Supernatural Entities Showdown, Round One: Spawn vs. Captain Marvel
Origin Story: When CIA assassin Al Simmons was murdered by one of his own men, his soul was sent to hell to burn for all eternity. Desperate to see his wife again, he made a deal with the devil — or a devil, anyhow — and returned to earth. But Simmons’ Faustian bargain was, well, predictably Faustian. His reanimated body was burned beyond all recognition. His wife had remarried. And Simmons returned as a creature called “The Hellspawn” — a powerful being whose ultimate purpose was to lead the forces of hell against heaven.
Costume: Spawn has one of the great iconic outfits of the ’90s, with a head-to-toe ensemble set off by spikes and chains — he’s like a death-metal Spider-Man. But the costume is really all about the high-collared, eerily organic red cape.
Coolest Power/Ability: Powered by a demonic substance known as necroplasm, Spawn has a seemingly infinite assortment of supernatural abilities, and his specific skills have evolved regularly during the character’s existence. But one of the most interesting aspects of the character when he was first introduced was the idea that he had a finite reserve of energy — represented, literally, by a timer that counted down every time Spawn used his powers.
Defining Stories: The first 12 issues of Spawn are a great slow-burn introduction to the character, featuring a weird mix of Lovecraftian dark fantasy and gritty street-crime drama. The series eventually suffered a serious case of mission drift, but the Armageddon story arc brought years of Spawn mythology together into an epic final showdown between the forces of heaven and hell.
Cultural legacy: Spawn remains the most successful independent comic book character in history, inspiring both a TV show and a movie. If his popularity has dimmed somewhat in the last decade, then that only increases Spawn’s value as an essential time capsule of ’90s comic book maturity. Chains! Spikes! Swear words! —DF
Name: Captain Marvel
Origin Story: When orphaned newsboy Billy Batson wanders into a deep cavern, he meets an ancient wizard, who grants Billy a host of supernatural abilities. From then on, whenever the lad yells the wizard’s name — “Shazam!” — he’s transformed into a grown-up superhero named Captain Marvel.
Costume: Captain Marvel’s sharp red-and-yellow outfit suggests a Pharaonic riff on Superman’s outfit, complete with a glimmering white shoulder cape.
Coolest Power/Ability: We all know that “Shazam!” is actually an acronym for the hero’s seven magic abilities, which all derive from characters in Greek mythology. With one exception: the S stands for “the wisdom of Solomon.” And really, that seems like it could come in handy more frequently than his other powers. I mean, you can’t use the power of Zeus to make good investments in the stock market.
Defining Stories: The early Shazam! comics are hard to find nowadays, but Jeff Smith’s miniseries Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil is a great modern introduction to the character.
Cultural legacy: Captain Marvel was incredibly popular in his heyday, becoming the subject of a movie serial. In some ways he’s been overshadowed in recent decades, and unfairly maligned as a Superman clone. But it’s hard to match the elemental appeal of Captain Marvel’s boy-becoming-a-man origin. —DF
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