Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

Published 5 months ago by , Updated August 5th, 2014 at 9:31 am,

Super Villain Inspirations DC Comics Super Villains 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

Artists and writers find inspiration for their creations in a variety of things around them, from the mundane to the exceptional. People, places, things, even other works of art have inspired some of the greatest artists throughout history to create some very memorable pieces – comic book artists and writers are no exception.

Most of the greatest comic book villains of all time have been inspired by a number of interesting and fascinating real world ideas. Some villains  – such as The Blob and Apocalypse – just sprung forth from the minds of their creators, drawing from no real world inspiration. A few - such as Loki and Hercules – are easy to figure out, drawing directly from Norse and Greek mythology. Still, there are that others aren’t so obvious, and those are the ones we’re focusing on in this rundown.

We’ve researched all each of these entries for their validity and when we could find them, included quotes from the writers or artists involved with the creation of the character. We’ve mark those as “Verified” and the ones we couldn’t find a direct quote to associate with the creation – but are generally accepted as fact – we marked as “Alleged” and have listed them in order of their first appearance.

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1. The Joker – Verified

Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs and The Joker 1941 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

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First Appearance: April 1940

Inspiration: Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs

The credit for creating one of Batman’s oldest and deadliest foes has been argued for decades. Most people credit Bob Kane and Bill Finger with his introduction, but writer Jerry Robinson says his hat should be in the ring as well – in what amounts to a “he said, she said” debate.

Kane is on record saying:

Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. [The Joker] looks like Conrad Veidt — you know, the actor in The Man Who Laughs, by Victor Hugo. Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘Here’s the Joker.’ Jerry Robinson had absolutely nothing to do with it…he brought in a playing card, which we used for a couple of issues for him.

And here’s Robinson’s take on the issue:

In that first meeting when I showed them that sketch of the Joker. Bill said it reminded him of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. That was the first mention of it…He can be credited and Bob himself, we all played a role in it. The concept was mine.

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2. Catwoman – Verified

Ruth Steel Jean Harlow and Catwoamn 1940 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

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First Appearance: May 1940

Inspiration: Ruth Steel/Actress Jean Harlow

Catwoman (a.k.a. Selina Kyle) was co-created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, but in his autobiography Batman and Me, Kane revealed that the feline femme fatale was partially inspired by his cousin Ruth Steel and received her sex appeal from buxom 1930s actress Jean Harlow. As for the inclusion of cats, Kane said:

I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs. 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.

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3. Red Skull – Verified

Hot Fudge Sundae with Cherry and Red Skull 1941 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

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First Appearance: March 1941

Inspiration: Hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top

As far-fetched as it sounds, Captain America co-creator Joe Simon revealed in his autobiography My Life in Comics a cold confectionery treat was his off-the-wall inspiration for the red-faced mad man:

I was always thinking about heroes and villains, with all sorts of ideas swimming around in my head…I had a hot fudge sundae sitting in front of me, with the vanilla ice cream, and the hot fudge is running down the side. It was intriguing. The hot fudge looked like limbs—legs, feet, and hands—and I’m thinking to myself. Gee, this’d make an interesting villain, I mused. We’ll call him Hot Fudge … Just put a face on him, and have him ooze all over the place. But I looked again at the sundae, and I saw the big cherry on top. The cherry looked like a skull. “Wow,” I said to myself. “Red Skull … that sounds good.”

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4. The Penguin – Verified

Kools Penguin Ad Emperor Penguin and The Penguin 1941 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: December 1941

Inspiration: Kool Cigarettes Ad/Emperor Penguins

Characters from the early years of Batman’s canon are steeped in “who-created-what” controversy, at least in the minds of Bob Kane and Bill Finger. And the “Gentleman of Crime” known as The Penguin is no exception. In Les Daniels’ 2004 book Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight, Bill Finger is quoted saying:

[The Penguin] was inspired by emperor penguins, who reminded [me] or stuffy English gentlemen in tuxedos.

Of course, Bob Kane’s recollection of the situation is completely different, saying his inspiration came from:

…the little penguin who appeared in print to advertise Kool menthol cigarettes and also hawked them on the radio with his insistent falsetto slogan “Smoke Kooools!”

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5. Two-Face – Verified

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde The Black Bat and Two Face 1942 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: August 1942

Inspiration: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde/Pulp Character Black Bat

Though the credit for creating The Joker is shared between Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Kane is widely seen as the sole creator of the lawyer-turned-villain Two-Face. In his 1985 biography, Batman and Me, Kane says he drew inspiration from the 1931 movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century tale,  Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, when creating the iconic villain’s look. Meanwhile, his origin was influenced by the pulp magazine character Black Bat, who was also splashed in the face with acid.

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6. Fin Fang Foom – Verified

Chu Chin Chow 1934 and Fin Fang Foom 1961 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: October 1961

Inspiration: 1934 movie Chu Chin Chow

In the early 1960s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wanted to create a enormous monster that could have the ability to lay waste to anything he wanted with very little opposition – and so the mighty alien dragon from Kakaranathara known as Fin Fang Foom came into existence. His origin and story arcs have been retconned multiple times during his half a century history, but he’s always been a big, green dragon. A giant creature was easy to create, especially for Kirby, but picking the right name for him was essential. Stan Lee talked about what inspired his name choice in a 2005 interview with Alter Ego:

When I was a kid, I loved going to the movies. And there was one movie I’d seen. I remember nothing about it except the name. It took place in China, I believe, and the name of the movie was ‘Chu Chin Chow.’ Now I have no idea what it meant — I don’t know if it was somebody’s name or a country or a city, but I never forgot that name. Those three words just stuck in my memory: ‘Chu Chin Chow.’ So when I was looking for the name of a monster, I remember ‘Chu Chin Chow’ … and that particular meter, that beat, somehow led to Fin Fang Foom.

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7. Doctor Doom – Verified

Death and Doctor Doom 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: July 1962

Inspiration: Death Personified

The arrogant and vengeful Doctor Doom was the creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kirby once said about using Death as his influence:

It was the reason for the armor and the hood. Death is connected with armor and the inhuman-like steel. Death is something without mercy, and human flesh contains that mercy.

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8. Magneto – Verified

Malcolm X and Magento 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: September 1963

Inspiration: Malcolm X

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the powerful mutant during the height of American civil rights movement and used famed civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as the inspiration behind the Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. Both men openly fought against the oppression mutants experienced on a daily basis, but while Professor X chose a more peaceful and diplomatic approach, Magneto thought a more forceful and aggressive tone was needed. Said Stan Lee about Magento:

[I] did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist. He was trying to defend mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he decided to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course, but I never thought of him as a villain.

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9. Kraven the Hunter – Alleged

The Most Dangerous Game and Kraven the Hunter 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: August 1964

Inspiration: The Most Dangerous Game

When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Sergei Kravinoff – better known as Kraven the Hunter – he was the first villain to “hunt” Spider-Man for the sport of hunting a superhero and even managed to “kill” him at one point. Many sources claim that Lee and Ditko were inspired by Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game (a natural assumption since its story involves man hunting man), but in our research, neither Lee or Ditko have confirmed this – though Lee does talk about Kraven’s introduction to the Marvel Universe in the 2012 book by Matthew K. Manning and Alan Cowsill’s 2012 book Spider-Man: Chronicle Celebrating 50 Years of Web-Slinging.

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10. Galactus – Verified

God and Galactus 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: March 1966

Inspiration: God/The Bible

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby needed to create a unique super villain, the likes of which the comic book universe had never seen, they decided to make someone that was beyond good and evil with almost God-like powers – enter Galactus. Stan Lee talks about his inspiration for the Devourer of Worlds in the introduction of the book Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four Vol. 5:

Galactus was simply another in a long line of super-villains whom we loved creating. Having dreamed up [many] powerful baddies … we felt the only way to top ourselves was to come up with an evil-doer who had almost godlike powers. Therefore, the natural choice was sort of demi-god.

Jack Kirby added later in the video The Masters of Comic Book Art:

My inspirations were the fact that I had to make sales. And I had to come up with characters that were no longer stereotypes. For some reason, I went to the Bible and I came up with Galactus…and of course the Silver Surfer is the fallen angel. They were above mythic figures, and of course, they were the first gods.

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11. Poison Ivy – Alleged

Feminist Movement Rappaccinis Daughter Bettie Page and Poison Ivy 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: June 1966

Inspiration: Feminist movement/”Rappacini’s Daughter”/Bettie Page

DC Comics has always tried its best to be relevant with current world trends, which explains why Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff supposedly used the growing feminist movement of the mid-’60s as a reason to create one of Batman’s more deadly (and beautiful) enemies. Though we couldn’t find the quote, Kanigher reportedly said in Les Daniels’ 2004 book Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight that they modeled the character’s powers and personality from the 19th century writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story Rappacini’s Daughter and her looks were inspired by ’50s pinup model Bettie Page.

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12. Kingpin – Alleged

Sydney Greenstreet and Kingpin 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: July 1967

Inspiration: Actor Sydney Greenstreet

The rotund and imposing crime boss called “Kingpin” – a.k.a. Wilson Fisk – was created by Stan Lee and John Romita. Sr. and though he was given no true “super powers,” they turned him into one of Spider-Man’s most cunning adversaries. According to Comic Vine, actor Sydney Greenstreet’s portrayal in movies like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca are what inspired Lee and Romita when first creating Kingpin. We weren’t able to find the direct quote from them, but supposedly they talk about the process in the 2012 book Spider-Man: Chronicle Celebrating 50 Years of Web-Slinging by Matthew K. Manning and Alan Cowsill.

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13. Darkseid – Verified

Jack Palance Adolf Hitler and Darkseid 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: November 1970

Inspiration: Actor Jack Palance/Adolf Hitler

The Supreme Ruler of the planet Apokolips (and a powerful foe of Superman) was created by Jack Kirby after he moved from Marvel to DC Comics. According to writer Mark Evanier, who wrote Kirby’s biography titled Kirby: King of Comics, he based Darkseid appearance on Jack Palance and his personality on Adolf Hilter, adding:

…the style and substance of this master antagonist were based on just about every power-mad tyrant Kirby had ever met or observed, with a special emphasis on Richard Milhous Nixon.

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14. Talia al Ghul – Verified

On Her Majestys Secret Service Fu Manchu Novel and Talia al Ghul 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: May 1971

Inspiration: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service/Fu Manchu Fiction

Comic book writer Dennis O’Neil, artist Bob Brown and artist Dick Giordano collaborated in the creation of Batman’s on-again/off-again romantic interest, Talia al Ghul. Not only is she the daughter of the fearsome crime lord Ra’s al Ghul, but she’s also the mother of Bruce Wayne’s son Damien. All three creators have said in various interviews that – along with influences from early ’30s British Fu Manchu novels – the relationship between Bruce, Ra’s and Talia directly mimics that of James Bond, Draco and his daughter Tracy from the sixth Bond film.

Dennis O’Neil from Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City in 2008:

The mysterious Ra’s al Ghul was introduced…his daughter and Batman-love interest Talia and his Himalayan headquarters both directly inspired by the James Bond film ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.’

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15. Thanos – Verified

Metron Darkseid and Thanos 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: February 1973

Inspiration: Metron/Darkseid

Famed comic book writer and artist Jim Starlin tried several times to get his artwork and creations into the pages of Marvel before hitting a homerun with Thanos (the god-like alien being with a bloodlust for power and control over the universe). In 2002, Starlin told Jon B. Cooke where he got his inspiration for Thanos as part of an interview in his popular series Comic Book Artist (#2):

Kirby had done the ‘New Gods’…over at DC at the time. I came up with some things that were inspired by that. You’d think that Thanos was [initially] inspired by Darkseid, but that was not the case. In my first Thanos drawings, if he looked like anybody, it was Metron. I had all these different gods and things I wanted to do, which became Thanos and the Titans. Roy took one look at the guy in the Metron-like chair and said : “Beef him up! If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one!”

In a 2003 interview (read it HERE) with Adelaide Comic Books’ Daniel Best, Starlin followed up with some thoughts on what inspired his “The Mad Titan”:

I went to college between doing U.S. military service and getting work in comics, and there was a psych class and I came up with Thanos. So I came [sic] up to Marvel and [editor] Roy [Thomas] asked if I wanted to do an issue of Iron Man. Thanos was a much thinner character and Roy suggested beefing him up, so he’s beefed up quite a bit from his original sketches and he continued to grow in size.

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16. Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club – Verified

Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: January 1980

Inspiration: The Avengers TV show episode “A Touch of Brimstone”

While Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the original Mastermind (resembling a young Vincent Price) in 1964, it was Chris Claremont and John Byrne who crowned him the “Black King” of the Hellfire Club and made him an integral part of the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” Byrne talks about what inspired the look and names for the original members of the elitist British club of super-powered villains on his website:

I first encountered Peter Wyngarde, as an actor, on ‘The Avengers’ episode ‘A Touch of Brimstone,’ which dealt with Steed and Emma having an encounter with the Hellfire Club. Later he turned up on a British series called Department S, and its spin-off Jason King. When Chris decided he wanted to do a Hellfire club arc in ‘Uncanny X-Men’ as part of the “darkening” of Phoenix, I suggested the “in-joke” of having Mastermind, in his disguised form, resemble Peter Wyngarde and, mixing character and actor, that his name be Jason Wyngarde.

In the 1982 book X-Men Companion Volume II, all of the founding Hellfire Club members inspirations were identified as follows:

Mastermind (Jason Wyngarde) – British actor Peter Wyngarde in Jason King

Sebastian Shaw – British actor Robert Shaw

Donald Pierce – Canadian actor Donald Sutherland

Harry Leland – American actor Orson Welles

Emma Frost – Fictitious spy Emma Peel played by British Actress Diana Rigg

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17. Shredder – Verified

Cheese Grater and Shredder 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: May 1984

Inspiration: Cheese Graters

After Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird came up with the idea of four wisecracking martial arts reptiles known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they needed a imposing villain for them to fight. In the 1991 video The Making of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’: Behind the Shells (watch it HERE), Eastman describes his inspiration for Shredder like this:

It’s probably the silliest way we came up with a character. I was drawing this up, and I slid my hand and held on to the end. Could you imagine a character with weapons on his arms like this? The guy would be lethal. And we’re like “Shredder! What a name for a character.

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18. Ozymandias – Alleged

Thunderbolt Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ozymandias 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: September 1986

Inspiration: Thunderbolt/Poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley

When DC Comics acquired Charlton Comics and their stable of classic comic characters in 1985, writer Alan Moore decided to use some of those long forgotten characters to create a murder-mystery story revolving around the death of a super hero – and thus Watchmen was born. One of those Charlton characters from 1966 was named Thunderbolt who had the power to use ninety percent of his brain. Moore gave those powers to the newly created Ozymandias (his name is taken from the poem of the same title by 18th century poet Percy Shelley about the momentary nature of power) and made him both a protagonist and antagonist in his epic five-series graphic novel.

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19. Venom – Verified

Venom 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: April 1988

Inspiration: Reader suggestion

Imagine you’re a long time Marvel fan sending in a suggestion for a new costume design for Spider-Man. Now imagine that you receive a letter from then-Marvel editor Jim Shooter saying they not only like the idea, but want to purchase it for the “princely” sum of $220. Well, that’s exactly what happened to Randy Schueller in 1982. While Schueller’s new idea for Spidey’s suit would make its debut in 1984, the Venom the fans know today (designed by Mike Zeck and Todd McFarlane) wouldn’t make his appearance until 1988.

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20. Lucifer Morningstar – Verified

Paradise Lost David Bowie and Lucifer Morningstar 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: April 1989

Inspiration: “Paradise Lost” by John Milton/ David Bowie

The original character Lucifer first appeared during a dream sequence in December 1962. It wouldn’t be until the late-’80s when acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman reimagined him that Lucifer Morningstar truly came to be into existence. While Gaiman has repeatedly spoken of the influence he drew from the epic poem Paradise Lost by 17th century poet John Milton when writing Sandman, artist Kelley Jones mentions what inspired the actual look of Lucifer in the 2004 book, Hanging Out With The Dream King: Conversations With Neil Gaiman And His Collaborators:

Neil was adamant that the Devil was David Bowie. He just said, “He is. You must draw David Bowie. Find David Bowie, or I’ll send you David Bowie. Because if it isn’t David Bowie, you’re going to have to redo it until it is David Bowie.” So I said, “Okay, it’s David Bowie.”

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21. Bane – Verified

Doc Savage Count of Monte Cristo and Bane 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: January 1993

Inspiration: Doc Savage/Count of Monte Cristo

In the early ’90s, DC Comics decided it wanted to do something drastic to Batman without killing him (since that had just been done to Superman), so they decided to create a villain to break his back. Enter Bane. Knightfall co-creators Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench, and Graham Nolan got together and, using Shadow Comics’ character Doc Savage from 1933 and Alexandre Dumas’ 19th century tale The Count of Monte Cristo as a template, created one of Batman’s deadliest and darkest foes ever. It was Nolan’s idea to based Bane’s design on a Mexican luchador (wrestler). Todd Matthy has a great interview with Chuck Dixon about the creation of Bane, which you can read HERE.

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22. Harley Quinn – Verified

Arleen Sorkin and Harely Quinn 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: September 1993

Inspiration: Arleen Sorkin from Days of Our Lives

Harley Quinn’s first appearance anywhere was in the September 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series as the devoted, slightly crazy, overly obsessed girlfriend of The Joker. However, her character became so popular that DC Comics decided to bring her to the pages of the Batman comics. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm teamed up to create Harley Quinn, but it was a dream sequence in the soap opera Days of Our Lives – starring actress Arleen Sorkin dressed as a court jester – that inspired Paul Dini to create her look and personality – which Dini discusses in his 1998 book, Batman Animated.

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23. Magog – Verified

Cable and Magog 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

First Appearance: May 1996

Inspiration: The Bible/Cable (Marvel)

Though he didn’t start off as a villain (and in some ways, didn’t finish his career as a villain), Lance Corporal David Reid would very much act in a villainous way as Magog – the man imbued with powers by the demon god Gog – by killing The Joker and being partly responsible for the nuclear destruction of a large part of Kansas. When writer Mark Waid came up with the idea of introducing Magog in the comic Kingdom Come, he told artist Alex Ross to design him like so:

Mark originally told me, “Make him look like everything we hate in modern superhero design.” [Magog's] a character that Mark Waid invented that was really just put to me like come up with the most God awful Rob Liefeld (Cable) sort of design that you can. What I was stealing from was – really only two key designs of Rob’s – the design of Cable. I hated it. I felt like it looked like they just threw up everything on the character – the scars, the thing going on with his eye, the arm, and what’s with all the guns? But the thing is, when I put those elements together with the helmet of Shatterstar – well, the ram horns and the gold, suddenly it held together as one of the designs that I felt happiest with in the entire series.

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Conclusion

Super Villain Inspirations Marvel Comics Super Villains 570x320 Real Life Inspirations Behind Some of the Best Comic Book Villains

From poems to other artists’ work to actors and even dessert – it’s clear that artists and writers can draw inspiration from anywhere and anything when creating the next great comic book villain. These were only the 24 inspirations we discovered out of the 120 we researched, but there are most likely a whole lot more out there just as interesting.

What would you use as inspiration to create the next big comic book villain?

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TAGS: batman, captain america, fantastic four, guardians of the galaxy, iron man, man of steel, paradise lost, spider-man, teenage mutant ninja turtles, the avengers, venom, watchmen, x-men

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  1. “Bruce Wayne’s son Damien” should be “Bruce Wayne’s son Damian.”

  2. “Bruce Wayne’s son Damien” should be “Bruce Wayne’s son, Damian.”

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