It’s hard to imagine a world without superheroes, but believe it or not it existed. There wasn’t always the heaving mass of perpetually recyclable IP we have today. In the old days, people called “artists” came up with “ideas” – sometimes even based on real life.
When Alan Moore took over writing for Swamp Thing, he asked the artists what they wanted to do. They were unanimous: “do a character that looked like Sting.” To begin with, this tribute to the rockstar was just an extra, drawn in the background of a crowd. Later, however, when John Constantine was introduced, they retroactively identified him as the lookalike.
Although initially dismissive, Sting came to embrace the tribute. In 2018, he wrote the intro to a 30th anniversary collection. And in a short video promo advertising the book, he dressed in the character’s trenchcoat.
More interesting than Constantine being based on a real person, however, are the sightings of real persons based on him. Eerily, shortly after creating the character, Moore claims to have seen him in the flesh. Sitting in a sandwich bar, he saw an uncanny lookalike come up the stairs “wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut … He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner.” Writer Jamie Delano also claims to have seen a real John Constantine, outside the British Museum: “I didn’t realize I’d walked past him until I’d gone fifty yards down the road, and he was just vanishing round the corner.” It should be noted that Constantine was set in the real world – 1980s England, complete with Thatcher and current events. Also that Moore, like Constantine, is into magic.
9. Green Lantern
The first Green Lantern, Alan Scott, was inspired by a railroad engineer. To fans of the comic, that will come as no surprise; the character had the same job. Creator Martin Nodell came up with the idea after seeing a subway worker with a green lantern clear an obstacle from the line. In All-American Comics #16 (July 1940), Scott was saved from a train wreck himself by a magic green lantern – from which he forged his ring.
The Green Lantern was eventually canceled, but returned eight years later reinvented – and again based on a real living person. In designing Hal Jordan, co-creator Gil Kane used his next door neighbor as a model – who just so happened to be the now legendary actor Paul Newman. Interestingly, years later, Newman developed an interest in motorsports and became a racing car driver – calling to mind his test pilot lookalike.
8. Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman – the third longest-running superhero in comics – was co-created by a man with two wives. Far from being at odds with Wonder Woman’s ethos of female empowerment, however, it was their strength that inspired the character. In fact, Charles Moulton’s first wife Betty insisted he make her a woman. She also outdid him professionally – at least in determination. (This may be why she lived to be 100.) At a time when few women got higher degrees, Betty (Elizabeth Marston) earned three. And since her father wouldn’t help with her fees (telling her “as long as I have money to keep you in aprons, you can stay home with your mother”), she paid her own way selling cookbooks.
After Moulton’s death in 1947, Betty and the other “wife” Dotsie (Olive Byrne, whose bracelets inspired Wonder Woman’s) continued their cohabitation, raising four children together. Betty worked to put them through college, while Dotsie was the stay-at-home mum.
Although some think the Lasso of Truth wielded by Wonder Woman was inspired the threesome’s (alleged) love of bondage, there’s not much evidence to support this. Nor is there any reason to believe Betty and Dotsie were lovers. It’s fun to speculate, though. Chief among Wonder Woman’s weaknesses was having her Bracelets of Submission bound together by a man.
The name Bruce Wayne comes from two real people – Scottish king Robert the Bruce and Civil War general “Mad” Anthony Wayne. The former fought for Scottish independence, while the latter conquered Detroit. What they both had in common was defeating the English. But the “Prince of Gotham” isn’t just based on his namesakes; he’s descended from them.
In Batman and Me, co-creator Bob Kane said he and Bill Finger chose the name Bruce so the billionaire was descended from nobility. (Robert the Bruce was a corruption of the king’s Anglo-Norman surname de Bruce.) Meanwhile, Batman’s biological relation to Anthony Wayne is explicitly made clear in the comics. In fact, Wayne Manor itself once belonged to the general, built on land he received from George Washington.
6. Iron Man
If MCU’s Tony Stark reminds you of a cool Elon Musk, it’s no coincidence. Robert Downey Jr based his portrayal of Stark on the Tesla/SpaceX billionaire. But the original character, from 1963, was based on Howard Hughes.
By the time Stan Lee (et al) came up with the idea, Hughes had fallen from grace. Once revered as a billionaire investor, aviation pioneer, defense contractor, film producer, and so on, Hughes was now seen as a madman – a codeine-addled, germaphobic, obsessive compulsive recluse. He was an unlikely model for a superhero… and that was precisely the point. Marvel was in the business of “heroes with problems.” Stark’s dependence on tech just to stay alive wasn’t all he had on his plate; he was also an alcoholic.
And Hughes was a hero of sorts. Despite his problems, just like Iron Man he tried to use his money for good. Worried about nuclear testing, for instance, he offered millions of dollars in bribes to presidents Johnson and Nixon to stop. (Ironically, arms manufacturers later capitalized on Iron Man’s 2008 big screen debut.)
As far as real-life inspiration goes, Superman is a Frankenstein’s monster. According to film critic Mark Kermode, the caped crusader’s “chiseled features” were based on the actor who played Tarzan – Johnny Weissmuller – while Clark Kent was based on bespectacled silent film star Harold Lloyd. Meanwhile, the iconic Superman pose – chest out, hands on hips – comes from the actor Douglas Fairbanks. Superman was, in other words, recycled from Hollywood heroes.
But there may be more to it than that. There are, for example, clear parallels between Superman and Moses. Both were sent away as babies to protect them from imminent danger: Moses’s mother floated him down the Nile in a basket while Superman’s parents launched him into space toward Earth. Both were later discovered and adopted, growing up to defend the meek against evil. Interestingly, the “El” in Kal-El (Superman’s real name) is Hebrew for “God.”
In fact, the more you look at it, the more Jewish Superman seems. In his book Is Superman Circumcised?, Roy Schwartz sees in him not only Moses but Samson and Jesus as well. He also points out similarities to the Jewish folkloric golem, a powerful creature made of clay to serve the Jewish community. Many also see in Superman an allegory for Jewish immigrants to America. Specifically, he abandons his ethnic name Kal-El, becomes Clark Kent (“tucks his tallit down into his suit”), and “goes around the world like a gentile.” Like many early comic writers, Superman’s creators – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster– were themselves descended from Jewish immigrants.
All considered, it’s hardly surprising that the Nazis saw Superman as a threat.
Spawn creator Todd McFarlane was open about his real-life inspiration – at least in the early days. Al Simmons, the fictional revenant from Hell, was based on Al Simmons, a former employee. The latter signed a waiver when the comic came out. But he needn’t have; he was flattered. He became a regular fixture at the Image Comics booth at Comic Con, dressed as his namesake in striking black and red. The real Simmons even wrote a book, The Art of Being Spawn. This, however, was a step too far.
In 2012, after the book came out, McFarlane sued Simmons for capitalizing on his intellectual property. He also took to the internet to remove all past acknowledgments that Simmons inspired the character. To be fair, it may have been no more than a name. McFarlane also named Spawn’s wife and best friend after his own wife Wanda and best friend Terry.
You might imagine the idea for Hulk was based on doping in sports. After all, the decade before his 1962 debut saw the first such use of anabolic steroids by Russian Olympic weightlifters. However, the Hulk’s inspiration was far more unlikely. In fact, he was based on a woman.
In an interview with Comic Journal in 2011, creator Jack Kirby recalled seeing a toddler crawling around in a gutter, playing under a car. Struggling to crawl onto the sidewalk, the child needed some help. The distraught mother, Kirby said, looked as though she would scream. But she didn’t. Instead, “she ran over … and, very determined, … lifted up the entire rear of that car” to let the toddler out. It reminded Kirby of what we’re all capable of in heightened states of emotion, be it rage or desperation. “We can knock down walls, we can go beserk,” he said, “you can tear a house down … Whatever the Hulk was at the beginning I got from that incident.”
2. Professor X
It’s long been assumed that the X-Men’s patriarch was based on Martin Luther King Jr. Not only was the comic released at the height of the Civil Rights movement in America, it’s an obvious allegorical stand-in. Charles Xavier dreams of peace between mutants and humans. The Sentinels (uniform, mutant-hunting robots) were introduced amid racist police brutality on TV. And creator Stan Lee was clearly engaged with the movement, introducing the first black superhero three years after the X-Men.
Surprisingly, however, Professor X was instead based on the founding prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion – at least from 1975. This is when Chris Claremont took over, following the cancelation of Lee’s X-Men in 1970. In 2016, Claremont explained that for him, as an English-born white man, any connection to MLK would have “felt incredibly presumptuous.” Ben-Gurion, who created a welcoming home for the Jewish diaspora after World War Two, seemed a more suitable template.
1. Doctor Strange
Not long after Vincent Price played the role of the sorcerer Dr. Erasmus Craven in The Raven (1963), Doctor Strange made his debut in Strange Tales #110. The inspiration was obvious – but it was more Price himself than the character he played (not that there was ever a difference). Doctor Strange’s full name actually pays homage to the actor – Stephen Vincent Strange. Price himself was aware of the tribute, later voicing a Doctor Strange rip-off in an episode of Scooby Doo.
There’s probably more to the character’s inspiration than Vincent Price, though. In Strange Tales #115, the Sorcerer Supreme’s backstory was revealed. And it’s suspiciously similar to that of Lobsang Rampa – a bestelling autobiographer and spiritual guru famous in the late 1950s. Both Strange and Rampa were gifted surgeons; both of them studied in Tibet (Strange under the Ancient One, Rampa under the Dalai Lama); and both learned astral projection (even describing it in similar ways), as well as how to open the third eye. Also, they both wore a circular amulet and both had a mystical orb.
Furthermore, though Strange was more upfront about it, they were both entirely fictitious. Having sold millions of copies of his books, Rampa was exposed as a fraud. The author’s real name was Cyril Hoskins, a clerk from rural England who’d never even been to Tibet.