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Costly Crime Fighters

It's gotten so a kid can't plop down on the bedroom floor with a fresh stack of comic books and a sticky candy bar to see what new adventures the superheroes are up to. The chocolate might (gasp!) ruin the investment. So instead, the unread comics -- with their bold colors and bubble-capsuled dialogue -- go directly into protective plastic sleeves and are filed neatly by issue number.

In Gothams across the United States, the value of mint-condition comics continues to climb; some are worth as much as $170,000. The hero is now the comic book itself, not the masked avengers inside: the Flash, Batman, Superman, and the rest. What a shame. It used to be that, by battling underworld foes, those heroes kept the world safe -- at least in the minds of thousands of preadolescent American kids.

Not to fear: "Superheroes: Superman and Other Legends" is here to save the day. The exhibit, opening Monday at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, won't bring back the good old days when comics were actually read. But it will take viewers on a historic journey, covering everything from kiddie fantasy cartoons to the slick, adult-marketed comic books of today, such as Spawn.

Superheroes features approximately 60 pieces, including original covers, individual page panels, and reproductions. Fifteen are on loan from the Words and Pictures Museum in Northampton, Massachusetts, which archives only comic book art. (The Boca facility collects all cartoon formats.) Others are provided by the artists; Jose Louis Garcia-Lopez, for example, loaned some of his '70s Superman originals, black-and-white ink drawings complete with blue-pencil editing marks.

Also included in the exhibit are animated video shorts featuring comic book heroes like The Fantastic Four. Local artist Ed Kang will set up a "studio" in the gallery and show folks, with the help of computers, just how modern-day comic books are created.

Computers weren't around when comic books started gaining popularity in the '30s, of course. In those early days, many companies simply shredded the original artwork once the books were printed, rather than store it, according to Stephen Charla, museum collections coordinator. Only reproductions of those comic books are available today.

The "superhero" genre was born in June 1938, when Superman first appeared in a series entitled Action Comics. It was published by what would eventually become D.C. Comics, which sold the Man of Steel's first comic book for a measly dime. Today the original is worth $170,000. Talk about return on investment.

But there's more to superheroes than money. When they were first created, characters such as Superman, the Flash, and Green Lantern took their morality and wardrobe cues from the gods of mythology -- the original superheroes. Created during the Great Depression, just before World War II, Superman exemplified the resolve of the American spirit and was buoyed by godlike, superhuman powers. He wasn't alone; just check out the Flash's helmet, with its Mercury-like wings, and Green Lantern's Aladdin-inspired magic lamp and ring.

Despite their mythological roots, superheroes have always reflected their times by taking on political, economic, and cultural issues. In a 1970 Green Lantern issue, for example, "guest" hero Green Arrow castigates the Lantern for arresting a tenant who's just beaten up a slum lord. After taking the Lantern through the dingy tenement streets, the Arrow suggests that maybe the tenant had good reason to rail against his landlord.

Captain America even went hippie. In a scene from a 1970 issue, the red-white-and-blue crime fighter muses, "It isn't hip to defend the establishment -- only to tear it down." Even more interesting, however, is the fact that the panel on view is rendered in black and white. Without the color, details like the scaly shoulders of the Captain's costume are easy to spot. Seeing these kinds of drawings is like getting a behind-the-scenes look at a stage show while it's being rehearsed; you appreciate the work that goes into the production.

-- John Ferri

"Superheroes: Superman and Other Comic Book Legends," a retrospective exhibit of comic heroes in the Twentieth Century, opens Monday and runs through April 26 at the International Museum of Cartoon Art, 201 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $3 to $6. Call 561-391-2200.

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John Ferri

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