You would think that every pop culture creation would come about one of two ways: as the result either of sudden inspiration from a creative genius, or of a laborious corporate process involving dozens of designs and focus groups. But in reality, famous creators have ideas the same way the rest of us do: via random thoughts, laziness, or last-minute desperation. For example …
#6. G.I. Joe‘s Snake Eyes Was Created To Save Paint
Snake Eyes, the silent ninja commando from the G.I. Joe series, has been a fan favorite ever since his debut, because children love characters who wear cool helmets and never say anything. And hell, look at him!
Eat your parentless heart out, Batman.
But Snake Eyes’ popularity is made all the more remarkable by the fact he only exists because a toy company was too cheap and lazy to paint a damn action figure.
And somewhere, a young Quentin Tarantino gets the idea for The Gimp …
G.I. Joe started as a comic, but it wasn’t long before toy company Hasbro’s profit senses started tingling, and they began to belch out action figures in a stream of screaming plastic vomit. But soon, the toys would come first, then were inserted into the comic as characters — they were simply a bunch of generic soldier designs painted different colors and hastily given names and backstories, because children don’t give a shit.
The most impressive thing about Hasbro’s G.I. Joe line was their dedication to maximizing their profit margins, and nowhere is this more evident than the design for Snake Eyes. To save money, they didn’t even paint the toy. It was churned out entirely in the same shade of black as the plastic that came out of the vat. Their explanation? Oh, he’s a ninja or something.
Because all ninjas carry MAC-11s and wear mini-satchels.
Amazingly, in spite of the fact his creation took less effort and imagination than putting a cape on a potato, Snake Eyes went on to become one of the most beloved characters in the Joe franchise. “He’s so dark and mysterious!” Sure, kids. Oh, and look, here’s his “invisible motorcycle”! Vroom!
#5. Batman’s Harley Quinn Was Created For A Throwaway Joke That Was Never Used
Most fans know that Harley Quinn, one of the most popular characters in the Batman universe, did not originate in the comics. Her first appearance was in Batman: The Animated Series, in one of the rare examples of an adaptation that donates a character to the source material, sort of like how Norman Reedus was created for The Walking Dead TV show and gradually began to appear in other movies.
But in case you think that Harley Quinn was brought about by some stroke of creative genius, think again. Her creators never had anything significant in mind for her. She was made solely because the show’s writers needed the Joker to have a female henchman in order to make one gag in a single episode make sense. And then they didn’t even wind up using the joke.
Or her original design, thankfully.
Quinn’s first appearance in the series came in the 1992 episode “Joker’s Favor.” The idea was that the Joker would make an attempt on Commissioner Gordon’s life at his birthday party by having a girl with a gun jump out of a giant cake, effectively ruining the Commissioner’s big day. Harley Quinn was created to be the person in the cake. You may recognize this as the same role Erika Eleniak played in Under Siege.
’92 was a big year for faux-pastry eroticism.
But while the episode was already in production, the writers decided that it would be funnier to have the Joker himself pop out of the cake rather than some ditzy dame, so they changed the script to make that happen. Rather than go to the trouble of removing Harley Quinn completely, since they’d already written her into the script and everything, they diminished her role to that of a background member of Joker’s gang, fully intending to never use the character again.
To everyone’s surprise, viewers loved Harley Quinn, so the writers brought her back for future episodes, and her popularity grew to the point that DC comics made her part of the official Batman canon. Granted, the official Batman canon also includes Batman turning into a weretiger and the Joker becoming an Iranian diplomat, but still.
#4. Shredder From Ninja Turtles Was Inspired By A Cheese Grater
The Shredder, the eternal nemesis of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is a scowling Japanese man dressed in spiked metal armor like Road Warrior Hawk and/or Animal. As best we can tell, he never takes this armor off, even when he’s just hanging around the Technodrome in between battles. When you think about it, there’s nothing about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that doesn’t sound like it was inspired by a late night of pizza and beer. Every aspect of the original comic created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird can be boiled down to a conversation that begins with “Hey man, wouldn’t it be funny if …”
Lots of beer.
The Shredder is no exception. According to Eastman, the inspiration for the character came to him one night when he was washing the dishes. There’s no word on how astronomically high he probably was at the time, but while washing one of those flat cheese graters with a handle, he gripped it like a wrist guard and remarked to Laird about how cool it would be for a character to wear them as part of a costume.
Considering how much pizza cheese that suit could generate, it’s a better design for an ally of the turtles.
“We could call him the Grater,” Eastman suggested. Luckily, Laird was either less stoned or generally more level-headed, and came up with “the Shredder” instead, which sounds more like a villainous ninja and less like an irritating shift supervisor. The two then went ahead and wrote a villain into their comic who wore cheese graters all over his body, and a pop culture legend / impossible-to-find action figure was born.
#3. Pac Man’s Inspiration Came From A Pizza
Back when video games were first invented, brainstorming meetings resembled an insane game of Mescaline Libs — which is like Mad Libs, only played with 100 percent more mescaline. “A plumber who gains strength from mushrooms and dodges barrels thrown at him by a gorilla at a construction site? Sure, why not? Kids’ll buy any goddamn thing we tell them to.” Any random object that a programmer saw in their day-to-day life could become the central component of a video game pitch, and Pac Man started in that exact way.
Back in the ’80s, Namco employee Toru Iwatani sat down to eat a delicious pizza. Upon removing the first slice, Iwatani remarked on how much the rest of the pizza now looked like a face with an open mouth. Anyone else would brush off this casual thought with the realization that sometimes stuff kind of looks like other stuff, but Iwatani’s mind started racing about the potential for a video game in which a pizza runs around a maze eating dots (see “mescaline,” above).
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that all life’s problems can’t be solved with pizza.
Quickly, this spark of inspiration ran through the usual hamster wheel of increasing absurdity until it became the story of a sentient pizza man eating his way through a maze while being pursued by vengeful ghosts. Iwatani pitched the idea as “Pakkuman” — “Pakku” being the Japanese onomatopoeia sound for eating. When the game was brought to the west, it became “Puck Man” (because “Chomp Man” would’ve sounded ridiculous and we are a nation of sober adults) and eventually “Pac Man.” And so, one of the most iconic characters in video game history was born — insofar as Pac Man can be called a “character.”
#2. Teen Titans‘ Wonder Girl Came About Because The Writer Never Bothered To Read Wonder Woman
Back in the 1960s, DC writer Bob Haney noticed that basically every major superhero on the company’s roster had a teenage sidekick, and thought it would be interesting to have them all team up. The idea became Teen Titans, and it initially starred Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad, who somehow had neither drowned nor been swallowed by a whale at this point. However, Haney eventually decided to rope in the rest of the Justice League’s abandoned plus-ones, including Wonder Woman’s lesser-known sidekick Wonder Girl.
It’s in Robin’s contract that he always gets to be the most scantily-dressed team member.
But Haney apparently didn’t actually read the comics that featured Wonder Girl. Otherwise, he would have realized that she wasn’t a sidekick at all. Wonder Girl was Wonder Woman back when she was a teenager. This would be like drafting a team of Back To The Future characters and treating old Marty and young Marty as two separate people. See, in the ’50s, DC put Wonder Woman in a bunch of bizarre paradoxical time-travel adventures in which she teamed up with two younger versions of herself (one as a teenager and one as a baby) and her mother, and they fought dragons and swordfish, because these are comic books and not gold-leafed tomes of literature.
Remember what we said about the early video game industry? Double that for Silver Age comics.
Haney evidently only glanced the covers of these issues, because he couldn’t be expected to read a comic about a bunch of women. Consequently, he wrote Wonder Girl into the Teen Titans as a completely separate character. Infant Wonder Woman (named Wonder Tot, because comic books excel at being comic books) missed out on a Teen Titans membership card for some reason.
Well, maybe if Wonder Tot had stuck the goddamn landing …
However, fans of Wonder Woman quickly pointed out this bizarre blunder, and DC was forced to hastily retcon Wonder Girl’s backstory. It turns out that this Wonder Girl is a different person after all — a girl named Donna Troy who developed Amazonian powers and decided to take on the mantle. Because in comics, there’s no corner out of which you cannot write yourself.
#1. Where The Wild Things Are Was Created Because The Author Had Trouble Drawing Horses
Ordinarily, if you pitch a children’s book about a little boy getting stranded on an island filled with gigantic, grotesque monsters, international law requires you to phone Roald Dahl and ask for his permission first. Also, your mind’s eye will probably conjure up an image that is more H.P. Lovecraft than Richard Scarry. Author Maurice Sendak turned this concept into the beloved children’s book Where The Wild Things Are — which, incidentally, is full of illustrations that look like H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Scarry got into a fierce doodling war on the same cocktail napkin.
But in Sendak’s original vision for the book, the titular “wild things” weren’t monsters at all; they were horses. He originally pitched the idea to his editor as Where The Wild Horses Are, and was given the green light to write and illustrate it. Unfortunately, several months into the project, it became increasingly obvious that Sendak couldn’t draw a fucking horse if it were the ransom of the Universe.
Eventually, his editor stopped tearing her hair out and asked “Maurice, what can you draw?” The answer was, obviously, horrific inhuman monstrosities. They decided that was going to have to do, considering the amount of money they had already pumped into the project, and Sendak was given the go-ahead to draw whatever the hell popped into his mind, changing the title to Where The Wild Things Are, because “things” could be anything.
Including repressed family trauma.
The idea of trying to endear a platoon of nightmare creatures to children could have been a disaster, but it became one of the most enduring classics of children’s literature, and one of the most successful last-minute audibles in history.