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Comic Creation – Should You Invent or Adapt?

by philhampton on 27 April 2012

The Human Torch. Not the Johnny Storm version.

I recently read an interview of Stan Lee by journalist Eric Spitznagel.  In it, Eric asked Stan whether he ever runs out of ideas.

Stan replied: “Coming up with characters is the easiest thing in the world. You just sit down, take a pencil in hand or sit in front of your computer, and you ask yourself, ‘What has nobody done yet?’”

Now, I don’t think Stan meant that literally, but if he did, it’s not the best piece of advice the great man’s ever given.

The House of Ideas?

Firstly, let’s look at the evidence:

  • The Human Torch – based on the 40’s android superhero, The Human Torch
  • Invisible Girl – inspired by The Invisible Man
  • Mr. Fantastic – based on DC’s Plastic Man and Elongated Man
  • The Thing and his girlfriend, Alicia Masters – a modern-day version of the fairytale ‘Beauty and the Beast’
  • Hawkeye – Marvel’s version of DC’s Green Arrow, who was himself based on Robin Hood and an Edgar Wallace novel ‘The Green Archer’.
  • Ant Man – inspired by DC’s Atom
  • Quicksilver – based on The Flash, who was himself inspired by the Greek god Hermes.
  • Hulk – a modern-day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (whose name was also used for a Marvel villain)
  • Iron Man – basically a riff on the hero of the 1949 movie action serial ‘King of the Rocket Men’ (see pic)
  • Thor – um…

I could go on. And on.

Rocket Man - like Iron Man but waaay cooler!

Here’s my point – if Stan has created heroes that were 100% original, Marvel Comics may never have been as successful as history shows.

Stan’s mission for the Marvel comics line, basically ‘Our superheroes are faced with real-life problems’, was original for the times.  But he was adapting a tried and tested formula, mixing it up and making it relevant.

There’s always the chance that a never-before-seen idea can make its creator millions, but the road to success is littered with the bodies of failed inventors. It’s much easier to adapt something that is already popular, changing it to an extent where it’s not a blatant copy.

The Seven Basic Plots

As for storylines, it’s said that there are only Seven Basic Plots, and that every story ever told, or will be told, uses one of them.  They are:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Read more about the Seven Basic Plots here.

“It’s a homage to…”

But some of the most successful series of modern times are still inspired by older works.  One of the most popular comic series around today, ‘The Walking Dead’, is basically a serialised version of the George Romero ‘Dead’ movies.

The best TV show of last year ‘American Horror Story’, is a direct descendent of any number of Haunted House flicks.

So what’s the reason these comics and shows are so successful?

It’s simple – people find it easier to ‘buy in’ to a title when they know they are on familiar ground.

A major factor of entertainment is definitely surprise and shock, but those emotions are felt deeper by the viewer when the environment and/or the characters have their roots in the familiar.  That’s not necessarily a ‘real life’ familiarity, just ideas that the person has come across before.

Riffing off a familiar theme it makes it easier to create a ‘hook’ that attracts an audience.  How many times have you heard ‘My comic is basically <Movie A> mixed with <Comic B>’?  It’s a well-used tactic, but very, very effective at helping a potential audience to buy into the concept.

It’s no wonder that Marvel have never launched an ongoing series based entirely in The Negative Zone (a freaky, otherworldly dimension).  It may have appealed to LSD users, but it would be difficult for the average reader to connect with the storylines.

So before you decide to create your truly original masterpiece, with an aim to appeal to as many readers as possible, it may be time to rethink who it’s actually going to appeal to.

Anyway, gotta go.  I’m off to write my magnum opus about a genetically-mutated Venus Fly-Trap that becomes US President.

Sort of like ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ meets ‘The West Wing’.

All the best,

Phil Hampton

The Comic Academy

Phil Hampton founded The Comic Academy to help and inpire comic creators and publishers to market their work effectively. Download your FREE exclusive report ‘The 7 Steps to Comic Creator Success’ at

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Max West April 27, 2012 at 9:53 pm

It reminds me of how I met Howard Scott Warshaw once, the Atari programmer who did games like Yars Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the mega-disaster ET. He said that ideas are a dime a dozen – you don’t get them but you find them. With Yars Revenge, he basically ripped off a game called Star Castle.

He’s right. Ideas can be more or less the same; it’s just a matter of having a twist or a different outlook on them.

Jason Walter April 27, 2012 at 11:01 pm

That’s weird that you mentioned about “Star Castle” because I learned that last night at a lecture given by Ian Bogost. Yeah, I really don’t think that there’s ever been originality because every character is just an archetype or a reference to a reference to a… However, when I look at webcomics website, it blows my mind to see authors blantantly plagarizing video game characters and such. Plagarism CAN be vague as in the case of Stan Lee with D.C. but it seems to me like a lot of people who post to webcomic websites make NO effort whatsoever to change an established character at all. I hate to vent but it’s difficult to see these “authors” have fans and views when I feel that my work is NOT blantantly plagarizing, but no one seems to care about it because it is more original than most.

philhampton April 28, 2012 at 6:09 am

Hi Max and Jason,

Interesting comments there. I’ve known people who have completely copied someone else’s character but had absolutely no clue that character existed.

I myself have had ideas for inventions, iPhone apps, even comedy shows, but after researching them, I find that the ideas have already been taken (or someone launches them shortly afterwards because I wasn’t quick enough to progress it).

Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to draw the line, but it’s always best to research an idea to see if it’s already taken before proceeding. If it has, it can then be given a makeover to make it fresh and distinct.

Kind regards,


Stewart Moore April 28, 2012 at 8:06 am

Very good. I may be wrong but I believe Jack Kirby had to fight Stan Lee for his credit on the creation of Spiderman and other characters. Creating new heroes must be very easy indeed if you have a Kirby handy.
Stewart Moore´s last blog post .."Infinity is Very Long, Especially Toward The End"

Ivan April 29, 2012 at 5:01 am

I was coming up with my lastest project’s character’s name today when I googled a name I really liked (and didn’t remember seeing it anywhere before). It was the name of a character recently created by…Stan Lee. Oh well.

philhampton April 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Hi Stewart

Yes, you are right that Kirby and Lee fell out over the fact that Kirby created the Spider-Man costume but didn’t receive a co-creator credit.

Jonathan Ross interviewed Stan Lee a couple of years ago and pressed him on this question, but Lee maintained that the creator is the person who created the character, not the costume. Ross asked what if Kirby had created an awful costume, and Lee replied: ” Well, I would have created a character who wasn’t a hit”.

Kind regards,


philhampton April 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Hi Ivan,

Back to the drawing board with the name then. Maybe you can come up with something better!

All the best,


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