Almost since Superman first lifted that car up competing comic companies have been borrowing ideas from each other. I don't think that this was always done intentionally though in some cases with a doubt it was done that way. Various writers have felt the need to use and borrow ideas from other companies and characters throughout the ages. Rather this is done as a way to pay homage, parody, or just the lack of ideas out there is left up to debate.
Like any business rivals, comic book publishers have routinely "borrowed" popular characters and concepts from their competitors. However, there were a handful of times when publishers created characters that were so similar, yet appeared so close together, that one publisher copying the concept from the other was a virtually impossibility.
With as many characters that have been created throughout the years its almost undoubtedly that any new character is going to have a similar power to one that has already been created in the past. There are only so many different powers that can be created before some other character undoubtedly will have a similar one.
Shapeshifters? I can name about a dozen without even thinking. Heroes born on another planet? Might as well have their own company. Billionaire with expensive gadgets? Been done over and over again.
The point is that as brilliant of an idea a writer might think they have for a character, chances are that at least part of the character has been done before in the 70+ years of superheroes. Sometimes just like the movie industries, the companies see a hot idea of fad and want to capitalize on it while they can. Think about the horrid outfits of the 90's and all of those useless pouches.
To drive the point home I am going to show you 15 different instances in comics where the companies seem to have been copying each other. Some of these are subtle similarities, others are flat out obvious. Its up to you really to determine if it was done on purpose, accidental, or just a homage to the original.
Death and Return of Captain America and Batman
The first one is actually fairly recent. The original Batman and Captain America were both “killed off” around the same, then had eerily similar return stories. I'll start with the explanation of Batman's death and return. Batman's character was killed off around March of 2009 and his return started in May 2010.
Basically after the whole Batman: RIP storyline was complete, Bruce Wayne somehow survived a helicopter crash, only to return to his batcave and get a distress call about the going-ons of Final Crisis. In the story Bruce Wayne figured out how to kill the gods and goes to confront the main baddie Darkseid. As Darkseid taunts him, Batman proceeds to just show how much of a bad ass he really is and tells Darkseid how he's going to kill him. The two both simultaneously unleash their weapons on each other, Batman with a gun and radion bullet to fatally wound Darkseid. Darkseid hit Batman with his Omega Beams seemingly killing Batman in the process.
In the end of Final Crisis it was reveled that Batman was not dead at all, just lost in time. Throughout the Storyline called Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne we were treated to the resurrection of the character and his return to the regular time line of DC comics. Bruce Wayne has lost his memory and jumps through time in each issue. He deals first with cave people, next he appears in the ages of witch hunts, then the 18th century as a pirate during which he regains his memory. Next he awakens in the old west where he is shot by Jonah Hex. Next he jumps forward to the 1930's. Next he arrive at the Vanishing point, Batman was really a weapon that Darkseid had wanted to use to destroy the universe. Batman eventually managed to return to present day and foil his plans using clues he had left himself through time.
Captain America would die in 2007 and make his return in July of 2009. Following the Civil War event Steve Rogers turns himself in. The Red Skull arranges to have Crossbones snipe Rogers while a brainwashed Sharon Carter delivered the killing blow to him. Much like how Batman's former protege Richard Grayson took over as Batman upon his death, Bucky Barnes takes over as the new Captain America.
In Captain America Reborn it is reveled that the gun that Sharon Carter used was not in fact a gun but technology developed by Dr. Doom. The gun instead of killing Rogers froze him in time and space. The Red Skull had used a machine to unstick Rogers in time, but Carter damaged the machine and Captain America was lost in time. While various events play out, Cap is transferred to various points in his life. Cap manages to leave a message for Vision who in present day remembers and tells Mister Fantastic who figures out he is lost in time and deduces that Carter is part of the key to bringing him back. While the Red Skull had hoped to use Rogers body, Cap is able to regain control of his body and returns.
Similarly both heroes decide to let their former proteges continue on as the Batman and Captain America while both would go on to lead larger world wide organizations. Steve Rogers took over SHEILD and Bruce Wayne started Batman Inc.
SUPERMAN, The JLA, LOS and Their Marvel Counterparts
Superman who many consider to be the first superhero has often been imitated in one way or another by comic companies. DC themselves own one of these in Captain Marvel of Fawcett Comics. Marvel over the years has had their share of Superman counterparts. Two of the most obvious are Gladiator and Hyperion. But replicating Superman wasn't enough the used homages to some of his close associates as well.
Superman as many are aware is DC's flagship character. He is the last of his species sent away in the dying moments of Krypton to Earth. Where under the yellow son his Kryptonian DNA allows him the powers of Super-strength, Super-speed, Flight, near invulnerability, heat vision, freeze breath, as well as a host of other small abilities.
In Hyperion's case he was part of the Squadron Sinister and later Squadron Supreme. One version of Hyperion in the comics has a degree in journalism and goes by the alias Mr. Kant. In every case of Hyperion due to his alien DNA he posses superhuman strength, speed, and durability. He also posses the ability of flight, flight, and various vision powers. Hyperion even has a weakness when exposed to argonite radiation his powers diminish.
Gladiator is known as Kallark (a mixture of Superman's real name Kal-el and his alter ego Clark Kent). Gladiator is a member of the Imperial guard of the Shi'ar. Gladiator like Superman has Superhuman strength, speed, and durability. He can also fly, have frost breathe and heat vision. And similar to Superman he has a weakness to a rare form of radiation.
Both Hyperion and Gladiator belonged to groups that had similar members to Superman's Legion of Superheroes and Justice League team members.
The Squadron Supreme:
Doctor Spectrum due to his possession of an alien gem called the Power Prism he had powers similar to the Green Lantern, he could project energy and manipulate into various shapes and forms
Nighthawk is a counterpart to Batman. He has Olympic level strength and conditioning. As well as superior reflexes and agility.
Power Princess is the Squadron's very own Wonder Woman. She comes from a warrior race of women from the small island of Utopia. She has superhuman strength, the ability to fly, durability and is a thinly disguised version of Wonder Woman as she even physically resembles her some.
The Whizzer is similar to the Flash. He poses Superspeed.
The Squadron has other counterparts such as Blue Eagle-Hawkman, Golden Archer-Green Arrow, Amphipian-Aquaman, Lady Lark-Black Canary, Nuke-Captain Atom, Tom Thumb-the Atom.
While the Imperial guard is too numerous for me to post here they have many members that were homages to the original Legion of Superheroes. Mentor-Braniac 5, Earthquak-Blok, Fang-Timber Wolf, Nightside-Shadow Lass, Hobgoblin-Chameloen Boy, Oracle-Saturn Girl, Smasher-Ultra Boy, Manta-Lightning Lass, Scintilla-Shrinking Violet, Electron-Cosmic Boy, Titan-Colossal Boy, Astra -Phantom Girl, and Pulsa-Wildfire.
One of the more popular discussed similarities is those of the mercenaries Deadpool and Deathstroke. Not only are their names similar, but Deadpool's real name is Wade Wilson and Deathstroke's is Slade Wilson. Both have spent a significant part of their early years as an antagonist for teen superhero teams. Deathstroke with the Teen Titans. And Deadpool targeted the New Mutants. Both have healing factors and both are expert assassins. They have similar outfits though not entirely the same nor the same color scheme. Deadpool was obviously originally started as a parody of Deathstroke but over the years managed to take on a life of his own.
Deathstroke= Methodical mercenary who has a strict code of honor.
Deadpool= Completely nuts mercenary who is definitely not honorable.
One of the earliest examples of borrowed ideas seems to be the mythology that went behind the two characters Aquaman and Namor. Both of them are the king of the seas in their respective worlds. Both are prime examples of the stereotypical alpha male.
Namor was created about two years prior to Aquaman. Way back in 1939. Aquaman wouldn't see his debut to November of 1941. Both of them are said to be Atlantians that do not look like their fellow Atlantians. One of the main difference between the two though is that while Namor spent time as a villain, Aquaman has been a hero his entire career (ignoring the whole Blackest Night thing). Aquaman and Namor have a few differences in powers sets, such as Aquaman can talk to sea life and Namor just eats them. Aquaman also cannot fly like Namor can.
Namor and Aquaman will continue to draw comparision to each other. The similarities are almost uncanny between the two sea dwellers, but we do not know for sure if Paul Norris and Mort Weinstein actually based the character on his marvel counterpart or not.
Though Galactus did make an appearance once in DC in a crossover with Marvel, DC found the need to have their very own Galactus in the comics. Prior to the creation of Imperiex, DC saw Galactus and his herald come to the planet Apokolips and take on resident baddie Darkseid. The story in DC writers opened up many possibilities for them. But Galactus could not be used again because he was a Marvel comic character. So DC made an almost carbon copy of the big guy. Imperiex much like Galactus posses cosmic powers, his coming from the big bang itself and Galactus's coming from the power cosmic.
While Galactus was the devourer of worlds, DC felt the need to one up him and make Imperiex the destroyer of galaxies. Galactus is a mainstay villain in the Marvel comics, Imperiex does not seem like he will be used often if even again.
Darkseid made his first appearance in 1970, Thanos would not appear till 1973. Darkseid was one of legendary comic creators Jack Kirby's creations. He was originally set to be just a part of the New Gods. Jim Starlin has said in the past that Thanos was created as a homage of sorts to Kirby's work.
Ironically enough the character development with the two would see both obsessing over more or less death. Thanos outright admits it, while Darkseid's obsession is hidden as the Anti-Life Equation.
Thanos and Darkseid would both go on to play important roles in their respective universes. Often times effecting things on a cosmic level.
Blackest Night was a Green Lantern crossover even in DC comics. It sure the embodiment of death Nekron return to attempt to silence the entire universes and bring them all to the sweet sweet sleep called death. As part of his plan he enlisted the aid of several deceased heroes and villains who would return from the grave as part of his Black Lantern Corps. They were more or less evil monstrous versions of their prior selves. One could argue that Blackest Night almost borrowed ideas from the Marvel Zombies though with a better story telling.
While the Blackest Night event was going, in the X-Men comics Selene the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club used a virus known as the Technarch Transmode virus to resurrect several deceased mutants. Like the Black Lanterns they returned with more sinister personalities.
The argument can be made about when Craig Kyle came up with the idea for Necrosha. Geoff Johns had laid the ground work for his storyline several years in advance, even showing hints of it following the Sinestro Corps Wars. Many still call the Necrosha event Blackest Night: X-Men.
The Eternals and the New Gods one of the few examples of where the copy was actually created by the creator of the original. Back when Jack Kirby had left Marvel after a dispute. While with DC Kirby created the New Gods as part of his Fourth World. The New Gods were actually a race of beings that used technology to create the impression that they were in fact gods and were the inspiration for many of the stories of gods.
When Kirby finally returned to Marvel, he was upset that he never got to complete his story of the New Gods. His story was meant to have a definite end and Kirby was a little upset that his series had been canceled before he could tell that story. Kirby then decided to create a similar concept for Marvel called the Eternals who much like the New Gods were a race of beings that used technology to create the illusion of being actual gods.
Much like the Fourth World characters they were never meant to actually interact with the mainstream universe. Unfortunately like the New Gods they too were canceled before Kirby had the opportunity to complete his story.
Lord Havok and the extremists and their marvel villains counterparts.
In 1990 DC created a team of super villains known as the Extremists. They were created with the intention of resembling various Marvel villains. They even went so far in their creation of the character to have them come from another alternate universe thus implying that they may in fact be alternate versions of their Marvel counterparts.
The characters and they were suppose to be were as follows:
Lord Havok = Dr. Doom
Dreamslayer = Dormammu
Doctor Diehard = Magneto (even runs a school with his Zen Men a reference to Charles Xavier and his X-Men)
Tracer = Sabretooth (an Earth-8 version however has many similarities to Wolverine)
Gorgon = Doctor Octopus
The Next one is a bit controversial, as it would appear that the original would never sustain near the popularity of the original one. Debuting in June 1963, the Doom Patrol was a super powered team of misfits whose “gifts” caused them much alienation and personal trauma. The world at large called them freaks and didn't accept them. But the Doom Patrol wouldn't let that get to them and they would choose to protect the world anyways. Leading them was a wheelchair bound character called Doctor Niles Caulder. Doctor Caulder would use his mental abilities as a master manipulator to aid the team.
I am sure at this point many of you are noticing the similarities in the back story to the popular X-Men. The X-men would go on to debut the same year only in September. The basic back story for these characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would be that a wheelchair bound professor created a school for gifted youngsters to protect them from the increasingly hostile world that hated them for being different. There they would be sworn to protect a world that hated them.
Rather the idea was borrowed from the Doom Patrol or not is sort of iffy. The two debuted so close to each other that it begs to wonder if Lee and Kirby would have had time to actually copy the idea from DC. It may have just been a strange similarity but one that no one is ascertain about.
Swamp Thing/ Man-Thing
Much like the Doom Patrol and X-men, the creation of two similar characters in Swamp Thing and Man-thing. The two would debut within months of each other. Man-Thing would debut in May of 1971 and Swamp Thing in July of the same year. Besides the similarities in their names, there appearance is strikingly similar. Both were scientists who accidentally transformed themselves into the living plant like creatures.
The problem lies in the fact that it takes roughly three months to create a comic book. The idea that DC would copy Marvel's idea in just two months without even knowing if the comic was going to be a success is at best laughable.
This is most likely one of the many strange coincidences of similar characters debuting at the same time.
Green Lantern Corps/Nova Corps
While very different, the comparisons between the Nova Corps and the long established Green Lantern Corps can be seen as striking. Often times this comparison seems to come by who is writing the character Nova at the time.
Vision and the Red Tornado
Another example of just a mere two months separating the debuts of these characters. They both however had very similar aspects. In August of '68 the Red Tornado would make his debut, a mere two months later the Vision appeared in the Avengers.
The similarities in their debuts are outstanding though. Both would appear on their debut cover a large looming red figures. Both were androids created by supervilliains. Red Tornado by T.O. Morrow and vision by Ultron. Both were on a mission to destroy a superhero team. Vision was set on ending the Avengers, while the Red Tornado had his sights set on the Justice Society of America. Both had taken their names from obscure Golden Age superheroes. At the end of the comic both would betray their creators and go on to join the team they were sent to destroy. Both also had red skin.
Following their debuts they would go on to have even more similarities. Both would fall in love with human women. Kathy Sutton for the Red Tornado and the Scarlet Witch for Vision. Both would have separate entities hidden within them. The Vision had imprinted brain patterns of Wonder Man. While Red Tornado had an entity called the Tornado Champion hidden within him.
Were they somehow stolen ideas or another example of just mere coincidence?
The Watcher / Metron
These two characters would have very different back stories, but eventually would play similar roles in their respective universes.
Debuting in 1963, Uatu the Watcher was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The Watcher is a member of a species that are committed to observing and compiling knowledge on all aspects of the universe. They have a policy of total non-interference with what they observe.
Metron meanwhile was also a creation of Jack Kirby as a part of his Fourth World making his debut in 1971. Although he posses powers of a god, Metron prefers to be a passive observer. Sitting upon his Mobius Chair he can traverse both time and space. Much like the Watcher, Metron is the seeker of knowledge and will not share what he has learned with others.
The two are very different characters but in ways share the same responsibilities of their universe.
Superhuman registration acts
Many have been led to believe that this is a recent thing that was done in Marvel Comics during the entire Civil War storyline. This is in fact not something new to comics. The plot was used in the X-men during the 80's where the government tried to have all mutants register their powers.
This was also a plot point in the Watchmen which had caused almost all of the vigilantes to retire.
However the plot is actually older then that. The idea started with the JSA in the 70's. In the story, the government had found out their secret identities and was trying to get them to work for them. The JSA would go on to refuse. In retaliation the government exploited them. DC had also used this in the comics in the 50's as well. During this time the government required superheroes to hand over their identities.
Portions of the Civil War storyline also seems to borrow from DC”s Kingdom Come. In this story the superhero community are divided up into three separate groups. One led by Superman, another by Batman, and a third the younger more violent age of heroes. During the storyline those that opposed Superman's morally righteous group were rounded up and placed in a superhero containment prison.
The comic community will continue to borrow and “steal” ideas from each other. Its something that is just never going to change. Both companies are guilty of rehashing old storylines from both their own vaults and those of their opposing company. Characters will continue to strike similarities to others. In most cases this is just something that can't be avoided due to the limited number of power sets their could be. Eventually somebody will have to have a similar power. All you need to do though is focus on the differences and enjoy the character for those rather then focus on the similarities.