Science Gone Wrong Championship Bout: Spider-Man vs. Hulk
Origin Story: Gawky, geeky New York high schooler Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider (altered to a genetically modified spider in later reboots of the character), and overnight becomes imbued with the arachnid’s heightened strength, agility, perception, and velcro-like grip on practically any surface. But he’s still just a hot-headed kid: When Peter blithely neglects to stop a thief, the lowlife winds up murdering Peter’s Uncle Ben — the only father figure he’s known. Peter’s grief propels him into a life of crime fighting, driven by the principle that with great power comes great responsibility.
Costume: A red-and-blue unitard covered in webbing and with a stylized spider on the chest. Unlike almost every other A-list superhero costume, Spider-Man’s head (and therefore his identity) is completely covered, with two large arachnid-like eyes the only things delineating a face. It is simultaneously one of the silliest and most realistic superhero costumes ever, in so far as it actually protects Spidey’s secret identity.
Coolest Power/Ability: Hanging out on the ceiling is damn cool, and that hyper-sensitive “spidey sense” sure comes in handy. But what makes Peter more than just your average teenager is his keen engineering acumen, which enables him to conceive and fabricate the web shooters that allow Spider-Man to sling himself through the high-rise canyons of New York. (The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies made the web-shooters an innate function of Peter’s powers, a fanboy heresy rectified in this summer’s franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.)
Defining Stories: There have been so many variations on Spider-Man over the years, it’s hard to know where to begin. But “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” — the Green Goblin drops Spidey’s girlfriend from a Manhattan bridge; Spidey shoots his web to save her; but the whiplash from the sudden stop snaps her neck — remains one of the most shocking arcs in comic book history.
Cultural Legacy: As Superman defines the DC Comics universe, Spider-Man is at the center of the Marvel Comics ethos: A flawed, human-scaled hero, constantly struggling just to keep his head above water, let alone save the world. He remains one of the most recognizable superheroes on the planet, spawning several animated and live-action TV series and now two bazillion-dollar movie franchises. In fact, 2002’s Spider-Man — the first comic book movie in 13 years to top the box office for the year — arguably launched superhero cinema into its current cultural dominance. (Sorry, X-Men.) —Adam B. Vary
Origin Story: Scientist Bruce Banner — confident in mind but emotionally withdrawn — was super-saturated with Gamma Bomb radiation during a test of the weapon while saving a kid who had strayed into the blast area. Consequently, Bruce “gained” the unwanted, stress-triggered “ability” to morph into a brawny behemoth, a hot, chaotically articulated seethe of repressed feelings transmuted into hard-bodied green flesh. Yes, green. When ragingly engorged, Banner is considered a menace to society, especially when he’s making a mess of America’s infrastructure. When properly cajoled and directed, this monstrous, spinach-hued Popeye can do some good. All things considered, though, Banner/Hulk — the Jekyll & Hyde of the Marvel universe — would rather be left alone.
Costume: Bah! Hulk needs no puny costume! When you have heaps of biceps and abs of adamantium, you flaunt that s—t, baby. In fact, we bet Hulk resents the shredded pair of (often purple) chinos with an extraordinary elastic waist foisted upon him by prudish pencilers. Hulk has no shame! Set Little Hulk Free! (Also: Purple?)
Coolest Power/Ability: Hulk smash. Anything. EVERYTHING! ‘Nuff said.
Defining Stories: Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks Vol. 1, which collects the first six Hulk stories by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; Incredible Hulk: Pardoned by writer Bill Mantlo and various artists, including Sal Buscema, and Incredible Hulk: Regression by Mantlo and various artists; Incredible Hulk Visionaries — Peter David, Vol. 1, by seminal Hulk scribe David and including art by a pre-Spawn Todd McFarlane.
Cultural Legacy: Inspired by monster-movie pop and science-gone-wrong horror lit, Hulk was unique among Silver Age superheroes for not really being a superhero at all, for representing something of an ironic subversion of genre tropes. As such, the misunderstood misfit gained a cult following with counter-culture kids of the sixties, and paved the way for the current anti-hero-palooza. Hulk’s thrashing violence and monosyllabic expressiveness makes for easy caricature, but the character’s fragmented psyche makes him one of the most complex personalities in all of comic books. Endlessly interesting for writers (surprisingly so), so much fun to draw for artists (for obvious reasons), Hulk — poignant and outrageous — ranks as one of the medium’s signature creations. —Jeff Jensen