Inspiration for the creation of fictional characters can come from all kinds of places. Tony Stark was based on Howard Hughes, Superman was influenced by Moses, Betty Boop was based on Helen Kane, Wonder Woman was based on her creator’s wife and mistress, and RoboCop is (believe it or not) based on Jesus.
But it isn’t just good and heroic characters whose creation has been inspired by something or someone that already existed before them – whether that someone or something is real or fictional. Marvel’s Thanos was based on two DC characters in Metron and Darkseid, Darth Vader was based on Doctor Doom, the Penguin was based on (rather unsurprisingly) actual penguins, and Shredder was based on a cheese grater (no, really)!
Villains have, however, also been based on real people – which is either something for those people to be extremely proud of or extremely ashamed of, depending on the specifics of the circumstances! In this article, we’ll look at just a few examples where that was indeed the case. Here are fifteen iconic villains who were based on real people.
15. Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin)
Harley Quinn was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. She actually made her first ever appearance in the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Joker’s Favor” in September of 1992, before appearing in a comic book for the first time the following year in The Batman Adventures #12 (although it would be another six years before she appeared in the main DC continuity for the first time in Batman: Harley Quinn #1).
She was based on Arleen Sorkin – a friend of Dini’s since his college days and a former star of the soap opera Days of Our Lives. Sorkin appeared in a dream sequence in the soap wearing a jester costume and that, combined with aspects of Sorkin’s real-life personality, would form the basis of Harley Quinn’s character (Timm would also take some inspiration for Harley from a couple he knew who had a “stormy but non-violent relationship”).
14. Poison Ivy (Bettie Page)
Poison Ivy – whose real name is Pamela Lillian Isley – is yet another Batman villain on this list and she first appeared in 1966’s Batman #181. She was created by Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff. They based the character on American model Bettie Page, who gained incredible popularity in the 1950s and was referred to as the “Queen of Pin-ups”.
Page – who sadly passed away in 2008 – has influenced artists for decades and her haircut and look were used in the original designs of Poison Ivy. Page would have been retired by the time Poison Ivy was created, but she was still very popular. The model often posed in skimpy outfits, a few of which are clearly quite similar to some of those worn by Poison Ivy in the comics.
13. Darkseid (Adolf Hitler & Jack Palance)
Darkseid has actually been the inspiration for the creation of a number of other comic book characters – most notably Marvel’s Mad Titan Thanos – but the Lord of Apokolips was, himself, modelled on a pair of real life people who, quite frankly, couldn’t be more different to each other. He was created by Jack Kirby, after he moved from Marvel to DC, and he first appeared in cameo form in 1970’s Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #134, before making his full debut in 1971’s Forever People #1.
According to comic book writer Mark Evanier, Darkseid’s physical appearance was modelled on Academy Award-nominated actor Jack Palance, while his megalomaniac, fascist, militarist personality was modelled on Adolf Hitler – a man who wanted to be a god, which Darkseid certainly is.
12. Ursula (Divine)
So, we’re wanting to include a few villains here who aren’t your typical comic book supervillains, but whose infamy puts them right up there with the likes of the Joker, Darkseid and company. The Little Mermaid’s Ursula is certainly someone who fits that bill.
Ursula preys on the sweet and unassuming Ariel in the classic 1989 Disney movie and she was actually based on the famous drag queen Harris Glenn Milstead, who is otherwise known as Divine. Divine rose to prominence in the early 1970s, having appeared in some of John Waters movies, such as Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos. Seeing Ursula and Divine side by side provides all the proof anyone should ever need about the fact that the former is based on the latter – just look at them!
11. Cruella De Vil (Tallulah Bankhead)
Cruella De Vil is a villainous character who is most famous for appearing in various Disney adaptations – both animated and live action – of Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians. She’s a very mean-spirited woman who is a wealthy heiress in the original novel and someone who has become wealthy by selling fur coats in the Disney adaptations.
It’s the Disney version we’re referring to here, because Disney based their Cruella De Vil on the personality and mannerisms of Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead was an American actress, who appeared on both stage and screen, and a supposed libertine. Her most notable traits were her husky voice, her outrageous personality, and her devastating wit – which is very like Cruella De Vil.
10. J. Jonah Jameson (Stan Lee)
J. Jonah Jameson isn’t a supervillain per se, but there’s absolutely no doubting the fact that he’s an antagonist to an iconic superhero – and that’s enough for us to include him here. Jameson is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Bugle – the newspaper for which Peter Parker provides photographs as a freelance photo-journalist – and he first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 in 1963.
He runs regular smear campaigns against Spider-Man – which is obviously very frustrating for Peter Parker who is, of course, Spider-Man’s alter-ego – but Jameson is actually based on one of Spider-Man’s creators: Marvel legend Stan Lee. Lee created Spidey along with Steve Dikto, Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, but the Spidey-hating Jameson is actually just meant to be Lee with a more grouchy personality!
9. Lucifer Morningstar (David Bowie)
In spite of the fact that he is essentially DC/Vertigo’s version of the Devil himself, Lucifer Morningstar’s alignment has been somewhat ambiguous and alternating over the years. That changed in the recent company-wide reboot, however, and he has since been depicted as a more malevolent and villainous being, which makes it okay for him to be included here.
He was created by Neil Gaiman and Sam Kieth and first appeared in 1989’s The Sandman #4, before getting his own self-titled series a few years later. His personality was largely based on the depiction of Satan in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost but, thanks to Gaiman, his physical appearance was originally modelled on none other than the late, great, iconic British pop star David Bowie.
8. Kingpin (Sydney Greenstreet)
Kingpin – whose real name is Wilson Fisk – is a Marvel supervillain who is classically seen as an antagonist to the likes of Daredevil and Spider-Man. He was first seen in 1967’s The Amazing Spider-Man #50 and is typically presented as a rotund and incredibly strong bald man, who is one of the most-feared and powerful crime lords in Marvel, and a rich businessman.
He was created by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. and his physical appearance was based on the late British actor Sydney Greenstreet, who died way back in 1954. Greenstreet was a well-set bald man who tended to portray authoritative men in his movies – often of the gangster variety – and who appeared in such classics as The Maltese Falcon, They Died with Their Boots On and Casablanca.
7. Jabba the Hutt (Sydney Greenstreet)
Speaking of Sydney Greenstreet, but heading away from comic books this time, another iconic supervillain whose appearance was based on the British actor was Star Wars’ Jabba the Hutt. Having first appeared in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, he has appeared in three Star Wars movies in total (as well as various other Star Wars media). Jabba is depicted as a large, slug-like alien whose look has been described as being like a toad crossed with a Cheshire Cat.
Like Kingpin, Jabba the Hutt is a gangster. He exemplifies lust, greed, and gluttony and is renowned in the Star Wars universe for the enjoyment he gets from kidnapping, enslaving and torturing his victims. This is one character that Sydney Greenstreet probably wouldn’t have appreciated being the inspiration for. Greenstreet’s additional movie credits included the likes of Across the Pacific, Background to Danger and Passage to Marseille.
6. Hannibal Lecter (Alfredo Balli Trevino)
You’re probably thinking “wait… Hannibal Lecter isn’t anything like supervillain!” – but think about it: the guy is every bit the conniving, psychotic genius that countless comic book bad guys are and he fits the profile of a supervillain perfectly – plus, as we’ve already mentioned, we want to give this list a bit of variation and not just include comic book characters.
Lecter is, of course, a cannibalistic forensic scientist and the antagonist of a number of movies and novels. He first appeared in the 1981 thriller novel Red Dragon and is well-known for his appearance in the 1991 movie Silence of the Lambs. He was based on a surgeon called Alfredo Ballí Treviño, who was convicted of murdering then chopping up his gay lover. Thomas Harris – the man who wrote the novels in which Lecter starred – met Treviño in a prison when he was interviewing another inmate for a story in the early 1960s.
5. Catwoman (Jean Harlow & Ruth Steel)
In 1940, Batman’s creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger wanted to add some sex appeal to their new heroic creation’s comic book. They wanted a character who was both a criminal and a foe to their hero, but also a love interest to spice up the Dark Knight’s otherwise rather lonely life. As a result, they created Selina Kyle AKA Catwoman, and she made her debut in 1940’s Batman #1.
Kane and Finger had a real love and affinity for movies at the time, so they based the feline character’s sex appeal on seductive actress Jean Harlow. In addition to that, however, Catwoman’s look was modelled on the appearance of Kane’s own cousin, Ruth Steel, who has spoken out about the fact that Kane took photographs of her and then drew out the character based on them.
4. Magneto (Malcolm X)
Magneto – whose real name is Max Eisenhardt in the comics, not Erik Lehnsherr, incidentally – is a Marvel mutant who first appeared in 1963’s in The X-Men #1. Aware of the fact that mutants have endured a lot of prejudice over the years, Magneto has spent much of his life campaigning for mutant rights and human-mutant relations.
Given that he was created at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were heavily inspired by it and based Magneto on civil rights leader Malcolm X (Magneto’s heroic counterpart, Professor Charles Xavier, was based on Martin Luther King Jr.). This particular character inspiration hasn’t actually been confirmed by Lee or Kirby, but it’s blatantly obvious. Magneto championed for a world in which mutants could live without fear, just like Malcolm X (though his methods conflict with those of Xavier’s, just like Malcolm X’s did with Luther King Jr.’s).
3. The Hellfire Club (Rich 18th Century White Men)
The Hellfire Club are a group of villains from Marvel’s comic books who first appeared in 1980 in Uncanny X-Men #129. They have since come into confrontation with the X-Men on a number of occasions. On the surface, they seem be a mere international social club for the wealthy elite, but beneath the surface their aim is to influence world events with more nefarious and selfish intentions.
They’re actually based on a number of real groups – specifically gentleman’s clubs – that were explicitly for rich men from the 18th century. The groups in question went by the same name – Hellfire Club – and had an inner circle hierarchy that was specifically modelled on the pieces of a chess set, with rankings that included Kings, Queens, Bishops and Rooks.
2. The Joker (Conrad Veidt)
The Joker was created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. He made his first appearance in 1940 in the Batman #1 comic. He may seem like such a bizarre and unique character that he couldn’t possibly have been based on anybody real, but he was actually based on German actor Conrad Veidt.
More specifically, he was based on the look of Veidt’s character, Gwynplaine, in the 1928 silent horror movie The Man Who Laughs. The grim carnival freak-like grin on Veidt’s character’s face was what influenced Finger, Kane and Robinson to create Batman’s arch-enemy.
Of course, on a related note, the movie version of the Joker played by Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s 2005-2012 Dark Knight Trilogy took inspiration from Tom Waits – an American musician – in terms of his unique voice and mannerisms.
1. MODAAK (The President Of The United States)
M.O.D.A.A.K. (which is an acronym that is short for Mental Organism Designed as America’s King) first appeared in July of 2016 as an alternate reality version of the already established Marvel villain M.O.D.O.K. He appeared in the Spider-Gwen comics that were set on the Marvel Earth designated Earth-65 and it was fairly obvious that he was based on none other than current American president Donald Trump.
Although M.O.D.A.A.K. was essentially just a giant head in a mechanical body, the facial resemblance to Trump was completely undeniable. He was also a foreigner-hating (describing foreigners as “foreign filth”) hand-obsessed megalomaniac, which made the comparison even more obvious.
His rather satisfying defeat came at the hands of an alternate female, black version of Captain America – and we know exactly what Marvel were thinking when they made that happen!
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