Batman, Spider-Man Face a Growing Crowd in Comics, Graphic Novels

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, we take a break from the news of the real world for a look at the world of comic books.


Comics use drawings and words to tell stories that can be funny or serious, or a little of both. Comic books grew out of comic strips in newspapers.

One of the most successful early comic characters in America was Mickey Dugan, better known as "the Yellow Kid." He wore a yellow coat that was too big for him.

He was a character in a comic strip in New York called "Hogan's Alley" by Richard Felton Outcault. It provided social commentary on the problems of cities.

The Yellow Kid first appeared in eighteen ninety-five.  The character became so popular that it was also used to sell products and to create stage shows. Over the years, many movies and TV shows have been based on stories and characters that first appeared in comic form.

Adventure stories in comic books were extremely popular during the nineteen thirties -- the period known as the Golden Age of Comics.

Famous characters created during that time include the science fiction hero Flash Gordon and the detective Dick Tracy. Others from the golden age are the medieval adventurer Prince Valiant and the mysterious, masked Phantom.

The nineteen thirties also gave us a superhero who came to Earth from the planet Krypton.


Superman is the secret identity of Clark Kent, a newspaper reporter for the Daily Planet in the big city of Metropolis.

Superman became a hero of comic fans as he used his strength, X-ray eyes and ability to fly to fight for "truth, justice and the American way." Not bad for someone who jumped from the imaginations of two teenage boys in Cleveland, Ohio.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were seventeen when they created Superman in nineteen thirty-three. They sold the rights to the character to the DC Comics company for one hundred thirty dollars.

That might have seemed like a lot to them at the time. But it was nothing compared to all the money made since then from Superman comics, radio and TV shows, movies and toys.

Finally, in nineteen seventy-five, they threatened a legal fight to get more of a reward for their creation. DC Comics agreed to pay each of them twenty thousand dollars a year for life. And it agreed to identify Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as the creators of Superman in all future printed materials and films.


In nineteen thirty-nine, six years after Superman, another hero arrived. Batman was the creation of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger.


These days, Batman is presented as a complex character with a dark side. But a lot of people remember him as a simple hero. He dresses in a bat suit to hide his identity as he fights evil-doers like the Joker and the Riddler in Gotham City.

Batman does not have superpowers. But he does have lots of money to support himself. Batman is the secret identity of Bruce Wayne. He saw his wealthy parents killed during a robbery. That experience led him to a life of fighting crime.

Spider-Man first appeared in nineteen sixty-two. Spider-Man is the secret identity of Peter Parker.

As the original story told it, he was an average teenager in high school until he got bitten by a radioactive spider in a laboratory. He developed great strength and the ability to shoot webs from his wrists. He can climb and swing between tall buildings and catch criminals with his sticky webs.

Peter Parker is a young photographer for the Daily Bugle newspaper in New York. If this were real life, he would surely have wanted to be at the White House last Monday. President Bush presented one of this year's National Medal of Arts to Stan Lee, the former head of Marvel Comics. He helped give us Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men and others.

This was his introduction at the ceremony:

SPEAKER: "The 2008 National Medal of Arts to Stan Lee, for his groundbreaking work as one of America's most prolific storytellers, recreating the American comic book. His complex plots and humane superheroes celebrate courage, honesty and the importance of helping the less fortunate, reflecting America's inherent goodness."

Americans growing up in the nineteen fifties watched Superman on television.


But the special effects needed to realistically show him flying through the air were not developed until the seventies. The first movie in the "Superman" series was released in nineteen seventy-eight. It was a huge success, with two hundred eighty-nine million dollars in ticket sales at theaters worldwide. And it led to other movies based on comic book superheroes.

"The Dark Knight," the latest of six Batman films, came out this year. The Internet Movie Database lists it as the fourth biggest film of all time, with almost one billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales.  

Fans of Spider-Man, however, could point out that their hero beat all the other Batman films at the box office. Together his three movies took in more than two billion dollars. Yeah, Spidey rules.

Last year, comic specialty shops in North America ordered an estimated four hundred thirty million dollars in English-language comics. The Web site, a resource for comics research, says that was a nine percent increase from the year before.

So who are the buyers? We went to NOVA Comics and Games in Springfield, Virginia, and got an answer from sales clerk Dave Weinberger.

DAVE WEINBERGER: "It's not kids anymore. Comics are too expensive for kids. And they've changed -- comics for example like the one I'm showing you, back in the late sixties was fifteen cents. Right now comics go for about three, four bucks each. And they're not printed on paper anymore, they're kind of like magazine stock which drives up the cost. So, average age is probably mid-twenties on. You just don't see kids walking in with their allowance buying comics anymore. They're too expensive."

Customer Mark Smith was in the store buying old back issues from the nineteen sixties and seventies to complete his collection. He told us he has been collecting comic books for about thirty-three years, since he was seven years old. We asked him what comics he was interested in.

MARK SMITH: "Fantastic Four, X-Men, Avengers and some books from the eighties, Alpha Flight. You can see on the wall right there -- that Wolverine comic, I bought it when it came out for sixty cents. They're selling it for thirty dollars right now. I bought it because I enjoyed it. I didn't buy it for an investment."

Comic books have also led to graphic novels. These look like comic books but tell stories like a novel. Some graphic novels explore social issues and historic events.

"Maus" by Art Spiegelman is about the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany killed two-thirds of the Jewish people in Europe during World War Two. About six million died, along with millions of other victims.

In "Maus" the Nazis are shown as cats and the Jews as mice. The two-book series took Art Spiegelman thirteen years to complete. The story is based on the experiences of his father in Poland in the nineteen thirties and forties.

"Maus" won a special Pulitzer Prize in nineteen ninety-two.

Frank Miller is also noted for his graphic novels, including "300." It tells an imaginary story about people involved in a real battle -- the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece. A movie version of "300" was released last year.

Another Frank Miller graphic novel and movie, "Sin City," tells four connected stories of crime, corruption and sex. Here is a scene in which a killer meets his victim on a balcony during a party.



Not all graphic novels are about subjects like war or violence. "American Splendor," for example, is a series about the everyday life of a real person named Harvey Pekar. There was a movie version in two thousand three, and stage plays have also been based on the stories. The most recent American Splendor came out in September.

Comic books today are often written for adults. But many people can remember when comics were mainly for children. Some still are. And some are even written by children. Almost one thousand schools in the United States are involved in the Comic Book Project.

Education researcher Michael Blitz started the project in two thousand one at Columbia University in New York. He wanted to create an activity for children that would combine skills like reading, writing and drawing.

The Comic Book Project lets children express themselves as they write and draw their own stories. The best ones are chosen and then published and sent to schools across the country.


Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Barbara Klein.  Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.