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9 Superheroes You Won't Believe Are Based on Real People

Canada 1995 #1579 MNH Superman stamp drawn by Joe Shuster
Read about the surprising people that inspired the strongest heroes. Superheroes are supposed to be above regular people. Bathed in cosmic radiation or arriving from distant planets, these heroes are the greatest ever and no human can hope to be as powerful as they are. But in reality, coming up with an original superhero is hard and many artists and creators turned to real people to create their classic heroes. Find out the surprisingly ordinary origins of your favorite superheroes.

1. Superman Was Based on Silent Movie Stars

Created By: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938

Superman is iconic and the ultimate superhero but he didn't start out that way. When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster graduated from Cleveland's Glenville High School they bonded over their mutual love of movies, comic strips, and science fiction. In 1933 they wrote a short story for Siegel's self-published fanzine Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3 about a bald earth man gaining powerful telepathic abilities and trying to take over the world. One day, in Siegel's bedroom, he looked up at the stars and imagined a powerful hero who looked out for those in trouble. Superman was born, but what would he look like?

The Real-Life Person
Simon and Shuster were big fans of swashbuckling movies like Robin Hood, and The Mark of Zorro which starred Douglas Fairbanks Sr., so they modeled Superman's physique and poses on him. His alter ego's face was based on Harold Lloyd and Shuster's. The name, Clark Kent, was a combination of Clark Gable and Kent Taylor.

2. Batman Was Named After a Scottish King

Created By: Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939

Superman was incredibly popular and Bob Kane decided to make a superhero named "The Bat-Man". He even drew a picture, but it looked a lot like Superman. So, to make his character look less "rip-offy", artist Bill Finger looked in the dictionary.

"I got Webster's Dictionary off the shelf and was hoping they had a drawing of a bat, and sure enough it did." he said, "I said, 'notice the ears, why don't we duplicate the ears?' I suggested he draw what looked like a cowl... I had suggested he bring the nosepiece down and make him mysterious and not show any eyes at all... I didn't like the wings, so I suggested he make a cape and scallop the edges so it would flow out behind him when he ran and would look like bat wings. He didn't have any gloves on. We gave him gloves because naturally he'd leave fingerprints."

The Real-Life Person
When they set out to name the billionaire playboy they used two historical characters. His first name was from the Scottish king Robert the Bruce (also known as Robert Bruce) who was a famous warrior that led Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England. For the last name, Finger wanted a last name of a man of noble birth.

"Wayne, being a playboy, was a man of gentry."  Finger said, "[Then,] I searched for a name that would suggest colonialism. I tried Adams, Hancock … then I thought of Mad Anthony Wayne." Anthony Wayne was an American Revolutionary war general who was known for winning battles against against numerically superior forces. Just like Batman fights a one-man war against crime

Later on, in the comics, they established Bruce Wayne is General Wayne's direct descendant. Wayne Manor was revealed to have been built for General Wayne for his service during the Revolution.

3. Professor X Was Based on a Russian Actor

Created By: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963

When developing his superhero team, the X-Men, Stan Lee needed to come up with something new. They'd already done radiation in every form imaginable, so he thought of a new origin: mutants. He originally wanted to call the book "The Mutants", but Martin Goodman, his publisher, didn’t like that name. Stan Lee revealed in Comics Creators On X-Men. “He said our readers wouldn’t know what a mutant was. So, okay, since their leader was Professor Xavier, and they each had an 'X-tra' power, I decided to call them the X-Men. So I said to Martin, 'How about X-Men?' He said the title sounded good so we went with it.”

The Real-Life Person
For the leader Stan Lee wanted someone special. In the 1993 Wizard magazine special issue "X-Men Turn Thirty" Stan Lee said, "I thought of Professor X as [actor] Yul Brynner… I thought it would be good if he was physically limited, since his mind was so powerful. Even though he was confined to the wheelchair, in a way he was the most powerful."

Yul Brynner was a Russian actor best known for his bald head and his Academy Award winning performance in The King and I. He also had epic eyebrows, which Charles Xavier also had.

4. Bucky Was Based on a High School Kid

Created By: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941

During the patriotic heyday of World War II, the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby set out to turn Hitler into a super-villain. Buy to do that they needed a hero to fight him. When Simon first created his patriotic superhero he called him "the Super American" but decided there were too many "supers" around. Simon later said, "’Captain America' had a good sound to it. There weren't a lot of captains in comics. It was as easy as that."

The Real-Life Person
When Joe Simon created his first sketch of Captain America, he included a young sidekick named James "Bucky" Barnes. "The boy companion was simply named Bucky, after my friend Bucky Pierson, a star on our high school basketball team." Simon said. Somewhere out there lived a man that became a superhero.

5. Iron Man Was Based on a Crazy Playboy

Created By: Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby in 1963

Stan Lee decided to make a superhero that was deeply flawed inside and outside. In an interview for the first Iron Man movie he recalled, “I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military. So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist. I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him ... And he became very popular.”

The Real-Life Person
For his colorful personality, he based the playboy's looks and personality on Howard Hughes. Lee said, "Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multi-billionaire, a ladies' man and finally a nutcase." Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. was an American business tycoon, investor, aviator, aerospace engineer, inventor, filmmaker and philanthropist. He was fantastically rich and lived an eccentric life.  In his later years, Hugh’s worsening obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) and chronic pain led him to a reclusive and bizarre life. Don Heck said in 1963, “Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a ladies’ man and finally a nutcase. Without being crazy, [Iron Man] was Howard Hughes.”

6. Catwoman is Based on a 1930s Sex Symbol

Created By: Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1939

When creating a new character for Batman #1 named "The Cat" Kane turned to animals. “I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs.” Kane said in his autobiography Batman and Me. “While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, detached, and unreliable. I felt much warmer with dogs around me—cats are as hard to understand as women are. Men feel more sure of themselves with a male friend than a woman. You always need to keep women at arm's length. We don't want anyone taking over our souls, and women have a habit of doing that. So there's a love-resentment thing with women. I guess women will feel that I'm being chauvinistic to speak this way, but I do feel that I've had better relationships with male friends than women. With women, once the romance is over, somehow they never remain my friends.”

The Real-Life Person
Bob Kane, was a huge movie fan and this led him to create several Batman characters based on his favorite actresses and actors. For Catwoman’s sex appeal they drew on the buxom 1930s actress Jean Harlow. He said she “seemed to personify feminine pulchritude at its most sensuous."

7. Wonder Woman Was Based on Two Strong Women

Created By: William Moulton Marston in 1941

Wonder Woman first appeared in All Star Comics #8 back in 1941. She was created by the American psychologist, and inventor of the lie detector, William Moulton Marston. In 1940, Marston did an interview with Family Circle magazine and talked about the unfulfilled potential of comic books. When publisher Max Gaine, co-founder of All-American Publications, heard about it he hired Marston as an educational consultant for his comics. Marston, using the name Charles Marston, set out to create a new kind of superhero.

The Real-Life Person
To create his hero he used two close women in his life. His wife Elizabeth Marston was known as an unconventional, liberated woman. Elizabeth Holloway Marston was a renowned psychologist and "indexed the documents of the first fourteen Congresses, lectured on law, ethics, and psychology at American and New York Universities, served as an editor for Encyclopædia Britannica and McCall's magazine." Besides inspiring her husband to make a hero that triumphs with love, it was her idea to make his hero a woman.

The other woman that inspired Wonder Woman was Olive Byrne. She was a former student and research assistant who helped Marston conduct his experiments. While we don't know the exact nature of Byrne's relationship, she moved in with Marston and his wife in the late '20s. She had three children with him that the two adopted. Byrne was called his "Wonder Woman" and said her "Arab 'protective' bracelets" were the inspiration for the ones worn by Wonder Woman.

Like the Amazonian, both women showed incredible strength. Olive Byrne lived died in the 1980s while Elizabeth Marston died at 100 years old.

8. Captain Marvel Was Based on a Sitcom Actor

Created By: C. C. Beck and Bill Parker in 1939

With the success of National Comics' (now DC Comics) new superhero characters Superman and Batman Fawcett Publications started a comics division and Parker was tasked to create a unique superhero for them. Originally, Bill Parker wanted to create a team of six heroes with the power of a mythological figure. Fawcett Comics' executive director Ralph Daigh suggested combining them into one hero that Parker called "Captain Thunder" that was later renamed "Captain Marvel." Artist Charles Clarence "C. C." Beck told Cartoonician, "When Bill Parker and I went to work on Fawcett’s first comic book in late 1939, we both saw how poorly written and illustrated the superhero comic books were. We decided to give our reader a real comic book, drawn in comic-strip style and telling an imaginative story, based not on the hackneyed formulas of the pulp magazine, but going back to the old folk-tales and myths of classic times"

The Real-Life Person
Beck had been working on a magazine about movie stars when he was assigned to design a cast of comic characters was assigned to him. So, Beck used famous people as models for his characters. For example, "Ibis the Invincible" was modeled after Mark of Zorro actor Tyrone Power and Spy Smasher was modeled after Errol Flynn. When designing Captain Marvel, he turned to popular actor Fred MacMurray. According to Jim Steranko, “With the movie job fresh in his mind, he began the task of translating Bill Parker’s ideas into graphic form. He chose film star Fred MacMurray as the model of Captain Thunder, giving him the same black, wavy hair; bone structure, and cleft chin.”

Becks desire to make a more grounded superhero led him to use an everyman actor. C.C. Beck, in the book "The Human Qualities of the Captain Marvel Characters" said, "Captain Marvel himself was based on the actor Fred MacMurray, who was known as a pretty down-to-earth guy."

MacMurray was a popular actor and become one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors a few years later in 1943. His best known television role was on the sitcom My Three Sons.

9. Flash Was Named After Talk Show Hosts

Created By: Robert Kanigher, John Broome and Carmine Infantino in 1956

Back in 1940 one of the companies that would become DC Comics, All-American Publications, created a super-fast superhero named Jay Garrick. When DC Comics started reviving superheroes in 1956, they gave the character a new name and origin.

The Real-Life Person
They named the character Barry Allen by combining the names of talk show hosts Barry Gray and Steve Allen. Steve Allen was the first host of The Tonight Show in 1935 and starred in a prime-time variety show called The Steve Allen Show in 1956. Barry Gray was a popular talk radio host and called "The father of Talk Radio."

Which is the most surprising origin? Who is your favorite real-life superhero?

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  1. Wonderful knowing the inspiration! But the most intriguing was Wonder Woman, interesting relationship there!

  2. Yul Brynner and Robert the Bruce - who knew?

  3. I had heard about the Wonder Woman one. Most people really don't appreciate how much Finger contributed to the creation of Batman.

  4. Because The Flash is such a funny guy...

  5. Not surprising for me, I saw in Stan Lee's "How to Draw Comics" that characters tend to get based on real people. For example, Captain Stacy (Gwen Stacy's father) was based on actor Charles Bickford. I guess that applies to most Marvel characters.

  6. On the Wonder Woman story: It is my understanding that Olive and Elizabeth each had 2 children by William, Elizabeth & William adopted the 2 that Olive gave birth to, and they all lived together under the same roof.

  7. This is true. They’re children said it was a happy arrangement.

  8. Superman is a fictional superhero appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. The character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, high school students living in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933. They sold Superman to Detective Comics, the future DC Comics, in 1938. Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 (cover-dated June 1938) and subsequently appeared in various radio serials, newspaper strips, television programs, films, and video games. With this success, Superman helped to create the superhero archetype and establish its primacy within the American comic book.
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