Superhero comics are full of knockoffs, parodies, and shameless copies of iconic characters. And nobody gets copied more often than Superman and the Fantastic Four. Which of them has the best copy-cat characters? We break it down for you.
Both Superman and the Fantastic Four have gotten copied endlessly, but which of them has the best carbon copies? To settle it once and for all, we're comparing a bunch of categories in which both the Man of Steel and the stars of the World's Greatest Comic have been egregiously copied. Ready? Here we go...
1. The Other Company's Heroic Counterpart.
Sentry vs. The Doom Patrol
Like I said, imitation is the highest form of flattery, and what better way to do it than simply admit, "Yeah...that's a pretty good character. Mind if we have one of those?" Admittedly, it took Marvel a long, long time to come up with its definitive Superman pastiche, but when they did... it was a doozy. Sentry, the Golden Guardian of Good, is an almost omnipotent character, the product of a super-charged version of the same serum that created Captain America. His powers are seemingly limitless, and the longer he sticks around in comics continuity the less human he gets. However, he hides the darkest of secrets - his arch-enemy, the Void, is actually another aspect of himself, and his continued existence placed the entire world in jeopardy.
As such, despite being the most powerful and most beloved of all Marvel superheroes - indeed, it's thought that his presence could have prevented a lot of the mistrust of superhumans that pervades the Marvel universe - he asked Dr. Strange and Reed Richards to help erase him from existence. He eventually came back and basically vanquished the Void, and now it's a continuing balancing act for Marvel writers to integrate him into the universe at large without letting him take over all the stories. He is (basically) Superman, after all.
The Doom Patrol, on the other hand, is a bit more questionable as a Fantastic Four counterpart. Indeed, they're far more often thought to be a bunch of X-Men clones, but the fact that they debuted at almost exactly the same time makes that highly unlikely, and what similarities do exist are mostly coincidental. On the other hand, the similarities between the Fantastic Four and the Doom Patrol are, to borrow a word from somewhere, uncanny. According to Wikipedia:
The original lineup of both teams included four members, who did not have secret/double identities; each had a headquarters that was a public building in the middle of a major city; each team had one member with stretching powers (Rita Farr of the Doom Patrol, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four), one member with flame or flame-like powers (Larry Trainor of the DP and Johnny Storm of the FF), a member with brute strength and a freakish body, with bitterness at being trapped in it (Cliff Steele and Ben Grimm) and a member who was invisible or stayed out of the public view (Niles Caulder and Sue Storm). Both teams quarreled amongst themselves, unlike most other teams published by DC/National. This has led to assertions that the Doom Patrol were created with the Fantastic Four in mind. One commentator has stated that "it is considered common knowledge that the Doom Patrol was inspired by The Fantastic Four."
Of course, that same article points out that the Fantastic Four were arguably inspired by DC's Challengers of the Unknown (and let's not forget that they were also meant to be Marvel's answer to the Justice League.) Either way, the Doom Patrol has since separated itself from both the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, becoming one of the weirdest, most bizarre mainstream comics ever produced.
The Winner: On this one, I've got to say Superman. The Doom Patrol are great characters, to be sure, but it's an unbelievably tangled web trying to figure out where they came from. Sentry, on the other hand, is very obviously Marvel's Superman, and the fact that he's still hanging around after his original miniseries gives him the victory. Maybe he's not the better character, but he's the better knockoff, and that's what matters here.
2. The Other Company's Villainous Counterpart.
Hyperion vs. Cyborg Superman
Honestly, creating a heroic stand-in for your rival company's most iconic character is a bit...well, boring. It's way more interesting to take the other character's basic origin story, and then twist it into that of a total villain. In Marvel's case, they twisted the entire Justice League into the Squadron Sinister, introducing them in a 1969 issue of The Avengers. Assembled by the all-powerful alien the Grandmaster to fight the Avengers, Hyperion is the alien Zhib-Ran, and he has pretty much all the powers you would expect from a Superman-inspired villain. Marvel did eventually introduce an alternate universe, heroic version of Hyperion, making him the leader of the Squadron Supreme.
DC arguably went quite a bit further with their villainous version of Mr. Fantastic. Hank Henshaw was, much like Reed Richards, one of four astronauts on board an experimental rocket. Doused in radiation, two of his companions are turned into hideous monsters. Henshaw and his wife are initially unharmed, although his body quickly starts to decay. He is able to transfer his consciousness into the LexCorp mainframe, and he is able to help Superman save his wife's life. He constructs a new robotic body for himself, but his wife is unable to deal with the shock of his resurrection and ultimately kills herself. Out of grief and rage at his new condition, Henshaw snaps and becomes a villainous master of all technology, seemingly indestructible and able to build powerful new bodies. One such body allows him to pose as a cyborg Superman while the genuine article is thought to be dead, and the name Cyborg Superman has stuck. He's remained one of the most powerful and feared villains in the DC universe, most recently reemerging for the Sinestro Corps War.
Winner: On the one hand, Hyperion does track a lot closer to the original Superman story. On the other hand, Cyborg Superman has been a way more notable villain, and there's something delightfully perverse about twisting Reed Richards into a robot who is still running around wearing part of Superman's face. I've got to say the Fantastic Four wins this one.
3. The Wildstorm Stand-In
Mr. Majestic/Apollo vs. The Four
Wildstorm Comics is the sometimes awesome, sometimes just sort of pointlessly violent publisher of a bunch of acclaimed comics, including The Authority, Planetary, and Wildcats. It is also completely overrun with barely even disguised versions of DC and Marvel superheroes. It would take dozens of posts to get through even a mildly comprehensive list of all the stand-ins and parodies Wildstorm has put out over the years, but basically every Wildstorm ersatz boils down to a simple question: "What if Marvel/DC character X was a hero/villain and willing to use lethal force?" Alternatively, this question can also be understood as "What if Marvel/DC character X was just a total bastard?" That's pretty much the Wildstorm formula, and I've got to admit it's often pretty successful.
In particular, Wildstorm really likes its Superman pastiches - a quick read of just Warren Ellis's run on Stormwatch will turn up multiple parodies of the iconic Superman #1 cover. Still, the two best Superman knockoffs have to be Mr. Majestic and Apollo. Majestic is really Lord Majestros, a full-blooded Kherubim warlord who first came to Earth thousands of years ago. He's just as powerful as Superman — indeed, a sojourn in the DC universe actually found him filling in for the Man of Steel - but he takes a very different view of what justice means. He believes he is superior to everyone else and thus has the right to impose his will on others. This most often takes the form of benign protection, but he almost never holds back against his enemies, which has resulted in countless fatalities in the name of justice. Like Superman (particularly the older versions of the Man of Steel), he's a super-scientist and chooses to spend most of his free time completely shut off from humanity and other heroes. Still, as Wildstorm heroes go, he's actually a fairly decent guy.
Then there's Apollo. He was originally created in a government project that stripped seven soldiers of their memories and personalities and rebuilt them as what were basically stand-ins for the original Justice League. When their first mission went wrong, five of the newly created heroes were killed, leaving only Apollo and Batman pastiche The Midnighter alive. The two went into hiding for years before resurfacing, ultimately becoming key members of the somewhat fascist superhero team the Authority. Apollo and the Midnighter are probably best known for the fact that they are gay lovers. Although there's obviously a sensationalistic element to making the Superman and Batman parodies lovers, this is actually dealt with in a relatively mature way, at least when Warren Ellis was writing the title.
Speaking of Warren Ellis, maybe the coolest Fantastic Four parody ever is found within the pages of Planetary. One of the greatest comic book series of all time, Planetary follows reluctant, immortal adventurer Elijah Snow as he works to uncover Earth's secret history and defeat the forces that hold humanity's development back. He soon discovers that the entire planet is in the thrall of the Four, a quartet of sixties super-scientists who undertook a top-secret space mission in 1961. They returned with unimaginable powers and a total lack of morals, and they set about making life very unpleasant for anyone who gets in their way. As their de facto Johnny Storm explains, "we're on the human adventure... and you can't all come along." It's a chilling inversion of the Fantastic Four, particularly because it really doesn't seem all that far away from what their Marvel counterparts get up to.
The Winner: This is tough, because there are at least five or six great Superman deconstructions in the Wildstorm universe, and Apollo and Mr. Majestic in particular are excellent characters in their own right. Still, the Four are some of the most iconic, frightening villains in comics history, so I really have to give this one to The Fantastic Four.
(And while we're talking Wildstorm, a big shout-out to Kurt Busiek's Astro City, which features some great Superman and Fantastic Four parodies as well in the Samaritan, the First Family, and the Experimentals. Unfortunately, I haven't read enough Astro City to judge which is the superior pastiche, so I must leave it to you, the readers.)
4. The Ventures Bros. side character.
Captain Sunshine vs. The Impossibles
The Venture Bros. usually does a pretty admirable job of staying away from obvious superhero and supervillain parodies, although when they do go down that road... well, the results are generally pretty great. Or, at the very least, delightfully squeamish. Take the fourth season episode "Handsome Ransom", in which the Monarch tangles with his old adversary Captain Sunshine. The character is the closest thing we've seen so far on the show to a Superman equivalent - he's got all the basic powers of the Man of Steel, he too derives his powers from the sun, his crimefighting persona is pretty close to that of Superman's, and his alter ego as a TV news anchor is even a very close approximation of Clark Kent's 1970s gig hosting the WGBS evening news. At the same time, I've probably got to give the character a couple demerits as a Superman parody, because he's also a Batman clone, and arguably much more so, seeing as how he's voiced by definitive Batman voice Kevin Conroy and his relationship with his sidekicks is right out of Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent.
There's no such ambiguity as to who Professor Impossible and the rest of the Impossibles are parodying. Although Professor Impossible himself is basically a straight Reed Richards clone — albeit much, much douchier — the rest of his family is experiencing the dark side of being invisible, able to light oneself on fire, and turn into living rock. Only the skin of his wife Sally has become invisible, leaving her insides horribly, disgustingly visible unless she exerts great effort to bring her skin back. Sally's brother ignites whenever he comes in contact with oxygen, leaving him in eternal agony. And their cousin Ned, who was already mentally handicapped, has been transformed into a horrible, rock-like being. Between all that body horror and the amoral lengths to which Professor Impossible will go to keep his family's secret, it's all wonderfully dark territory. Although maybe the best part of the Impossibles is that the Professor is voiced by TV's Stephen Colbert, at least in his first two appearances. (Bill Hader, one of the best parts of current SNL, will be taking the role over when the character returns later this season.) Check out some of the Colbert goodness:
Winner: I never thought I'd be forced to choose between Kevin Conroy and Stephen Colbert. However...since the Impossibles are a far more obvious parody, I'm giving this one to The Fantastic Four.
5. The Rob Liefeld Bastardization.
Supreme vs. Doom's IV
I know it isn't pleasant, but let's consider the work of Image Comics co-founder Rob Liefeld. (If you're not familiar with Mr. Liefeld, here's forty reasons why you're luckier than the rest of us.) Once somehow the most popular and successful comics illustrator in the world - the early nineties were a grim time, indeed - he split from Marvel to help found the creator-driven outfit Image Comics. Since creativity has never really been Rob Liefeld's strong suit - his only known strong suit is drawing lots and lots and lots of pockets on all his characters - he instead created ultra-violent knockoffs of Marvel and DC characters. (Maybe the most ludicrous of these was Bloodwolf, who was clearly meant to be Lobo, who was himself a parody of the ultra-violent comics Liefeld helped popularize. Any readers who know a little Spanish will notice the bonus inanity of his name.)
Now, some of these new comics were shockingly successful - his ersatz Teen Titans series Youngblood was at one point the bestselling independent comic of all time. But none of them gained even a whiff of critical respectability until Liefeld brought Alan Moore on to reboot the hero you see above. Supreme was, as you might imagine, Liefeld's Superman knockoff, who was a lot like the Man of Steel except extremely violent and a total asshole. Moore immediately junked this characterization (although he later returned to it with a lot of meta-commentary on the nature of continuity changes), recasting Supreme as a lighthearted hero and a loving homage to the bygone Superman comics of the Silver Age. The series ultimately won Moore an Eisner Award for his work, although the sudden collapse of Liefeld's new outfit Awesome Entertainment meant Supreme's saga was never completed.
The Fantastic Four didn't fare nearly as well, perhaps because they simply were never badass enough for Rob Liefeld to show much interest in them. The closest he got was with Doom's IV, which combined the name of their greatest enemy Doctor Doom and the fact that there's four of them into, well, an ultra-violent superhero team. And that was about it. Other than the fact that the big guy Brick is a fairly obvious Thing copy, and the makeup of the team roughly corresponded to that of the Fantastic Four (although they flipped the genders of the Human Torch and Invisible Woman characters), the similarities were pretty superficial. That's mostly because Liefeld wasn't really interested in the Fantastic Four concept as he was appropriating some of its iconography for a lot of standard ultra-violence and mayhem. If you want to watch a comic book reviewer go slowly insane while talking about an issue of this, then check this out.
Winner: Sure, Supreme turned into something legitimately great once Alan Moore got his hands on him, but you could say that about anything. (Well, OK...not Alice in Wonderland.) It almost feels like cheating, but I really have to give this one to Superman.
6. The Wild Card.
Every other superhero parody ever vs... well, I'm getting to that.
The world of superheroes is so vast and the list of truly original, iconic superheroes so tiny that, honestly, it's kind of hard to know what superheroes aren't ripoffs after awhile. And, as a general rule, once you step out of the medium of comics, pretty much any new superhero you encounter is going to be heavily inspired by Superman. There's a reason why Will Smith's title character in Hancock is basically an angry, despised version of Superman, and indeed original writer Vincent Ngo always saw the movie as a subversion of the Superman mythos. And it goes much further than that - I mean, just look at the obviously Superman-inspired imagery of such random superheroes parodies as Ren & Stimpy's Powdered Toast Man or Doug's Quailman (and those are just two I happen to vaguely remember from my childhood). It makes sense - Superman is the oldest, most popular, and most iconic of all superheroes, and the one whose powers and outlook pretty much everyone can recognize as a shorthand for what it means to be a superhero, even if they've never read a comic book and never will.
So when seemingly 99% of all superhero characters ever created are just Superman clones, how can the Fantastic Four possibly compete? Well, I won't tell you how - I'll show you. Feast your eyes on this beauty:
Yes, that would be a Wookie warrior yelling "It's rebelling time!" as he and this three cohorts go off to fight Darth Vader. The creation of clearly twisted genius Jay Stephens for the comic Star Wars Tales 9, there's some thought that the characters were created as an acknowledgment that Darth Vader himself resembles Fantastic Four arch-nemesis Doctor Doom. (The team even launches their attack on the plant Vatleria, a barely disguised anagram of Doom's home country Latveria.) But beyond the superficial resemblances, it's how Darth Vader brutally kills - yes, brutally kills - our heroes that really makes this the stuff of ersatz legend:
One by one they fall into traps prepared by Darth Vader. F4-MF [Mr. Fantastic] is stretched to pieces, Onn [The Human Torch] is burnt to a crisp, GrimGrim [The Thing] is crushed by rocks and Rcharrz [The Invisible Woman] is blasted into nothingness. Vader however is disappointed at the ease of the victory. When an imperial officer questions this, Vader force chokes him.
Now that is commitment to parody. I'm not even going to bother tallying up the points because the Rebel Four is just too awesomely absurd. I'm giving the title of best knockoffs to The Fantastic Four.