The best supervillains have believable backstories, even if they start in outer space. They’re multidimensional, flawed, plausibly motivated. Crucially, they’re relatable, much more so than heroes – however unsettling that is.
It’s no wonder so many are based on real people. And often it’s more than just looks. In order of their closeness to real-life inspirations, here are ten of the best.
After DC bought the rights, Charlton Comics’ mostly non-super-powered costumed crime fighters became the models for Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Peacemaker became the Comedian; Blue Beetle, Nite Owl; The Question, Rorschach; Nightshade, Silk Spectre; and Captain Atom, Dr Manhattan.
Moore’s Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), drew on Charlton’s Thunderbolt, or Peter Cannon. And while Veidt is technically an ‘anti-villain’ (a character whose “desired ends are mostly good, but their means … range from evil to undesirable,” in this case preventing WW3 by massacring millions of people), neither was Peter Cannon a ‘superhero’. Both characters lack superpowers; they’re just extremely fit or nearly perfect in body and mind. Hence they were each based on the heartthrobs of their day – or the thinking woman’s heartthrobs at least.
Cannon drew on John F. Kennedy and the actor Robert Redford, while Veidt drew on Julio Iglesias and the actor Barry Foster, best known as the clever blonde detective Van der Valk.
9. Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy was among several female characters created by Robert Kanigher, who also wrote for Wonder Woman. In part, she was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” – a short story in which a girl becomes toxic from contact with poisonous plants. But she also draws on Eve in the Garden of Eden and the visha kanya or poison damsels of ancient India.
In her first appearance (Batman #181 (1966)), she was little more than a “plant-based femme fatale”. Artist Sheldon Moldoff, who also did Batgirl, modeled her on the pin-up Bettie Page – right down to her signature bangs. And while Poison Ivy’s look has evolved, the ’40s floozy version reappeared in 2013 for her “DC Bombshells” figurine.
Morbidly obese characters are rare in comics; they take up too much space. But Stan Lee wanted an overweight villain. Specifically, he wanted one based on the actor Sydney Greenstreet, known for his “fat man” roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.
Originally it was meant to be Vulture but Steve Ditko thought that was stupid. Instead, it was lolloping crime lord Kingpin that drew on Greenstreet’s enormity (The Amazing Spider-Man #50 (July 1967)). And he wasn’t the only one. Characters in Batman (a 1945 strip), Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #5, and a Doctor Who comic were also based on the actor.
…as was Jabba the Hutt. Apparently, when George Lucas asked his production team for something “alien and grotesque,” they thought of Sydney Greenstreet.
There’s no shortage of real-life inspiration for Gotham’s nihilist serial killer. Son of Sam, Richard Chase, Israel Keyes etc. were all hard to catch because they left no discernible pattern; they murdered people at random. Even Zsasz’s trademark tally marks (cuts in his skin for each life he takes) are a common pop-cultural trope.
His name, however, comes from someone specific: psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. While they have little else in common, they both lost faith in something they believed in. Batman’s Zsasz (Mister or Victor Zsasz) lost his faith in the value of life, while Dr Szasz came to doubt his entire profession. As far as he was concerned the role of the psychiatrist was to assess and treat neurological damage, not to medicate “problems in living” or so-called “mental illness.” In his view, this only made matters worse.
Batman as a franchise agrees. Arkham Asylum, a “locked institution for involuntary confinement” and punitive treatment, is staffed by evil psychiatrists. In fact, many of Batman’s enemies are psychiatrists – from Hugo Strange and Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow to intern Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn. Far from helping their patients, they knowingly drive them insane.
In 1961, the same duo that came up with Hal Jordan – Gil Kane and John Broome – created his archenemy Sinestro. He’s considered the perfect foil or nemesis, a “dark reflection of Hal”, having stolen the ring of a dying Green Lantern to sneak into Green Lantern Corps.
Based on David Niven (the only actor ever to win an Oscar at the ceremony he was hosting), Sinestro shares not only his mustache but his “suave sophistication” as well. Niven’s most quintessential roles include the villain in The Pink Panther (1963) and James Bond in Casino Royale (the 1967 parody).
Such is Sinestro’s charm that Mark Strong’s portrayal of the character in Green Lantern (2011) almost made up for what was otherwise a terrible film. Strong wasn’t much of a comics fan, but he fell in love with Sinestro. Having researched the character’s backstory and motivations, he ensured his portrayal was faithful. He even insisted the filmmakers ditch the ponytail they wanted to give him. Also, knowing the character was inspired by Niven, he based his performance on the actor.
Darkseid first appeared in the spin-off comic Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (#134, 1970). But he went on to become one of DC’s most powerful villains. In fact, he’s one of the most powerful beings ever to appear in comics.
Obsessed with enslaving whole planets and ending free will in our galaxy, he was inspired by two historical figures: Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon – with the emphasis squarely on Nixon. There were plenty of reasons to hate the president: Vietnam, nuclear weapons, economic inflation… But Darkseid’s creator Jack Kirby had even more reasons than most, being working class, Jewish, and a veteran.
Of course, while Nixon and Hitler inspired the character, neither had Darkseid’s physique. So Kirby looked elsewhere for a model, basing Darkseid’s appearance on that of the actor Jack Palance. He also based Darkseid’s speech on the actor’s – a tribute to his presence on screen.
If you’re a fan of the Joker, you probably know he was based on The Man Who Laughs (1928) – a silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. Starring Conrad Veidt as the titular Gwynplaine, it’s the tragic tale of a man whose mouth was disfigured to a permanent grin. Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson copied Veidt’s frightening ‘Glasgow smile’, as well as his hairstyle and make-up, for Joker’s first hijinks in Batman #1 (1940). Successive artists also drew on the film. In Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), Brian Bolland based his own Joker’s “tear-brimmed eyes” on Veidt’s in one of his scenes.
Aside from the look, though, the characters aren’t the same. All they really have in common is their social ostracization. But Hugo didn’t just dream Gwynplaine up; he was inspired by a kind of proto-Joker who actually once walked the streets. Edmond Barbier, an eighteenth-century Parisian chronicler, recalled in his journal seeing a man with an ear-to-ear grin with the sides of his mouth extended by cuts. In Hugo’s novel, Gwynplaine’s wounds were inflicted in his childhood (like Heath Ledger’s Joker) by kidnappers who sought to sell him to the circus – something that happened in those days.
In other words Batman’s Clown Prince of Crime was, not too indirectly, based on a real-life Parisian miserable with every reason – not to mention that French revolutionary spirit – to become a real-life Joker himself. Given that Batman represents the elite and, in The Dark Knight Rises, the state in the French Revolution, it’s an interesting origin for his enemy sine qua non.
3. The Mandarin
As Iron Man’s nemesis, the Mandarin has appeared in a number of different forms, including as Shang-Chi’s father. But the original was based on Fu Manchu – the stock “evil Chinaman” of the twentieth century, complete with devilish goatee and dark magic powers. Created by novelist Sax Rohmer, Fu was conceived as the “yellow peril incarnate in one man”, bent on the downfall of the West. Fittingly, Rohmer got the idea from asking a ouija board how he could make his fortune and getting the word C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N in reply.
The villain Fu Manchu has since appeared in film, TV, radio, and comics, including Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The character even lent his name to a brand of sticky candy: Fu Man Chews.
Needless to say, Fu Manchu is offensive to many Chinese. It’s because of him that Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) was controversial in China; even with a modernized, non-racist Mandarin, the franchise remains blackened by “the shadow of Fu Manchu”.
Interestingly, the real-life inspiration for Fu was even more racist. In the nineteenth century, the popular Chinese stage magician Chung Ling Soo lost work to a white imposter: rival magician William Ellsworth Robinson. He copied Chung’s name, appearance, and mannerisms to impersonate and ultimately oust him. He even maintained the persona in public, speaking in phony “Chinese.” Hence Fu Manchu, a creature of Western Orientalism, is thought to have been inspired by Ellsworth. Only after his death – on stage by a malfunctioning pistol – did the 20-year lie come to light.
As everyone knows, Stan Lee’s X-Men was an allegory for the Black civil rights movement, with Professor X as Martin Luther King and Magneto as Malcolm X. Like Malcolm X, Magneto seeks to empower his community to rise up against its oppressors, while Professor X, like MLK, dreams of peace and equality for all.
However, Stan Lee’s X-Men was canceled early on. And Chris Claremont, who took it over, had other ideas. His Professor X and Magneto were based on rival prime ministers of Israel: David Ben-Gurion, who sought to establish a welcoming home for Jews, as well as peace with Arabs in Israel; and Menachem Begin, leader of the opposition. Though both were Zionists, Begin was more aggressive. Believing Jews to be racially superior to Arabs, he doubled down on the West Bank and Gaza. He was also linked to the Deir Yassin massacre, in which hundreds of Palestinians – men, women, and children – were killed. All this despite having been racially persecuted himself by the Nazis.
He eventually left office a broken man following the death of his wife – which, as fans of the X-Men will know, is another link to Magneto.
1. Grigori Rasputin
Hellboy’s archenemy is taken from history, though obviously some facts are embellished. For example, the comic’s fictionalized version of the “mad” Russian monk first summoned Hellboy from Hell. That said, the “real” Rasputin is also heavily fictionalized and the “facts” depend on the source.
According to his killers, he belonged to the Austrian Green Hand, a shadowy organization (similar to Hellboy‘s Ogdru Jahad) with power over the tsar. His influence was blamed for Russia’s involvement in the First World War, economically crippling the state. His killers also claimed he had “sacrilegious orgies” and “used his demonic abilities [at “lavish dinner parties”] to compel women of status to lick the gravy off his dirty fingers.” Rasputin’s daughter, on the other hand, said he was misunderstood. To her, he was a simple rustic starets (elder holy man) who “handed gingerbread to little children.”
Whatever the truth, his death was like something from Hellboy – at least according to his killers. Although they plied him with poison cakes and wine, Rasputin got “merrier and merrier”. When he finally got up to leave they shot him in the back instead. Then they left the room, and when they came back they saw that Rasputin was gone. To their horror, they found him outside on the way to his car. They shot him several more times, stuffed his body in the trunk, and dropped it through a hole in some ice – “finally ridding the world of Rasputin.”