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.
Even moreso than the supergods of yore, it seems hard to believe that the globetrotting, adventure-prone Tintin could possibly be based on a kid of the same age. But in the days before Superman, kids had to be their own heroes.
There are a couple theories as to just who Tintin is based on, but many believe he's the cartoon version of one Palle Huld. See, back in 1928, Huld accepted a Danish newspaper's challenge to complete a trek similar to the one Phileas Fogg traveled in Jules Verne's classic Around the World in 80 Days. The stipulations were harsh: no planes, no chaperones and a misleading time limit of 46 days. Huld braved the foreign-hostile Moscow, a conflict-ridden Manchuria and the unforgiving wasteland of Canada to complete his journey in only 44 days. Since the contest runners were only willing to risk the lives of eligible teenagers, Huld completed his journey at the age of 15. The next year, a Belgian cartoonist named Hergé started drawing the exploits of a globetrotting, adventure-prone boy named Tintin. Those pants can't be a coincidence.
Though Batman has never forgiven the country of Turkey for stealing his name without acknowledging it, he should be careful who he accuses of plagiarism. According to professional dickweed Bob Kane, both of Bruce Wayne's first names came from historical, high-ranking figures. In his book, Kane claimed that Batman's secret identity was coined in honor the Scottish king known as Robert the Bruce, which he combined with Revolutionary War general "Mad" Anthony Wayne. It kind of sounds like the real explanation is "they were originally just random names and later I gave meaning to them," and knowing Kane's bullshittery M.O. that's entirely possible. But for now, we have to accept that a dead guy based a fictional vigilante on two other dead guys.
When discussing the origins for the X-Men, a lot of people fall back on "Professor X and Magneto are really Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X." It's more than a little problematic, as the X-Men were made to be stand-ins for oppressed minorities of all types, not just African-Americans. It also oversimplifies the real-life figures into inaccurate caricatures; MLK didn't have a teen strikeforce just as Malcolm X wasn't a scheming supervillain.
If you want to talk definite inspirations, there's Yul Brynner as Professor X. Though far removed from the now-classic portrayal by Patrick Stewart, the Magnificent Seven actor had the right severity and credibility to be a mutant headmaster. It helps that he owned his own Shine-O Ball-O.
You'd be forgiven for believing that actor J.K. Simmons came out of the womb as Daily Bugle chief J. Jonah Jameson, screaming at his mother to get him more pictures of Spider-Man. But since J.K. was 8 years old when Amazing Spider-Man #1 came out, Stan Lee had to base Peter Parker's crotchety boss off of the most cantankerous slave-driver that he could think of: himself. You can kind of see it -- at one point Lee's distinguished silver sides matched the color scheme of JJJ's flat top, and they're two of the only people that can pull off that mustache. And ultimately, no one's demanded more pictures of Spider-Man than Stan Lee.
When trying to come up some henchmen for The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, producer Paul Dini figured he'd like to have a female representative. Something in his mind clicked and he remembered a scene from the soap opera Days of Our Lives, in which his friend Arleen Sorkin played a court jester. Dini called her up and gave her the part, and Arleen became Harleen Quinzel -- or Harley Quinn. And cosplay was never the same again.
Hearing Popeye creator E.C. Segar tell it, (his whole life was a Popeye comic strip). He knew a tall skinny girl tied her hair back in a bun, and she would become the basis for Olive Oyl. Segar also worked for a rotund burger-loving gentleman who would gladly pay him Tuesday for a hamburger today, and so Wimpy was born. Popeye himself was based on a local tough guy named Frank "Rocky" Fiegel, who was known about town for his corn-cob pipe and deceptive strength for his frame. If the loving inscription on his tombstone is anything to go by, Fiegel was strong to the finish.
William Moulton Marston put a lot of his own life into creating Wonder Woman. It's not a coincidence that the guy who invented the lie-detector test just so happened to create a character with a magic lasso that could make people tell the truth. So as a self-professed feminist, it makes sense that he'd base Wonder Woman on the females in his life. Going by the obituary of his wife, Elizabeth (center), Marston married his own Amazon warrior. But it's not exactly that simple. Marston was a little... complicated.
Not only was Wonder Woman's creator really into hardcore bondage, he was also a polygamist. With Elizabeth's consent, William welcomed a second companion into their home. Olive Byrne was technically Marston's mistress, but functionally she was more or less a second wife. How does she factor into Wonder Woman? Look closely at her picture on the right. Do those bracelets look familiar? That's because they were the direct inspiration for Wonder Woman's famous bullet-reflecting bands. Don't say polygamy never did anything for anyone.