The Inspiration Behind Iconic Comic Book Characters

Photo by Lena Orwig on Unsplash

Our favorite superheroes have influenced society and pop culture for decades, remaining beloved by fans of all ages. Through the years, comic book characters have addressed political, personal, and social issues, inspiring the American public along the way. As the decades passed, the aesthetic of each character has shifted to adapt to the mood of each time period, but their core characteristics have remained constant.

Comic books also continue to offer high value to collectors. The most valuable comic book to date, DC Comic’s “Action Comics #1″ sold for over $3 million in 2014.

To understand the history and cultural significance of each comic book superhero, it’s essential to understand what they were inspired by.

The Inspiration Behind Superman

Superman was created in 1933 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish immigrants in New York. The character first appeared in DC Comics’ Action Comics #1 in 1938. Inspiration for Superman came from multiple sources. Writer Jerry Siegel loosely based the storyline on the John Carter of Mars books, a series about a Civil War soldier who travels to Mars and realizes he is extremely powerful due to the weak gravity there. Joe Shuster’s drawings mimic the poses and mannerisms of Douglas Fairbanks, an action movie star from the silent era.

When World War II began, Superman was enlisted in the war effort and fought Japanese and German villains in the comic book stories. This iconic hero continues to be known for capabilities like invulnerability, super strength, and speed. The success and popularity of Superman undoubtedly inspired the creation of the comic characters that came after him.

The Inspiration Behind Batman

After the success of Superman, DC Comics wanted to create a new hero and tasked comic book writer and artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger with developing one. This led to the birth of Batman, a hero who did not possess supernatural powers, but instead had a variety of interesting gadgets including a utility belt, “batarangs,” and a grapple gun. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939.

Batman was inspired by a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of a bat-winged flying machine. The creators also took inspiration from Dracula and The Bat, a 1926 silent film. Batman’s portrayal and costume has evolved over the years. His most notable costume change was the evolution from a cloth suit to combat gear.

The Inspiration Behind The Joker

The Joker was created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and artist Jerry Robinson. The character first entered the DC Comics world in 1940 in Batman #1. This villain is arguably the most infamous comic book adversary of all time and is known as Batman’s number one enemy. He is positioned as the complete opposite of the Dark Knight, as he enjoys destroying lives and creating chaos.

The aesthetic of the Joker was inspired by German actor Conrad Veidt’s role as Gwynplain in the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs, which was directed by the German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni. In the movie, the character is sentenced to have his face surgically altered into an eternal grin.

The Joker is best known for his maniacal expression, green hair, and passion for pranks. His aesthetic has evolved, but the essence of his mayhem has remained constant.

The Inspiration Behind Catwoman

Catwoman made her first debut in DC Comics’ Batman #1 in 1940. Like Batman and the Joker, the character was also created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. When developing Catwoman, the creators drew their inspiration from actresses Hedy Lamarr and Jean Harlow. Catwoman was also partially inspired by Kane’s second cousin by marriage, Ruth Steel. The character was originally created to add sex appeal to Batman’s story and to appeal to female readers.

Catwoman’s backstory sheds light on the complexities of her character and her complicated relationship with Batman. She lives her life in shades of gray, walking the fine line between hero and villain.

The Inspiration Behind Green Lantern

The Green Lantern is one of the most complex comic characters, with a convoluted backstory involving aliens and planetary mythology. The character has undergone many transformations over the years, and the comic is especially unique because it was actually created twice. The Green Lantern made its first debut in 1940, and the character was rebooted completely in 1959. The two Green Lanterns are completely unique from one another, except for the fact that they both have the same main powers.

The Green Lantern was originally inspired by a subway accident. The comic’s creator, Martin Nodell, was a struggling artist working to come up with a new superhero idea in 1940 when he took a subway train that encountered an obstacle in its path. During this incident, he watched a railroad engineer hold a green lantern up to signal that it was clear to cross. This moment became the inspiration for the Green Lantern. Additionally, the character’s powers were inspired by the story of Aladdin in 1001 Arabian Nights.

The Inspiration Behind Captain America

During World War II, many superheroes were fighting for the American flag, but Captain America was the first comic book character to actually wear it. The hero was created by cartoonists Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, and debuted with Captain America #1 in 1941. On the cover of this iconic comic book, Captain America punches Hitler in the jaw.

Captain America was inspired by World War II military efforts, and he provided hope and comfort for many young men who signed up to fight overseas. His origin story mirrors a man pursuing the American Dream. He began as Steve Rogers, a sickly young man who longed to fight for his country. Despite this desire, he was turned away due to poor health. This setback led him to join Operation: Rebirth, a top secret project where he transformed into the perfect human after receiving a shot of “Super Soldier Serum.”

The Inspiration Behind Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is the most famous heroine of all time and has been a feminist icon since 1941, when she made her debut in All-Star Comics #8. She was created by William Morton Marston and was modeled after the new feminine ideal of courageous womanhood.

Wonder Woman is beloved for her superhuman speed and strength, her bulletproof bracelets, and her Golden Lasso of Truth that helps her fight the hate in our world. She was inspired in part by Varga Girl centerfolds in Esquire that Marston viewed as “erotic” and “cosmopolitan.” Her costume was inspired by Marston’s interest in erotic pinup art, as he wanted her feminine appearance to help counteract the intense masculinity of other comic characters. Wonder Woman was also directly inspired by characteristics and mannerisms of Marston’s wife and mistress, both of whom lived with him.

The Inspiration Behind Spider-Man

Spider-Man got his start in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962. He was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Soon his character was adapted for various mediums including the most expensive broadway musical to date, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.

The inspiration for Spider-Man’s costume came from an unlikely source. Many believe that the outfit worn by the iconic superhero was inspired by a 1954 children’s halloween costume created by Ben Cooper Inc. Spider-Man is unique because prior to the 1960s, teenage comic book characters were typically relegated to the role of sidekick. Stan Lee didn’t agree with this principle and pushed hard for a teenage protagonist.

The Inspiration Behind The Hulk

The Hulk first appeared in Incredible Hulk #1 in 1962. The character was created by Jack Kirby and is part of the Marvel universe.

The idea for the Hulk was born after the comic’s creator saw a woman lift a car while trying to get her child out from underneath it. This event inspired him and made him think about what a person is able to do when they are forced into action.

The Inspiration Behind The Black Panther

The Black Panther first appeared in Marvel’s Fantastic Four No. 52 in 1966 and he was the first black mainstream comic book character. He was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. According to writer Stan Lee, the name of the character is based on an adventure hero that has a black panther as a helper. The original concept art was titled “Coal Tiger.”

Roughly three months after the Black Panther character debuted in the Marvel universe, the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California. However, the Black Panther logo of the party’s predecessor, Lowndes County Freedom Organization, came a year before the release of the comic.

The Inspiration Behind Wolverine

Like many comic characters, Wolverine has a somewhat complicated origin story. He was originally created to be a throw-away character in the Hulk’s story. He made his first appearance in the Marvel comic word in Incredible Hulk #180 in 1974.

When dreaming up Wolverine, writer Len Wein and artist Jon Romita Jr. were told to create a Canadian hero-villain based on a Northern animal. Wein was conflicted about whether to model his character after a wolverine or a badger. He ultimately decided to go with a wolverine, because “badger” has the negative connotation of nagging.

The Inspiration Behind Storm


Storm was created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. She first appeared in the Marvel universe in Giant Size X-Men #1 in 1975. The character was written by Len Wein and drawn by Dave Cockrum. Originally intended to be a male hero, Storm is based on two different characters that were going to be part of the Legion of Superheroes comic book — Typhoon and the Black Cat.

Storm is one of the most important and prominent black superheroes, and she’s been essential to the X-Men storyline since her debut. She’s also one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel universe.

Over the years, our favorite heroes have evolved in look and feel, but their most important characteristics remain unwavering. Each of these superhero favorites is a product of the time period that they were born in, and their creation was inspired by art, pop culture, and the life experiences of their creators.

Adaptations of comic book characters have been shared across the big screen, radio, and television through the decades, and the look and feel of the characters has been adapted to fit these different mediums and reflect shifting cultural norms. Understanding the inspiration behind these iconic characters reflects just how much art, history, and pop culture are aligned.

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Sources: 99designs | Comic Vine | Empire | Unbelievable Facts | Superworld Comics | DC Database | The Atlantic | DC Comics | io9 Gizmodo | The Geek Twins | io9 Gizmodo | DC Comics | Film Maker IQ | DC Comics | Comic Vine | The Washington Post | Time | The Mary Sue | The Ringer | Lumerman | Comic Vine