Comic book companies horde thousands of characters for future use : Planet Money Marvel has 7,000 characters, many of them forgotten. We want to buy one from their vault and launch our own little Planet Money franchise. | Find the full Planet Money Superhero series here.

We Buy A Superhero 1: Origins

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASTS)

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: 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.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Yes, we did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three, two, one. We have ignition.

SMITH: Oh, whoa.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh.

SMITH: This is PLANET MONEY Studios from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: OK, so let me just pull this out of the plastic sleeve.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC RUSTLING)

ARONCZYK: OK, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: PLANET MONEY Buys A Superhero - Issue 1, Page 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: Our comic book opens inside a deep mine in the country of Sokovia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKAX STRIKING ROCK)

ARONCZYK: Men and women are working with headlamps and picks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKAX STRIKING ROCK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As boss) Come on. We need to find 10 characters by nightfall.

ARONCZYK: These are the superhero mines of Marvel Comics, where the company's old intellectual property lies under the Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKAX STRIKING ROCK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As miner) I found one.

ARONCZYK: We zoom in on one miner digging out an old comic book from the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As miner) I found one. I found one.

ARONCZYK: The mine supervisor rushes over.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As boss) What is it? What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As miner) It's the "West Coast Avengers" Volume 2, No. 46.

ARONCZYK: On the cover of the old comic book is a superhero dressed all in black with diamond eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As boss) Excellent, excellent. Pass me the red telephone right now. Get Marvel headquarters on the line.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)

ARONCZYK: Miles above the mine at Marvel headquarters, inside a glossy corner office, the phone rings.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I've been waiting for you all day. What did you dig up?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As boss) It's a vintage superhero, sir - a character. A character called the Doorman.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) The Doorman.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As boss) Yes, sir. I assure you it is real. It is one of ours.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) The Doorman. The Doorman. The Doorman. (Laughter) The Doorman, yes - exploitable superhero character No. 6,887. This will make us a fortune someday. Throw it in the vault for now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As boss) As you wish, sir.

ARONCZYK: And so "West Coast Avengers" Issue 46, introducing the Doorman, was locked away.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

ARONCZYK: And it passed out of all knowledge until, when chance came, two podcasters were sitting in a studio, reading a script that starts, hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY.

SMITH: Welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

And I'm Kenny Malone. Three years ago, I was reading an article that quoted the CEO of the Disney Company, the company that owns Marvel Comics. And the CEO said essentially that there is no end to this superhero film empire of ours because we own 7,000 characters - 7,000 characters.

SMITH: And this is the true value of the Marvel franchise right there. They make new movies, sure, but they all feature old characters. I'm thinking Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, all created before you and I were even born, Kenny.

MALONE: Yeah. And we are fans of these characters and of Marvel. But it did occur to me that if you need these old characters to make it in the superhero business, then it is almost impossible to compete with Marvel and DC. Vintage superheroes are a scarce resource. And, frankly, Marvel is kind of hoarding that resource.

SMITH: Think of all the amazing minor characters with strange powers now trapped in a filing cabinet in a vault somewhere, yearning to fly free.

MALONE: And so that is when we started to think, what if we made that possible? What if we at PLANET MONEY could buy one of Marvel's unused superheroes?

SMITH: We could build a little empire. We could give that forgotten character new stories, a new comic book, swag. We could make action figures, T-shirts, lunchboxes, movies, musicals.

MALONE: Plus, you know, explore the world of high-stakes intellectual property along the way.

SMITH: Of course.

MALONE: Today, the quest to buy a PLANET MONEY superhero begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHAN JOHANSSON'S "LARGER THAN LIFE")

SMITH: All right, here's the secret plan. We get an interview with some bigwig at Marvel Entertainment. We win them over with our enthusiasm. Then we show them the PLANET MONEY briefcase filled with $10,000 in cash and we walk out with the rights to a superhero.

MALONE: See, when you do it like a spy, it doesn't sound like that's actually our plan, but that is, in fact, our plan - suitcase full of money.

SMITH: Check.

MALONE: Interview at Marvel.

SMITH: Yep.

MALONE: Let them know that we want to buy a superhero.

SMITH: Got it.

MALONE: OK. But, first, of course, we need to pick our target character. We need to walk into Marvel with a name so ridiculous that even they cannot believe that they still own this character.

SMITH: We needed to know who exactly was at the bottom of Marvel's 7,000 character list. And we found an expert.

JON MORRIS: My name is Jon Morris. I am unbelievably a self-proclaimed expert in weird superheroes.

SMITH: I just proclaimed him (laughter).

MALONE: No, no. Jon has written three books titled "The League Of Regrettable Superheroes," "The Legion Of Regrettable Super Villains" and "The League of Regrettable Sidekicks."

MORRIS: These are catalogues of the weirdest, the most underrated and forgotten superheroes. And there are a lot of them.

MALONE: If I'm in the market to buy a superhero, it seems like this is a pretty good place to start.

MORRIS: It's definitely better than trying to buy Wolverine right out of the gate.

MALONE: Yes. So what kinds of things are out there that we might be interested in?

MORRIS: Let me hop over to the Bouncer.

SMITH: The Bouncer is a superhero from 1944, and he can, as you've probably guessed by now, bounce really high. And this was not a Marvel character, but Jon was just showing us what kind of weird stuff is out there.

MALONE: He has this seemingly endless list of bizarro characters.

SMITH: There's Bee-Man.

MORRIS: And he builds a hive.

SMITH: The NFL SuperPro.

MORRIS: Gains the tremendous powers of football.

SMITH: Of a football, a football player - not sure.

MALONE: And then there is the Paper Hanger.

MORRIS: The Paper Hanger...

MALONE: OK.

MORRIS: Wait for it. The reveal is going to be amazing.

MALONE: OK.

SMITH: The Paper Hanger was a benevolent handyman, I guess, who puts up wallpaper. And he attempted to cure world hunger by planting seeds inside people's wallpaper.

MORRIS: So that delicious food grows inside of people's houses.

MALONE: All right.

MORRIS: And he gets blown up at the end.

MALONE: Oh, God, he dies?

MORRIS: But that's OK because he's Hitler.

MALONE: Oh, my God. He was Hitler the whole time.

MORRIS: The whole time.

MALONE: You can blame all of these weird characters on Superman. Superman is considered the first superhero. He shows up in 1938 and is a massive success. So naturally, all of these other comic book companies, which had been doing, like, detective stories and Westerns, they want to cash in. And they just start throwing a cape and a superpower on, like, everything.

SMITH: It was so cheap and easy to try new stuff. Ink and paper cost almost nothing. The creators certainly weren't getting paid well. Why not release as many silly superheroes as you possibly can and hope that one of them just might take off?

MORRIS: Rainbow Boy - and he could turn into rainbows. Hydro-Man became water. Pyroman became fire.

MALONE: Now, eventually, Jon lands on a character that might work for our PLANET MONEY superhero mission, a character possibly in our price range that wasn't secretly an evil dictator the whole time, that doesn't require the express written consent of the National Football League.

SMITH: No, this was a Marvel superhero we had absolutely never heard of. It was clearly stored way deep down in the Marvel vault.

MORRIS: Doorman who can turn into a door.

MALONE: What? Why would you want to turn into a door?

MORRIS: Well, if you want to go into a room.

MALONE: Wait. Oh, he would - so he can, like, turn into a door for a room.

MORRIS: Yes.

MALONE: Can he use himself to get in?

MORRIS: Oh, I don't know.

MALONE: Does he look like a door when he turns into a door?

MORRIS: He wears an all-black costume with diamond-shaped eyes.

MALONE: OK.

MORRIS: And that's it.

MALONE: That is, in fact, it. Robert and I went and looked up this Doorman.

SMITH: And he does sort of look like an off-brand Spider-Man, really. And we tracked down a copy of his very first comic book appearance. And let us just describe the wonder that is Doorman.

MALONE: Panel one, we are in Milwaukee. It's night. We're on the street.

SMITH: Doorman and some of his superhero colleagues look up at a big building. Something is amiss.

MALONE: Doorman says...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Doorman) There's our target, the Germania Building.

SMITH: Doorman's colleague says...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) We need to get someone inside without damaging the building.

SMITH: Now, imagine being a man who turns into a door. That's your superhero.

MALONE: It's the thing.

SMITH: You would wake up every day hoping that someone would say those words.

MALONE: And that is why Doorman is already running towards the building.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Doorman) Way ahead of you.

SMITH: Doorman turns around so his back is flat against the wall and...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Doorman turns into a door but not like a wooden door with a little window and a door knocker. No, no, no. It's a door that's exactly the same shape as Doorman.

MALONE: Yes. And then as a door, Doorman looks at his teammate and says...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Doorman) Ready when you are.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Ready as I'll ever be, Doorman. Here I goooo (ph).

MALONE: He didn't fall down a hole, Robert. He went through a door.

SMITH: (Laughter) We don't know how thick the wall was.

MALONE: Well, he does end up on the other side of the door in a building. And it is amazing. And Robert and I cannot get enough of this.

SMITH: It's still - it's not clear that Doorman can himself go through himself into the building.

MALONE: No. In fact, I would say, like, the signs are that he can't because in some of his appearances, he, like, comes in through a regular door to check in on his colleagues. Like, how are you guys doing in there?

SMITH: So embarrassing.

MALONE: The point is, Marvel has lots of characters who can just punch a hole through a door. They do not need this off-brand Spider-Man guy who turns into a door.

SMITH: But you know who does? We do. After the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHAN JOHANSSON'S "NEMESIS")

MALONE: We had our target character - Doorman.

SMITH: And we have not yet spent the cash in the briefcase.

MALONE: Now, all we needed to do was get to somebody at Marvel who had the authority to sell us Doorman. So we emailed the company a couple of times. We asked if we could meet with somebody who could talk to us about superhero intellectual property. They declined twice.

SMITH: And then we caved and laid out the whole secret plan to buy the Doorman and they did not respond yet.

MALONE: And so Robert did what serious reporters do. He showed up with a microphone at the Marvel office building in Manhattan.

SMITH: Excuse me, do you work for Marvel Entertainment? Oh, he just walked on by.

MALONE: (Laughter) However, unlike a serious reporter, Robert was dressed up as a door - like, a full on cardboard door costume.

SMITH: Marvel, sell PLANET MONEY the Doorman. I can see you in there. Just talk to us - hashtag #openthedoorman. Open the door, man.

MALONE: Yes, I mean, we were desperate, but obviously this was not going to work.

SMITH: Oh, I thought this cardboard outfit would be a lot warmer. It's so cold. If there were only a way that I could get from outside the building inside that nice warm lobby.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Doorman) Way ahead of you.

SMITH: Thanks, Doorman. Here I gooo (ph).

MALONE: Again, Robert, not falling into a hole, just going through a door.

SMITH: Fine.

MALONE: And I know we seem like we're just joking around about all of this, but we do have a sincere economic question here, which is that, you know, Doorman brought in - I'm just going to estimate here - zero dollars last year for Marvel, roughly zero dollars the year before that. And you would expect a normal company to consider an offer for an unused resource like Doorman. So why isn't Marvel doing that? What is different about this?

SMITH: I'm sure they sell old chairs when they get new chairs. So why would they not do that for a character? It is hard to peer into the mind of someone running a multibillion-dollar company.

MALONE: However, I do have a friend who started out as a geeky comic book guy and has worked his way up to being a comic book executive. He cannot sell us Doorman. He does not work at Marvel. But he could at least give us some insight, or so we hoped.

So this target of ours is named Doorman...

ALEX SEGURA: Doorman?

MALONE: ...Uncreatively.

SEGURA: No, it isn't.

MALONE: Yes, Doorman.

SEGURA: But he's not even dressed like a doorman.

MALONE: That's what - that was - we were very disappointed in the costume. Before we forget, let's have Alex just introduce himself.

SEGURA: Oh, sure, yeah. Alex Segura - I am the co-president of Archie Comics. I'm also a novelist and comic book writer.

SMITH: He is the co-president of Archie Comics, as in the red-headed teenager from Riverdale - you know, Betty, Veronica, Jughead.

MALONE: And, obviously, Archie and his teenage friends are not superheroes. But just like Marvel, Archie Comics was around during the superhero boom and created their own superheroes. They have their own vault of superheroes.

SMITH: You just haven't heard of them because, you know, they're making Archie stuff.

MALONE: What - how many superheroes do you own as a company?

SEGURA: Yeah. We're probably at the 1,000 or so around there just in terms of heroes, villains, supporting cast, like, different iterations of characters.

MALONE: I mean, a thousand characters, that's a lot.

SEGURA: Yeah.

SMITH: And Alex told us the inside scoop about why comic book companies will never sell their heroes.

SEGURA: Your library holds a lot of value that you may not know until the story arrives. I think that's probably why you see companies take more of a protective or conservative approach. Like, no one's selling characters because they're one story away from this character becoming a hit.

SMITH: One story away. Here's a great example of that that we talked about with Alex - the talking tree from Marvel's "Guardians Of The Galaxy."

MALONE: (As Groot) I am Groot.

SMITH: Groot is a tree who can smash things and talk, but he can only say one thing.

MALONE: (As Groot) I am Groot.

SMITH: That's a pretty good impression.

MALONE: I've been practicing for parties once there's not a pandemic anymore. Thank you very much.

SMITH: (Laughter) If you had asked me a decade ago, I would have had no idea who Groot was. Groot was this minor character for people who read comic books. But after Marvel's "Guardians Of The Galaxy" movie, Groot became a breakout star. People were buying the dancing Groot toy, the Groot Beanie Baby, the Groot Chia Pet. It's a real thing, the Groot Chia Pet.

MALONE: And what comic book companies have realized is that if they can go hunting through their libraries for just the right character at just the right moment and just give it just the right treatment, that they can transform an apparently worthless piece of intellectual property into millions or hundreds of millions of dollars.

SMITH: I mean, imagine if they had sold Groot to two podcast yahoos 10 years ago.

MALONE: (As Groot) I am broke.

SMITH: (Laughter).

SEGURA: So why sell the character for X amount if you're not - it could very easily in a few steps become much bigger, you know? So it's - I think it's better to hold your cards. And that's probably why people are doing that and probably why no one's answering your calls.

(LAUGHTER)

SEGURA: So not to keep raining on your parade, I just don't think it's going to work.

SMITH: Translation - Marvel is not going to sell us even their worst character.

MALONE: But, Robert, you know, we figured, while we had a major comic book executive on the phone that does happen to own lots of superheroes...

SMITH: And is one of your close, personal friends.

MALONE: You're not using all of them, correct?

SEGURA: We are not actively using - I mean, we're using...

MALONE: Like, would you be willing to sell us - not - you know, not within the top hundred, just, like, character rank number 973, like...

SEGURA: Yeah, I don't know. I

MALONE: You're nearly worst character.

SEGURA: Yeah. I mean, it actually would depend, A, on what you're offering and, B, probably not because we never know - you never know what's going to hit.

MALONE: So you're not going to sell us anything. That's what you're saying.

SEGURA: No, we're not. No. No. Sorry. We're friends, but I can't.

SMITH: Are you authorized to say no?

MALONE: Yeah.

SEGURA: I'm authorized to say no. I am not authorized to say yes.

MALONE: Oh, I see.

SEGURA: So yeah, I'm confident in my no.

MALONE: So, Robert, here's where this leaves us in our Doorman quest. We have completely failed but for a very interesting, very PLANET MONEY-y (ph) reason. It is because even a Doorman has a nonzero chance of being the next billion-dollar character. And so no one is ever going to sell us any superhero character.

SMITH: Sometimes a wall is just a wall and there is no way to get through it.

MALONE: One annoying thing is that now that we've emailed Marvel about Doorman, like, we've alerted them to how cool this character is.

SMITH: And more than that, we've done a 20-minute ad for a character owned by one of the largest corporations in the world.

MALONE: This is true.

SMITH: I mean, they're probably cutting him into the next "Avengers" movie right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON")

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark) Hey, J, give me an IR scan of the room real quick.

PAUL BETTANY: (As J.A.R.V.I.S.) The wall to your left - I'm reading steel reinforcement.

DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Please be a secret door. Please be a secret door. Please be a secret door. Please be a secret door.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Doorman) Way ahead of you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM MONTAGE)

DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Fantastic.

Thanks...

Doorman.

MALONE: Goodbye, Doorman. We barely knew ye.

SMITH: But remember, Kenny, you always have to leave room for a sequel.

MALONE: That's next Friday, same door time, same door channel.

SMITH: If you have any extra superheroes laying around or, I don't know, want to help pressure Marvel, we would love to hear from you. We're @PlanetMoney on all the social networks, hashtag #openthedoorman.

(SOUNDBITE OF INON ZUR'S "HEROES LEGACY")

SMITH: This episode was produced by James Sneed with help from Maria Paz Gutierrez, engineering help from Gilly Moon. The show was edited by Liza Yeager and Bryant Urstadt. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer.

MALONE: Special thanks this week to Michael Lovitz, whose panels at comic-con taught me everything I know about comic book IP and a huge thanks to Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair, whose interview with Bob Iger started this superhero quest in the first place. I'm Kenny Malone.

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

MALONE: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF INON ZUR'S "HEROES LEGACY")

SMITH: (Imitating crackling sound).

MALONE: Something - what's happening? Something's happening.

SMITH: (Imitating crackling noise, beeping) What's that sound?

JENNIFER JENKINS: Wait, wait, guys, guys, wait, am I too late? Did you finish the episode already?

MALONE: Holy professor Jennifer Jenkins from Duke Law School, no, no, it's not too late.

JENKINS: Phew. OK. So I was reading over some of these old law books, and I think I found something really important for your quest.

SMITH: Go on.

JENKINS: There's a loophole.

ROBERT SMITH AND KENNY MALONE: A loophole?

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