Creative people are lazy. When it comes to their characters, writers and artists like to talk a big game about their meaningful influences, but usually they're just swiping something from elsewhere because it's easy. Even the craziest Pokemon has some basis in reality. Still, you'd figure that it's harder to pull from reality when it's something as far-out and fantastical as comic books. It's not as though a homicidal psychopath like The Joker could be inspired by something as banal as a silent movie star, right?
Buddy, we are about to blow your mind.
Sometimes you'll catch creators being coy about their inspirations for fear of legal reprisal, but Batman creator Bob Kane wasn't one for giving a shit. Not only is his name falsely synonymous with Batman even though artist Bill Finger did most of the work, Kane also robbed a 17-year-old named Jerry Robinson of the credit for creating Batman's infamous nemesis The Joker.
But it wasn't like Robinson created The Joker out of thin air. As the story goes, Robinson had shown Finger a Joker playing card he'd drawn up from memory, and Finger suggested they supplement this "sinister clown" with the creepy permanent grin featured in a silent movie called The Man Who Laughs. In that film, actor Conrad Veidt plays a man whose face has been disfigured so it looks like he's grinning ear-to-ear every minute of his life, as if baby koalas are constantly crawling around under his clothes. As you can see, the Joker resemblance is uncanny. If watching a depressing black and white German expressionist film is your idea of a fun date night, you can check out the whole movie online.
Otherwise, we've got some more dirt to dig...
Before the TV series, before the Keanu Reeves movie, even before his long-running Hellblazer comic book series, John Constantine debuted in Alan Moore's acclaimed run on Swamp Thing. Unlike The Joker, where the character started to form followed by a celebrity-inspired injection, Constantine was the opposite -- artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben told Moore they wanted to draw a character that looked like the pop star/boring Paul Newman movie Sting.
Alan Moore consulted his Big Book of Wizened Snake Magic for the answer. "Having been given that challenge, how could I fit Sting into Swamp Thing? I have an idea that most of the mystics in comics are generally older people, very austere, very proper, very middle class in a lot of ways," said Moore, while stirring a cauldron of V8 laced with fingernail clippings. "It struck me that it might be interesting for once to do an almost blue-collar warlock. Somebody who was streetwise, working class, and from a different background than the standard run of comic book mystics. Constantine started to grow out of that."
And so John Constantine came into being, and would forever be tied to Sting, until he was played by a brown-haired surfer dude.
If crotchety hermit billionaires had trading cards, Howard Hughes would be the Babe Ruth. Though handsome, rich and a bona-fide renaissance man, Hughes struggled in his personal life. Since that kind of flawed hero figure is really Marvel's bag, Hughes was a natural fit when coming up with the personality for playboy whiz Tony Stark. The connection has always been pretty explicit; hell, if you paid attention during the Marvel movies, you'd know that Tony's dad is named Howard Stark. Thankfully, the benefit of having a fictional version of Hughes means we can sidestep the Iron Man's pee-jar-hoarding mental breakdown phase.