There's only one Mjolnir, hammer of Thor — but there are two Thor movies coming next weekend, one in theaters and one on Syfy. In fact, you could make your own Thor movie in your back yard if you wanted.
That's because mighty Thor belongs to the most powerful superhero team of them all — the league of public domain superheroes. There are tons and tons of characters that the major comic book publishers have featured, who happen to be in the public domain. Including figures from mythology, characters from literature, and cases where the publisher just forgot to file the paperwork.
Here's our complete list of superheroes (and some supervillains) who belong to you.
Thor and the Norse Gods are just the tip of the divine iceberg. Comic books are full of gods roaming around smiting people — and none of them were created by Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. There are whole pantheons of divine beings who you could put in your movie or comic book, and nobody could lawyer up about it. Including:
The Greek Pantheon.
For one thing, there's Hercules, who turns up a lot. And at one point recently, Zeus was playing a starring role in DC's Wonder Woman comic and Marvel's Incredible Hercules comic. In one, he was putting Achilles in charge of the Amazons, in the other he was being turned into a bratty but cute kid. But besides Zeus and Hercules, tons of other Greek gods and demigods have turned up in Marvel and DC comics over the years. Ares is a Wonder Woman villain and a sometime member of the Mighty Avengers. (Because he's a Hulk and a Thor.)
The Hindu Gods
Also put in an appearance in Thor #300. And Rama shows up in Wonder Woman. There are also numerous comic-book versions of Hindu deities, including books that claim the Hindu gods as the original superheroes.
The Ancient Egyptian Pantheon
While DC mostly uses Ancient Egypt as a source of magical amulets and transformative jewels, the occasional god shows up as a secondary character. And Nabu, the god who empowers Doctor Fate, is based on a real Assyrian and Babylonian god of wisdom and writing. Marvel plays it a bit straighter with their Heliopolitans (which is such a Greek word – you'd think the Egyptians would be pissed).
A Slavic god who, in the Marvel world, can have humans who are avatars of his power. He wears a red cape and metal helmet. Also is a god of Thunder. Sort of a less-well-known counterpart of Thor.
There are enough demons in comics who are borrowed from real belief systems that you're probably better off picking your favorite demon and Googling his or her name. Some of the highlights? Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Gibborim, and Set all have pre-comic book incarnations. Also, Lucifer appears in every major comic book universe, although only Vertigo gave him his own title.
Folk Tales and Legends
Let's just leave aside DC/Vertigo's Fables, or we'd be listing every single fairytale or folkloric character ever committed to paper. Plus we're talking about superheroes here. But even leaving Fables and other straight-up fantasy titles aside, there are a lot of characters from folklore who have appeared in superhero stories. Check them out:
Straight up retellings of Robin and his Merry Men's exploits litter the comics landscape. And of course he's the inspiration for DC's Green Arrow. But also, did you know DC had a Robin Hood/Wonder Woman crossover?
DC started publishing comic versions of the Arthurian legends before they were publishing Superman. But Artie's done the superhero crossover as well. He appears in Swamp Thing, and in World's Finest Comics, vol. 1 #162, he knights Batman and Superman.
Technically, Blackbeard is a historical figure. But the tales are tall, and he's become as legendary as the other folks on this list. Dynamite Comics has given him his own series, which is a straight up pirate-y adventure. But the world's most infamous pirate gets to play the supervillain opposite such luminaries as Batman (several times), Superman, and Spider-Man.
The DC character John Henry Irons (aka Steel) didn't actuallyrace a steam powered hammer at the Big Bend Tunnel. But he is named after the folk hero and does have a hammer. Which just goes to show that a little bit modern day reimagining,and a super-powered suit, can turn any public domain character into a superhero.
Koschei the Deathless and Baba Yaga
Koschei keeps his soul in an egg (in a duck in a box buried under a tree on an island, etc.) and is a bad guy in everything from folk tales to Stravinsky operas. Baba Yaga is a terrifying witch with razor-sharp teeth who lives in a house on chicken legs. Koschei and Baba Yaga both turn up as villains in Hellboy: Darkness Calls and Atomika, among other places.
These characters are brilliant scientists, explorers, swordsmen, detectives, and blood drinkers. And they're all public domain. They've even had their own superhero team already, in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Even Jules Verne couldn't quite figure out who this mysterious pirate was, giving him two different backstories — so feel free to make Nemo whoever you want. Comics publishers have put out various adaptations of the Verne story, but he's also popped up in Disney comics, EC Comics, Dell Comics, and Caliber Comics over the years. There's also Jason DeAngelis's steampunk manga sequel to the books.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
So the doc doesn't get much comics love, but the Stan Lee created Calvin Zabo, who loves Robert Louis Stevenson's short story so much that he becomes Mr. Hyde. New backstory — but same evil frothing-at-the-mouth hulking bad guy. And Mr. Hyde fought the Incredible Hulk!
Bram Stoker's transformation of the ghoulish vampyres of Eastern European folklore into shape-changing castle dwellers was possibly the greatest boon to all fantasy writers everywhere. Where has the Count showed off his fangs? He's fought Batman, Blade and Buffy — and that's just the B's. He's also been spotted sparring with the X-Men, Colossus, King Arthur and Superman.
Mary Shelley's monster man is a comic book legend. In Marvel Comics, he's a member of Nick Fury's Howling Commandos. In DC, he's appeared alongside both Batman and Superman, and been a member of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers. He's been controlled by Dracula, been a block-op in Wetworks and, believe it or not, his severed head hangs out in Fables.
Arthur Conan Doyle's secondary characters appear often in League of Extraordinary Gentleman, but the great detective himself has shown up in the DC universe where he helps that other great detective, Batman, solve at least one tricky case.
John Carter and Tarzan
So here's the deal: neither Carter of Mars and the King of the Jungle is strictly in the public domain. And each has appeared in comics based on their original stories. Their names have been trademarked by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. (not kidding). But many of the original books themselves are in the public domain. So you can't call your leader of the apes Tarzan, but you can certainly retell his story, word for word, otherwise. (Also, you'll need to change the names of Deja Thoris, Barsoom, and possibly the state of Virginia.)
Superheroes Whose Copyrights Have Lapsed
And finally, there are the characters who were created as original comic-book characters — but due to the complexities of copyright law, they've slipped through the cracks, and right into the public domain. Wikipedia lists some 36 American comic publishers that are out of business. While some of these publishers were purchased by other companies, some merely disappeared to leave their characters for the other enterprising writers.
And other writers have used these characters! Not only do some show up in the Marvel and DC universes, some also appear in comics like Project: Superpowers by Alex Ross or the webcomic Heroes Inc. by Scott Austin.
Here are some characters who are free for you to start using:
The Phantom Lady
Current versions of this character are owned by DC. But the original version, Senator Henry Knight's debutante daughter who fights crime in a yellow jumper and green cape, is fair game.
The Fighting Yank
Yes, he's kind of a Captain America rip-off. But he gets his magical abilities from a Revolutionary era magical cloak. And sometimes he wears a tricorne hat!
He's been a pharmacist, a vigilante and an FBI agent. But mostly he's a guy who terrifies evildoers.
She's like the female Batman: a wealthy socialite who decides to get a mask and a cape and fight crime. The Masque, however, uses guns and has a nifty red mini-dress.
He's not really based on who you think. Really. While Pyroman can set fires, he's actually a research assistant who has, after years of grueling experiments with electricity, begun to store an electric charge in his body. And when he releases that charge , the bad guys are in for a shock. (Sorry.)
No, not that one. This Daredevil's vision is just fine. As are his boomerang throwing skills. And he's battled Hitler!
This guy is considered the first American comic book archer. Considering archery's importance in fantastical stories from Philoctetes to William Tell, comic books would have to go there. And they would, but The Arrow got there first.
The Green Lama
This hooded character was designed to compete against The Shadow. But the Green Lama is a practicing Buddhist, who returned to the US to spread the good word of Tibetan Buddhism. Then decides to fight crime instead.
After building a machine that uses gamma rays to give him super strength, the power to fly and to hurl lightning bolts from his hand, Captain Future battles crime with his gutsy girlfriend sidekick, who is an actual detective, instead of some reporter.
Additional reporting by Alasdair Wilkins.