The Micro-Face comic book is finally here! Here's why it took a year. : Planet Money After many, many delays, the Micro-Face comic book is here! And we answer the burning question: Why did it take so long to make a comic book? | Come see Planet Money Live in NYC on May 10th! One night only. Tickets on sale here. And buy our now-ready Micro-Face comic book.

Finally, our comic book

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KENNY MALONE, HOST:

Before we start the show, we wanted to let you know that PLANET MONEY, for the first time in nearly a decade, for one night only, will be staging a live taping of our podcast and the world premiere of our Micro-Face Superhero Musical. This is happening on May 10 in Brooklyn. We would love to see you there, meet you and share this evening of economics, superheroes and musical theater - the Infinity Gauntlet of joyous nerdom. Again, that is May 10 in Brooklyn. Tickets are available at nprpresents.org. That is nprpresents.org. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: A Christmas tree, here.

ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: Make a T-shirt, and then follow that shirt around the world as it gets made.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: We were Toxie's last owners. She was our pet toxic asset.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

A hundred barrels of crude oil.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three...

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Yes, we did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Two, one. We have ignition.

VANEK SMITH: Whoa.

SMITH: Oh, whoa.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh.

SMITH: This is PLANET MONEY Studios from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: PLANET MONEY buys a superhero, issue 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: Long ago, two podcasters discovered a long-forgotten superhero, a hero with sonic powers created in the 1940s. His name was Micro-Face.

MALONE: We do see a patent drawing of the Micro-Mask's powers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCI-FI SOUND EFFECTS)

SMITH: Super sensitive hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCI-FI SOUND EFFECTS)

MALONE: Photoelectric eyes, which can penetrate almost anything.

SMITH: And microphone-amplified voice which can appear to come from anywhere.

ARONCZYK: To resurrect Micro-Face, these podcasters announced a quest. They would make and sell a brand-new Micro-Face comic book.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: PLANET MONEY'S Micro-Face comic book is available at a special preorder price, starting right now.

SMITH: I think it'll take a few months to fully write and produce and print this comic. We're going to follow the process and tell you all about it in a few months.

ARONCZYK: A few months came and went. Then a few more; then a blue moon. And then a full year with no comic book. The people were annoyed.

But when all hope seemed lost, we see a brown UPS truck pulling up to a driveway. A man unloads two boxes and wheels them to a door.

SMITH: XX, YY, ZZ.

MALONE: Oh. Robert. Robert.

SMITH: Yes?

MALONE: It's happening. It's happening. The UPS truck...

SMITH: Wait, wait. What?

MALONE: The UPS truck just pulled up.

ARONCZYK: The Micro-Face comic book is ready.

MALONE: Thank you so much. These are the first Micro-Face comic books ever made.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Micro-Face?

MALONE: Micro-Face.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Interesting. Have fun.

MALONE: Thanks. Oh, it's super heavy, man.

SMITH: Wait. Don't hurt yourself.

MALONE: OK, OK, OK.

SMITH: Lift with your legs.

ARONCZYK: Thousands of comics are about to be mailed out. It is a superhero miracle. However - not to micro-rain on the parade here, guys.

SMITH: Yeah.

ARONCZYK: I bought one of these comics as well. And I do wonder what everyone else is wondering. Why did it take so freaking long to make a comic book?

SMITH: Yeah.

MALONE: Yeah.

SMITH: Yeah. That's a good question.

MALONE: It's - yeah.

SMITH: We should talk about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith.

MALONE: You know, when we set out to make a comic book, we did not see the big picture. We didn't know that comic books have a complicated and fragile supply chain that does not take into account, let's say, the naivety of a couple of podcasters showing up with their dusty, old superhero.

SMITH: Today on the show, a series of unfortunate events. And by unfortunate, we mean us.

MALONE: Yeah.

SMITH: We messed up. We screwed up the supply chain and made everyone annoyed with us - printers, artists, you, our loyal listeners.

MALONE: Today, we have some explaining to do.

Here is how the comic book process is supposed to work. It's a creative assembly line. You've got a writer, who sends a script to an illustrator, who sends drawings to a colorist, who sends beautiful pages to a letterer.

SMITH: Meanwhile, a giant publishing company is often setting up all the little details for the printing and the distribution and the payments.

MALONE: It is seamless when everyone knows they're part of this dance. And then we waltz in.

SMITH: In hindsight, there was really one decision that started to send everything off the rails. Luckily, we were recording that meeting when it happened.

ALEX SEGURA: That's good. It's cool.

MALONE: Robert is here.

SEGURA: How's it going, Robert?

SMITH: Let me check my levels here.

MALONE: This Zoom meeting happened more than a year ago. We are sitting down with our ace comic book writer Alex Segura, and our mission for this meeting - help Alex as he comes up with a story for the Micro-Face comic.

Tell us what the best way to start this is. Should we...

SEGURA: Yeah. I - one thing I mentioned to you, Kenny, was the longtime listeners should feel like this isn't just a superhero comic; it's a PLANET MONEY comic. It should feel special and feel unique to them.

MALONE: Special and unique to PLANET MONEY listeners? Great, we thought. The most obvious way to do this - and Robert, I think you agreed - was to shovel as many economic concepts into this comic book as we possibly could.

SMITH: Oh, yeah, yeah. We opened up our textbooks, and we thought, we could use this to explain debt financing and private equity strategy.

SEGURA: Yeah.

SMITH: And I don't know if we could fit it in, but there could be valuations of firms looking for targets that have essentially low debt.

SEGURA: Let me just jot some of these down into the pitch.

MALONE: You know, listening back to...

SMITH: (Laughter).

MALONE: ...All this, the signs were there that we were about to really mess things up.

SMITH: Yeah. See, Alex had told us that a good comic book length to shoot for is 24 pages. That's a normal length. We budgeted and lined everything up for a 24-page comic.

MALONE: Alex is a pro, and so he knows how much stuff can fit into a 24-page comic. So corporate takeovers, leveraged buyouts - yeah, not going to fit. What would fit is a character that is a personification of a leveraged buyout.

SEGURA: Buyout would be a cool bad guy name.

SMITH: Buyout is a good name.

SEGURA: Send in Buyout.

MALONE: Corporate raider?

SMITH: Oh, yes.

SEGURA: Can we call it Corporal Raider? Like, it's not going to...

SMITH: Oh, oh, Corporal Raider.

SEGURA: Yeah.

SMITH: Alex was trying to translate our big economic ideas into superhero metaphors, which is fantastic, but we kept pushing to cram in more and more and more. Like, can we actually explain IP trapdoors and shell companies?

MALONE: Yeah, we wanted Easter eggs and our own pictures drawn into the comic.

SMITH: Kenny was weirdly obsessed with including the most accurate radio interview scene ever recorded - not just one panel of a dude with a microphone, but pages and pages depicting the bizarre nuances of a real radio interview.

MALONE: Because we wear these headphones, and we carry these big, you know, shotgun mics with a furry cat thing when we're interviewing people.

SEGURA: We also have to be mindful of page count. Like, I don't know what - you know, I was working under the assumption that we have, like, 24 pages, but if we could do more?

MALONE: We don't - I don't think there's a page count anymore. Like does...

SEGURA: Yeah.

MALONE: Like, I don't think it matters. I don't think it matters. I don't think it matters.

SMITH: Dear listener, it would matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOKA'S "AWKWARD MOMENT")

SMITH: It would matter a lot.

MALONE: Now, our writer, Alex, fit everything we wanted into his story. And here are the basic beats - we meet a young NPR reporter named Sam Salazar. His grandfather's company is taken over by a mysterious private equity firm.

SMITH: Check.

MALONE: Now, what Sam doesn't know - his grandfather had created a shell company...

SMITH: Got it.

MALONE: ...With exactly one secret asset. Could that asset be a superhero mask? Who knows?

SMITH: And Alex did include the pivotal radio interview scene, complete with a whole panel of mic level setting. Oh, I love it. Alex sent us the script. Our 24-page comic was now closer to 40 pages.

MALONE: Yeah, but we thought, who cares? We have to buy a little more paper and ink or something. Like, that is a marginal cost for a comic that will include all kinds of economic ideas.

SMITH: Next step, someone has to draw this thing. We had a top-notch illustrator all lined up. We sent the script over. There's a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOKA'S "AWKWARD MOMENT")

MALONE: So what seems to have happened was when our illustrator opened up our 40-page file, looked at this very long story and basically says, hold on a second. You told me this was going to be 24 pages. Like, I'm sorry, but I have other jobs lined up after yours. And they would all get messed up if I do 40 pages. I can't do this.

SMITH: This is not great. But, you know, we thought there are hundreds of artists out there. Someone must have enough time to do 40 pages.

MALONE: Yeah. And Alex Segura, our writer, sent over a list - 25 illustrators that he thinks would be perfect for this comic...

SMITH: Excellent.

MALONE: ...With caveats all over the list - probably busy, probably busy, pie in the sky, might not even be worth asking at the moment.

SMITH: This was a teachable moment for us. Comic book professionals, if they want to make money, have to keep the old pen moving. Artists are scheduled months in advance. It's like this creative conveyor belt.

MALONE: And we were learning that our maybe-too-long comic book had fallen off of the line. We start looking at that list of possible illustrators and just hoping that somebody can squeeze us in at some point.

SMITH: One month goes by - two months, three months. Every possible schedule that we had written down was now worthless. We had to tear up the whole thing. But finally we get word. Someone really good is interested.

MALONE: So first of all, I just want to say you are a lifesaver. Like, you are saving us. We had no artist.

JAMAL IGLE: (Laughter).

MALONE: And then, like, to land you - less, like, this is great. So thank you.

IGLE: Oh, no problem.

SMITH: Jamal Igle was recommended by our story writer, Alex Sagura. Jamal has worked on Iron Man, Superman, Spider-Man, all the mans.

MALONE: All of them.

SMITH: But you know what he hasn't done? He hasn't illustrated a very bloated story full of flowcharts of private equity.

MALONE: But what was your thought when Alex explained it to you?

IGLE: Well, I mean, when he - when he told me about it, my first thought was, huh, that's interesting. That's a...

MALONE: (Laughter).

IGLE: ...Little bit different. I'm all about different.

SMITH: We are back on the comic book train, baby. But just to be clear, it's not like Jamal can all of a sudden rush the illustrations now and make up for all the time we'd already lost.

MALONE: I've heard people say that the comic book illustrator is like the director of this little movie that we're making. But really, if you think of what Jamal has to create from scratch now, he says that it's more like the illustrator is the director and the wardrobe department - he has to come up with all the clothes - and the prop department. And he has to draw all the sets. He's the set designer. And he's the casting director. And just to give us a sense, he pulls up the scene that he happens to be working on - Page 16 of the comic book.

IGLE: OK. So this is the - actually the interview section, where...

MALONE: Ah, yes.

IGLE: Yes. So I wanted the...

MALONE: Is this a weird scene? Did you find this to be a weird scene?

IGLE: Well, it's not - it's not something you would traditionally find in a superhero book. I mean, if this were, say, a Marvel or a DC book...

MALONE: (Laughter) Yeah.

IGLE: ...And I were the editor, my first question would be, why is this interview scene three pages long?

MALONE: (Laughter).

SMITH: (Laughter) You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MATCH MUSIC'S "CURIOUS STROLL")

SMITH: This is actually an important question because, as Jamal explained to us, for him at least, superhero poses and fight scenes are pretty easy. He does a lot of that all day. But characters with realistic expressions and emotions, which, believe it or not, do come up in accurate radio interviews...

MALONE: Yeah.

SMITH: That kind of stuff is hard. And our comic book has a lot of character and emotion.

MALONE: And so months passed. I imagine Jamal hunched over his computer drawing pad, figuring out how to draw our hero Sam's sly smile, the right body language for Corporal Raider.

SMITH: Plus, of course, some amazing fight scenes featuring the power of sound.

MALONE: Yeah. Jamal had to figure out what that looks like, too. And in the meantime, we decided to make a fun, little addition to the comic - one page of old-timey-looking special comic book ads just for PLANET MONEY listeners, chock full of inside references, a simple little project we could handle ourselves that couldn't possibly backfire. Couldn't possibly backfire. Backfire, backfire, backfire.

SMITH: Dear listener, it did backfire, because after a few months, Jamal sent over all his finished pages, each one a work of art. And then when we added in our very special page of ads, we had a total of 41 glorious pages.

MALONE: Forty-one pages - a beautiful number, a spunky number, a prime number, but apparently, we would soon find out, the worst number you can come up with for a comic book.

SMITH: Yeah. During this time, we'd been trying to find a printer, you know, to print the actual thing. And when we found a printer, they were like, oh, yeah, the number of pages has to be divisible by eight, I guess because of the way they cut and fold it.

MALONE: And so 40 pages, fine; 48 pages, also fine; 41 pages, a freaking curse.

SMITH: I mean, we could have cut a page of the radio interview section.

MALONE: We were absolutely not cutting a page of that.

SMITH: OK. So we had to come up with seven extra pages of content - more story, maybe, concept art gallery, a making of Micro-Face section.

MALONE: The printer says, whatever it is, figure it out fast because prices are going up. There are paper shortages. We are running out of glossy finish. You got to do matte now.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION ALERT)

SMITH: The listeners start emailing.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What is up with the Micro-Face comic book?

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Will it even be shipped by Christmas?

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Is this a real business or a fundraising scam?

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: OK, listen. We sold these comics.

MALONE: Our bosses are Slacking as constantly, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION ALERT)

SMITH: When's the book done?

MALONE: Yeah, but do you have a cost estimate?

SMITH: We sold this in one fiscal year.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We're about to enter a new fiscal year, and we haven't...

MALONE: What does any of this mean?

SMITH: Budget, budget. Ah.

ARONCZYK: And through the clamor of understandable frustration rang a single note...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: ...That broke our podcasters' hearts. A father in Kansas had written this Reddit post.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: My 7-year-old daughter keeps asking about the comic. We listened to the superhero series together back in March of last year, and she wanted me to order it. And now, every couple of months, she asks if her comic book has arrived.

ARONCZYK: Friends, it hasn't arrived. What will our podcasters do?

MALONE: I believe it was Adam Smith, father of modern economics, who once wrote, people who make podcasts should leave comic books to Marvel, or something like that.

SMITH: Adam Smith did write about specialization of labor, how you break up a process into its parts and people get really good at each part and the whole process gets more efficient.

MALONE: And look; we understood this to some degree. A script specialist hands off to an illustrator, to a colorist, to a letterer - specialized process. What we had not considered - there was also this specialized knowledge that happens around the business side of the comic book as well.

SMITH: At a company like Marvel, there are lawyers to deal with copyright, departments to figure out pricing, rooms of cubicles doing I don't know what. People make fun of middle managers, but we discovered that they are their own kind of artist.

MALONE: Yeah. All of these people are dealing with cubicles and cubicles' worth of incredibly specific decisions, decisions that we now had to figure out on our own and had never even thought about.

SMITH: We got to work on one of the most bizarre checklists we've ever had to complete.

MALONE: Step one, have we picked a price tag for the cover of the book?

SMITH: Yes - $6.99.

MALONE: Step two, have we picked a price tag for Canada?

SMITH: I have no idea.

MALONE: Step three, do we have a barcode yet for the back of the comic book?

SMITH: I honestly do not know where you get a barcode from.

MALONE: Yeah, no idea. We just Googled it.

STEPHAN BACHMANN: Simply Barcodes, this is Stephan. How can I help you?

MALONE: Hey, Stefano (ph). My name is Kenny Malone. So can you - where do barcodes come from? I don't understand.

BACHMANN: (Laughter) Where do barcodes come from? Wow, that's a big, big question.

MALONE: It's actually Stephan Bachmann. I messed up his name there.

SMITH: Stephan is the owner of Simply Barcodes, answering his own customer service line because labor shortage.

MALONE: He explains that barcodes are just a way for a computer to quickly read a number, a standardized, unique number registered with the keeper of all numbers called GS1, based in Belgium, which, Stephan says, is not exactly the vision of UPC code creator Jorge Laurer III, who Stephan knew personally.

SMITH: We talked to this barcode guy for two hours.

MALONE: I think maybe more.

SMITH: It was pretty fascinating. In fact, we kind of wish that we had made Alex Segura, our writer, put an entire barcode plot into the comic book itself.

MALONE: Yeah. Far too late for that. But yes, long story short here, you can just buy a a vetted, registered UPC number. And that is what Stephan Bachmann sold to us.

BACHMANN: It is yours. Your baby has its Social Security number. The Micro-Face comic book is now identified by this 12-digit number.

MALONE: Number 051497332624.

SMITH: OK.

MALONE: Our barcode number.

SMITH: And our final item on the checklist - check. We promised the comic book will be done in a few months. It took us 398 days, about 13 months. But finally it was finished. We had a date for the printer, March 30. Our book was scheduled to run. And then I got a phone call from Kenny asking me if he can borrow $12,000.

MALONE: Well, yeah. Let me explain this, because this is a - this was a bad one. The morning of our print date, I get an email from the printer saying, we can't print today because you still haven't paid us. As we told you many times, you're a brand-new client, and we need payment upfront.

SMITH: Fair enough. They didn't want to take the risk on PLANET MONEY stiffing them, even though money is literally in our name.

MALONE: So I go to the NPR people, who say, wait a second. NPR never pays a new vendor before we get the product. This comic book printer, we've never worked with them before.

SMITH: Also fair. From NPR's perspective, what if the comic book looks terrible? It was this financial standoff.

MALONE: And when I go back looking through my emails with the printer, what has clearly happened is on several occasions, I, Kenny Malone, who has no fiscal power at NPR, did say, oh, payment upfront? Yeah, fine. Whatever. And then I never checked with anyone at NPR. And that is when I panicked, and that is when I called you.

SMITH: People were worried. There were a lot of frantic emails internally, phone calls. And then at the very last minute, NPR's financial guru - thank you very much, Christian Curtin - sends an email with the subject line Emergency $12K Wire Transfer Tomorrow.

MALONE: Many very busy people dropped what they were doing and wired $12,114 to our comic book printer in Quebec to print 18,000 copies of our comic. And then two weeks later...

SMITH: A UPS truck pulls up into Kenny's driveway. We were actually on Zoom at the time.

What is he - is he outside your house?

MALONE: Here he comes. Robert, it's happening. It's happening. My hand is shaking, Robert. Hold on.

SMITH: Wait. Stop. Are we recording this?

MALONE: I am. Here it is.

SMITH: Turn the camera around.

MALONE: Can you see? Can you see?

SMITH: Holy moly. Look at that.

MALONE: Look, look, look. Let's find - I am so - oh, my God. Here's every Easter egg, everything we crammed in this book.

SMITH: You look like an 8-year-old with his first Superman comic. Like, you are hunched over, sitting on the floor just with this giant grin on your face.

MALONE: I can't believe - I just - I can't believe it. There we are - Robert and Kenny cameo.

SMITH: Let me see. Oh, my God. It looks - ah (laughter).

The comic book is a work of beauty. And when you think about it, it is a small miracle that it happened at all. We brought together all these writers and artists and accountants and printers. And, yeah, yeah, it took a while. I know. But we made a thing, Kenny. We made it.

MALONE: It's like the UPC code. You know, you can focus on the lines, but you're really reading the spaces in between the lines.

SMITH: OK. We're done with the UPC codes, Kenny. But we do have one more thing to do. We need to send the comic book, well, to all of you who ordered it and have been waiting a long time, but especially to a 7-year-old girl in Kansas, whose father wrote us that sad, sad note.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: So this is Elle.

MALONE: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Do you want to say hello?

ELLE: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Hi.

MALONE: Hi. I think your dad might have a package for you there.

ELLE: I can't undo that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: OK.

MALONE: Elle is 7 years old today. She was, however, 6 years old when she and her father ordered this comic book, which means that she's been waiting approximately 15% of her life for this Micro-Face comic book.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: What is it?

ELLE: It's my comic book.

MALONE: It took a little bit of time. I hope you're still excited.

ELLE: I am pretty excited.

MALONE: Yeah. Me, too.

ELLE: Yeah. I'm still very, very, very excited.

MALONE: Do you think you're going to read the whole thing tonight?

ELLE: I don't think I will because it's, like, a lot of pictures and everything. And there's so many pages, so I think it will take, like, a couple of days.

MALONE: Yeah. It's a lot of pages. We just want to say thank you so much for waiting, and we're sorry. But thank you.

ELLE: You're welcome.

MALONE: So, Elle, have you ever heard of private equity companies?

ELLE: No. I don't think so.

MALONE: OK. You want to go to the next page?

ELLE: Yeah.

MALONE: So this person here, she is the representative of a company that just bought this other company.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: We are super proud of how the comic book turned out, and you should be getting it any day now if you ordered it. If you have not ordered it, it is not too late. You can still get a copy of the very first issue of PLANET MONEY's Micro-Face. You can get that at the NPR shop at npr.org/microface.

MALONE: If you ordered other Micro merch with your comic book, it will all be shipping together when the comic goes out. And we are so, so, so incredibly sorry for the delay, truly. But we are almost there. Now, unfortunately, the NPR shop does not ship internationally. We are, however, working on making the comic available digitally. Stay tuned. We'll update you when there's something on that.

And finally, if you are in the New York area, the one night only Micro-Face live event is May 10. It is a musical. It is an exploration of the collectibles economy. It is going to be so much fun. That is May 10. Tickets are at nprpresents.org - nprpresents.org

SMITH: The episode was produced by Emma Peaslee and edited by Jess Jiang. PLANET MONEY's executive producer is Alex Goldmark.

MALONE: This episode was mastered by Isaac Rodrigues. And I want to say a very special thanks to everybody who helped make this comic book a real, live thing in the world, including Ivan Cohen, Taylor Esposito, Ellie Wright, Jerry Ordway, Desi Siente (ph), Carly Ingersoll (ph), Julan Cleveland (ph) and Jane Scott. I'm Kenny Malone.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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