Super Hero Pantheons

Has anybody else ever noticed that the comic book heros of Marvel and DC have a symbiotic relationship similar to that between ancient Greece and Rome?

You know. Greece had Zeus, Aphrodite, Hades, Hermes, and Ares, and Rome had Jupiter, Venus, Pluto, Mercury and Mars.

Same thing with the DC and Marvel characters. There’s usually a counterpart over in the other camp.

For example:
Aquaman = The Sub Mariner
Plastic Man = Mr. Fantastic
The Flash = Quicksilver
The Atom = Ant Man
Hawkman = The Angel

You get the idea.

It occurs to me that the only thing the Greeks lacked were trademark/coryright laws and some good lawyers. Comic book puplishers have plenty of these at their disposal. Do they ever use them? Is there an unwritten agreement that allows them to steal ideas from each other?

(If my examples seem a little archaic, it’s because I haven’t picked up a comic book in about 20 years.)


If you are interested in this, you might want to see if you can find any of the Amalgam comics published about two years ago. The series is set in a Universe where the Marvel and DC world-lines have merged, creating almagamated characters like “Bruce Wayne, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, Super Soldier (Superman/ Captain America)and others. The only one who suspects that the time-lines have been altered is Dr. Strangefate…

Hardly. You could find books on the lawsuit DC brought against Fawcett over the assertion that Captain Marvel was a ripoff of Superman. (IIRC, DC won that suit.)

The problem with most such lawsuits is, though, that many super-heroes are based on pre-super-heroic archetypes to begin with. For example, is Quicksilver really based on the Flash, or are they both based on the Greek/Roman god Hermes/Mercury, the archetypical speedster. Is Angel based on Hawkman, or are they both based (albeit loosely) on Icarus? Is Hawkeye based on Green Arrow, or are they both based on Robin Hood?

No doubt DC knew which battles it was unlikely to win and didn’t bother to press them. But there’s certainly no “gentlemen’s agreement” between comic book companies to not sue over similar heroes…if the other company’s hero can be proven to be based on the first company’s.

Chaim Mattis Keller

“Sherlock Holmes once said that once you have eliminated the
impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be
the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.
The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it that the merely improbable lacks.”
– Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective

The media rip off each other’s ideas all the time. Does anyone here remember the 1967-68 tv season, with Mr. Terrific on CBS and Captain Nice on NBC, competing against ABC’s Batman of the previous year? For more info, try

DC and Marvel also seem to have an unwritten agreement not to go after each other, partly because artists, writers, and editors often switch from one to another.

Well, allow me to speak from my experience of having played super-hero role-playing games. A big part of a supers rpg, is developing a character with super powers. The problem is that there are a lot of ‘common’ choices for powers. This leads to similar heroes based on the same common power.

Let’s say I want to develop a new super hero who’s power is based on fire. Oops, both pantheons (there are other, less popular pantheons, too) already have several fire-using heroes (and villians). How about lightning? Done. Water? Done. Rock? Done. Beast? Done. Air? Animalistic? Sharpshooter? Lunatic? Magician? Done.

They only thing left is to use the same power already ‘claimed’ by an establish super and create a different personality for that person. Aquaman and Submariner are both from Atlantis. But while Aquaman is very cooperative with the other supers, Submariner is antagonistic to land dwellers.

Or, you can try a new ‘mix’ of powers. Rogue has most of Superman’s strength and invulnerability, but she also has an uncontrollable power-drain power.

Anyway, the similarity comes from the field of limited and similar powers; not from a rip-off (mostly).

And… the same’s true with the Greek and Roman pantheons. Both cultures had their ‘father god in the air’ independently of each other. It was only when Rome conquered the Hellenistic Empire that they equated their Jupiter with Greece’s Zues, and even accepted Greek Zues stories as being part of Jupiter’s history. Or, at least this is what I was taught 20 years ago.


I think cmkeller’s probably got the right idea. Most of the comic book heroes are based on mythic arch-types, either from myth or folklore.

Captain Marvel epitomized this – you’ll recall that Billy Batson got his superpowers by direct invocation (SHAZAM = Samson, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Apollo, Mercury?). But most of the superheroes rely on those mythic arch-types very heavily.

Possible exceptions are Batman and Spiderman, although perhaps it’s just that my mind isn’t fully awake yet.


Just for the record:

Solomon (Wisdom)
Hercules (Strength)
Atlas (Stamina)
Zeus (Power)
Achilles (Invulnerability)
Mercury (Speed)

Chaim Mattis Keller

Batman had a long list of famous predecessors himself–Zorro, the Lone Ranger, the Scarlet Pimpernel. What each of them had in common was that they experienced a trauma in their youth that caused them to focus on righting wrongs. Heck, you could trace it all the way back to Theseus–he travelled the Greecian countryside righting wrongs, sometimes incognito.

While Spiderman’s origin is distinctly modern (bitten by a radioactive spider), it’s really not that different than the ancient heroes granted powers by the gods–Midas and his golden touch, Achilles’ magically enhanced invunerability, etc. And just like his ancient counterparts, Spidey’s powers are both blessing and curse.

So, Papabear, it’s not so much that DC and Marvel are copying each other, but that they both read the same sourcebooks.

Thanks, CM, that’s what I get for working from an ever-failing memory.

Guy, I like your references, but I think Spiderman also has references back to Brothers Grimm (people who change into wolves or bears) as well.

Most of the comic book heroes are based on mythic arch-types[/qoute]

I must be in a picky mood today. It’s archetype, not arch-type. The alternate spelling also leads to mispronunciation. It’s ar’-ke-type.

“non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem”
– William of Ockham

CK–interesting suggestion, although that would more closely describe the Beast (from the X-Men), DC’s Man-Bat, or the Swamp Thing. Besides, Grimm’s tales came after Greek mythology.

I agree with the original premise that there are similarities with most of the **original ** characters from DC and Marvel. More recent Marvel comics have broken that mold though- most of the more recent characters (i.e. X-men and other mutants) don’t correspond to the Roman/Greek gods at all unless you really stretch it (Daredevil=Baldur?). I can’t speak for DC cos I never read them that much.

Whoops- got confused reading the follow-ups- the comparison wasn’t really between comic heroes and gods but Marvel and DC vs. Greek and Roman. I haven’t read recent DC comics so I don’t know if there’s still that correlation.

Did DC have an answer for Groo?

Yes, Grimm tales came after Greek mythology. I only meant to say that both DC and Marvel based their characters of mythic archetypes (thanks, pluto, I knew better, it’s been one of those mornings and I shouldn’t be here at all) … and those archetypes arise from deep-rooted myth/fable, such as the Greek myths or folklore stories (which Bros Grimm collected.)

As the superhero business became crowded, and competition more intense (for a very limited market), the more recent additions to the Superhero-pantheon do not derive from the mythic archetypes as closely as did the older heroes. I saw MYSTERY MEN the other night, and the links of characters such as The Bowler or Fart-Man to folklore is … well… stretched, at best.

Groo didn’t belong to Marvel, even though they did the publication and distribution. Sergio Aragones retained ownership.

With a broad enough brush, everything looks the same. Dr. Fate and Dr. Strange (and Arion and Zatanna and the Phantom Stranger and Madame Xanadu and Arba and Dakarba and…) have magic powers, so in that sense they’re “the same,” but they really aren’t very similar in the details.

Actually, the biggest “rip offs” are within the same company.

Superman and Mon-El are basically clones; one has a problem with kryptonite and the other has a problem with lead. Oh, yeah, THAT’S a big difference. Then there’s Ultra Boy, who has the same powers that they do but can only use them one at a time. But that’s okay, because it’s not like you’d find them all featured in the SAME FREAKING COMIC BOOK… er… oh.

Flash (JG), Flash (BA), Flash (WW), Professor Zoom, and Johnny Quick are pretty much interchangeable (well, Zoom had that evil thing going on, but that doesn’t have anything to do with his powers).

Marvel isn’t above this sort of thing either. The Thing and the Hulk: one’s green and one’s orange. This is so you can tell them apart, because you sure can’t by their powers. I forget the name of the big guy with the funny helmet thing (Juggernaut? Dreadnaught?) but he’s basically the same character also, except that he’s evil (and, of course, he’s got the funny hat) while the first two are more or less “good”.

Anyhow, the point raised above is a good one: there are only a finite number of “hey, that’s pretty cool” powers to go around. You’re bound to wind up using many of the same ones that other people have already used.

Just for the record, poor Benjamin Grimm (the Thing) has gotten his ass handed to him by the Hulk every time they’ve ever fought. In Marvel’s own official strength ranking, the Thing didn’t even make the top rank, while the Hulk is either in a league of his own, or #1 in the top rank.

On the Greek VS. Roman pantheons- did the identification of Zeus with Jupiter, etc. only happen after Rome conquered Greece? I thought the similarities were because both pantheons were descended from the gods worshipped by the common Indo-European ancestors of Greeks and Romans.

I think one aspect no one is touching on here is the limitation on creation of ‘super-heros.’ There really are only a limited number of ways you can make a hero extra powerful. For instance, he can fly, he can go fast, he can live in the water, he can be large, small, strechable, super-strong, etc. Pretty soon, you run start having to run out of ideas as to how a particular being is ‘powerful.’

This applies, of course, to ‘gods’ in pantheons like the Greek or Norse had. So it isn’t too surprising when you see that most of these methods of ‘superness’ are used by DC, Marvel, Greece, etc.

Please note that, while it is true you can come up with endless versions of turning humans into something like an animal (e.g. Spiderman, The Beast, Wolverine, etc), they really are all the same idea, just with a different spin. The same goes for super-heroes who use some gadget to make them powerful (e.g. Green Lantern, Thor).

<< The same goes for super-heroes who use some gadget to make them powerful (e.g. Green Lantern, Thor).>>

Well, Thor doesn’t quite count, since he’s an obvious reincarnation of a mythic folkloric hero. But it’s not just any old gadget:

  • Green Lantern = magic wishing ring (ref: Aladdin and similar stories)
  • Captain America = magic shield (ref: Perseus)
  • Wonder Woman = magic plane (ref: Pegasus)

I could go on, if I could think of others. The point is that the magic items themselves are right out of traditional tales, even if modified slightly. And don’t tell me that there aren’t “magic” items in the grand folklore tradition. It’s only the very recent characters that have non-traditional magic items (like the Bowler and the Shoveller in MYSTERY MEN).

I thought the Shoveller used an ordinary shovel, but just had the power to use it in extraordinary ways.