With the release of the widely anticipated Avengers film this week and the latest Batman film set to hit later this year, I thought it might be fun to look at some comic books for a change. You see, everyone knows the bats, wolverines, spiders and cats get their turn as well known superheroes, but what about the birds? Well, rest assured there are plenty of those, so enjoy a countdown of the (utterly subjective) top ten superheroes inspired (in some small way) by birds! Heroes, mind, you won’t find the Penguin here.
Mellissa Gold was for many years the Marvel supervillain Screaming Mimi. She took on the persona Songbird and joined the Thunderbolts, a group of villains trying to take over the world by pretending to be heroes. But the acts of heroism they had to perform to keep up the appearance, and the accolades that came with that, affected the team and they decided to reform. Today she’s a Thunderbolts team leader and warden in a superhuman prison called the Raft. Her powers manifest as wings and, as her name suggests, a pretty loud scream.
What would happen if instead of sending the Joker and Lex Luthor off to jail each time Superman and Batman caught them, instead they just killed them? That’s the premise of the Authority, classic looking superheroes solving problems with ultraviolence. Shen Li-Min was part of this team, a Tibetan woman with super strength and speed and the ability to grow wings and clawed feet and hands. Along with her team (including her lover Jenny Sparks, the living Spirit of the Twentieth Century) she destroyed an alternate Italy to prevent the invasion of her world and took over the United States in order to run it better than Congress. This is not comic heroism as you remember it.
Alan Moore’s 1986 Watchmen is perhaps the most celebrated comic of all time, even ranking in Time Magazine’s top 100 Best Novels (since 1923). Set in an alternate dystopian 1980s, it deconstructed the superhero genre and changed comics forever. Dan Dreiberg is Nite-Owl, a former superhero with a similar style to Batman (including an nite-vision owl mask and owl-themed jalopy), called out of retirement after an unknown killer starts killing other retired masks. Dan is the most sympathetic hero in the story, although this is not saying much compared to the aloof god-like Dr Manhattan, the sociopathic Comedian and the disturbed Rorschach. The man is practically an ornithologist as well a superhero in the greatest comic ever, what more could you ask for?
7: Hawkeye and Mockingbird
Clint Barton, Hawkeye was a thief turned trick-arrow based hero who was one of the earliest members of the premier Marvel team, the Avengers. Bobbi Moore was a marine biologist turned spy who also ended up an Avenger and later Clint’s wife. Today they are superspies working for Captain America when they aren’t doing normal super-heroics. The pair are not particularly birdy, but make the list by virtue of their importance to the Avengers; Hawkeye also stars in Avengers, out this week, as well.
6: Hawkman and Hawkgirl
Hawkman is one of the oldest superheroes, having been around in one form or another since the 1940s. The “one form or another” bit is an important qualifier as he’s also one of the most astonishingly confusing heroes out there. The story of how a man and later a woman came to have wings, a funky gold helmet and a scary looking mace and went looking for criminals to pummel into submission has been told and retold so many times in so many mutually incompatible ways that it makes even the writers throw their hands up in the air and go “I have no freaking idea”. Now that DC has reset their entire universe again he now has another origin story and the whole mess will get even worse. No matter, Hawkman and Hawkgirl are badass and birdy and so they belong on this list.
Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, holds an important part in comics history as the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics. First introduced by Marvel as an ally of Captain America, with whom he shared the title of the comic they co-stared in for many years, and later as an Avenger, he is perhaps the most birdy hero of all. He was mentally bonded with a rescued falcon called Redwing, and has empathic powers with all birds allowing him to see through the eyes of any bird in the area. He also has a special wing harness that allows him to fly. Now there is a set of powers most birders would love to have!
4: Black Canary
Another DC character that debuted in the 1940s, although the current Black Canary, Dinah Lance, is the daughter of the Second World War heroine Dinah Drake. Or not, You may have gathered that comics can be a bit confusing. The Black Canary is among the top heroes of the DC universe, rubbing shoulders with Superman and Batman in the Justice League and even marrying the Robin Hood-like Green Arrow. Like Songbird her name is derived from her sonic power, although she is also one of the top martial artists in the world.
The founding member of the X-Men known as Jean Grey may have started her career as Marvel Girl, but she got a major power upgrade as the Phoenix. Actually a the spirit of death and rebirth in the Marvel Universe, Jean served as the host for the Phoenix on several occasions, as did her daughter, often punctuating times when Jean died or was reborn. Indeed Jean Grey has become something of an example of how no one stays dead in comics, ever. Jean is currently dead, but given the current Avengers versus X-Men event Marvel is running at the moment is starring the Phoenix Force, that may not last till the end of the year.
The Ur-example of a sidekick in superhero comics, the Boy Wonder first became Batman’s partner all the way back in 1940. There have actually been five different Robins, the current Robin is Damien Wayne, actually Batman’s son from one of his enemies, before him was Stephanie Brown (the only girl to be Robin, later the third Batgirl), Tim Drake, and Jason Todd (the one no one liked – he was killed off by the Joker). But the most famous was Dick Grayson, the original Robin, the orphaned circus acrobat. Dick has gone on to become a hero in his own right, Nightwing, bedded half the super heroines in the DC universe, and recently became Batman after Bruce Wayne died. And he’ll still never live down those tight tight shorts and pixie boots. Not the most birdy of bird-related heroes, but unquestionably one of the most recognisable heroes in the world.
1: The Birds of Prey
Not an individual bird hero but a whole team of bird heroes (sorta), in this case DC’s premier female super-team. Originally the aforementioned Black Canary and the superhacker Oracle, the book eventually took more bird related heroes including Lady Blackhawk, Starling, Hawkgirl, Hawk and Dove, as well as the less birdy Huntress, Misfit, Catwoman and even Poison Ivy! Interestingly, the team isn’t referred to as “The Birds of Prey” in the book itself for almost 70 issues, and never actually formally takes the name. While the series is a fan favourite due to the strong female characters, the excellent writers (particularly Gail Simone) and the way it made a disabled character one of the most important superheroes in the DC Universe, it is the sheer concentration of birds that wins Birds the top spot here.
All the characters and images are the respective copyright of the Marvel and DC companies, and are used under a fair-use rationale.