Hollywood’s adoration for the comic book hero is now a staple of our mainstream movie diet. But the surface has only been scratched, and there’s more to these imaginative worlds than just the characters of Marvel and DC…
This list is populated by comic book heroes and villains under-served by the film industry. These underrated or sadly forgotten comic book characters have either had film adaptations done in their countries of origin, endured poor Hollywood adaptations, or worse still, never made it to the big screen at all.
Intriguing, interesting, portraying different cultures and depicting several abilities and skills, the characters on this list are worth a mention and should definitely be considered for a new super hero blockbuster movie that is in no way related to either Marvel or DC comics…
10. Fantômas and Fantomas (France and México)
The original Fantomas is a French character created in 1911 by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre.
The original French Fantômas was more of a villain than a hero. He was a ruthless thief and killer who committed crimes just for his personal gain. He was selfish and fathered several children with different women. He appeared in 32 volumes written by his creators and was the subject of TV series and films produced in his country of origin.
Mysteriously, the same character of Fantomas reappears in 1966 in México under the same name, but without the circumflex accent. It is unknown if Mexico paid copyrights to France to use the character, but Mexican Fantomas was indeed inspired on the original French thief.
Fantomas’ Mexican alter ego was also created by two writers: Guillermo Mendizábal and Rubén Lara and was sketched by Ruben Lara Romero and Victor Cruz, among others.
The comics were printed in color. The art was incredibly well done and the logotype of Fantomas became an icon among Mexican comic book collectors. Many times beautiful women were featured on the covers to attract a larger audience. The name of the comic strip was “Fantomas la Amenaza Elegante”.
Although this new Fantomas lived in Mexico, he was still of French nationality. There was a French police inspector named Gerard that kept chasing him. Fantomas’ allies were 12 female secret agents that were named after the Zodiac signs. This Mexican-French Fantomas still committed crimes, but to help noble causes. Reminds us of James Bond, but blended with Robin Hood.
Fantomas was a well documented comic strip that featured intellectual references to classic literature and art. Also, Fantomas loved to interact with famous personalities, such as Hitchcock or Albert Einstein. He dated Brooke Shields in his many love affairs, among other actresses both Mexican and American.
Quite an intriguing ambivalent character, it’s a shame that he has been forgotten for many years. The last issue of Mexican Fantomas was released in the 80s.
9. Barbarella (France)
Barbarella was created and sketched by French comic book artist and writer Jean-Claude Forest in 1962. Published by V magazine, the empowered, sexy heroine became an immediate success.
Depicted as a beautiful, blonde adventurer, Barbarella travels from planet to planet to live many different adventures, often sexual in nature. Barbarella was a symbol of the sexual revolution of the 60s to the 80s. She was one of the first emancipated heroines not afraid to show her own sexuality. Barbarella was translated into many different languages and reprinted by American magazine Heavy Metal in 1978, since Barbarella took place way several years before Heavy Metal existed.
A Barbarella movie was filmed in 1968, starring Jane Fonda. She is considered a cult sci-fi character but sadly, no other movies have been filmed to revive the character.
As a fun fact, the English pop band Duran Duran took their name from one of Barbarella’s characters, scientist Durand Durand featured in the film.
Jean-Claude Forest was praised in his country of origin as “The Magician of Comics” and was honored with a French postage stamp back in 1989.
8. The Phantom (United States)
After the success of Mandrake the Magician, the King Features Syndicate people told Lee Falk to come up with a new character for a new comic strip. This is how the Phantom was born in 1936, initially sketched by Lee Falk himself. American comic book artist Ray Moore took over later on.
The Phantom is the story of a family lineage that promised to fight crime and piracy over many generations. In the sixteenth century, a young boy named Christopher Walker was sailing with his father in the seas of Africa. They were attacked by a pirate ship and the only survivor was Christopher “Kit” Walker. He swore on the skull of one of the men that killed his father that he would fight against injustice and piracy and that his sons and the sons of his sons should follow him.
The Shadow is also known as the “Ghost who Walks” and is believed that he can live forever, though that’s not the real truth. Every time that a Phantom dies, his son (all of them of the same name), takes over the suit and continues the fight for justice. He carries two .45 guns.
Originally envisioned by Lee Falk as a grey ghost, the colorist at the time in charge of the strip decided that The Phantom would look better in purple. And that’s the color the suit that has remained.
Despite the fact that The Phantom has lived for 400 years and many “Kits” have taken over the Phantom suit, only one movie has been made to honor the immortal character. Filmed in 1996 and starring Billy Zane and Catherine Zeta Jones, the movie received mixed reviews. It was an underrated film that sadly was more successful in the home video format.
They were intending to film Mandrake the Magician after The Phantom’s film release. Those plans were cancelled after The Phantom’s flop at the box office.
Just like Mandrake, The Phantom also appeared in the animated series “The Defenders of Earth”.
7. Mandrake the Magician (United States)
Created by Lee Falk as a comic strip for the King Features Syndicate newspaper back in 1934 to immediate success, Mandrake started to be published by several newspapers on a weekly basis.
Mandrake was portrayed as an elegant magician, dressed in the classical fashion, with a black hat, cane and a cape, but he wasn’t an ordinary magician. He had indeed super human powers; he was capable of hypnotizing his enemies. So when he wasn’t performing in theatres, he was indeed fighting crime.
A very old and interesting character, probably Lee Falk’s trademark character, has never had a movie of his own; not even a TV series. However, he was a recurrent character in the crossover animated series “Defenders of the Earth” that aired in the 80s.
Who does Mandrake have to hypnotize to get his own Hollywood film? What actor could portray such an elegant magician?
On January 2015, Dynamite comics launched “The King Event”, a comic book event that celebrated the 100th anniversary of The King Features Syndicate´s most famous comic book characters. Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom were included.
6. Druuna (United States, France, Italy)
Druuna was created by Italian comic book artist and writer Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri in 1985. Druuna is a beautiful, voluptuous woman who can be either of Latino or Mediterranean descent, and lives many adventures in a post-apocalyptic future where there is an incurable disease that turns people into monsters with tentacles.
Druuna is often involved in hardcore sexual situations where she has to have sexual encounters in exchange for information or medicine to stop the disease. “Morbus Gravis” (Severe Disease) was the name of the sexually explicit series of comic books where Druuna featured. As a fun fact, her creator and penciler Paolo Eleuteri drew himself as one of the recurrent characters of the series, with the name “Doc”.
Because of its explicit content and sexual nature, Morbus Gravis was agreed to be published only by French publishers Dargaud and Bagheera and American adult and fantasy comic book magazine Heavy Metal. The last issue of Morbus Gravis was printed in 2003.
Heavy Metal is well known to be open-minded when it comes to publishing comic strips or chapters from graphic novels from various artists around the globe. Heavy Metal designates a few pages of their magazine to different authors and only publishes art that has been drawn and written by the same artist. Druuna has been reprinted in many issues of Heavy Metal since her first publication in 1985.
Despite the criticism around Paolo’s explicit, violent and realistic art, no one can deny his awesomeness. Druuna has been translated into 12 different languages and has sold many prints worldwide; she has even inspired a 3D video game. But sadly, she has never been considered for a formal (and probably rated R) Hollywood film. Any ideas of what actress should portrait such a curvaceous character?
5. Lady Death (United States)
Lady Death was created by Brian Pulido and Steven Hughes and was published by Eternity Comics in 1991.
Originally created to be the hallucination of a serial killer named Ernie, Lady Death developed to become an anti-heroine of her own.
The independent character Lady Death was once a mortal Swedish woman from medieval times named Hope. She was sent to be burnt alive because her father, Matthias, was a black magician that summoned demons. When Hope was about to die, she summoned a demon herself that offered her a deal. She would be saved but had to serve Lucifer in Hell. When she was sent to Hell, she realized her father was the evil sorcerer that was defying Lucifer to control Hell. Originally born as a good woman, Lady Death becomes an anti-heroine because of unfortunate circumstances.
She became an albino by passing the Labyrinth portal. She is depicted as a beautiful demonic woman, with white hair and white skin. She has no eyeballs, and is often dressed in black or purple, with a cape and carrying a sword. She has had crossovers with characters like Witchblade and Vampirella (who is also on this list).
Sadly, Lady Death has jumped from one publisher to another, and each one has modified the story of the character and her surroundings. She has been published by Chaos Comics (now defunct), CrossGen Comics and lately, Avatar Press. Interestingly, Lady Death inspired a Korean animated movie that was released in 2004.
She has been considered the female Spawn by her fans. Sadly, she has been underrated and hasn’t received the attention she deserves. Does she need to summon a demon again so a Hollywood producer notices her?
4. Mr Hero, The Neumatic Man (United States)
Published by the now defunct Tekno Comics and created by Neil Gaiman, Mr Hero was a short series of comic books sold from 1995 to 1996.
Teknophage (a.k.a. Henry Phage) is a demon that looks like an extraterrestrial dinosaur from planet Kalighoul that wants to take over planet Earth. He builds a steam-powered robot to spy on Earth until he decides the right time to conquer it and thus Mr Hero is born.
Mr Hero is a tall, golden robot that reminds us of the Jewish tales of the Golems. He comes with a technological advantage: he has two heads. One of them represents his rational side whereas the other one reflects his motor skills (a very interesting way to portray human cerebral hemispheres).
Mr Hero is discovered by a farmer, who sells it to a magician in the 1800’s. The magician teaches him how to box using his physical-fighting head. He is successful until he inadvertently kills a man that challenges him. Then he is stored back for many years as a punishment. More than a century later, Jennifer Hale, a female mime and street magician, finds him by accident and puts him back online. The duo now will live many adventures together.
Many fans of the saga were upset when the comic stopped being released. They forced an ending to it in 1996, maybe anticipating the fact that Tekno Comics wasn’t going to live much after that. Teknophage had his own series, which also ended with the closing of Tekno Comics.
The art was exceptional and the few comic books that were printed were printed in rich color in glossy paper, a known characteristic of Tekno Comic’s comic books. It’s a shame that Mr Hero hasn’t been taken over by any other company in all these years. He had the potential to become a heroic and funny version of Bicentennial Man mixed with RoboCop and Iron Man.
It seems that Mr Hero is being punished again, this time for Tekno Comic’s sins and he is still stored somewhere in the shelves of forgotten comic book heroes waiting for a new magician/Hollywood producer to rescue him.
3. Kalimán (México)
The Kalimán concept started off as a radio program in 1963, created by Rafael Cutberto Navarro and Modesto Vázquez González. It was so successful that the concept was made into comic books that spanned 1,351 issues over a 30-year period from the 1960s up until the 1990s.
It was printed in sepia and had a thick book-based spine. However, the cover was printed in color. New Kalimán stories drawn in color were printed in the 2000’s and stopped production in 2013.
Kalimán is a handsome character with Mediterranean features. He has blue eyes, wears a white turban, a white outfit and a white cape. He was born in a fictional place in India and is a descendant of the dynasty goddess Kali. Kalimán also has psychic powers and is trained in martial arts.
King Abul Pashá found Kalimán as a baby floating in the river and decided to adopt him as his own son. The law states that if the king does not have an heir to the throne, then by default the Prime Minister will automatically be in line to take over. Sarak (the current Prime Minister) sends men to seek out Kalimán and kill him.
Kalimán prevails against his assailants; however he declines his claim to the throne and prefers to be an errant hero that travels the globe doing justice for people that cannot fight for themselves.
Unlike some characters in this list, Kalimán is very famous in its country of origin… Mexico. A blockbuster film about Kalimán was made in 1972, “Kalimán el Hombre Increíble” (Kalimán: The Incredible Man) filmed both in Mexico and Egypt. The movie was very successful. A sequel was made in 1976, “Kalimán en el Siniestro Mundo de Humanón” (Kalimán in the Sinister World of Humanón). This time the movie was filmed in Mexico and Brasil and was also successful, but not as much as the first.
Kalimán has only ever been portrayed by one actor, Canadian Jeff Cooper. He didn’t speak a word of Spanish and therefore had to be dubbed by a Mexican actor in both films.
Surprisingly, Kalimán’s creators got away with the fact that they faced him off against some Marvel characters such as The Thing, Galactus and Dr. Doom. Having said that, there was no official deal with Marvel where they could license the characters to have written such crossovers.
Kalimán has never been considered for any Hollywood project despite his long successful story as a comic book hero in México and other parts of Central and South America.
2. Vampirella (United States)
A sexy vampire heroine created by Forrest J. Ackerman and Trina Robbins in 1969. The first known issue of Vampirella was published by Warren Publishing’s black and white magazine. The last issue was published in 1983.
Vampirella is an alien vampire that lives on planet Drakulon. Historically, the inhabitants sustained themselves by drinking the blood that ran through the rivers. However, as the years went by, the rivers eventually ran dry.
When a spaceship from Earth crash lands on their planet, Vampirella goes to investigate. The astronauts attack in fear and, during the fight, she realizes humans have blood running through their veins. Vampirella is sent to Earth to see if she can save her dying race. Once she visits Earth, she stays and becomes a champion for humanity. She has the characteristic powers of vampires and, like Blade, doesn’t retain any of their weaknesses.
Vampirella was a sister magazine of the Creepy and Eerie magazines. The three of them were printed in black and white and Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie were the hosts that narrated horror stories. Vampirella was also a host for horror stories in her magazine but she also starred in her own.
One of the key elements for Vampirella’s success in the world of underground comics was both Trina Robbins’s design of the character and the great art portrayed by Spanish comic book artist José Gonzalez. His depictions of Vampirella were incredibly realistic. Former model and American actress Barbara Leigh is known to have posed as Vampirella for several issues where the cover art was an actual photo.
Many reprints and new versions of Vampirella (in color) have been published since 1983, when the official series was cancelled. The rights to Vampirella are now owned by Dynamite Entertainment, who acquired them from Harris Comics.
Vampirella only has one movie under her sexy belt; a low budget film starring Talisa Soto in 1996. Sadly, the movie was unsuccessful and is almost unknown.
1. The Spirit (United States)
Will Eisner’s best creation. The Spirit was a series of comic books published by Quality Comics in 1940. It’s a story about Denny Colt, a policeman who apparently dies in the first issue. In reality, he was placed in suspended animation through an experiment by his archenemy Dr. Cobra.
After escaping his evil clutches, Denny took to the city to fight crime as his alter ego… The Spirit. Only his assistant Ebony White and Commissioner Dolan knew of his true identity.
The original comic books ceased production in the 1950s but many reprints and some new stories have surfaced in subsequent decades. There have been many crossovers with characters, such as the Rocketeer and Batman. Even Garfield pays homage to the character by dressing up as The Spirit for a special edition issue!
Eisner was an extremely talented sequential artist and wrote most of the stories and characters himself. Many of the storylines and characters had fun and comedic elements. After several months, he had the unaccredited assistance of writer Jules Feiffer and artists Jack Cole and Wally Wood.
The Spirit inspired two movies that sadly weren’t very successful. The first was released back in 1987 by Warner Studios. They had planned to create a TV series off the back of the pilot, but since it performed so badly at the box office, the idea was ultimately scrapped.
In 2008, Frank Miller decided to take the reins and have another go at resurrecting the script. Even with actors like Samuel L Jackson and Eva Mendes, it wasn’t enough to fend off the scathing reviews it got from journalists at the time.
Eisner is considered to be the father of the graphic novel. One of the most prestigious awards in the comic world is the Will Eisner Award. A Google doodle featuring The Spirit was made in his honor in 2011.