A popularity contest

Spider-man trying to give me more hair in the downtown Houston Chronicle newsroom, sometime in the early 1990s.

Who is the most popular fictional character of all time? And how do you measure that popularity?

Gene Park, who writes about video games and game culture for the Washington Post, said on Twitter that it’s “arguably” Spider-man. I replied, asking him what he based that on, and suggesting it maybe it’s James Bond, given the books and the longevity of that film franchise.

Now, neither of us had done any research, and I was just throwing Bond out there as an example. But I apparently stepped on a fanboy landmine in the Spidey metaverse, because I got attacked eight ways from Sunday for daring to suggest that Spider-man might not be the most popular fictional character ever.

My favorite insult: “…where do you come from, the 80s?” I replied: “Technically, I ‘come from’ the ’50s.” There was no response.

But this got me thinking: Who indeed is the most popular fictional character? How would you determine it? Sales of books, games and movie tickets? TV viewership? Or is it better to choose something more esoteric?

Atheists among us could point to religious figures – if you don’t think Jesus really existed, does that make him the most popular fictional character?

And, given the season, what about Santa Claus?

If you just use box office as the measure, standalone Spider-man films barely beat out Bond films (though the numbers I saw predate the 2021 Spidey and Bond movies), but that doesn’t include Marvel Cinematic Universe films in which he appears. The No. 1 box office character is Harry Potter, it turns out.

But that’s a fairly narrow measure. I think you have to determine the relevant measure before you come up with the answer to the question. So, I will ask you: Who do YOU think is the most popular fictional character of all time? And what’s the data that supports your answer?

(Originally posted on Facebook.)