It’s character that counts

Comic books, plays and novels gave pix and TV some of the most enduring icons

Many celebrated, memorable characters over the last 100 years have jumped from the printed page to radio, film and TV, having their fame and importance magnified. But few have reached the upper tier of iconic characters — the ones who transcend their own stories and seem to exist independent from their original narratives.

Who does?

We’ll, let’s start by stretching our own rule about time — because it would be difficult to exclude Dorothy Gale and friends from such a gathering. Their first literary appearance was in 1900’s “The Wizard of Oz,” but there were plenty of post-1905 adventures — practically a book a year well past 1939, when the movie version hit theaters.

Their iconic status, though, didn’t become undisputed until the movie became a national annually televised event –until the advent of the VCR. How much more essential can a quest be than the search for brain, heart, courage and the road home?

Anyone who saw “Finding Neverland” knows that Peter Pan appeared on the theatrical stage before his tale was told in book form in 1911 — a technicality. Since then, young Peter has continually fascinated theater writers and film directors — big surprise that both proved enamored of the story of a child who refuses to grow up.

While the quintessential fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, first saw print in 1887 and is therefore clearly disqualified, other masters of detection followed. Yet while Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe might have been locks for this list a few decades ago, these days, their status is a little wobbly. Mention either at a contemporary high school and you can expect blank stares (don’t even bother asking about Nick and Nora Charles). Still, the icon of the trenchcoated truth-seeker remains, even if Joe Sophomore doesn’t know his origins.

Only slightly more primal than your average teenager, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan took the basic characteristics of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli but supersized them into immortality.

Raised by apes but actually the son of aristocrats, Tarzan has appeared in at least one film every decade since he first swung on to the scenein 1914. No other character being considered here can claim such a distinction. What’s the appeal? It seems we are always interested in questions of what separates the civilized from the uncivilized (and how one keeps a loincloth in place while swinging through trees).

Of course, when it comes to immortality, it certainly helps when Walt Disney puts a character to music. It certainly gave Tarzan a boost in 1999.

But Disneyfication had a far greater effect on popular British bruin Winnie the Pooh, who was virtually unknown in the U.S. until Disney’s series of shorts (later combined into the feature “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”). The bear now outsells Mickey Mouse in Merchandise Land. Who doesn’t want to see his or her Teddy bear make good?

To balance Pooh’s innocence, one could also argue for the inclusion here of Cruella De Vil, who not only struck terror into the hearts of dog lovers and became a symbol for the antifur movement, but made Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s wealthiest fictional characters.  

These days, Dr. Seuss’ the Grinch might well be as much a part of the family to kids as Santa Claus. Jim Carrey helped reinforce the Grinch’s image on the bigscreen, but credit must truly go to TV’s seasonally aired animated half-hour, created by Chuck Jones and narrated by Boris Karloff. 

Time will tell whether Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka will outlive Gene Wilder’s, but both have eclipsed the one created by writer Roald Dahl. Rare is the person who can remove a candy bar wrapper without, even if for a moment, imagining that a golden ticket swaddles the chocolate inside.

Wonka only had two books. James Bond was featured in 13 (if you only count those penned by Ian Fleming). But his cinematic output has been even greater — with perhaps the most successful single-character-driven series in the history of the movies. Sex, guns and a martini (you know how he likes it): a potent combination.

Our desire to see justice served also helps put Superman and Batman on the list. Both are more than just the cornerstones of comicbook culture, they are uniquely American archetypes, as identified with the U.S. as Uncle Sam, who either could beat with one hand tied behind his cape.

At the opposite end of the crime spectrum, Don Corleone (aka the Godfather) shows that we can be equally attracted to a criminal as we are to a crimefighter. Plus, unlike the superheroes, Corleone is an easy impression to do at parties.

Which brings us to today. Who now has the chops to align himself or herself with the group above? I’d put a bid in for quester Frodo Baggins, who first saw print in 1954 but didn’t ascend to the A list until Peter Jackson’s cinematic trilogy. Then there’s boy wizard Harry Potter, whose original literary life is still running its course.   What’s remarkable about these dozen or so characters is that all of them come from snubbed genres: children’s fiction, comicbooks, detective tales, spy novels, adventure stories, gangster sagas. The characters we’ve collectively embraced in the last century are largely ones that hit something primal in our being, not necessarily an intellectual place but a visceral one.

It’s difficult to imagine that there was a world that didn’t include them.

(Lou Harry’s upcoming novel, “The High-Impact Infidelity Diet,” has been optioned by Warner Bros.)

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