Today is the 70th birthday of Marvel Comics, and they're celebrating with creator signings and a great offer on subscriptions. But we'd rather focus on what makes the company great: Here're five characters that Marvel can be rightfully proud of.

Captain America
One of Marvel's first characters - he debuted in 1941's Captain America Comics - and, for decades, one of its most underrated. Before Ed Brubaker hit upon the idea of killing him off (Well, kind of, as readers of the current Captain America: Reborn series are well aware of), Cap wasn't a huge seller for the company, but nonetheless, his various series contain some of Marvel's most memorable runs, whether it's Steve Englehart's Cap trying to find his own identity - and the heart of his country - in the 1970s, co-creator Jack Kirby's surreal return to the character (complete with cameos from dead presidents and Hitler), or the dearly-departed Mark Gruenwald's lengthy run that included such highs as the USAgent and SuperPatriot and lows as CapWolf and weird, clunky armor. Brubaker's current run may be the best the character has ever seen, and considering the competition, that's saying a lot.

The Thing
If Marvel Comics has a character that could be called the heart of the company, it's not Spider-Man, Iron Man or Daredevil. Nope, it's everyone's favorite blue-eyed Ben Grimm, AKA the guy who looks like a big pile of orange rocks from the Fantastic Four. There's just something about the character - maybe his angst-ridden inner torment over his appearance and the fact that no-one understands him, or his gruff-exterior (literally and metaphorically, just in case you missed it) that hides a selfless, kind, loving hero - that sums up all of Marvel's outsider/teenage angst/underdog themes in one perfect character. Not for nothing did he manage to make Marvel Two-In-One work throughout the 1970s.

The Hulk
On the other hand, the Hulk is like the Thing's bizarro twin in a lot of ways: Making the atomic fear implicit in most of Marvel's original wave of superheroes explicit while still hitting all those outsider/misunderstood/teenage angst notes, the Hulk has become a rorschach blot for whatever his current writer wants to write about: Childhood abuse, MPD, space barbarianism, Bill Bixby's scary eyes (Bonus points can also be had for Peter David's eleven year run on the series, wherein he kept the character in a continuous state of flux while also managing to make it all seem like an organic progression. While the Hulk may be missing a "definitive story" as such, David's decade-plus of movement may be the character's defining period in a lot of ways). Who knew a cliched angry monster could turn out to be so versatile?

He's not just a tragic hero trying to atone for one moment of selfishness, he's also a corporate figurehead and franchise so lucrative that Marvel breaks out his licensed earnings separately from all their other characters. Oh, Peter Parker, you're so dreamy and able to multitask. The character that made Stan Lee's soap operatics and melodrama work like none other - and, in the process, defined the "Marvel style" as concretely as any amount of Jack Kirby artwork could have ever hoped - has seen some peaks and troughs throughout the years (The Clone Saga? That whole "Devil got me divorced, I mean, unmarried" thing? 'Nuff Said, as Stan would say), but when he's treated well - And he currently is, in three different flavors, with Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man - he offers up a timeless treatise about growing up, and trying to balance adult responsibility with self-indulgent release. With added wisecracks and web-fluid. I think you know what I'm talking about.

Yeah, yeah, I know; you expected Iron Man or Wolverine, didn't you? Well, tough; Phoenix - that is to say, Jean Grey before she got retconned - was, for awhile (Namely, before the retcon), the dark side of Marvel Comics made (four-color) flesh: A character who wasn't only flawed, but who succumbed to her flaws, and paid the ultimate price. Yes, there was the defining moment of self-sacrifice, and yes, you could argue - as Marvel not only did, but made canon - that it wasn't really Jean Grey but some alien-influence that had overwhelmed her inherent goodness, but still: For one brief, shining moment, there was proof that Marvel's characters were as "only human" as their creators promised, and that actions had consequences, no matter how cosmic those actions may have been.


Of course, those are just our choices, and there are literally thousands of others who could've ended up on the list - How did we manage to miss Thor? Or Galactus? Or Dazzler, or Power Pack or Longshot? and so on - but that's what the comments are for. Which character best sums up Marvel's appeal for you? And what (if anything) will you be doing to celebrate Marvel's 70th birthday?