10 Unexpected Inspirations Behind Famous Comic Book Villains

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Artists have been known to draw inspiration from the unlikeliest of places and conjure up the most impressive creations from seemingly ordinary things. Some creations hold deep meaning and express inner emotion, while others have more of a “why not?” attitude to them. Iconic comic book villains have been created by both schools of thought, such as…

10. The Penguin

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The Penguin, one of Batman’s oldest and most prominent foes, is an eccentric criminal mastermind. Engaging in criminal deeds throughout Gotham from his criminal front, the Iceberg Lounge, the Penguin is known for his signature tuxedo and top hat look, as well as his high-tech umbrella with an arsenal of weaponry and his evil squawking laugh.

According to Batman co-creator Bill Finger, the inspiration behind the Penguin was none other than, well, emperor penguins, which reminded Finger of high-society gentlemen in tuxedos, hence the Penguin’s tuxedo and top hat look. Batman creator Bob Kane, however, had an entirely different view on the whole matter and claimed that the Penguin was modeled after the Kool cigarette penguin, who also sported a top-hat, cane, monocle and cigarette.

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9. Bane

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One of Batman’s strongest adversaries and most fearless foes, Bane had his first appearance in Batman: Vengeance of Bane #1, and has appeared in the spotlight countless times since. Bane makes use of a strength-enhancing drug that gives him super-human strength, and he’s even defeated Batman in combat a number of times.

Bane wasn’t just meant to be just any new Batman villain, but a villain that almost destroyed the Caped Crusader. In his first appearance Bane breaks Batman’s back, a story arc on which The Dark Knight is based. Bane is meant to be an evil version of pulp superhuman hero Doc Savage, and he’s also loosely based on the title character of Alexander Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo.

8. Galactus

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Galactus is perhaps the most feared being in the comic book universe. The sole survivor of the universe that existed before the Big Bang, Galactus was once Galan, a space explorer and resident of the paradise planet of Taa. Galan realized that the end of his universe, the Big Crunch, was approaching, and eventually convinced a handful of survivors to fly a spaceship into the blazing cosmic cauldron. Although the others were killed by the intense radiation, Galan was gifted with new life and powers and Galactus was born.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby intended to create a unique villain, one that was beyond good and evil and had God-like powers. They ended up with a demi-god older than the universe itself who lived off the life force of planets. According to Kirby, to make sales he had go beyond stereotypical villains and gangsters and, for an unknown reason, he went to the Bible for inspiration.

7. Two Face

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Once the White Knight of Gotham City, Harvey Dent turned evil and took on the persona of Two Face after an accident scarred one side of his face. Constantly struggling between the good and evil sides of his personalities, he is unable to make any decision without the flip of a coin.

In his autobiography, Bob Kane claims that his inspiration for Two Face comes from the 1931 movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which he saw as a young boy. Additional inspiration for Two Face came from the pulp magazine character Black Bat, who adopted his identity after he had acid splashed on his face. Sound familiar?

6. Doctor Doom

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The once brilliant scientist Victor von Doom is the monarch of Latveria and a master of science and sorcery. He is the sworn enemy of the Fantastic Four, and he has pretty much the greatest name ever.

Jack Kirby has said that the primary inspiration for Doctor Doom is the personification of death itself. As Kirby explains, “I saw Dr. Doom as The Man in the Iron Mask, who symbolized approaching death.” The fact that the evil doctor happens to be completely covered in iron plating speaks to this inspiration. Others claim that Dr. Doom was also heavily inspired by the short-lived DC villain John Sunlight, the most nefarious villain faced by the aforementioned Doc Savage.

5. Magneto

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Erik Lehnsherr, better known as Magneto, the friend turned enemy of Charles Xavier and possibly the greatest foe ever to face the X-Men was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. Magneto is said to have been inspired by Malcom X, while Professor X is said to be based on Martin Luther King Jr. Consider their respective stances on the treatment of mutants and how to overcome oppression and the inspiration becomes clear. Magneto maintains an aggressive approach and believes the only way to overcome suppression is with a show of power. In contrast, Xavier disapproves of Magneto’s radical ways and believes in equality through peace.

4. The Joker

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Batman’s arch-nemesis  and the self-proclaimed clown prince of crime was intended to be a one-off character in every sense of the word — he was meant to be killed off in some accident during his first appearance like most of Batman’s other early foes. However, editor Whitney Ellsworth saw potential in the Joker and made the creators include a panel resurrecting him.

The appearance of the Joker is based on Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine from the 1928 movie, The Man Who Laughs — the resemblance between the two is impeccable. They both have the gloomy white skin, the green hair, that large smile stretching over their faces and the look of a mad man. If someone didn’t know any better, they’d probably think Gwynplaine was the Joker in a live action flick.

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The actual conception of the Joker, however, is still under dispute. Bob Kane is on record stating that he and Bill Finger created the Joker, while Jerry Robinson only played a minor role. On the other hand, Jerry Robinson claims to have been an important player in the conception of the Joker.

3. Shredder

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Shredder, the center-stage villain of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, is a highly skilled fighter and evil mastermind who shows no mercy for his adversaries and fights with utter ferocity. He’s the leader of the criminal Foot Clan and is on a personal vendetta against the turtles’ master, who killed Shredder brother.

In the movie The Making of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Behind the Shells, co-creator Kevin Eastman tell the story of how he came up with the character. Eastman was inspired by cheese graters, and in particular wanted to see what it would look like if a villain had weapons that resembled them. Thankfully the name was altered, because Grater just doesn’t sound terribly intimidating.

2. Red Skull

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A Nazi agent and the most fearsome enemy of Captain America, Red Skull is characterized by his — you guessed it — iconic red skull. What better enemy for a character created in the heat of World War II than a foe as evil as Hitler himself?

In fact, considering that Red Skull is basically magical Hitler he has a pretty darn adorable creation story. Joe Simon, as he writes in his autobiography, was sitting at a café in Times Square and ordered a hot fudge sundae. The hot fudge running down the sides of the vanilla looked like limbs and he saw the potential of a villain that would simply ooze all over, to the point where he even considered naming him Hot Fudge. However, with some further speculation and reconsidering, Simon noticed that the cherry on top resembled a skull and thus the evil menace known as Red Skull was born. While he definitely settled on the better version, how great would Captain America: The First Avenger be if it featured the villainous Hot Fudge?

1. Darkseid

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It was after moving to longtime rivals DC that Jack Kirby created the supervillain known as Darkseid. The merciless tyrant ruler of Apokolips possesses powers that rival those of Superman, making Darkseid the personification of hatred itself.

Kirby’s inspiration for Darkseid’s appearance was actor Jack Palance, both of whom possess a characteristic chiseled jaw and thick brow. Being Jewish, Kirby likely held strong feelings about the atrocities of World War II and originally intended for Darkseid to mimic Hitler’s tyrannic rule over Nazi Germany. Much like Hitler, Darkseid subjugated his people and brainwashed them. However, Jack Kirby based Darkseid’s personality on that of President Richard Nixon, and even by the standards of the awful things Nixon did it seems harsh to compare him to Hitler. Furthermore, Darkseid’s servant Glorious Godfrey is said to have been based on Reverend Billy Graham, who along with Nixon had been known for expressing hatred towards Jewish-Americans. A Hitler/Nixon and Graham ticket would certainly make for an interesting election!

TopTenz loves comics!
For some more unusual stories, check out some of the weirdest bloopers in Marvel history. Or, for some more weird character origins, read our list of comic book heroes who started their lives as ridiculous stereotypes.

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