Comic books have a long and rich history of characters featuring similar powers and abilities, as this strip suggests. This can be particularly common between different publishing companies, where there can be a substantial economic incentive. Money! That's what I want...
Let's start with the pantheon of pliable people. These are the guys who can stretch their body parts (yes, all of them) into all kinds of shapes and contortions. The nominees are (drumroll, please):
- Plastic Man (created by Jack Cole in 1941, for Quality Comics)
- Mr. Fantastic (created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in 1961, for Marvel Comics)
- Elongated Man (created as a comrade-in-crimefighting for DC's 'The Flash')
- Elastic Lad (created as one of many Jimmy Olsen gimmicks, again for DC)
How can the companies get away with something like this? Well, it's like this - each of them has a different origin story and source of powers (except for Elastic Lad and Elongated Man, but thats OK because they both belong to DC). Plastic Man had been a petty crook, shot by his partners and dunked in some weird kind of industrial waste. The gunk got into his wound, and gave him his powers. In the process of nailing his ex-partners, he discovered he enjoyed playing on the other side of the cops & robbers game.
Mr. Fantastic and three partners catapulted themselves into orbit in an effort to beat the commies to outer space. You think I'm joking, right? Wrong. Check out this crazy dialogue, man, from Fantastic Four #1:
BEN GRIMM (to Reed Richards)
You know we haven't done enough research into the effect of cosmic rays! They might kill us all out in space!
Ben, we've got to take that chance...unless we want the commies to beat us to it!
Anyways, cosmic radiation gave the foursome their funky powers. Makes you wonder about all those Apollo missions now, doesn't it?
Elongated Man got his powers by nagging an assortment of Indian swamis and carnival acts into revealing the source of their contortion abilities. If I remember this correctly, they directed him to the sap of the 'gingold' tree, from which he distilled a concentrated extract. Hey, DC! Here's a plotline for you - the Elongated Man gets shut down by the FDA!
Elastic Lad, one of Jimmy Olsen's alter egos, got his powers by drinking a synthetic laboratory version of Elongated Man's gingold extract. This sort of reminds me of the kid in kindergarten who used to eat paste. Remember him? There was one like that in every school.
DC neatly ducked the rights infringement issue posed by Elongated Man and Elastic Lad by buying up the Quality Comics stable of characters, including Plastic Man.
Occasionally - and here's where I give full faith and credit - people at different companies will have the same idea, more-or-less simultaneously. From all accounts, DC's Swamp Thing and Marvel's Man-Thing are examples of this phenomenon, with both hitting the stands in 1971. Len Wein and Berni Wrightson created Swamp Thing as a murdered biochemist being resurrected by the swamp in which his body was thrown. Marvel's Man-Thing was...ok, I'm not entirely sure, but I think he used to be a scientist, too, and then he become this big swamp monster. The Swamp Thing was hugely successful; the Man-Thing wasn't. This just goes to show that it's not merely the idea which becomes successful, but rather the implementation. More than anything else, this probably accounts for why there have been so few copyright suits filed in the comic book industry over the years.
On a related tangent, Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras posed an interesting challenge a while back in one of those in-house propaganda pages. Responding to someone's suggestion that a different company had lifted ideas from a Marvel book, Bob invited readers to nominate other similar infringements. Ok, here's a couple you might want to consult the lawyers about, Bob:
- DC's Legion of Super-Heroes is clearly a rip-off of Marvel's Imperial Guard
- Gardner Fox must have based his so-called Justice League on Marvel's Squadron Supreme
I'm not even going to get into how Dave Sim obviously had the Marvel character S'ym in mind when he created Cerebus the Aardvark.
One final note: I raised a point in the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.comics.misc a while back in a discussion about Miracleman, and the ownership confusion that surrounds the property. Way back when, DC Comics sued Fawcett Comics out of buiness over Captain Marvel being a carbon copy of Superman. Since Miracleman was created as a brazen copy of Captain Marvel, does this mean that DC could lay a claim against the former? Food for thought.