Ask a random person on the street “Who played The Joker in The Dark Knight?” and they’ll quickly answer “Heath Ledger.” However, ask that same person “Who created The Joker character in comics?” and their response will be a series of “Um’s” and “Uh’s” – (Answer: Jerry Robinson, Bob Kane and Bill Finger.) The reason – General audiences now associate popular comic book characters with their movie counterparts, rather than the colorful pages of a book – they’ve forgotten about the character’s comic book origins.
Along that same line of thinking, if most avid comic book readers were asked “When did the Black Panther first appear in comics?” they can usually narrow it down to the mid-sixties. However, as you’ll read below, the real answer is “1941”…but it’s not the same character. Some of the most popular characters in Marvel and DC Comics’ library actually appeared in comics (sometimes decades in advance) either by publishers they eventually absorbed or by now-defunct publishing houses.
How can Marvel and DC Comics use these character names without violating copyrights and trademarks? Well, with a few exceptions, most of these characters eventually fell into public domain and were snatched up by modern comic book houses. We’ve done some research and found 15 Comic Book Characters That Existed Before Their Marvel & DC Counterparts – but their shared monikers are generally where the similarities stop.
First Appearance: Wow Comics #15 (1942)
One of DC Comics’ more popular villains is arguably Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. “The Penguin.” However, Batman’s portly foe wasn’t the only character to carry that title. In 1942, just a few months after DC debuted their character, New York-based publisher Fawcett Publications introduced the world to their Penguin. This version of the Penguin (whose real name is thought to be Bruce Baron) was a detective and Canadian super spy who helped protect his country and its allies from Nazi spies during World War II.
Much like his DC counterpart, the Penguin dressed in a coat with tails but also wore a mask with a large penguin-like beak to conceal his identity. As time progressed, Fawcett moved the character into American stories but changed his name to the “Blue Raven” to avoid copyright issues with DC’s villain. Unfortunately, Fawcett shut down its comics publishing department in 1953 and the character was never revived.
First Appearance: Silver Streak Comics #6 (1940)
After several attempts to bring Daredevil to life, Marvel is now experiencing great success with the superhero vigilante thanks to the Netflix-made series. Most comic book fans are unaware that more than twenty years before Stan Lee and Bill Everett introduced their version of the character, Jack Binder and Jack Cole had created their own “Daredevil” for Lev Gleason Publications. The character would become a staple in Silver Streak Comics for several years and even received two origin stories (he was retconned in Daredevil Comics #18).
During his first origin, Bart Hill lost his ability to speak as a child after witnessing his parents murdered and being branded with a hot, boomerang-shaped poker by the killer. From that time forward, he trained to become a master boomerang marksman and would eventually become the costumed vigilante known as “Daredevil”. In his retconned origin, he still witnesses his parents murdered, but is no longer a mute. Additionally, this version of Daredevil was raised by Australian Aborigines (who taught him how to use a boomerang), but returned to the America to fight crime.
First Appearance: Stars and Stripes #3 (1941)
Comic book fans eagerly await the theatrical debut of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War in 2016 – and for good reason. In 1966, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the first African superpowered hero character to appear in mainstream American comics – a character that would become a popular comic icon. But over twenty years before T’Challa, the Prince of Wakanda, graced Marvel’s comic book pages, a different sort of “Black Panther” was fighting crime in Centaur Publication’s comic series Stars and Stripes.
Comic book writer/artist Paul Gustavson created Black Panther as a white hero who wore, what now appears to be, a BDSM-themed leather outfit (complete with tail!). He had no superpowers to speak of, battling crime using only his fists, wits and occasionally, a knife. Fun fact: Centaur Publications was also the original home of writer/artist Bill Everett, who would eventually create Namor the Submariner for Timely Comics (which would later become Marvel Comics).
First Appearance: Detective Story Magazine (1919)
DC Comics’ most notorious villain, The Joker, is so popular with audiences, that to date, four actors have portrayed him in a live-action setting: Cesar Romero (Batman television series), Jack Nicholson (Batman), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), and Jared Leto (Suicide Squad). While credit for the character is shrouded in confusion, Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson are generally considered to be the shared creators of Batman’s nemesis in 1940.
However, thanks to writer Hugh Kahler, nearly twenty years prior a different Joker was playing the roles of both good guy and bad guy in Street & Smith Publications’ Detective Story Magazine. Martin Quay was a disgraced police detective who tried to start up his own detective agency. When that endeavor was unsuccessful, he literally became his own enemy as the Joker. His alter ego was a master thief and as he would gain infamy by stealing valuable items, Quay would gain fame by returning them – a truly slick idea.
First Appearance: Whiz Comics #2 (1940)
Captain Marvel is one of the most difficult comic book properties to discuss because the rights to the character have be divided between Marvel and DC for decades. That’s not to say it’s a bad character – it’s arguably one of the greatest characters ever written – it’s just been a victim of the often convoluted copyright legal system. At one point, DC sued Fawcett Publications over Captain Marvel, claiming the character was too similar to Superman. This forced Fawcett to abandon the character entirely.
However, during the mid-sixties, Marvel gained control of the trademark “Captain Marvel,” but in order maintain control, they had to periodically publish a comic under that title. While DC still owns the rights to “Billy Batson”, they had to rename their “Captain Marvel” comic to Shazam. It gets odder – in 1966, due to a copyright technicality, “Captain Marvel” briefly fell into public domain. It was then that (now defunct) M. F. Enterprises hired writer/artist Carl Burgos to create an all new character under the old name. His creation was a crime-fighting android from space that could divide his body into six parts when he shouted “Split!” and reassemble when he shouted “Xam!”
First Appearance: Mystic Comics #4 (1940)/Cat-Man Comics #1 (1941)
While fans of comic books and their movies clamor to see the buxom red-headed assassin known as Black Widow in her own solo film, for now, they’ll have to be content with seeing her join forces with other heroes in films such as, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Natasha Romanova, the canonical Black Widow (both in print and film) familiar to most people, was created by Stan Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck in 1964. However, two other female characters carried the title “Black Widow” well before her.
The first is Claire Voyant, created by George Kaplan and Harry Sahle for Timely Comics (which would become Marvel Comics) in 1940. Claire was imbued with supernatural powers by Satan after the lone survivor of a family killed in a car crash blames her and shoots her dead – it’s not a warm and fuzzy origin story. The second Black Widow was created by an unknown artist but appeared in Holyoke Publishing’s Cat-Man Comics series as Linda Masters. When Master’s husband was murdered, she retaliated by putting on a mask and costume to fight crime.
First Appearance: Joke Comics #18 (1945)
In 1973, writers/artists Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan created the character Eric Brooks (a.k.a. “Blade”) for Marvel Comics to appear in The Tomb of Dracula. While not the first African-American superhero, he was popular enough with readers to spawn his own comic book series, a three-film franchise and a season-long television show. Marvel’s version of Blade is a vampire hunter, known as a Dhampir or “Daywalker”, who has almost all their strengths, while exhibiting few of their weaknesses.
On the complete opposite of the spectrum was the character created by Fred Kelly for Bell Features (or Commercial Signs of Canada), “Blade.” This version of the character is a stark contrast the Daywalker – a white (often shirtless) captain of the ship “The Cormorant,” who fought pirates all along the Spanish shores. Having twenty titles in their library, Bell Features was the most prolific comic book publisher in Canada until they ceased operations in 1953. One of their most popular characters was Nelvana of the Northern Lights by Adrian Dingle and was Canada’s first superhero, debuting in 1941.
First Appearance: Silver Streak Comics #1 (1939)/Speed Comics #12 (1941)/National Comics #67 (1948)
In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the comic world to Janet van Dyne in Marvel’s Tales to Astonish #44. The girl from Cresskill, New Jersey was Hank Pym’s (Ant-Man) research partner and by using his Pym particles, shrinks down to become the Wasp to avenge her father’s death. She’s been a popular character in comics, even becoming one of the founding members of the Avengers (though the movie version of the character differs).
Almost twenty years before Wasp was fluttering around stinging enemies, the name had been taken by a trio of male characters. The first to sport the moniker was Burton Slade – a superpowerless reporter/crime fighter created by Art Pinajian for Lev Gleason Publications. Harvey Comics’ version of the character was similar – they only slightly changed his name to Dan Burton and gave him a sidekick, of sorts, named Blackie. The third reincarnation of the Wasp was created by Dan Zolnerowich for Quality Comics. They made him a goofy-looking bald villain trying to poison his former business partners.
First Appearance: National Comics #5 (1940)
Like a lot of popular comic book superheroes, Pietro Maximoff (a.k.a. Quicksilver) was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He would make his first appearance in 1964 in Marvel’s issue of The X-Men #4. As was depicted in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the comic version of arrogant speedster starts off as an enemy but eventually becomes a member of the Avengers – despite his villainous roots. However, before he was racing about battling mutants and saving the world, Quicksilver was using his superpowers to fight for Quality Comics.
Lee and Kirby’s version of Quicksilver was VERY similar to the version writer/artist Chuck Mazoujian created less that twenty-five years earlier. Mazoujian’s character was a former circus acrobat named Max Mercury, who operated out of a secret lab and had the power of super speed. He fought other super powered characters such as Bumpy John, Witch Doctor, Human Fly, the Hawk and, the Wasp (which we mentioned previously). The copyright to the character Quicksilver is actually held by Marvel but DC owns the copyright to the name “Max Mercury”, who appeared in Mark Waid’s The Flash Vol. 2 in 1993.
First Appearance: Pep Comics #1 (1940)
In 1969, Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan collaborated to create the character Sam Wilson (a.k.a. The Falcon) and his animal companion Red Wing. Unlike Black Panther (who was the first African superhero), Falcon was Marvel’s first African-American superhero and also the first African-American hero not to use the word “black” in his codename. Apart from being an excellent martial artist, Falcon is a former-soldier who flies by way of mechanical wings and has limited telepathic control over birds.
There’s not much to say about the version of Falcon created almost three decades earlier by Jack Binder for publishing house MLJ Magazines (which would eventually become Archie Comics in 1987). The Falcon appeared in the very first issue of Pep Comics as reporter Perry Chase dressed in a bird costume, complete with a red hat, mask and a wing-looking cape. After rescuing a fellow reporter from a gang attack, the character would disappear into obscurity, never making another appearance.
First Appearance: Marvel Comics #1 (1939)
In 1963, comic book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby set about creating, what would turn out to be, another long-running, fan-favorite character for Marvel. Warren Worthington III (a.k.a. Angel) would make his debut appearance as a founding member of the X-Men in The X-Men #1. While Ben Foster portrayed the winged-hero in X-Men: The Last Stand, Ben Hardy will be the next actor to don the wings in the X-Men: Apocalypse.
Decades before Lee and Kirby had even thought about their version of the character, writer/artist Paul Gustavson (Black Panther) would create his version of Angel for Timely Comics. The hero would soon become the fourth most popular character the publisher had in their library behind Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Captain America. Besides being a skilled detective proficient in hand-to-hand combat, this character, too, had the ability to fly – via his mystic cape. Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting would bring the four big Timely-era characters together again in 2010 for an eight-issue miniseries titled, The Marvels Project.
First Appearance: Marvel Mystery Comics #13 (1940)
There are generally considered to be three different versions of the character known as The Vision – the Golden Age, the Silver Age and the Modern Age. The second and third versions of the character aren’t all that different in his powers or appearance but that they differ greatly from the original Golden Age version. In 1968, Marvel’s Stan Lee teamed with Roy Thomas and John Buscema to create The Vision for The Avengers #57. This is the version modern comic book and movie audiences are most familiar with – a tall red-skinned android, with a bright green suit and flowing yellow cape yielding the power to control every molecule in his body.
The mostly forgotten Golden Age version of The Vision was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (it marked the first time the comic titans collaborated) for Timely Comics. While the character was similar in appearance to the modern version, his background story and powers were very much different. The Vision (also called Aarkus) was a dimension-travelling alien cop from Smokeworld. He possessed the power of flight, teleportation, and could manipulate cold and ice, as well as, generate illusions of himself.
First Appearance: Fantastic Four #49 (1966)
Writer Gerry Conway was always looking for ways to introduce new characters into his comics and in 1974 he came up with the idea for, what would turn out to be, a legendary Marvel character. Together with art director John Romita, Sr and penciler Ross Andru the trio developed a bloodthirsty vigilante with the now iconic skull on his chest – the Assassin. Doesn’t sound familiar? That’s because at the suggestion of then-editor-in-chief Stan Lee, the character would be named after an older Marvel character, The Punisher. He would make his debut in The Amazing Spider-Man #129.
It’s possible not many people have heard of the original Punisher, who gave his name to the now-famous anti-hero. Lee and Kirby created the first character as robot guard/servant for the world-dominating villain known as Galactus. The deadly robot made his first appearance in Fantastic Four #49 and would be seen in several more issues battling the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer and even Thanos.
First Appearance: Marvel Comics #1 (1939)
Johnny Storm (a.k.a. the Human Torch), along with his sister Sue Storm, Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961. He and the others would make their debut in The Fantastic Four #1, though Johnny would make regular appearances in Marvel’s other comic property, Strange Tales. While Kirby arguably deserves most of the credit for creating the modern version of the character, he was not the first to come up with the idea.
In 1939, writer/artist Carl Burgos actually created the Human Torch for Timely Comics. Except for being an android created by Professor Phineas T. Horton, the Golden Age version of the Human Torch had all the same powers as the modern version – Marvel simply recycled the name onto a new character. That didn’t sit well with Burgos, so sometime in the mid-sixties he filed a lawsuit against Marvel to get the rights back to his character. The lawsuit came and went without a notable conclusion, but it’s assumed they settled out of court.
First Appearance: Tim Holt #11 (1949)
Most comic readers worth their salt are familiar with Marvel’s current version of the flaming-skulled character named Ghost Rider. He was created by Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, and Mike Ploog in 1972 and first appeared in Marvel Spotlight #5. Their version is considered to be the most iconic, but it wasn’t the first Ghost Rider to exist in the comic world… in fact, it wasn’t even the first version to exist at Marvel. In 1967, Marvel published a western-themed Ghost Rider based entirely on the Golden Age version of the character created over fifteen years prior, which had fallen into public domain.
Once their modern version of Ghost Rider debuted, they renamed the western version to Night Rider and then again to Phantom Rider. The original Ghost Rider was also western-themed but included a horror aspect to the story as well. The character was originally a cowboy named Rex Fury (or the Calico Kid), had a Chinese boy sidekick named Sing Song, and rode on two different horses – Ebony (a black horse) and Spectre (a ghostly white horse). He was created by writer Ray Krank and artist Dick Ayers for the publisher Magazine Enterprises.
Of course, there are many, many forgotten and neglected characters from the Golden Age of comics, and it’s likely that many of them share names with modern day incarnations of various characters. Do you know of any that we could have included? Let us know in the comments.