, background action, no dialogues) allowing one to count Appearances as actual comics panels and balloons speaking roles. Though admittedly it’s not always clear how one can measure an appearance as “minor”. Either case, with the help of CBR Posters Digifiend and CBR Poster Captain M, we created a provisional census:

Marvel’s Top 10 Female Characters in terms of Appearances in 616 Continuity

  1. Storm – 1889
  2. Invisible Woman – 1821
  3. Captain Marvel – 1424
  4. Scarlet Witch – 1408
  5. Wasp – 1280
  6. Jean Grey – 1269
  7. Black Widow – 1261
  8. She-Hulk – 1214
  9. Mary Jane – 1170
  10. Kitty Pryde – 1134

Women in general have fewer appearances than male superheroes in the 616 Continuity and across the franchise. The X-Men comics once again lead the way with three women in the top 10 (and with #1). Jean Grey’s presence at #6 requires a great deal of qualification since she was missing in comics for significant gaps in the mid-80s and then a much larger gap between 2004-2018.

Significant for a Spider-Man fan is that Mary Jane Watson, a civilian supporting character, as opposed to a superhero ranks in Marvel’s Top 10, slightly ahead of Kitty Pryde as of 2019.

VILLAIN CENSUS

Art by Chris Giarrusso

Next on the list is villains, who as a rule appear far less often than superheroes and regular supporting cast. So Marvel’s biggest villains according to the census of CBR Poster Revolutionary_Jack (i.e. yours truly) is:

1) Doctor Doom – 835 Appearances
2) Magneto – 816 Appearances.
3) Green Goblin/Norman Osborn – 597 Appearances
4) Kingpin – 533 Appearances
5) Sabretooth – 499 Appearances
6) Loki – 493 Appearances
7) Galactus – 458 Appearances
8) Mystique – 456 Appearances
9) Doctor Octopus – 440 Appearances
10) Thanos – 411 Appearances
11) Mephisto – 376 Appearances
12) Red Skull – 358 Appearances
13) Baron Zemo – 250 Appearances
14) Ultron – 203 Appearances

That Marvel’s three most important comics historically (Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man) should have their leading villains rule the roost is fitting. However Doom and Magneto are substantially ahead of the Goblin (who much like Jean Grey was missing-in-continuity for a 2 decade period). Doom and Magneto are likewise so close (less than 20) that it makes more sense to argue they should share the top spot especially since 2019 was the launch of Jonathan Hickman’s stewardship of X-Men where Magneto has likely clocked more appearances to take the lead. But this is a census and the cut-off is 2019, it would make more sense to update this in 2029 than to track it daily.

To bring this home with Spider-Man, who qualifies as its top villains and top supporting character? Both were questions I decided to research for myself. I drew on Starnes’ Complete Marvel Reading Order and the Marvel Database. This is my attempt to draw a census, not an official one, so I invite others to check my numbers (I ask them to cut off by end of 2019 to maintain a set standard but that’s a request and not a demand). Nonetheless my action is speculative:

616 Continuity Villains:

  1. Green Goblin (597 Appearances)
  2. Doctor Octopus (440 Appearances)
  3. Venom (377 Appearances)
  4. Black Cat (374 Appearances)
  5. Scorpion (318 Appearances)
  6. The Sandman (300 Appearances)
  7. Rhino (246 Appearances)
  8. The Lizard (213 Appearances)
  9. Vulture (202 Appearances)
  10. Electro (197 Appearances)

The list of villains on this list is tricky because Black Cat/Felicia Hardy has far more often been a supporting character than a villain even if she was introduced as one originally. The characters of Rhino and The Sandman clocked a significant number of appearances as villains for the Hulk and Fantastic Four respectively, with The Sandman also joining The Avengers. So their Spider-Man–alone appearances would give them a smaller notch. Green Goblin likewise came to spend a considerable amount of time as an Avengers villain from the late 2000s to early 2010s. In the case of Doctor Octopus, he also spent a chunk in his publication history as a Spider-Man doppelganger during Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man.

SPIDER-MAN CAST CENSUS

When we come to supporting characters:

1 – Mary Jane Watson – 1074 Appearances
2 – J. Jonah Jameson – 1046 Appearances
3 – May Parker – 766 Appearances
4 – Robbie Robertson – 611 Appearances
5 – Flash Thompson – 574 Appearances
6 – Harry Osborn – 477 Appearances
7 – Betty Brant – 428 Appearances
8 – Eddie Brock – 377 Appearances
9 – Felicia Hardy – 374 Appearances
– Miles Morales – 374 Appearances
10 – Liz Allan – 273 Appearances

Venom and Black Cat feature in the villains list. To distinguish them for their heroic turns, their alter-egos appear here. At the time I drew this list, both Miles Morales and Felicia Hardy had a straight tie. Since both characters had their own ongoing titles (Jed McKay’s Black Cat, Saladin Ahmed’s Miles Morales: Spider-Man) I expect both to run a dead heat for a while before Miles takes the lead. Despite being the newest addition to the Spider-Man franchise, arriving in 2011, Miles Morales has fast become a major figure in the titles, cracking into the top 10 in less than a decade.

What’s interesting about the list of supporting characters is that Harry Osborn features so prominently in adaptations of Spider-Man as either Peter’s closest friend or most prominent supporting character when he’s not even in the top 5. Flash Thompson who is featured less often is ahead of him by a big healthy lead. Robbie Robertson who likewise features far less often in the Spider-Man Franchise is at #4 highlighting the greater centrality of the Daily Bugle over Peter’s high school and college phases in the comics, as compared to the franchise adaptations.

CONCLUSION

Much like Doom and Magneto, the gap between Mary Jane Watson and J. Jonah Jameson is so small that they both should be considered the most important supporting characters. Their lead over Aunt May at 3rd place is so substantially large, being the only ones to reach 1000 appearances.

So if one were to argue who were the three most important characters in Spider-Man, who since the character’s first appearance in 616 in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) over several decades have maintained their longevity : then it’s Spider-Man, Mary Jane, and J. Jonah Jameson.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Marvel Entertainment. Sep 23, 2019. “Top 10 Marvel Super Hero Appearances !”
    https://youtu.be/fu4V3qKCPls
  2. “Marvel superhero most appearances” CBR Community. “Marvel Comics” subforum. Original Post on September 23, 2019.
    https://community.cbr.com/showthread.php?129430-Marvel-superhero-most-appearances
  3. “Spider-Man Cast with Most Appearances” Spider-Man Crawlspace. Message Boards. October 02, 2019.
    https://www.spidermancrawlspace.com/wwwboard/viewtopic.php?t=23221
  4. “The Complete Marvel Reading Order”. Travis Starnes.
    https://cmro.travis-starnes.com/
  5. Marvel Database.
    https://marvel.fandom.com/wiki/Marvel_Database
  6. The Claremont Run. Project Data
    http://www.claremontrun.com/Data.html

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