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Published Sep. 8, 2009

An 86-year-old cartoonist named Stan Lee is probably too old to turn handsprings. But very shortly he will be a principal beneficiary in the $4 billion sale of Marvel Comics to Walt Disney Co. Marvel controls Lee's Spiderman and other action heroes, and this huge sale puts an end to the curse of Superman, which netted its creators a mere $130 about 70 years ago.

Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster tragically lost their rights to millions in the late 1930s. It was Siegel who actually signed over rights to Detective Comics (DC Comics), never dreaming of the comic's long-term possibilities in that Depression era.

Siegel and Shuster met as classmates at Cleveland's Glenville High School (my wife's alma mater). They were working on the school paper, the Glenville Torch, when they invented the Man of Steel around 1932. Supermanbecame an economic juggernaut by the 1940s. Siegel and Shuster must have shed kryptonite tears for decades as their character earned multi-millions for other people.

Over the years, they made futile legal efforts to recover their rights. The pair dropped a lawsuit in the 1940s after a court ruled in favor of DC Comics. The pair eventually got small annuities but never shared in any real wealth, which was reaped by Marvel and others from licensing, publishing, movies and television. In 2006, a Supermansequel alone earned more than $200 million at the box office.

The whole genre of action heroes has today progressed to the point where museums in Miami, Atlanta and elsewhere chronicle their birth and growth. Theme parks make them cash cows from Florida to France (although hard times in Dubai are slowing one park development.) We also have a current phenomenon called graphic novels, wherein serious themes are told in comic book form, as in Art Spiegelman's Maus.

The fact that Steven Spielberg is developing a film that will feature Tin-Tin, the adventure strip invented by Belgian cartoonist Herge, is further proof that there's gold in them thar comic strips. Tin-Tin, a blond boy reporter who is accompanied by a dog named Snowy, has been the biggest adventure comic character in Europe for many years, but up till now has been confined mostly to books.

Disney, whose main mouse is now 81 years old, has the longest track record in turning line drawings into big money. Still, many once-big names in cartoons have fallen by the wayside. The late Harvey Kurtzman, founding editor of Mad Magazine, introduced the character Alfred E. Neuman (What, Me Worry?), but Alfred disappeared with Kurtzman's passing.

Action heroes, whose fantasy victories used to thrill the teenagers that bought and traded comic books, now dominate the grown-up entertainment world to an incredible degree. This kind of wishful fantasy, in which evil is crushed by righteous power, used to be deemed childish. But at the box office, X-Men beat real men almost every time.

Jerry Blizin is a retired journalist who lives in Tarpon Springs.