For long-term readers of mine, this list may be as notable for who isn't on it as for who is. The decisionmaking process on this was… difficult, to say the least. In the end, I had to go with my immediate gut reactions and leave out many, many heroes who certainly rank high in my personal pantheon. Do not take the absence of a character to mean I don't appreciate them as a great hero and example; there are many such who simply don't quite reach this top ten… or who might reach it on a different day.
Peter Parker, geeky high school student, bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly given tremendous powers by this random accident, makes a selfish choice… that costs him one of the two people dearest to him. He swears never to make that mistake again, dedicating himself to the principle that "with great power comes great responsibility".
There are, of course, bobbles in this resolution – mainly, in my view, caused by the nature of the comic-book medium, with multiple authors, company visions, and so on competing in the writing process. I judge my comic-book heroes based on what I see as their BEST storylines and writing, not the fumbles.
And at his best, Spider-Man is the essence of the Hero. He carries on a one-man war against evil while sometimes barely eking out an existence in a one-room flat; he invents gadgets which could make him a fortune but keeps them as his trump cards in the battle against supervillains who often threaten his city; he goes to seek out these adversaries and confront them when injured, when so ill he can barely walk, and always, always driven by the ghost of his one mistake. Peter Parker is perhaps the strongest-willed person in the Marvelverse, and certainly one of the most deserving of the term "Determinator". He has beaten foes that seemed utterly beyond him because he simply would not give up, because he would accept no other outcome but victory.
He is one of the greatest comic-book heroes ever, and that lands him here, at number ten.
#9: Lord Valentine
From Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle and its first two sequels, Valentine is one of the rarest of protagonists: a practical pacifist who truly does seek the peaceful way out of a problem, but who is willing to take the other path when no other way exists.
Valentine is one of the truly good people in fiction, with scarcely a drop of pettiness or evil within him. The evil done to him – depriving him of everything he ever knew, including his original body – was something so hideous that almost any other character would have sworn bloody vengeance on the perpetrator. Valentine, instead, tried to understand his adversary, to come to some accord with him – and in the end this leads him to a greater victory than any amount of violence.
Valentine also has the trait, common in many heroes, of gathering people to him who choose to follow him even into grave peril. In his case it is believable; we see the way Valentine acts, gravely courteous, considerate, innocent in a way, yet wise, that draws people to him. He is the perfect example of what a ruler should be… up to, and including, the desire not to be a ruler.
His heroic innocence and gentle determination bring him onto this list at number nine.
The sheepfarmer's daughter who ran away to adventure and found far more than she could have imagined, Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion is one of the ultimate and defining versions of the D&D "Paladin" character type – the holy warrior for a god. In part this is because it was inspired(according to a conversation I had with her) by her overhearing someone playing a Paladin badly, and thinking to herself "that's not how such a character would act!". From that thought, Paks was born.
Paksenarrion is the quintessential knight in shining armor: humble in her heart, devoted to her friends and to her ideals, courageous, and tough beyond ordinary belief. She begins as a simple military recruit, and through a sequence of strange events discovers that – through no intention of her own – she has been chosen as a Paladin, a hero of the god Gird. But it is not the choice that makes her a hero; it is clearly the fact that she is already a hero that has caused Gird to choose her.
Paks survives one of the most horrific sequences of brainwashing and torment I've ever read, and somehow retains her self more than would seem possible. Having been chosen, she puts her faith into her god and from her god the faith is returned to herself. I invented Kyri Vantage long before I ever heard of Paks… but the two are not all that different. For her heroism and her honest, innocent determination, Paks comes in here, at number eight.
#7: Corwin of Amber
He wouldn't even like to describe himself as a hero, this Prince of Amber. Once he was like his other siblings: scheming, treacherous, self-involved, arrogant, certain of his place in the universe – and that place was, eventually, the throne of Amber, the One True City of which all other places are but Shadows.
But then he was stranded in a distant Shadow, injured, ill, and lost his memory. For five centuries he wandered Earth, a lone immortal in the midst of humans, living as one, not knowing why he was not one of them.
This changed him as few things could, and when he regained his powers – the reality-bending powers of a Prince of Amber – and went against his brother Eric (who had left him to die in that distant Shadow), even those working with him could sense there was something different in him.
Ultimately, Corwin is offered the prize he sought – the Throne of Amber, rulership in effect of all Reality – and realizes he does not want it any more. He has found value in the Shadows that his siblings have ignored, has found more of himself reflected there than he wished to contemplate. In the end, he rides to the end of Reality in order to save it, and carves with his own will and blood a new Pattern on which to stabilize Chaos.
For heroism that won't even admit to the word, Corwin gets the seventh slot in my heroic countdown.
#6: Ellen Ripley
There may be no more iconic female hero than Ellen Ripley, the ultimate survivor. Confronted with an alien lifeform that seems unstoppable, she survives when all her crew is dead, escapes, and defeats the creature with a last desperate ploy. Fifty years later, she accepts the loss of everything in her past life (including a daughter she had left behind) and begins to build a new life…
… until she's dragged back to the same world from which the monster came, the only expert the Marines working for the Weyland-Yutani company have to describe what they may face.
But they don't believe what she has to tell them,and once more when things go south, it is Ellen Ripley – once simply a pilot for a freighter – who takes control, who directs their actions and plans an escape, who survives. She finds a little girl, last survivor of the ill-fated colony on that world, and bonds with her, an echo of her own lost child. And when the aliens seek to take the newfound child away, they discover what a terrible mistake they have made.
For human heroism that crosses the border from mere story to legend, Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley gets my number six spot!
#5: The Doctor
The Oncoming Storm. The Destroyer of Worlds. Time's Champion. A madman in a box. He is an exile from his own world, a renegade traveling in a stolen machine which is one of the most powerful starships of fiction.
He is The Doctor.
The main character in the longest-running SF series of all time, Doctor Who, the Doctor is a Timelord, a native of the planet Gallifrey, who chose to break one of their most sacred laws: the principle of never interfering in the lives of those not relevant to Gallifrey. The Doctor refused to accept that the Timelords should keep their power and knowledge to themselves and never use it to aid the other species, and when told to cease his actions, stole a TARDIS and left… to become the stuff of myth.
The Doctor has saved not just Earth but the universe almost countless times. He has battled human dictators, mad scientists, pitiless artificial intelligences, cyborg monsters, ancient beings that believe they are gods, space armadas, and his own people. He has burned through twelve bodies doing this, sacrificing himself again and again for the sake of people who may never know that they were in danger… or, given time travel, may never remember that it was even possible that they were in danger.
But still he journeys, finding wrong and setting things as right as he can before he once again moves on. And that keeps him here, at number five.
#4: Dorothy Gale
Once upon a time, a little girl found herself trapped in her house as a twister bore down upon it and ripped the house from the ground. When she awoke, she was in a bizarre magical land with no way home… unless the mysterious "Wizard of Oz" could show her how. And so this little girl named Dorothy (which, it so happens, was my mother's first name too) set off down the Yellow Brick Road… and changed her world.
Dorothy's first journeys are fairly well known – if not very accurately – from the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland. The movie leaves out numerous other adventures, and much darker ones, such as the pursuit through the forest by the vicious Kalidahs. It also eliminates sequences in which the little party of adventurers solve their own problems, rather than needing intervention by Glinda.
Through these adventures, the central figure and the driving force is Dorothy Gale. Despite her youth, Dorothy is a determined, couragous girl with a genuine faith in people and an absolute moral compass that directs her actions. She gathers the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow together and on their journey helps them find their true selves. She confronts the Wizard and forces him to reform. Captured by the Wicked Witch, she endures slavery and imprisonment until fortune frees her. Deprived of one hope, she is only briefly downhearted, then willing to take another route.
But The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is only her first adventure in Oz; she goes on to have many more, confronting perils from the core of the Earth to the highest peaks of the worlds. Dorothy is an exemplar of childlike heroism who was one of my ideals and heroes in my youngest years. For her unswerving dedication to her friends, her willingness to believe in even the worst evils being able to change, and her undaunted courage, she gets the number four slot on my hero countdown!
#3: Captain America
Steve Rogers, literal ninety-eight pound weakling, patriot and would-be soldier rejected innumerable times by the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII. Suddenly he is given one chance to serve his country: as a human guinea pig in an experiment to create a "super-soldier", a man who is stronger, tougher, faster, smarter than anyone else on the battlefield.
The experiment succeeds, and the stick-thin Rogers is transformed into a tall, muscular, idealized version of himself – with incredible strength, speed, regenerative powers, perceptions, and even increased intelligence and learning capability. But spies sabotage the project and kill the only man with the key secrets to the process, leaving Steve the only result of the super-soldier project.
But even one super-soldier can be of great use in the right circumstances… and thus is born Captain America, the living symbol of the United States.
While Cap is a truly formidable opponent in almost any sense, it is not his powers that make him one of the great heroes; like others on this list, it is his heart and moral conviction that bring him to a place on my list. Captain America is the moral compass of his universe. He is the yardstick by which others in that universe are measured – and usually found very much wanting. He is also a man who does not think that he is anything extraordinary; he possesses a bone-deep humility that is almost certainly the major reason that he never even thinks about abusing these powers or exploiting his position.
For being the hero that other heroes look to for guidance, Captain America gets the number-three slot!
#2: Naruto Uzumaki
"Give up… on me giving up!"
These words are the very distillation of Naruto Uzumaki. An orphaned boy who was isolated, even shunned, by the people of his village because – unknown to him – the demon who once nearly destroyed the village was sealed within him, Naruto began with only one burning desire: to make someone, anyone, recognize him as a person.
Given a chance, this loudmouthed, in-your-face youngster seemed barely competent enough to justify the effort, but a few – a very few – were willing to give Naruto a chance. And that was enough to touch Naruto's heart, make him open up… and as time went on, led to him recognizing that many other people shared the same need to have someone – the right someone – recognize them, listen to them, help set things right for them.
As time went on, Naruto truly grew up. He recognized that friendship, honor, and – most importantly – empathy were the keys to peace, and that even his greatest battles must be fought with the awareness that unreasoning anger and hatred merely builds upon itself.
Ultimately, faced with a man who had wiped out his village, Naruto defeated him… with a book and a name, and caused his nigh-godlike opponent to restore what had been destroyed… and place the trust he had sworn never to give to any into the hands of Naruto, believing in the end that somehow, impossibly, this one shinobi warrior would find a way to bring peace to the world.
And he is still fighting for that ideal.
For the journey to one of the most awesome heroes of all, Naruto gets the penultimate position.
#1: Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man
I wrote in depth about this series exactly two years ago – May 9th, 2012 – and it was the very first post on this, my new website. There was a very good reason that I chose The Six Million Dollar Man as my very first post: Steve Austin was perhaps my greatest hero as a young man.
Victim of a test-plane crash (which later turned out to not have been an accident), Steve Austin recovered from the horrific injuries to find that he was no longer the man he had been: he was a cyborg, a bionic man, possessed of superhuman speed, strength, toughness, and sight. At first shocked and uncertain as to whether he even wanted this, Steve quickly came to recognize that he had gained the capability to do things even more important for the country and people he cared for than his prior career as an astronaut or test pilot. Though I don't think the words were ever used, he clearly knew that with great power came great responsibility.
Steve was not merely a secret agent with awesome powers, though. He was the conscience of the OSI (Office of Scientific Research), and more than willing to serve as such even to his putative boss, Oscar Goldman. Early episodes often showed the clash between Goldman's pragmatic approach and Steve's belief that things could be handled in a more human and just fashion – and while Oscar's pragmatism was often the wiser course, Steve's was almost always the right course, even when sometimes it turned around and bit him.
Steve Austin was – and still is – a symbol to me of what I wanted to believe America is, and should be. And for all that he has meant to me through the years, Lee Majors' Colonel Steve Austin takes the top spot.