With Superman, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster didn’t break the superhero mold, they created it! Over the decades, there have been many characters to mimic the Superman model of a strange visitor with powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary men. Some of these characters are earnest homages, others are bald imitations, and others still have been branded as straight-up rip-offs.
Some of these Supermen have been vehicles for writers to explore Silver Age tropes or illuminate different aspects of Superman’s character or milieu — jealousies, bitterness, cruelty, homosexuality, race relations, rage, even madness. Without using the name “Superman,” creators can show us someone who isn’t always an aspirational figure. Here are 15 substitute Supermen who reflect different facets of the original.
Bizarro is an “imperfect duplicate” of Superman, possessing his strength and invulnerability, most of his superpowers, and almost none of his intellect. First appearing in “Superboy” #68, Bizarro was the undesired product of a lab experiment to duplicate Superboy, creating a being with white, crystalline skin and a childlike personality coupled with speech that always means the opposite of what he’s saying. Characteristic of Bizarro is his zany way of thinking and living: He wears a Superman costume with a backward “S” shield and does things the opposite of how normal people would. One of Bizarro’s earliest adventures ends with him creating a Bizarro Lois Lane and going into space to start a world full of Bizarros; after that, he started wearing a large stone tablet around his neck bearing the legend “BIZARRO No. 1.”
Bizarro World, which was helpfully terraformed by Superman into a cube, is chock-full of Bizarro versions of Superman’s friends and fellow superheroes, including the Justice League, where they all follow the Bizarro Code:
14. Samaritan (“Astro City”)
Kurt Busiek’s “Astro City” tales focus on the sense of wonder that comes with being in a world with superheroes. The leading hero in Astro City is Samaritan, a time traveler from the 35th century who comes to the past to prevent the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. Successfully completing his mission, however, erases the future from which he came. Stranded in the past, Samaritan acts as a superhero, using a special computer-like device, the Zyxometer, to be informed of threats to the world.
The Zxyometer also does his work in his civilian guise as magazine editor and fact-checker Asa Martin (“Samaritan” spelled sideways). In both guises, he is perceived by others as kind of cold. We see why in the story that introduced Samaritan, “In Dreams,” in which he meticulously tracks how much time it takes him to complete his super-deeds so that, at the end of the day, he can have a few spare minutes to exult in the joy of flying.
Marvel’s hero the Sentry was introduced as the ultimate retcon: a hero who had been around since the earliest days of the Marvel Universe, but whose exploits and very existence, had been forgotten by everyone …including himself. Robert Reynolds first appears in the Marvel Knights “Sentry” miniseries as a mild-mannered, middle-aged man who became a superhero just before the wave of new beings such as the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, developing associations with each of them. It is revealed that the Sentry shares his existence with The Void, an equally powerful but malevolent entity that commits acts of destruction for every good deed the Sentry performs. For the safety of the world, the Sentry worked with Doctor Strange and Reed Richards to erase everyone’s memory of him and of The Void.
Sentry’s superpowers derive from a drug developed to replicate Captain America’s Super-Soldier Serum, but instead it gave him the power of a million exploding suns, giving him nearly cosmic-level strength.
12. Mr. Majestic
Being a warlord from the planet Khera, Mr. Majestic has a more militaristic take on superheroing. He found himself stranded on Earth thousands of years in the past during a war between his people and their enemies, the Daemonites, and has worked behind the scenes as a hero and a government operative, where he was active as a costumed superhero in the 1940s through the 1980s. Mr. Majestic also served as leader of the WildC.A.T.s, changing the team’s focus from battling the Daemonites to making preemptive strikes on criminals.
Mr. Majestic is one of the few characters on this list who has met Superman. He appeared in the three-part story “Strange New Visitor,” a crossover story among “Action Comics” #811, “Adventures of Superman” #624 and “Superman” #201. This story brought Mr. Majestic to the DC Universe because of a time storm and had him standing in as protector of Metropolis. A subsequent “Majestic” series in 2004 sent him back to the WildStorm Universe.
In the 1980s, creators Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and the late Dwayne McDuffie established the Milestone line of comics, which filled a need for characters reflecting a broader spectrum of humanity. The flagship title of the line was “Icon,” which told the story of Augustus Freeman, a prosperous and politically conservative African-American lawyer with a secret: he’s really an alien from another planet sent to Earth for safety.
His life pod landed on a cotton plantation in 1836, and his body adopted the DNA and physical characteristics of the first person to find him. In this case, it was a slave named Miriam who adopted him as her son. Extraordinarily long-lived, Freeman is stranded on Earth, waiting for technology to develop so he may repair his spacecraft. He lived as a Black man witnessing generations come and go, but after undergoing a home invasion, he became inspired by the young woman who later became his sidekick, Rocket, to become the hero known Icon.
Icon essentially has the same power set as Superman, whom he met in the DC/Milestone crossover “Worlds Collide.”
Supreme began as a Rob Liefeld creation at Image, but he didn’t really take off until Alan Moore took a hand in writing his stories. Where Moore took a deconstructionist tack with Marvelman, Supreme is a more gentle book. It’s a nostalgic take on the Silver Age, with the Superman stand-in not quite fitting in with his surroundings.
Moore’s run on “Supreme” posits that the hero gets his powers from a Supremium meteorite, which has reality-warping capabilities. In Moore’s first issue, #41, Supreme learns of The Supremacy, a limbo for past and variant versions of Supreme. In the next issue, Moore begins retconning Supreme’s continuity, with the aid of interstitial pages drawn by Rick Veich in a crude style resembling 1950s’ artwork. Supreme’s alter ego, Ethan Crane, is a comics artist, and over the series, he encounters stand-ins for Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Supergirl, Krypto and even the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Many a boy has wished to become a powerful, invincible hero, but few wished for it more desperately than Simon Pooni, the 12-year-old boy who developed multiple sclerosis and cannot walk. In the seven-issue “Superior” miniseries by Mark Millar and Leinil Francis Yu, a demon posing as a monkey grants Simon’s wish to be like the hero of his favorite movie. He is then transformed into the title character, looking exactly like the movie’s actor and having all the powers of the fictional superhero.
But of course, wishes provided by demons always come with a catch. To continue as Superior, Simon must surrender his soul. In order to pressure Simon into making the deal, the demon offers another boy who has bullied Simon the opportunity to transform into Superior’s arch-nemesis, Abraxas. The bully, ordered to pledge his soul to Satan, accepts the terms. Simon’s dilemma of having to choose between staying in his sickly body (and thus leaving the world to Abraxas) or giving up his soul to defeat him ends up having a surprising resolution.
In Image’s “Invincible” series, Omni-Man is an alien from the Viltrumite Empire, a race of beings who live to conquer other planets and civilizations. He is thousands of years old. Settling into life on Earth, Omni-Man poses as science-fiction novelist named Nolan Grayson, marries a woman named Debbie, and fathers a son named Mark. Omni-Man tells Mark through his childhood the cover story that his mission is to help Earth’s technological development.
However, after Mark develops powers and takes on the superhero guise Invincible, Nolan tries to recruit Mark to join him in conquering Earth — and beats Mark nearly to death before relenting and exiling himself on another planet, where he starts another family. Later, Omni-Man’s rivals in the Viltrumite Empire imprison and nearly execute him. After breaking out of prison, he teams up with an ally, Allen the Alien, battering down his rivals in the Viltrumite Empire in a string of battles that ultimately end with him becoming crowned its leader.
Apollo and Midnighter are mirror images of Superman and Batman, with the added dimension of being a gay couple. They were introduced in WildStorm’s “StormWatch” series, Vol. 2 #4-6, as genetically enhanced covert operatives fleeing from StormWatch’s founder, Harry Bendix, the sole survivors of their first mission. Apollo’s changes make him a living solar battery and give him flight, heat vision, enhanced strength, invulnerability and more. He and Midnighter, the Batman analogue, survived on the streets by their wits while fighting crime. They soon were spun off to “The Authority,” the successor title to “StormWatch” following the adventures of a superteam out to remake the world regardless of whether the world wanted to be changed.
Apollo and Midnighter eventually married and were later brought into the DC Universe with The New 52. They are currently being featured in the six-issue “Midnighter and Apollo” miniseries, which reunites them after we saw Midnigher alone in a solo series.
6. The Homelander (“The Boys”)
“The Boys” is a thoroughly cynical take on superheroes, who aren’t actually heroic at all. Instead, they’re frontmen for the global corporation Vought-American, which needs them only to distract the world from its shady behind-the-scenes business dealings. The Homelander is leader of The Seven (the story’s Justice League or Avengers knockoff), whose members spend all their time indulging in wanton sex and raucous partying, indulging every debauched whim. Vought-American cleans up The Seven’s messes and runs the p.r. machine that makes it sound like The Seven is actually working for the public good.
The Homelander dresses in patriotic trappings but is a hedonist and a megalomaniac. He demands sexual favors from rookie team member Starlight and indulges in murder and other atrocities just because he can. Ultimately, he is destroyed at the end of the series by fellow team member Black Noir, who is revealed to be an insane clone who impersonated The Homelander for the worst acts attributed to him, including rape, murder and necrophilia.
5. Plutonian (“Irredeemable”)
What if Superman cracked under the strain of being a powerful being among ordinary mortals who fear his power? The results wouldn’t be pretty. They surely weren’t in “Irredeemable,” which featured Plutonian, the hero once beloved by all until he goes on a murderous rampage. Plutonian laid waste to entire cities and countries, slaying millions of people over the barest of affronts. Unequipped to stop him are his teammates, the Paradigm, who are also are targets of his wrath. (Team member Volt learns the hard way he shouldn’t have told Plutonian “You know I’d give my left arm to help you.”)
Plutonian’s unstable mental state stems from a childhood being shuffled from one foster home to another, being bounced by adults terrified of his power. In one instance, he accidentally caused brain damage to a foster sibling, and since grew up seeking unconditional love while fearing any error that would cause him to lose it. A failed rescue mission, however, finally sends him over the edge. With a Superman-inspired story this shocking, we’re not surprised that “Irredeemable” is being made into a movie.
4. Gladiator (“X-Men”)
“X-Men” antagonist Gladiator is the former leader of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, a sort of disguised Marvel version of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Like the Legion, each member of the Guard has a distinct superpower or set of superpowers. Gladiator’s set is much like Superboy’s: flight, invulnerability, super-strength, etc. In “Fantastic Four” #249, Gladiator battled the team and got the best of them, until Reed Richards deduced that his powers worked differently than how they appeared. With the help of Captain America’s shield — which Sue turned invisible and Reed held — Gladiator pummelled it, frustrated that his blows weren’t hurting Reed.
With a blow to the jaw from Sue’s force field, Gladiator was defeated. Reed explained that Gladiator’s powers are psionic and work in proportion to his level of confidence. Unable to break the shield, Gladiator momentarily believed his power was failing, allowing Sue to strike. This story was a test case for writer/artist John Byrne’s theories of how Superman’s powers work. To drive home the point, Byrne replicated the “Fantastic Four” #249 cover on “Superman” #8, with Superman standing over defeated Legionnaires who have powers similar to the FF members.
There have been several versions of Hyperion over the years, some heroes, some villains. The first one was introduced in Avengers #69 as the leader of Squadron Sinister, a team comprised of analogues of DC’s Justice League of America. In that tale, the Squadron Sinister was pitted against the Avengers by the Grandmaster. A 12-issue “Squadron Supreme” series in 1985-86 has the team taking control of the world and imposing their idea of utopia. Opposed by Nighthawk, other heroes and a few former villains, Hyperion belatedly realized their utopia is really a totalitarian state.
Under Marvel’s MAX imprint, the “Supreme Power” Hyperion is an alien who comes to Earth as a baby and is raised by government agents who pose as his parents, at the direction of an Army general who intends to use Hyperion as a weapon. Hyperion meets other powered beings along the way and declares his freedom from the government’s control.
The most recent version of the Squadron Supreme is composed of members plucked from various realities on a mission to defend Earth by all means, as demonstrated in issue #1 with Hyperion beheading Prince Namor and destroying Atlantis.
Where Alan Moore’s Supreme was a gentler look at Superman, giving us a modern-style character befuddled by a world of Silver Age tropes, Marvelman was the other extreme: a deconstructionist take full of violence and terror, which turned to stories questioning the price and value of a utopian world.
Marvelman (also known as Miracleman, depending on the publisher) is an analogue to Captain Marvel/Shazam. Both strips feature ordinary mortals who speak a word that transforms them into super-powered beings. Marvelman began as a substitute for Shazam in reprint comics published by Len Miller in the United Kingdom. Miller lost his source of Shazam stories after publisher Fawcett Comics left the comics business in 1953, settling a copyright infringement suit from DC Comics (then named National Comics) over the character.
Moore’s run on the book in the 1980s features Miracleman’s alter-ego, Micky Moran, as a middle-aged man rediscovering his power after years as a civilian. Miracleman’s partner, Kid Miracleman, destroys London in a rampage, wantonly murdering thousands of people until Miracleman kills him. After that, Miracleman’s allies, including Miraclewoman and his daughter, Winter, take control of the world to establish a utopian society.
1. Captain Marvel/Shazam
Captain Marvel, now known as “Shazam,” graced the world in 1940, following Superman’s debut in 1938’s “Action Comics” #1. Clad in red, gold and white, Captain Marvel quickly rose in popularity, leading publisher Fawcett to expand his cast of characters by adding Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., and even Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Captain Marvel’s success led rival publisher National Comics, the forerunner of DC Comics, to sue Fawcett for copyright infringement, citing similarities between the two companies’ characters and their published adventures.
After years of litigation and a downturn in sales, Fawcett chose to get out of the comics business. It settled out of court with DC and sold its characters to Charlton Comics. DC later licensed the Marvel Family of characters and reintroduced Captain Marvel in the title “Shazam” in 1972, and acquired full ownership of the characters in 1991. DC’s “The New 52” revamped the character and renamed him Shazam.
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