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NPR's Planet Money Team Sets Out To Buy A Vintage Superhero

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Every year, the copyright expires on a few great works of art and fictional characters. They fall into what's known as the public domain. Robert Smith and Kenny Malone from our Planet Money team have been poking around in the public domain and discovered an old superhero languishing there, a hero that a public radio network deserves and needs. So they thought maybe NPR could rescue him.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: In 1943, Clue Comics Issue No. 1 launched a new character into the world. His name was Tom Wood, an inventor who created this superpowered face mask.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: It looked a little scary, a little like Darth Vader. But this was a good guy. And best of all, this mask had audio superpowers.

SMITH: Like super hearing, as we see in this panel from Clue Comics. Our hero is in an alleyway. He's looking for a bad guy. And there's the sound of footsteps way off in the distance. And then he says...

MALONE: (As Micro-Face) My micro-hearing brings the sound of running feet. It is Eddie Torpedo (ph). There he is ahead.

Love it, obviously. But best of all, this character had a super microphone attached to his face.

SMITH: As illustrated later in the comic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SMITH: There's this gang of gun-toting goons. And we hear our hero say...

(As Micro-Face) I'll throw real fear into these punks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Then he uses his face microphone to broadcast the sound of a police whistle.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

MALONE: But it's not just a loud whistle. He can make it like surround sound, so these bad guys now think they're surrounded by cops.

SMITH: The goons lose it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As goon) Cop whistles? There's a whole squad.

MALONE: Chaos ensues. Our hero prevails.

And this audio superhero spoke to us, even if he apparently didn't speak to comic book readers in the 1940s, because he only appeared in about a dozen issues and then was never heard from again.

SMITH: The comic book company that owned the character could have renewed the copyright but never bothered, which means this microphone-faced superhero is now up for grabs. And we wanted him.

MALONE: But we also wanted to be sure this would work. Luckily, I have a friend in the comic book industry. He is the co-president of Archie Comics, Alex Segura. And so we ran this character by him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ALEX SEGURA: What's his name? What's his, like, superhero name?

MALONE: The name for the character is Micro-Face.

SEGURA: That's an unfortunate name.

(LAUGHTER)

SEGURA: It's just not a good name.

SMITH: We should say here that Micro-Face has a normal-sized face.

MALONE: Yes, normal-sized.

SMITH: The micro refers to the microphone. And we showed Alex some pictures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SEGURA: That's a pretty cool costume.

MALONE: He is jacked.

SEGURA: Yeah. He's got, like, 15 abs.

MALONE: He has more abs than I would have known were possible.

SEGURA: And this is very basic superhero costuming.

MALONE: Good.

SEGURA: It's a good starting point.

SMITH: Now, since Micro-Face is in the public domain, we are allowed to just start using the character. We could sell T-shirts today. Anybody can.

MALONE: However, if we take Micro-Face and write a new story and then we publish a brand-new comic, we would own that new version of Micro-Face.

SMITH: So Alex offered to come up with some ideas to update the character.

SEGURA: Then we'll just go from there.

MALONE: Fantastic.

SMITH: Now, even though legally we can reboot Micro-Face, it did occur to us that the original character was the artistic vision of a real person.

MALONE: Micro-Face was owned by a company. But he was created by one of its employees, Al Ulmer, who died in the 1980s. But his family is still around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PEGGY LOUCKS: I'm Peggy Loucks (ph). And I'm 83 years old. And I'm the daughter of Allen Ulmer - U-L-M-E-R.

SMITH: Peggy remembers her father going off to work as a comic book artist in Manhattan and creating tons of crazy characters like the Flagman and the Ragman and Micro-Face.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LOUCKS: This guy with these goggled eyes and this nose with a microphone, I just (laughter) - where did he come from? Truthfully, I don't know.

MALONE: And Peggy says the world may never know because her father joined the army soon after Micro-Face was invented. And eventually, he lost his job in the industry when comic books started being censored in the 1950s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LOUCKS: I think it left such a bitter taste in his mouth.

SMITH: We told Peggy about how we had fallen in love with Micro-Face and were planning to revive him.

LOUCKS: My father would just love this.

MALONE: Really?

LOUCKS: Oh, yes. I - he certainly would.

SMITH: All right. Now all we have to do is create a whole new mythology and image for Micro-Face. Fortunately, our comic book insider has been hard at work.

SEGURA: Hey there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MALONE: Hey, Alex.

SEGURA: How's it going?

MALONE: Alex Segura had written a whole new story for Micro-Face, working freelance for us, not for Archie Comics.

SMITH: In his new retelling, Micro-Face has a grandson, Sam Salazar, who works as a radio reporter, which we love. And somehow, Sam inherits his grandfather's mask.

SEGURA: Sam realizes that his story and his life are entangled. You know, he realizes, like, this thing I'm reporting on is now affecting my grandfather's old company.

SMITH: You could imagine the new origin story could go a little something like this. Sam, the grandson, gets a mysterious phone call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DANNY RIVERO: (As Sam Salazar) Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I can't tell you who I am, but Golden Age Private Equity is going after Wood Family Inventions.

RIVERO: (As Sam Salazar) That's my grandfather's old company.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He invented something that they're after. I don't have time...

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

RIVERO: (As Sam Salazar) What?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR BUZZING)

RIVERO: (As Sam Salazar) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As courier) Sam Salazar?

RIVERO: (As Sam Salazar) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As courier) Somebody paid a lot of money to send this to you, kid.

RIVERO: (As Sam Salazar) It says it's from my grandpa. He's been dead for 10 years.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As courier) I don't know what to tell you, kid.

RIVERO: (As Sam Salazar) It's some kind of a mask.

SMITH: What happens next?

MALONE: We don't know.

SMITH: Artists are creating the comic book as we speak, a brand-new print comic book featuring the brand-new Planet Money Micro-Face. You can see a drawing of his new mask and preorder the comic book at npr.org/microface.

MALONE: Or you could make your own Micro-Face comic book. He is in the public domain.

SMITH: Sure.

MALONE: But we will be reporting on the process of making our comic using our super hearing and microphone faces to tell you all about it because that's the Micro-Face way.

SMITH: Visit npr.org/microface.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith.

KENNY MALONE AND ROBERT SMITH: NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.