The Real People Who Inspired 5 Comic Book Characters

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While most superheroes are all-powerful and larger-than-life, they’re sometimes modeled after extraordinary real-life people. Here are five of them.


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Marvel Comics pioneers Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby were all credited as the creators of Iron Man. Lee wanted the character to be the "quintessential capitalist" and a superhero that went against the times and the publication’s readership during the early 1960s. Stan Lee wanted Tony Stark/Iron Man to be a wealthy inventor, weapons manufacturer, and playboy. He modeled him after Howard Hughes, who “was one of the most colorful men of our time,” according to Lee. “He was an inventor, an adventurer, a ladies' man and finally a nutcase. Without being crazy, (Iron Man) was Howard Hughes.”

However, while making the first Iron Man movie in 2008, director Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. based Tony Stark on billionaire engineer and inventor Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, and founder of SpaceX. In fact, Elon Musk makes a cameo appearance as himself in Iron Man 2.

“When I was trying to bring the character of genius billionaire Tony Stark to the big screen in Iron Man, I had no idea how to make him seem real,” wrote Favreau in TIME. “Robert Downey Jr. said, ‘We need to sit down with Elon Musk.’ … Downey was right. Elon is a paragon of enthusiasm, good humor and curiosity—a Renaissance man in an era that needs them.”


In 1940, comic book writer William Moulton Marston modeled Wonder Woman on his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, whom he believed was the model of modern feminism. She was a psychologist and fellow writer and helped her husband develop the systolic blood pressure test that is used in polygraph machines (lie detectors), which is one of the reasons why Wonder Woman uses a Lasso of Truth against her enemies.

Marston also based Wonder Woman on Olive Byrne, who lived with the married couple in a polyamorous relationship. Byrne always wore silver bracelets, which Wonder Woman used to deflect speeding bullets.  


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In 2002, Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Allred redesigned Nick Fury in The Ultimates comic book series, which was a modern reimagining of the Avengers. The pair based their version of Nick Fury on Samuel L. Jackson. The likeness was even referenced in the comic book itself, when the superhero team talked about who would play them in a hypothetical movie. Fury answered, "Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, of course, no discussion."

Six years later, in 2008, Marvel Studios actually cast Jackson to play Nick Fury in the post-credit tag in Iron Man. In addition, Jackson has played the character throughout a majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


Comic book writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster (who met in high school) created Superman in 1934. They were big movie fans, so they based Superman’s iconic superhero stance and physique on movie star Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in the silent films The Mark of Zorro and Robin Hood, while the Man of Steel’s alter ego was partly based on Harold Lloyd and named after Clark Gable and Kent Taylor.


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Stan Lee based the loudmouthed publisher of the Daily Bugle and Peter Parker’s boss on himself. Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko also modeled J. Jonah Jameson’s appearance on Stan Lee—from his silver sides to his iconic mustache. “I thought, if I were a grumpy, irritable man, which I am sometimes, how would I act? And that was it. So, you got me,” revealed Stan Lee about Jameson’s origin on Talk of the Nation on NPR.