This is hardly confined to one media, but for now I’ll limit my ranting to comic books. Comic books generally exhibit the following kinds of knock-offs:
1) Cross-comic book universe
2) Intra-comic book universe
3) Real world
I think knock-offs are, in general, for lazy writers and/or fan-boy/girl writers, and cause stagnation in comic books. My recommended remedy is a set of hundred-side dice and a copy of the ultimate Marvel Superheroes RPG. The reason knock-offs tend to occur, regardless of the source, is because writers (or perhaps editors) want to capitalize on the success of a trend or comic book character without either paying royalties or getting into a nasty lawsuit over copyright issues. Or it could be, I suppose, a writer likes a character a lot but really really wants to put their own spin on him/her.
1) Marvel and DC have a long history of stealing each others’ characters and introducing them with a different name and slightly different costume. One would almost think it’s part of a character re-location program. Superman has been ripped off a lot by Marvel, with two famous versions being Gladiator of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard and Sentry. Lobo is an even more psychotic rip-off of Wolverine, minus the claws (I invite you to take a moment to process what “more psychotic than Wolverine” actually means). The beloved merc with a mouth, Deadpool, is so blatantly ripped off from Deathstroke the Terminator I’m surprised Marvel didn’t get sued. Deathstroke’s real name is Wilson Slade, and Deadpool is Wade Wilson. Heck, their costumes are even nearly identical! There is a panel of a cross-over comic (which I wish I knew the title and issue number of) featuring Deadpool meeting Deathstroke. Pete Wisdom is John Constantine down to the bloody accent. The Squadron Supreme is pretty much nothing but the JLA with different names and costumes. Actually, the list goes on and on of hero teams that strongly resemble the JLA or the Avengers. It’s sort of depressing writers can’t try to be a little more creative. But at least they’re looking outside for inspiration. When they don’t…
2) Here’s where the knock-offs start to get to me. It starts when every new character seems to have the same powers. Captain Marvel is pretty much Superman without the annoying weakness to kryponite. The Elongated Man is a less powerful but more sane version of Plastic Man. Martian Manhunter is Superman with extra powers and a different weakness. Or the alternatives are alternatives. That is, relatives who have the same powers as a well-known figure (Krypton sure has a lot of survivors that landed on Earth) or an alternate/parallel universe version of a character who somehow ends up in the mainstream universe (or heck, why not both? Powergirl is an alternate universe version of Supergirl, who is Superman’s cousin). While Kryptonian cousins may be the most egregious example (seriously, how many survivors are there that somehow made it to Earth), Marvel is not immune to this and their favorite mutant of all is the poster boy. Wolverine’s rival, Sabretooth, has the healing factor but I let that pass since Wolverine needs a rival. And if you want a rival with claws, there’s Lady Deathstrike. But that’s just not enough Wolverine. What if Wolverine had a son? Well, it’s likely he did although oddly the comics really don’t go into that considering he’s been bedding totally hot women for over a hundred years. So now we have Daken, son of Wolverine with a dark back story. But wait, what if Wolverine was a girl? So now we have X-23, a genetically engineered clone of Wolverine with pretty much the same messed up backstory as Wolverine. I happen to know right now in the X-titles there are exactly three solo books up for subscription. In a stunning non-coincidence, the stars are Wolverine, Daken, and X-23. If I was Tyrant–in–Chief at Marvel and some writer said to me, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a Wolverine-type character,” I’d fire that writer before they finished the sentence.
3) Then we get knock-offs from real life. In my experience, this doesn’t tend to happen with actual people (Samuel L. Jackson, so I am informed, gave his blessing for Ultimate Nick Fury to look just like him) but it does happen with trends, and it’s not new. If you saw the origins of Power Man, Iron Fist, Dazzler, and Ghost Rider, you would know exactly which pop-culture trend spawned them. Dazzler is a special example because writers tried to update her from a 70s disco-dancing queen, not by any real character growth, but by trying to fit her into the newest trend of the 80s MTV pop star. I may have mentioned the fate of one Elisabeth Braddock. She started out a mutant telepathic model turned spy turned X-man. But in the 1980s, ninjas were the hottest trend (my evidence – how many “Karate Kid” movies came out in the 80s? There you go). The writers, so it seemed to me, wanted a ninja on the team. And by the deus ex machina, they got a ninja on the team. And look – instant ninja plot hook that started to involve the Hand and a lot of people in Japan Wolverine got to beat up. In the 80s, Storm went all-out Mr. T. Why? Because that was cool! Lately the hottest trend is angsty teenage vampires (don’t ask me why; I’ve made my feelings about that pretty clear [See also “Defanged”]) so the X-writers took Jubilee (although goodness knows the X-teams have both angst and teenagers in spades) and made her a vampire. They also made her a vampire in a very stupid way which makes no sense even in the context of the world (she was splashed with vampire blood; she didn’t drink it; it didn’t get into a cut or something; she was just splashed with it…). And look – instant vampire plot hook! Sometimes characters move beyond the trends that created them (or re-booted them) and sometimes not so much.
I do understand that just trying to make a character with a different set of powers for the sake of different powers doesn’t usually turn out very well. Exhibit A – The Legion of Superheroes. For whatever reason, they wouldn’t take people with duplicate powers, so the Legion ended up with kids like Bouncing Boy (with the power to shape himself like a ball and bounce) and Matter-Eater Lad (whose power is exactly what you think it is). Exhibit B – Some of the new mutants like Skin, Beak, or that kid who can make his skin transparent; they all have really lousy powers. There’s pretty much nothing useful or redeemable about saggy, stretchy skin or all of the draw-backs of having bird like powers with none of the bonuses (can Beak even fly?) or being able to directly sunburn your organs. While I applaud the writers’ efforts in trying to think up new powers, the hard truth is that comics are action oriented and action requires characters with combat-useful powers. There is room for less combat-useful powers, but those are harder to write and still must be useful (look how much trouble writers had with Doug Ramsey, whose power of understanding languages is enormously useful but doesn’t stop him from getting stomped on by a Sentinel [which of course was remedied in a stupid way by making him overpowered first as Douglock and then with “omnilingulism” which allows him to re-write reality]). The best that usually happens with a bunch of people without combat-useful powers is a cult fanbase and mediocre success (I’m looking at you, Great Lakes Avengers) and the worst is the character(s) constantly being victimized and rescued by people with actual useful powers (I.e. the Morlocks). It does leave the writer in kind of a Catch-22, but I think there is a middle ground between a knock-off of the same old character and someone with a unique power that is in no way suited to being a superhero.
As I said, my solution is the old Marvel RPG character creation. There’s a table o’ random powers that’s fairly comprehensive. Yes, when rolling randomly it is likely to get a mutant with two powers that don’t really go together, like telepathy and body armor…correction, really shouldn’t go together, or powers that aren’t really useful in a combat situation, like digestive adaptation…correction, really shouldn’t be useful in a combat situation. Anyway, my point is this – stagnation is bad and resorting to knock-offs doesn’t move the universe forward. Also, trends get stale and the characters may not be salvagable. I don’t care how much the writers love Superman or Wolverine. There’s room in the universes for a lot of powers that have nothing to do with refugees from a doomed world or a healing factor and claws.