Marvel Comics, Free on Your Desktop

The publisher of X-Men, Spider-Man and the Fantastic four will make some of its wares available free through an online widget — no more risking damage to a collector's copy just to enjoy the story inside.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

So if these recent crop of superhero movies has gotten you interested in, say, "X-men," "Spiderman" or the "Fantastic Four," you might want to go back and read some 40 years worth of back issues.

Here's the problem, you'd probably have to mortgage your house to get your hands on the most popular originals, and you're going to need that house to store all those plastic-wrapped goodies.

Marvel Comics is now releasing about 5,000 issues from its archives in digital format online. So all you need is a computer with a decent screen size and some money. They're charging about $60 a year or actually, exactly, $60 a year at $10 a month for access.

We're here with Chris Claremont who writes for Marvel Comics. He's best known for his 17 years of Uncanny X-men that he wrote in the '70s and '80s and he writes - still writes for Marvel now.

So you've been browsing the online archive, Chris. What do you think of it as a user?

Mr. CHRIS CLAREMONT (Author, Marvel Comics): I think it's quite marvelous.

PESCA: Just coin a phrase.

Mr. CLAREMONT: Just to coin a - yes, to coin a phrase.

PESCA: What did you have to do if you wanted to look back at old issues? Did you have them all or do they have even a library in the Marvel offices in Midtown?

Mr. CLAREMONT: Marvel used to have a library, and, every so often, significant pieces of it would wander out the door when no one was looking, which was very much a problem.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: Significant highly - the most valuable pieces of it?

Mr. CLAREMONT: Actually, it depends on, fortunately, who was cleaning the office what day…

PESCA: Right.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. CLAREMONT: …and what was available.

PESCA: Yeah, and which issue of, you know, Iron Fist and Powerman they were lacking?

Mr. CLAREMONT: They lusted after it, I mean, the thing is that the computer storage is just, from a creative standpoint, marvelous.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. CLAREMONT: -To be using that pun again.

MARTIN: You can't help yourself.

Mr. CLAREMONT: I really can't. It's the day after Thanksgiving.

MARTIN: I know, you're allowed. You're allowed.

Mr. CLAREMONT: Okay. No…

PESCA: Like Terry Gross saying, fresh air.

Mr. CLAREMONT: It's it provides - if you have hopefully a big enough screen and color of course, it's a global access to the history of the - of the Marvel universe which, from a writing, a writer or an artist standpoint, is invaluable because now you can go - one can go back and research all the characters, all the situations, all the history of it, and you - one doesn't have to carry around 15,000 copies of everything which, if you're bouncing from city-to-city or country-to-country, which occasionally happens, can be very inconvenient.

PESCA: A little bit. Of your work, what's on it?

Mr. CLAREMONT: From what I've just seen, flipping through, a significant chunk of the X-men, the Extreme X-men, the New Mutants, X-Caliber, so a significant amount of material.

PESCA: Is there some stuff you haven't seen in years?

Mr. CLAREMONT: Well, that goes without saying. I could flip through any good Marvel library and find that problem.

PESCA: Yeah. What about the usability? We were playing with the tools a little bit, and, at first, I found that - I mean, flipping through an actual book is really easy, but there's - it takes a little getting used to how to navigate on the screen.

Mr. CLAREMONT: Well, I think that's the biggest challenge that the - my wife had a professor at NYU and - she was working on her masters - and what he used to love would be going down to the library and wandering through the - you know, he'd look up the general…

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. CLAREMONT: …subject he wanted on the catalogue cards and then go wandering. And sometimes he would find a related book that had absolute nothing to do with his specific topic, start flipping through it, and, bingo, have an inspiration, an idea, go wandering in a different direction and suddenly come away with the thesis idea or a book idea or whatever.

That's what can happen when you're flipping through a personal library or a collection. You're flipping through a comic, from that you see something, and you go looking for that origin. You go looking somewhere else, and you're flipping and flipping and suddenly, one element leads to the other.

The disadvantage of the computer setup is that it's very linear and very specific and very focused. You have one page or two pages on the screen, and you flip them in order. You can't bounce to page 20 and back as easilier or inspirationally as you might with a physical object.

And for better or worse, you're limited by the quality - the size and quality of your screen, and it's less tactile.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: Well, there is something else about that tactile. This is probably my nostalgia, which is even different from your nostalgia, but, you know, I remember biking down to the comic book store and buying a couple issues and buying doubles, so one I'd saved, but then one I'd stick in my backpack, right?

Ms. CLAREMONT: Mm-hmm.

PESCA: There's portability and to actually feel it and maybe to get it on your fingertips.

But then again, I think - what do you think, in 40 years from now, the adults then are going to be saying: Ha, when I was a kid you had to downloaded it on a PDA, none of this thought-wave radiation business. I mean, it's…

Mr. CLAREMONT: Well, that's a very real way of looking at things. I mean, the point, at this stage, is that the two aspects are complementary. They - the computer files give a tremendous convenience and access to a huge array of material. I mean, we're not just talking about the X-Men; we're talking about the Avengers, the Fantastic Four.

If one could go look up where one character is connected to another character, how could they fit it into the Marvel universe. If you're - if one's looking for a reference, you can find it if you know how or where, I mean…

PESCA: I think She-Hulk kissed Hulk; I wonder where that was.

Mr. CLAREMONT: Well, see, the next step will be either an online or published bibliography…

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. CLAREMONT: …you know, or a guide to the universe so you can find everything. Right now, you're sort of travelling blind. But nothing beats the tactical - the tactile reality of having an individual issue sticking in your pocket, walking, and, of course, my favorite bugaboo is what do you do with a power failure…

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. CLAREMONT: …you know, or if you put it in your iPod or, you know, your portable player, if your battery runs out.

PESCA: I want to ask you about how - when comics used to just be something you read and threw away, then it became collectibles, and how did that affect your business?

I asked that question a couple of years ago to Marvel's editor Joe Quesada. Here's what he said.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. JOE QUESADA (Editor, Marvel Comics): Bottom line, it was just a lot of investor that were getting in and buying comics strictly for the monetary value of these books, and we all became the Franklin Mid as opposed to becoming storytellers.

PESCA: You agree with Joe?

Mr. CLAREMONT: To an extent. I mean, the - on one level, the rise in speculators is what led to the first - the huge sales bulge that occurred in '90 and '91 when, you know, even books like X-Men were something bouncing up to - I mean, X-Men one was 7.6 million copies. But on the other hand, when you have a book like Uncanny that was sustaining a sales core of 400 to 500,000 copies every…

PESCA: This was the Uncanny X-men - this specific time. Yeah.

Mr. CLAREMONT: Yeah, yeah, and when you're looking at our - we had, like, a five-year - four- or five-year run in the late '80s, early '90s of a 400,000 copies a month.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. CLAREMONT: Every month, 12 times a year, we do 3, 50, 400,000. That suggest that there was a very strong, committed fan base, or reader base I should say, which could have been an extraordinary foundation on which to build, and hopefully, I think what we're - all of us are trying to do is look at the audience today, find ways to reach out to what are now the parents who read it 15 years ago and remind them of what they loved, introduce the books through them to their kids and move on from there.

PESCA: All right. Chris Claremont writes for Marvel Comics, created the back stories of a lot of your most beloved heroes. Thanks for teleporting in here, Chris.

Mr. CLAREMONT: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Stay with us. THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT is more than just a radio show. You can find us online as well. Head to our blog at npr.org/bryantpark for even more goodies.

PESCA: And in case you were wondering, yes, this is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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