Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so the old saying goes. While this might be true sometimes, it is just as often the excuse given to justify taking someone else’s ideas and trying to claim them as one’s own. The comic industry is no exception. From the very early days, once a hero started to become popular, it was only a matter of time before someone else was slapping a slightly different costume on an eerily similar creation and packaging it to sell.
Without question, one of the biggest victims of this is Superman. He was the first, so it’s only natural that creators have gravitated towards him in their efforts to make their own characters. Best known of these knockoffs is Captain Marvel (Not to be confused with the Marvel character of the same name). At one time, both Superman and Captain Marvel were hugely popular comics with issues selling as much as several million copies. Of course there were some obvious differences between the two characters—mostly having to do with how they received their powers—but both had similar power sets and even looked similar. Eventually these similarities, as well as Captain Marvel’s sales numbers, led DC Comics to sue Captain Marvel’s publisher, Fawcett Publications and a film company who had made a Captain Marvel feature in the early 1940’s. Eventually DC won the lawsuit (after a few interesting circumstances) and Fawcett ceased publishing Captain Marvel stories. In a somewhat odd twist of fate, DC eventually licensed Captain Marvel and the rest of his family from Fawcett and began publishing new comics, finally acquiring the full rights to the character in 1991.
Not all copycat characters are rip-offs by other companies. Often publishers allow copies of characters to serve as enemies of the original. In a way, this makes perfect sense. It’s often said that a person is their own worst enemy, so what better and simpler way to make a villain than to copy the hero in negative. For instance, Reverse-Flash, in various different forms, has been a foe of the Flash since the Golden Age.
With the Flash, it’s pretty easy to invent an antithetical character with similar powers. All the character needs is some super speed—although Professor Zoom (one of the Reverse-Flashes) takes things a step further and wears an inverted Flash costume.
Flash isn’t the only character to have this kind of mirror treatment either. Hal Jordan has long battled his former mentor Sinestro, who wields a yellow power ring to combat Jordan’s green. In fact, DC has gone so far as to create multiple colored corps like the Green Lanterns. Each corps has its own color of light, corresponding with a different part of the emotional spectrum. (At this point, DC may have gone a bit overboard, but it has made for some good stories in the past.)
Copying characters isn’t just about money. Often times it’s done as a parody. Take one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe: Deadpool. Everybody’s favorite (ok…almost everybody’s) merc-with-a-mouth is actually a sardonic copy of DC’s Deathstroke. Deadpool’s creators even gave the original a nod by naming the character Wade Wilson, nearly identical to Deathstroke’s real name, Slade Wilson. While Deadpool might have started off as a nearly identical copy, he has now, of course, become more parody than anything else. Often the character is aware that he is in a comic book and even goes so far as to break the fourth wall and talk directly to readers (and occasionally his own writer). When in the hands of a skilled writer, Deadpool can provide an amusing look at comics as a medium and their unique, storytelling capabilities.
While parody is usually used for humor, it can also be utilized for more productive or introspective ends. When creator Steve Gerber was trying to sue Marvel over the rights to his character Howard the Duck, he and artist Jack Kirby wrote several comics called Destroyer Duck which parodied Howard. The comic was sold both as a means to raise funds for Gerber’s legal fees, and also to raise awareness of the treatment that comic writers received at the hands of large publishers. Though Gerber was ultimately unsuccessful in gaining the rights to Howard, Destroyer Duck gives readers a unique insight on Gerber’s feelings towards his creation and the company that owned it.
Characters are often copied in order to answer the ever-burning question of “what if…” Books like Invincible and Irredeemable use Superman as an archetype to explore a variety of what ifs. These books take the basic idea of what Superman is and begin to experiment with him in ways that couldn’t be done in the pages of Superman or Action Comics. Both Invincible and Irredeemable explore what would happen if Superman were not the upstanding citizen and hero he is, but instead were either an alien sent to prepare Earth for invasion or a hero who can no longer take the strain and criticism leveled at him, and snaps. While these characters may have started out as copies of Superman, they go far beyond that, really becoming their own, unique characters, in spite of their origins.
No discussion of copied characters would be complete without at least touching on what is arguably the greatest comic of all time: Watchmen. Originally, Alan Moore had intended to use the characters that DC had recently acquired from Charlton Comics. Having a general idea of what Moore had planned, DC decided not to allow that, since they knew that the characters they had just spent money on would wind up dead or damaged by the time Moore’s story was done. Instead, Alan Moore created new characters that were loosely based (some more loosely than others) on the Charlton characters. This allowed Moore the freedom to tell his story and DC to keep their newest additions. While this was a practical decision on the part of DC, it had an unintended effect. By modeling his cast of characters after existing superheroes, Alan Moore was able to make the characters instantly relatable to readers, which in turn allowed Moore to do more with them and force readers to react more strongly to them, despite the fact that they were all characters that readers had never seen before. Although Moore is undeniably a genius, it’s difficult to say whether he would have had the same level of success if he had gotten what he originally wanted and used the existing characters.
Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter the reason why a character was copied. Rather, how they are used and the stories that are told are the most important factors. While it is nearly impossible to avoid influence, it is always best to take care when it comes to established characters. Creators and companies tend to get defensive when they feel their rights have been infringed.