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AVERAGE JOE AS superhero

Reinventing comic book superheroes has been Bob Burden's way to tell a story, until this summer. Now his motley crew of mono-talented superhero helpers are living his vision on the big screen.

Enigma. Part-time genius. Full-time eccentric. Self-described "cartoonist, writer, performance artist, street poet and incorrigible wanderer." Creator of the world's first surrealist superhero.

So, who is the mysterious man behind Mystery Men, which opens today in theaters?

Bob Burden has toiled in the inky fields of the alternative comic book industry for more than 20 years, hammering out otherworldly story lines, sketching out over-the-top characters and making a name for himself in the under-the-counter realm of fringe fiction.

Now that name is being writ large on megaplex screens nationwide as the creator of Mystery Men, completing Burden's unlikely journey from the dark corners of his Atlanta studio to the bright lights of Hollywood.

Burden created the Mystery Men in the mid-1980s as a spinoff from his comic book series, Flaming Carrot.

The Carrot _ "Champion of Justice! Master of Adventure! Dreadnaught of Chicanery!" _ is a working class "superhero" who wears a large carrot mask, travels by pogo stick and fights evil when he's not bowling.

To liven up the Carrot's adventuring, Burden created the Mystery Men to accompany the rogue superhero in a fight against mad scientists who cloned Hitler's feet. That first lineup included Mr. Furious and The Shoveler, two characters who survived the transformation to the big screen.

The other Mystery Men _ Jumpin' Jehoshaphat, Screwball and Red Rover _ didn't make the cut.

"There are many Mystery Men," Burden said. "At one time there were as many as 30, but they have the highest casualty rate of any superhero team. At one time, we called them, "The Dirty 30.' "

Since Burden created the Flaming Carrot in 1979, the comic character has been his meal ticket and the linchpin of Burden's many inspirations. But Burden was always aiming to take his creations to the larger audience of the Major Motion Picture.

"That was always my goal," Burden said. Burden's publisher, Mike Richardson of Dark Horse Comics, believed that Burden's ideas could translate to film.

"Mike had more faith than anybody in these characters and basically hammered it into Hollywood," Burden said. "He gave me a shot in this thing, and we were able to pull it off."

Unlike Flaming Carrot, which got a few nibbles from movie producers but no contract, Burden took the Mystery Men straight from inspiration into movie production and is only now turning it into a comic book series.

"He just sold the idea with very little to base it on," said Dark Horse Comics publicist Shawna Ervin-Gore. "It was a diamond idea and Universal just jumped on it."

Burden had no role in the scripting of the film beyond his "created by" credit and said the movie is Universal's "vision of what I had envisioned."

Despite lukewarm reviews, Burden said he's not about to disavow the movie.

"That's now what I'm about," Burden said. "But I stayed as far away from this project as possible. I didn't want to be responsible for anything screwing up on an $80-million movie. If it was only a mere $10-million, I would've probably jumped in more."

One reason the Mystery Men succeeded where Flaming Carrot didn't was their accessibility, Burden said.

"They're a little more maleable," he said. "Not commercial, but a little more understandable, user-friendly, a little more populist."

Burden's strength is creating whacked out "superheroes" from the whole cloth of the Average Joe population.

Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), for instance, is remarkable only in that he gets terribly angry. The Shoveler (William H. Macy) is a working-class family man who can swing a shovel like nobody's business. The Blue Raja (Hank Hazaira) uses forks and spoons to fight, but never knives, which come from his mother's silver chest.

The Spleen (Paul Reubens), well, his forte is flatulence.

These, and other oddballs, flow up from Burden's overactive imagination like bubbles in a hot tub.

"Screwball is just a happy hero with pet shoe laces," Burden said of one of the original Mystery Men. "And Strangler is one of the darkest characters in the history of comics, who inherited his power of incredible hand strength from a bundt cake that was sent to him in the mail."

Burden is currently at work on the newest Mystery Man, Invincible Man, whose superpowers are "flying and hitting and geography."

Ascribing super abilities to working stiffs comes out of Burden's Rust Belt upbringing. Burden, born in Buffalo, N.Y., moved with his family from one industrial town to another through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. Burden started college at Marquette University in Milwaukee before transferring to the University of Georgia, where he studied journalism and political science.

After graduating, he moved to Atlanta and became a wheeler-dealer in collectibles. He wrote and drew his first comic book in 1979 and has never punched a clock or signed a time card.

"Comics back in those days was like being a blues player in the '50s," Burden said. "Or being a Chicago gangster during prohibition. You were right in the middle of history and the rest of the world never knew what was going on. That was a great time. It's better being "top of the world, ma' in comics than any other field simply because it's more fun."

Whether it's the comic book realm or another stab at movies, Burden said he wants to be known for just one thing.

"Bob Burden is a storyteller," Burden said, slipping into the out-of-body third person the way sports stars often do. "I have beginnings, middles and ends to my stories and that may be something that Hollywood could use a dose of."