Superman (1938)

A direct result of writer and co-creator Jerry Siegal’s inability to get girls when he was a young man.  “As a high school student,” he once explained, “I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed.  It occurred to me.  What if I was real terrific?  What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around?  Then maybe they would notice me.”

Siegel and Joe Schuster, the other creator, named their character after movie actors Clark Gable and Kent Taylor, and named his hometown after the Fritz Lang science fiction movie Metropolis.  Louis Lane was inspired by a woman named Lois Amster that Shuster had a crush on when he was in school.

Superman eventually married Lois Land, and Shuster, who modeled Clark Kent after himself, eventually married Joanne Carter, the woman he had hired to model for Lois Lane.

Spider Man (1962)

In the early ‘60s, Marvel comics published a comic book called Amazing Fantasy. “But after issue number ten,” publisher Stan Lee recalls, “the sales began to soften and it seemed that [it was] running out of steam. . .so it was decided that the fifteenth issue. . .would be the final one.

This gave Lee the chance to experiment.  “For quite a while,” he writes, “I’d been toying with the idea of doing a trip that would violate all the conventions – breaking all the rules.  A strip that would actually feature a teenager as the star, instead of making him an adult hero’s sidekick.  A strip in which the main character would lose out as often as he’d win – in fact, more often. . .”

“Yep, I knew what I wanted all right, but where would I get a chance to try it?  Where, except in a magazine we were planning to kill anyway?”  Since Lee had a free hand to do what he wanted in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy, he used it to introduce his anti-superhero – Spider-Man.  The web-slinger was based on The Spider, Master of Men.  Lee’s favorite pulp magazine character when he was a kid.

A few weeks after its publication, sales reports came back and showed that the issue had been a bestseller.  It prompted a brand new monthly comic called The Amazing Spider-Man.

Batman (1939)

Bob Kane was a big fan of the 1926 movie The Bat, which featured a villain “who wore an awesome batlike costume.”  He also liked to read Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  In 1930, he combined the two and came up with Batman.

Twelve comic book episodes later, Kane decided to give Batman a sidekick, one that he conceived as “a laughing, fighting young daredevil who scoffs at danger like the legendary Robin Hood.”  Both the name and the costume were adaptations of the legendary English hero, but Kane modeled the action out of his own youthful fantasies:  “In my subconscious mind I longed to be like Robin when I was his age, fighting alongside his idol Batman, or, in my case, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. [who played Zorro]”

The Penguin was inspired by a Kool Cigarette ad, and Two-face was inspired by the 1932 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Catwoman was based on screen siren Jean Harlow, and the Joker was inspired by a photograph of actor Conrad Veidt from a 1928 movie, The Man Who Laughs.

Captain America

In late 1940, as America’s entry into World War II seemed more and more inevitable, Joe Simon, an artist with Marvel Comics, decided to create a super-patriotic comic character who could do battle with Hitler and the Nazis.  He called his character Super American, but then decided that if the character was going to fight the German military, he should have a military rank.  Captain America was born.

To popularize the new hero, Marvel Comics created a fan club called The Sentinels of Liberty.  Kids paid 10 cents for a shield-shaped badge and a membership card that read, “I solemnly pledge to uphold the principles of the Sentinels of Liberty and assist Captain America in a war against spies in the USA.”  Some kids apparently took their oath a little too solemnly.  According to Mike Benton in Superhero Comics of the Golden Age,

the club quickly got out of hand and hundreds of young members started reporting suspicious neighbors as potential fifth columnists and traitors.  The office of Marvel comics in New York City were threatened by German sympathizers.  Eventually, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia phoned editor Joe Simon to tell him not to worry, he was ordering extra police protection for the publishers of Captain America.

Wonder Woman

In 1915, a Harvard psychologist named William Moulton Marston discovered the systolic blood-pressure test, which resulted in invention of the polygraph lie detector.  Based on his polygraph experiments, Marston concluded that women were more hardworking and more honest than men, and became a champion of womens’ issues as the role of women in the workplace changed during World War II.

According to Ron Goulart in Over Fifty Years of American Comic Books, when comic publisher Max Gaines hired Marston as an educational consultant, Marston “looked at Gaines’s comic book titles, with the images of supermen like Flash and Green Lantern and wondered why he wasn’t publishing any comics with women as the hero.”  At Gaines’s urging, Marston then undertook to create a female comic book hero, a wonder woman, “under the pen name of their combined middle names, Charles Moulton.”

According to his wife, “Marston wrote every strip with the idea of making Wonder Woman ‘ a personal expression of the female character.’  He wanted his creation, a comic book super-heroine for children, to fill a void in a society whose mythology and culture were dominated by masculine images.

In 1943, Marston wrote:  “Not even girls want to be girls, so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. . .  The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of a superman, plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”  Wonder Woman was his answer.