Yesterday (April 21, at the time of this posting) was an important day in World War II history. A pilot was shot down in combat, but this guy wasn’t just any pilot. He was Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ on Barry Bonds’ steroids.
His name was Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s most decorated fighter pilot known as “The Red Baron.” On April 21, 1918, “Ace of Aces” was killed by Allied fire over the Somme River in France by Canadian Royal Air Force pilot Captain Arthur Roy Brown. He was 25 years old.
Richthofen was quite literally a rock star of the 20th century. When he died, he lay in state for an entire day as hundreds of soldiers–from both Axis and Allied forces–ignored the world war they were prosecuting and paid their last respects.
And then, Charles Schultz created Peanuts. In 1965, he gave one of his favorite characters, Snoopy, an altar ego created after the exploits of the Red Baron. It has lived on to this day, but did you know there have been other comic characters (and even a few CBM ones) that have been developed after real-life people.
Some you know. Others will shock you. Time to IRL some of your favorites:
John Constantine / Sting
Some classic DC stans are going to love this. Ever heard of The Police or Sting? There is Constantine’s doppleganger — Sting. The creator of the graphic novel Watchmen, Alan Moore, was a fan. He also wanted this magician to be brash and impulsive, something a cat who looked like Gandalf couldn’t pull off. So when the necromancial antihero John Constantine was created and placed in The Saga of Swamp Thing #37 (June 1985), he had a distinct likeness to some dude named Gordon Sumners. Sorry Keanu. Sting has this one.
J. Jonah Jameson / Stan Lee
In Spider-Man lore, we all know the cantankerous and volatile newspaper editor of The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson. Turns out the man himself excelsiored himself in the comics. Stan once said, “I thought if I were a grumpy, irritable man, which I am sometimes, how would I act? And that was it.” Too bad we never got to see that cameo in a Marvel film.
The Winter Soldier / Bucky Pierson
Not familiar with Bucky Pierson? Don’t bother going to Google for pictures. None exist. When a young Bucky Pierson lived, there was no Facebook, but he was the inspiration behind Bucky Barnes. Captain America co-creator Joe Simon was considering a sidekick for our nation’s newest superhero and went to something familiar — a high school friend. He was reported to be a star player on the basketball team. He had the look, charisma, and agility to fit what could be. Today, he is.
Nick Fury / Samuel L. Jackson
You may have heard this one. There’s been a little bit of news on Marvel lately. When Nick Fury was first created to appear in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos (May 1963), he was this strapping white guy with a considerable amount of hair. Then, Marvel brought him back to refresh the brand, his image, and prepare for this “universe” coming. The new version was literally made to look like Jackson. When you say, “he was made to play that guy,” that is literally the truth in the MCU and Nick Fury.
Bruce Wayne / Douglas Fairbanks
Who?! In the Silent Era of film (1920), there was a rising star named Douglas Fairbanks. Bob Kane and Bill Finger, creators of the Caped Crusader, were thinking of inspiration for Bruce Wayne in 1939 when they happened upon Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro. Noting his charisma, athletic ability, and humor on screen, the two knew they had their guy. And aside from the dual identity, Zorro had a secret lair. Hiding behind the guise of a well-off businessman didn’t hurt for idea development either.
Wolverine / Paul D’Amato
Maybe a little less of the ‘Who’ and more of the ‘Huh’?! When Wolverine was created, he was a one-off (can you imagine the X-Men without him as a centerpiece). The Hulk was supposed to smash him (The Incredible Hulk #180, October 1974) but his grizzled look and adamantium frame proved to have some use for the long-term. To bring the character back, Stan Lee, Len Wein, and John Romita, Jr. needed a permanent fixture to create Logan. They found the cult classic 1977 movie Slap Shot. Paul D’Amato’s minor role of “Dr. Hook” had major potential as he was the visage of Wolverine.
The Joker / Conrad Veidt
Just let that picture sink in because that is a real dude. He is German actor Conrad Veidt and was discovered by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs. (Again, I’ll let that sink in.) We have the same people finding inspiration in the same film genre for what would be one of the greatest rivalries in comic history. Jerry Robinson, who worked closely with Kane and Finger, claims when he saw this movie and that face, he thought about an evil villain with a twisted sense of humor. Veidt’s character ‘Gwynplaine’ was the muse for that villain and the reason we have a Joker.
Tony Stark / Howard Hughes
While many have claimed there is a strong dash of Elon Musk in this recipe, Tony Stark is all Howard Hughes — eccentric billionaire, misunderstood visionary, remarkable inventor, and just a touch of fruit basket. Stan Lee has even shared his overall likeness is not uncanny. The similarities between Hughes and Stark are meant to be carbon copies, even down to the way Tony can have two conversations at once. All we need is a “Spruce Goose” reference in Avengers: Endgame and it will be complete.
Professor X / Martin Luther King / Yul Brenner
Many fans know the polarizing leaders of the X-Men, Magneto and Professor X, were created during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Marvel, a progressive publisher at the time, wasn’t afraid from using merits of a hero into the created ones. Magneto was Malcolm X and Professor X was Martin Luther King, only Xavier wasn’t drawn like that. And then Stan Lee thought about leading man of The King and I, The Magnificent Seven, and yes, Westworld (and you thought it was HBO’s). Yul Brenner was the destination of Charles Xavier’s journey, mixed with the stoic leadership of MLK.
Arleen Sorkin / Harley Quinn
Who knew anyone at DC Comics watched soap operas in the ’90s, but Harley Quinzel is proof someone did. In Batman: The Animated Series, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm thought The Joker needed a love interest. The idea of Ms. Quinzel became a thing in 1992 when the two were watching Paul’s lifelong pal Arleen Sorkin on Days of Our Lives. She was playing a clown in a dream sequence and a new (animated) star was born.
Lucifer Morningstar / David Bowie
Who better to be the muse of an intergalactic superhero than Ziggy Stardust himself? While the tales of Lucifer Morningstar was inspired by the iconic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton, his look, style, and demeanor is all David Bowie. I mean, Neil Gaiman took the Prince of Darkness out of hell and placed him a dark LA piano bar, so that’s Bowie, right? Artist Kelley Jones was famously quoted saying, “Neil was adamant the devil was David Bowie…because if it isn’t David Bowie, you’re going to have to redo it until it is.” So, he is.
Catwoman / Hedy Lamaar
Me-YOW! If you watch documentaries, Hedy Lamaar’s name should sound familiar. In Bombshell: The Hedy Lamaar Story, we learn about an Austrian actress who fled an abusive marriage to become the leading lady of the 1930s. She was beautiful, seductive, and wicked smart. How? You like Bluetooth technology? She did that (because she was bored of acting…no joke). She also inspired Catwoman. Bob Kane, again inspired by classic film, thought Selina Kyle was all Hedy. You go girl.
Shazam! / Fred Macmurry
Maybe writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck were hurting for a superhero. Maybe Superman was a slight inspiration. However, when Billy Batson says the magic word, he needed to become someone attractive, appealing, and all-together wholesome. Enter into the fray of comics Fred Macmurray. Wait, what? You mean ‘Steve Douglas’ from My Three Sons? The guy was easily one of the most overrated TV and film actors of his generations, so it’s fitting when America needed a hero, they called on Fred. (Imagine that being the magic word.)
Monica Rambeau / Pam Grier
At one time, the female Captain Marvel wasn’t Carol Danvers. It wasn’t even a white woman. Meet Monica Rambeau. Yes, the movie got it twisted – Monica is Carol’s “niece” but as created in comics, specifically Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982), Monica is a full-grown cosmic powerhouse thanks to some misguided power rays that strike her on Earth. Oh, by the way, she was inspired by the mother of all badass women and the queen of blaxpoitation, Pam Grier. The first Black Avenger was a real superstar already.
Darkseid / Adolf Hitler / Jack Palance
Yes, you read that correctly. Jack Kirby never played around and when he wanted to catch a flame of inspiration, he went straight to the pit of hell on this one. Darkseid, ruled over planet Apokolips with an iron fist and bad attitude. Him and his army of parademons were set on conquering the known universe. And, well, you know the rest of the story, SnyderCut fans. It seems Jack Kirby modeled the grizzled face hellion after Captain Machismo in the 1950s, Jack Palance (what a compliment, right). And then, used the rest of his demeanor crafted by Adolf Hitler because of every reason you can envision.
Clark Kent / Harold Lloyd
You read about Joker and Batman. Three guess why this dude is famous? DC goes silent again, only this time, it was Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster using the 1920s as inspiration. Harold Lloyd was known as a brilliant comedic actor, but mainly for his glasses. When he took them off in film, you guessed it, no one recognized him. The guy did his own stunts and was a little quirky around the ladies. In 1933, Clark Kent first hit the page looking just like Lloyd in his altar ego.