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8 Instances When Comic Books Were Inspired by Classic Literature

Anton spent 3 years working at an online music magazine as a writer, interviewer, photographer, editor, and eventually co-editor-in-chief.

Those who are familiar with Alan Moore’s exquisite steampunk saga The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen already have an idea of who the original superheroes of the literary world are. With a cast of talented characters taken from classical works of literature, Moore showcases that the domain of time-honoured fiction was filled with just as many badasses as the extended universes of our time.

Yes, before Marvel and DC gifted us with the alter egos of our dreams, there was myth, legend, and Gothic Victorian England, all of which served as the progenitors of your favourite superhero stories. The powers we’ve come to witness on comic book pages and cinema screens of today had once been carried by words of lore and rested in the pages of rustic scripture.

Of course, back in the days of old, said protagonists and their talents did not manifest with the aplomb of the earth’s mightiest heroes today. Nevertheless, that did not stop them from captivating the audience with fantastical innovation that lies at the core of the fictional icons that saturate our pages, screens, and hearts. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the classic literary masterpieces that shaped the world of comics that we know and love.

The Hulk in comics

The Hulk in comics

Jekyll & Hyde

Jekyll & Hyde

1. The Incredible Hulk: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Our favourite, less-than-jolly green giant is Marvel’s embodiment of the duality of man. With a genius scientist at one end and a raging monster at another, The Incredible Hulk draws visceral correlations with Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 classic Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and showcases two completely different, yet intrinsic personalities in their arduous quest within the struggle between good and evil.

Louis Stevenson’s work became one of the most influential portrayals of the double-edged sword that is the human persona. The tale sees Dr. Jekyll—a reputable scientist—create a serum that transforms his well-mannered, gentle persona, into the brutish, belligerent Hyde, who in turn wrecks havoc on the city streets at night. In attempting to suppress the evil urges that have haunted him throughout his life, Dr. Jekyll ends up unleashing them upon the world.

The parallels between Stevenson’s work and the plight of the brilliant Dr. Robert Bruce Banner are beyond evident, and have both become synonymous with portrayals of the struggle between one’s split shades of individuality. Within the world of Dr. Banner, Hulk often occupies the role of a cathartic outlet, and a necessary evil, and causes one to continually contemplate the fine line that often separates good and evil—for better, or for worse.

Bram Stoker's "Dracula"

Bram Stoker's "Dracula"

Blade in comics

Blade in comics

2. Dracula, Blade, and Morbius the Living Vampire: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Few works of classical literature have been bled for inspiration as much as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is probably even safe to say that every drop of crimson soaked vampire fiction of the modern age can trace its roots back to the novel that started it all. From the xenophobic undertones that continue to influence the cultural commentary of new-age vampire tales, to the Gothic sexual imagery that spawned a stylistic revolution, Bram Stoker remains to be the Godfather of the fanged movement.

At this point, we must of course mention the eponymous Marvel character who made his debut in The Tomb of Dracula in 1972, and is based directly off of the famous novel’s antagonist—for it would be this series that would essentially give birth to the more prominent Marvel universe characters who bare the vampiric mantle; one of which, would be Blade.

The Van Helsing of our time, the Daywalker Blade has become the go-to vampire hunter of the comic book world. In his never-ending quest to rid the world of the blood-thirsty species, the human-vampire hybrid would even go on to make acquaintance with the direct descendants of characters created by Stoker himself—such as Rachel Van-Helsing, the great-granddaughter of Abraham Van-Helsing, and Quincy Harker, the son of Johnathan and Mina Harker. A direct extension of Stoker’s tale, this comic book narrative pays homage to vampire lore, whilst expanding to further dark dimensions.

Stoker’s influence has also reached beyond the The Tomb of Dracula and into The Amazing Spider-Man canon, with the pseudo-vampire Morbius turning into one of Spidey’s adversaries, before becoming an anti-heroic entity in his right. The character recently made his cinematic debut.

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

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Frankenstein's Monster in comics

Frankenstein's Monster in comics

3. Frankenstein: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

The theme of a man-made monster is quite prevalent throughout the world of fantasy. The lament of Victor Frankenstein’s creation can indeed be applied to a multitude of heroes and creatures throughout the comic book universes, and often serves as a dramatic and moralistic tool within many a narrative.

Mary Shelley’s worldwide phenomenon has become an emotional template for more than a few superpowered/enhanced characters who’ve found themselves at the mercy of an experimental procedure that gave birth to their new-found identity; and modern day storylines continue to reflect its nuanced meditations.

Granted, many can fall unto the “frankenstinian” umbrella, but we can’t talk about this personage without mentioning the character of the same name and origin who first appeared in Marvel Comics predecessor Atlas Comics in 1953, before making his debut in Marvel’s The Silver Surfer in 1969.

Having Stan Lee bring Frankenstein’s Monster into the comic book world in all its wretched glory might be a bit “on the nose”, but it speaks volumes to the might and influence of this iconic character, and its justifiable place within the world of comics.

Similarly, Solomon Grundy—yet another creation inspired by the infamous monster—was introduced within the DC comic book universe. And whilst Grundy may not be the exact replica of Frankenstein, his zombie image and reincarnation clearly pay homage to Shelley’s Modern Prometheus.

Illustration for "The Invisible Man"

Illustration for "The Invisible Man"

Sue Storm in comics

Sue Storm in comics

4. Sue Storm and Invisible Hood: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells is arguably one of the forefathers of science fiction. Thus, it's only natural that an imagination of that calibre shall inspire the transient, multiversal domain that is the world of comics.

And it has; be it with time travel, aliens, or, in this case, the power of invisibility.

When someone is tasked with answering one of the most common comic-book related questions—that is, ‘If you were a superhero, what superpower you would have?’—‘invisibility’ certainly ends up being somewhere high up in the polls. Be it for the sheer chaotic potential, or its anonymity, it is a concept that has populated a plethora of fictional tales ever since the ancient myths of Gods assuming the translucent disguise. H.G. Wells’s Griffin was one of the first to acquire said power in modern fiction, and even though his tale is one of a rather dark character, he has nonetheless become an iconic personage.

The Invisible Man has been adapted to comic book forms by both Classics Illustrated in the 1950s, and by Marvel in 1976, but the power of invisibility has been practiced by a number of notable characters throughout the fictional universes; including ones who are not essentially associated with it—i.e. Doctor Strange. Yet in this instance, we are going to mention the heroes whose modus operandi revolves around disappearing from sight at will.

The most prominent of such has to be the Invisible Woman herself, Sue Storm. Having acquired her powers through a cosmic storm, Sue not only has the ability to render her absent to the naked eye, but also to make other objects disappear (in addition to creating force fields). Sue was the first female superhero to be created by Marvel comics during the Silver Age of Comics, and continues to a force to be reckoned with as the founding member of the Fantastic Four.

DC have also come into the possession of a character with a fondness for invisibility through their acquisition of Quality comics. Invisible Hood—both Kent and his grandson Ken Thurston—do not have invisibility power per se, but use a chemically treated cloak as a tool that turns them invisible.

Batman in comics

Batman in comics

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

5. Batman: Sherlock Holmes

The association between these two characters has been long-standing to say the least. Both have been referred to as the ‘greatest detectives’ of the respective genres—one from the world of classic literature, and one from the universe of comics—and both have been lauded as having some of the finest intellects in the world of fiction. In addition to that, the two characters each possess exceptional combat abilities, a keen love of gadgets, and both share a similar supporting presence in the faces of their loyal “sidekicks” Dr. Watson and Robin.

But beyond their obvious talents of deduction, these two characters can also draw strong comparisons regarding the complicated natures of their own personalities; for both, Bruce Wayne and Sherlock Holmes, are so strongly respected within their worlds not simply due to their crime solving fortes, but because their own characteristics remain to be the central puzzles of any of their quests.

With Holmes’ often difficult persona, characterized by his eccentric genius and occasional drug use, and Bruce Wayne’s own tragic past that involves the murder of his parents, both crime fighters have had to carry and deal with their own burdens throughout their adventures—all of which had arguably also made them the men they had become. And regardless of one’s relationship with fiction, the monikers of these two personages are well-known beyond their realms and tales, as they have become household names throughout the world.

A painting inspired by "The Metamorphoses"

A painting inspired by "The Metamorphoses"

X-Men characters in comics

X-Men characters in comics

6. Mystique, X-Men, and the Skrulls: The Metamorphoses by Ovid (Roman/Greek Mythology)

Yes, believe it or not, but themes of mutational powers and shape-shifting have been popular even as early as 8AD.

One of the most popular, and important books in the history of literature—a tome that influenced the likes of Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare—Roman poet Ovid’s Latin narrative poem has been one of the most studied texts in literary courses throughout the world. Yet the fantastical depictions within the mythical tales of said literary collection also seem to serve as inspiration for the extraordinary fictional creations of today—including those within the world of comics.

A cauldron of mutability, Ovid's magnum opus features a variety of Gods and demi-Gods changing into animals, plants, and even constellations—all of which in turn correlate with the powers that we see in abundance within comic book publications.

These extraordinary abilities have been seen in such canons as the X-men series—with everyone’s favourite blue shape-shifter Mystique, who made her first appearance in Ms. Marvel back in 1978—and at display by the extraterrestrial, Andromeda Galaxy natives Skrulls, who are also well-known for their God-like transformational skills, and whose presence in the Marvel ranks dates back to the early 60’s.

Thor in Norse mythology

Thor in Norse mythology

Thor in comics

Thor in comics

7. Thor: Norse Mythology

Speaking of Gods and myth... When it comes to faithful adaptations of historical works of literature, the God of Thunder most certainly rises to the top of the list - and cracks the sky when he gets there.

Thor’s comic book form is surprisingly consistent in terms of characterisation and origin to the actual Nordic legends—whilst taking some artistic liberties of course.

Jack Kirby actually first did a version of Thor for DC before making him one of Marvel’s icons—being highly invested in the character due to his fascination with myths. Stan Lee, another co-creator of the character along with Larry Lieber, took Thor into consideration when thinking of worthy follow up to Hulk in terms of power. In his book Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, Lee wrote:

“How do you make someone stronger than the strongest person? It finally came to me; don’t make him human, make him a God.” (Lee 2002)

And so, Marvel’s readers were graced by the presence of a God. Being that most people were already familiar with the legend of the Asgardian prince, made Thor, Odin, and Loki, popular and formidable additions to the world of Marvel comics, and helped solidify Thor’s canon as one of the foundations of this mythical universe.

Lucifer in comics

Lucifer in comics

Lucifer in a woodcut

Lucifer in a woodcut

8. Lucifer: Paradise Lost by John Milton and the Bible

“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.” (John Milton)

From the heights of the Gods, we shall now take a plunge into the pits of hell. Here we have perhaps the second most famous (though in the case infamous) character in the world after God himself—and that is the Devil.

Popularised recently by the celebrated TV show starring Tom Ellis as the titular character, Lucifer Morningstar made his debut in the Neil Gaiman DC Comics hit series The Sandman back in 1989, before getting his own spin-off through Vertigo in the early 2000’s.

The suave, intellectual, and overpowered portrayal of the main character often draws upon the Biblical themes that underlie John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost; in essence, making this unforgettable character, more human than Satan in the process.

The question of ‘free will’ and the plight of a strained father/son relationship shape Lucifer into one of the most intriguing and emotionally mercurial characters to grace the pages of a comic book. Through encounters with angels and demons (and other creatures) the ruler of Hell remains in constant search of his identity in the context of all creation. Whilst questioning the mechanics of his father’s design, the Devil’s hard-headed approach to the vagueness of universal existence becomes a very familiar tale of one child’s rebellion against his parent.

These Characters Have Endured Across Media

So there you have it. There are clearly many more examples of characters that have graced both the pages of classic literature and comic books, but they shall have to wait until another time. What these correlations between these fictional worlds do showcase, however, is that imagination knows no bounds, and it leaps throughout a universal medium that spans throughout time, living inside our minds and our hearts. As evidenced by all these entries, these characters, and many more, shall live and prosper for many future generations to enjoy.

© 2022 Anton Sanatov

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