Superheroes in every medium are bigger than ever these days — and while they’ve been around for generations, as the heroes of Marvel, DC, and other publishers are ascendant on TV and on film, there’s a wealth of characters from comics’ classical eras left languishing in obscurity. So what happens when one of America’s biggest media organisations tries to revive one?
That’s what NPR — or more specifically, NPR’s business podcast, Planet Money with Kenny Malone and Robert Smith — have done with the classic golden age hero Micro-Face. Originally a Hillman creation created by Al Ulmer for Clue Comics in 1943, Micro-Face (alter ego Tom Wood) was a failed inventor, looking for vengeance after his brother was killed by gangsters. Developing a powerful “Micro-Mask” that gave him enhanced hearing, an amplified voice, and X-Ray vision, Tom first offered his invention to the U.S. government — but when he was turned down, he decided to use his invention for good, becoming the hero Micro-Face.
Now, Micro-Face slipped into obscurity, and eventually the public domain… which is now how Planet Money has gotten its hands on the character. Teaming up with comics writer and novelist Alex Segura — formerly of Archie Comics, currently Oni Press, and the author of books like Poe Dameron: Free Fall and the superhero noir Secret Identity — and artist Jamale Igle (with colours from Ellie Wright and letters from Taylor Esposito), Planet Money has brushed off Micro-Face’s legacy and remade it for a new age, as part of a podcast series about comic book IP. To learn more about the revival of Mysterious Micro-Face — casting the titular hero now as a young Cuban-American NPR journalist — Gizmodo spoke to Segura over email to learn more about how Micro-Face’s return came about. Check out the full interview below, as well as a preview of the comic Segura, Igle, Wright, and Esposito made for Planet Money!
James Whitbrook, Gizmodo: Tell me a little bit about how Mysterious Micro-Face came about. Why did NPR want to delve into the world of comic books in the first place?
Alex Segura: NPR’s Planet Money podcast is business-focused, but with an entertaining, “let’s stumble our way through this to learn” approach. Kenny Malone, one of the hosts, reached out to me for an interview last year. They were doing a series of episodes on comic book IP — and the potential an obscure character has in terms of media, like movies or TV. They were going to try and buy an existing, minor character from Marvel or DC. So, in my role as a comics publishing exec, I very gently let them know that no company in their right mind would sell a character — especially now, when you’re just one great story away from creating a profitable enterprise.
After the initial interview, I spoke to the hosts and let them know there was another path — the public domain. There are hundreds of Golden Age comic book characters that have seen their copyrights and trademarks lapse over the years, and Planet Money could, theoretically, find a character, dust it off, and make it their own. I thought that was it, honestly, but a few days later Kenny and his cohost, Robert Smith, reached out and said they not only wanted to find a public domain hero but they’d like me to write the reboot and help them in their journey to create a comic book. I of course said yes — I’m always intrigued with finding new ways to engage with readers through comics, whether it’s something meta and literary like my novel Secret Identity, or digital platforms like Zestworld. It felt like a really fun assignment.
Gizmodo: Why Micro-Face in the end? What was it about the chance to bring this character back that intrigued you the most?
Segura: Kenny and Robert discovered Micro-Face. I had never heard of him. I think they liked the idea of an audio-based superhero being reinvigorated by a podcast. I wasn’t blown away by the name at first — I think I said “oh, that’s an unfortunate name” when they mentioned it to me. But once we got to talking, I saw the potential of the character. I explained to Robert and Kenny that there were three paths we could take — we could do a historical story, continuing the saga of Tom Wood, the original Micro-Face; we could just do a top-to-bottom reboot, ignoring everything that came before and redesigning the character completely; or, we could take a legacy approach, where we spotlight Tom Wood’s grandson taking on the mantle, nodding to the work of Micro-Face creator Allen Ulmer and adding to the mythos with a new, Planet Money-specific iteration. The last path really spoke to me, as a longtime fan of legacy heroes and the idea of carrying the mantle from those who’ve come before. It felt like the right path, so I was in.
The next challenge was building the team of creators that would help me bring this character back to life. The first person we went to was Jerry Ordway, the legendary artist of Power of Shazam!, All-Star Squadron, Superman, and more. Jerry’s a friend and a supremely nice guy, and he knows a thing or two about reimaging golden age heroes. He looked over the classic Micro-Face and modernised his look, making a version NPR could call their own. He contributed the main cover to the book as well. For the interiors, we were so blessed to get Jamal Igle, another superstar, to draw the book. Jamal’s a pro’s pro, just supremely talented and kind. He’s worked on Supergirl, Black, Molly Danger, and more characters than I can name. He brought a dynamic style to the story that really elevated what we were doing. Jamal and Jerry are also people I’ve had the pleasure to have known over the last two decades or so, and it was an absolute thrill to work with them on something like this. Colorist Elllie Wright and letterer Taylor Esposito, the crack team behind The Black Ghost, rounded out the roster, and we were aided by editorial consultant Ivan Cohen, who kept us all in line as we scrambled to finish. It was really a dream project, and super-unique.
Gizmodo: Your new imagination of the character transforms Micro-Face into a young Cuban-American journalist working at NPR. Given Superheroes and journalist alter-egos have had a long history in comics, what did you want to make stand out about Sam when you were ideating this new version of the character?
Segura: I made Sam Cuban-American because I really believe in diversifying the characters we see as protagonists in all kinds of fiction. I can’t put into words how important it was to me, as a reader, to see Latinx heroes or characters take centre stage as a kid, and I try to reciprocate that as best I can. The “journalist as superhero” is a trope, but what made this iteration fun is that Sam’s an actual NPR reporter, and we got to weave in a lot of audio reporting details and methods that you don’t often see in comics. I wanted Sam to be the best kind of reporter — sharp, detail-oriented, passionate, and fearless. So we tried our best to showcase that in the one-shot.
Gizmodo: Speaking of that — usually we don’t actually get to see much of superheroes doing their day jobs as journalists in these books. What was important to you to get right about portray Sam’s career?
Segura: I think what we miss a lot of times with reporters as heroes is we don’t see the drudge work — which, admittedly, isn’t that exciting. But we (Kenny, Robert, and I) wanted to show Sam not only getting the big scoop — but his journey to that, which includes reading the morning news, making phone calls, doing interviews (door-knocking, even!), and doing the in-the-weeds stuff that makes for good journalism. Kenny and Robert were a great resource in guiding me through what it’s like to work in radio, and adding those details to Sam’s character really helped him stand out.
Gizmodo: I wanted to ask about your choice of villain here — Mysterious Micro-Face’s big bad isn’t a traditional supervillain, but the head of a private equity firm. What made that a natural choice for Sam’s Micro-Face to deal with?
Segura: I think from the beginning we knew we didn’t want Micro-Face to just be a standard superhero. All of Planet Money’s podcasts are educational, in a funny, knowing wink kind of way. So we tried our best to tell a good superhero origin/yarn that still showcases things about the business world. Case in point, one of the villains Micro-Face battles is Corporal Raider — a powerhouse bad guy who helps take over companies. It’s a fun way to teach people the terminology and hopefully make for an entertaining read.
Gizmodo: Do you think there’s future for Micro-Face now you’ve had a chance to re-establish the character? Where would you like to take them next, if you get the chance?
Segura:I think so! I’d love to keep telling Micro-Face’s adventures in some form, and the first issue is available now via the NPR Shop. The orders have been fantastic, competitive with top-selling books in comic shops, which has been wonderful to see.
Without spoiling anything, the end of the issue sets up a status quo for Micro-Face — Sam has a clear mission that he has taken on, and it involves a widening world of characters and challenges. I’d love to be able to tell the rest of that story.
Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.