- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet — but in this competition, he comes in 33 places behind the Little Engine That Could. The Man of Steel also finishes behind Nancy Drew, Mickey Mouse and (horror of horrors) Batman.

The list is “The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived,” the title of a recently published, semiserious look at how our lives and our culture are shaped by myth, literature, films, television and even comics.

The book, by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter, ranks fictional and mythogical characters such as Godzilla, Superman, Icarus and John Doe in order of “importance” — determined in an unapologetically subjective manner.

One of the book’s most surprising picks beat out Santa Claus (No. 4), King Arthur (No. 3) and Big Brother (from George Orwell’s novel “1984,” at No. 2) as the most influential fictional character to date: the Marlboro Man.

The authors call the Marlboro Man the most powerful brand image of the 20th century, an icon that helped trigger thousands of American deaths.

“We argued about … our No. 1 character and almost came to the point of throwing ketchup packets at each other,” Mr. Salter said in an e-mail interview.

The Smoking Man choice surprised some observers.

Don Markstein, a Mickey Mouse comic book writer and author of “Toonopedia,” an online encyclopedia of cartoons, said the Marlboro Man seemed “kind of wimpy for a list like that.”

The authors tried to judge influence by the number of people affected and the depth of the effect. They ensured readers knew that, in their minds, popular doesn’t always mean influential.

“I don’t think anyone will agree with the list,” said Thomas C. Foster, author of “How to Read Literature Like a Professor.” “I think everyone will have their own figures that they’d like to see included or ones they’d like to see high up in the rankings.”

Mr. Foster called the subjective list “an invitation to disagree” and said the fact that it’s debateable is part of the entertainment value of the book.

And people most certainly disagree with the choices.

“I see a lot who shouldn’t be on here, like Mickey Mouse and Ugly Duckling,” said Elsie Carson of Kalamazoo, Mich. “I can’t say any of these have influenced me.”

“Lord, I hope not,” said Neil Martin, a 78-year-old retired farmer from Marshalltown, Iowa, when he was told who was ranked No. 1.

Among the influential characters who didn’t make the book, cited by readers in an informal online survey by USA Today, were God, Homer Simpson, Darth Vader, Harry Potter, Elizabeth Bennet, Atticus Finch and hundreds of others.

The book is filled with statistics, “Did You Know”sections, opinion andinsight into the personalities of the authors.

Banter and inside jokes are offered in the “Interlude” sections that let readers inside the authors’ experiences.

“About 2 a.m., we start in on Moby Dick, the white whale. He was a real whale, but more of a chocolate milk color — Mocha Dick, from having too much espresso, probably … John reminds us that very few whales will be buying this book — the bookstores are too far inland and the doors are too small. And no whale access ramps,” the authors write on Page 168.

The book, which took three years to finish, went through dozens of rewrites, and characters were still being added to the list early this year.

Although the authors had their disagreements and favorites, including Luke Skywalker for Mr. Salter, Buck from “Call of the Wild” for Mr. Karlan and Helen of Troy for Mr. Lazar, they said they don’t even remember now why they disagreed.

“You could tell they had a whole lot of fun writing the book,” Mr. Foster said. “Anything that gets people talking about culture and the arts, that’s the interesting thing about the book.”

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