Last month, a crossover for the ages took place, as the worlds of economics and superheroes collided within one of my favorite podcasts. The hosts of NPR’s Planet Money decided they wanted to understand the value of superhero intellectual property, so they set out to buy themselves a superhero.
At the outset of this three podcast series, Planet Money hosts Kenny Malone and Robert Smith embarked on a quest to purchase an existing, C-list superhero from Marvel Comics. Or at least, to start a conversation with Marvel to figure out how much a C-lister is worth. After consulting with superhero historian John Morris, Planet Money settled on budgeting $10,000 to buy Doorman from Marvel.
Marvel, of course, did not respond to Planet Money’s inquiries. Author and Archie Comics Co-President Alex Segura explained why: In the current moment, any Marvel Comics superhero could become incredibly valuable at any time. Before the Guardians of the Galaxy’s movie hit, they were considered C- or D-listers. Now, most Big Box stores keep Chia Pet Baby Groots in stock. If the Guardians and Doctor Strange and Ant-Man and somehow even the Vision can break big, so can any Marvel character. Or so the thinking goes.
It’s worth noting that Doorman has already almost made it to television. And if Marvel knows there’s TV-level value to be had from Doorman, the company is surely not going to sell him. Not even to a couple public radio hosts packing $10,000.
(At the exact same time this series ran, Bleeding Cool published some rumors that rich fans were attempting to pool their money to buy DC Comics from AT&T. Read in the context of this podcast, those rumors made me laugh.)
Going Public (Domain)
So, the Planet Money team could not buy a Marvel superhero. However, they still wanted to co-opt an existing superhero for their own use, just to see how it would work.
Enter: The Public Domain.
After consulting with author/artist/seems-like-an-all-around-nice-guy Gene Luen Yang, Malone and Smith pored through lists of superheroes available to be repurposed from the public domain. These heroes’ original adventures are owned by no one, so the heroes’ worlds can be retooled or expanded upon by any author and artist. That’s what Yang did when he created a new story for the Green Turtle, a 1940s hero who was implied but never overtly shown to be Chinese. Yang and artist Sonny Liew’s version of the Green Turtle borrowed elements from the original character and firmly established the hero as an Asian-American character.
Within one of the lists they reviewed, Malone and Smith stumbled upon a hero that spoke to them. A hero for the podcast era, who wore a mask that contained a voice-amplifying microphone, as well as a number of other gadgets. That hero’s name?
It’s … Micro-Face!
In the series’s final chapter, Malone and Smith set about Rebirth-ing Micro-Face. To do so, they tagged back in Alex Segura, who agreed to write a new origin story for a new Micro-Face – the original’s grandson. Veteran artist Jerry Ordway designed the new Micro-Face’s costume, and the art team of Peter Krause, Ellie Wright, and Taylor Esposito signed on to do the origin’s interiors.
The final episode also features an interview with Peggy Loucks, the daughter of Micro-Face’s creator, Al Ulmer. Even though the Planet Money team did not need Peggy’s blessing to publish a new Micro-Face story, they sought it anyway – and they got to learn a bit about Ulmer and how rough comic books had it in the 1950s in the process.
Overall, this series was a bunch of fun, informative, and – as a die-hard comics fan – a neat look into what people who are viewing superheroes from a less entrenched position know about the comic book industry and how comics are put together. The podcasts are definitely worth a listen and, if you have $6 to spare, you may want to pre-purchase the Micro-Face comic from NPR’s website. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be a collector’s item … (I’m pretty sure the Planet Money team would love that.)