One Fan's Opinion: Issue #18

Thu, December 8th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

You've heard it.

"What a rip off."

You've heard people go off on it…

"That guy-you know the one-that Superman knock-off. What was his name again…?"

And you fumble for the answer-I mean-sheesh-it could be any number of guys--!

Thing is (and I know I'm going to catch grief for this) most characters in comics were inspired by other, preexisting characters.

I was talking to one of the guys who writes those historical articles in the "Overstreet Price Guide" and he was telling me about The Girl with Green Hair-a woman rocketed to Earth from Mars (which then exploded, if my memory serves me) and on Earth she had powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men- sound familiar? It should. And she predated Superman.

Then there was this ad for Doc. Savage, (the man of Bronze, remember?) which had a big headline: "Superman Doc. Savage" (as seen in the first volume of Steranko's "History of Comics") and it ran in the old pulps sometime before a certain Kryptonian was introduced in 1938.

Shocking, eh?

So, Superman was a knock off of Doc. Savage and the Girl with Green Hair and Captain Marvel was a knock off of Superman and Marvel Man (Miracle Man) was a knock off of Captain Marvel (as is my own character, Mighty Man, to some extent).

Where does it end...?

I mean, Superman was supposed to be the first- the original- the character that inspired all the others!

Well, yeah, he did that, too.

Batman was lifted from movies at the time.

MLJ's The Fly fought a bad guy called the Spider in his first issue and even Fawcett's Captain Marvel fought a Spider-Man at one point. Not to mention that there was a Pulp hero called the Spider, all of which predated Spider-Man (and there was a character called the Bat who predated Batman). And Spider-Man has a lot of the trappings of Superman with him working for a great metropolitan newspaper and dressing in red and blue- Peter Parker even has an alliterative name and wore glasses!

And don't forget, Spider-Man's powers are based on those of actual, living creatures-- spiders! It's not as though anybody actually had to dream up those powers!

Which is not to say that the character isn't cool-- he is! But he's far from the most original creation ever created.

His costume is relatively original, but he's not the first guy to have a costume that covered him from head to toe-- the Golden Age Daredevil beat him to it by a couple of decades!

How far removed is the Hulk from Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein's monster? Stan Lee has pretty much said that the Hulk was an amalgam of the two.

And these are the characters that are supposed to be icons!

People (even people who should know better) have accused me of ripping off the Hulk with my creation Savage Dragon, but I'm only too willing to talk about his true genesis and the characters, which really inspired me.

Few characters are created in a vacuum from whole cloth. Almost every character owes something to a character, which had come before. I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with that unless nothing is changed.

If you did a straight up Batman rip off and just told Batman stories, that's not especially creative and I think people would have a legitimate cause to complain. But to start off with Batman as a model and deviate wildly from that to the extent that it becomes something new-you might have something. And, believe it or not, the Dragon owes a lot more to Batman than he does to the Hulk.

There was a movie monster that looked very much like the Thing from the Fantastic Four and the rest of that team were variations on Plastic Man, The Invisible Man and the original Human Torch! That pretty much takes care of the FF…

And both Swamp-Thing and Man-Thing are knock offs of the Heap (from the pages of "Airboy").

And my point here is not that everybody is a thief, but that it's perfectly acceptable to do a variation on a theme and turn it into something new. It's fine to start with something other than a blank page. Who hasn't used something? Who hasn't used attributes of a friend or acquaintance or taken bits and pieces from numerous sources?

There are a lot of characters, which have a traceable lineage and a lot of characters start out as variations on other popular characters.

Marvel has at least three Superman clones-- Hyperion, Gladiator and Aquarian.

Could Howard the Duck exist if not for Donald Duck?

Marvel even steals characters from itself-- both Hydroman and Quicksand are variations on Sandman.

Even characters that seem original have roots that go back a bit-Batman kicked off a trend of taking inspiration from some other creature and a gazillion animal-related characters followed (which would include Wolverine and Spider-Man and hundreds more).

How many characters did the Joker inspire? The Jester, Green Goblin, Arcade, the Riddler, the Clown, Cletus Cassidy (Carnage), the Mocker, the Creeper and dozens more leering, laughing, maniacs, I'm sure. And the Joker was just lifted from a playing card-- it's not as though he was a terribly original creation in the first place.

Inspiration comes from any number of sources and that's not necessarily a bad thing! Which is why, I think, that it's not so much the idea but what's done with the idea.

People tend to get worked up about obvious ones, or rather obvious ones that aren't so obvious that readers are in on the gag. If it strikes readers as a deliberate homage, that's okay, but if it seems as though you're trying to get away with something, look out!

I had this villain, OverLord, and a few readers thought he was my Dr. Doom. He wasn't. He was a variation on a character that I created as a kid called the Bronze Man (who was, essentially, an evil Iron Man).

When I introduced him at Image, I hadn't yet come up with a costume that I liked so I cheated by having him show up with his back toward the reader so that I could buy some time.

The cloak was an easy way to hide him. After the character was shown from the front, his cloak became unnecessary. But in the minds of readers a metal guy in a cloak is a Dr. Doom knock off no matter how you try to dodge the issue-- even if he's acting like Frank Miller's version of the Kingpin.

The thing is it's not easy to create an original character anymore. At this point there are thousands of characters out there with thousands of different costumes and powers. You can't have a blank slate anymore-- readers aren't going to forget about existing characters at competing comic book companies.

It's no easy task to come up with something that looks like nothing you've seen before or have a power that hasn't been used before (without resorting to something incredibly stupid or way too complex to be easily understood).

Often characters become variations on a theme out of necessity (he's like the Sandman only instead of being made out of sand he's made out of mud or worms or bees or water or glass or metal or lava or-whatever).

I've opted to do occasional takes on familiar characters or themes, but I've also come up with a lot of characters whose lineage is not so easy to trace. For every OverLord, there are ten guys like Dung, OpenFace, EvilEye, Chaos & Control, PowerHouse, BrainiApe, Neutron Bob, Dave and so on who aren't based on much of anything.

My book "Savage Dragon" has hundreds of characters in it. Few creators are adding hundreds of characters to the books they work on! How many new characters have been introduced in the pages of "Spider-Man?" The "Fantastic Four?" "Batman?" The "Incredible Hulk?" In the last 15 years, I mean.

Few.

This isn't as easy as it looks, kids.

And then there are those characters that are deliberate and obvious clones of existing characters. These are variations on a popular theme. You like Superman? Try Supergirl, Superwoman, Steel, Powergirl or Krypto, the Super dog! You like Captain Marvel? Try the three Lieutenant Marvels, Captain Marvel, Jr., Mary Marvel, Uncle Marvel, Freckles Marvel and Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny! Like Batman? You'll love Batgirl, Batwoman, Man-Bat, Azrael, Bat-Mite and Ace, the Bat-Hound!

There are, literally, hundreds of spin-off characters.

And again, look at all the characters based on animals-- Spider-Man introduced the Vulture early on and was soon followed by Dr. Octopus, the Lizard, the Rhino, the Kangaroo, the Gibbon, the Mind-Worm, Stegron the Dinosaur Man and dozens more.

Even boobs like Kraven the Hunter had girlfriends, sons and imitators filling in when he was too busy or too dead-- both El Jaguar (from "Daredevil") and the Puma (from "Spider-Man") were Kraven clones! When the companies weren't busy ripping off their competitors, they were ripping off themselves!

And let's not forget those homage characters-- the slightly askew versions of familiar characters-- the Squadron Supremes and the Recombatants and all the others. How many readers are aware that all of the Watchmen characters were based on Charlton characters? How many knew that Rorschach was The Question, Night Owl was Blue Beetle, The Comedian was Peacemaker and Dr. Manhattan was Captain Atom and so on? How many were aware that Alan Moore proposed the book when DC bought the Charlton characters? How many knew that DC wasn't too taken with him using those characters since it really messed them up, and that's why they became who they became?

A few.

So, where am I going with this? Am I just making excuses for all the lazy, plagiarizing pricks that pinch characters left and right?

Well, no-- that wasn't entirely it…

I'm just trying to say that creativity and inspiration can come from any number of sources and that those that are really creative will find a way to make whatever it is they're working on damned entertaining and even, occasionally, original.

And you won't know where that came from.

At least-- not right away…

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