Caught in a web at age 3

$30 software lets a child create Spider-Man comics

Plugged In

May 03, 2007|By Eric Benderoff | Eric Benderoff,Chicago Tribune

Unless you've been trapped in a villain's lair, you know Spider-Man 3 opens tomorrow. Not surprisingly, the promotional spin has gripped my house.

Spidey adorns my 3-year-old's shoes, his underwear, his pajamas and now his juice box.

But this is not a column about clever marketers and their web of product placements. Rather, this is how one parent indulges a thirst to learn Spidey's adventures beyond the kid-friendly comic books we buy.

Now, thanks to some nifty $30 software, my son and I have been pretending to be a couple of Stan Lees, spinning our own tales about the web-slinging crime fighter.

Can my son read the stories we create or the comics we like to buy? Not quite, but when he flips through the pages by himself and tells me how the story is unfolding based on the artwork, it's clear his imagination is engaged. And when we sit around the dinner table and he tells me he invented a new villain, I feel pretty good about his Spider-Man fever.

Still, he's not ready for a PG-13 film in the theater, so we'll wait for the DVD to skip the scary stuff. Instead, we'll write new stories with "Marvel Heroes Comic Book Creator," a fun and educational addition to our ever-growing Spidey collection.

The software is made by Planetwide Media and can be bought online at www.mycomicbookcreator.com. But if you're a fan of Marvel characters such as Captain America, the Hulk or the Fantastic Four, you won't find them here. Instead, there's a lot of Spidey and Wolverine - plus the villains they battle, of course.

There are other titles in the comic-book creator line - including one for the old TV series Speed Racer - plus partnerships with Hollywood that include the software as a multimedia extra for the DVD releases of Barnyard, Charlotte's Web and the Jack Black movie Nacho Libre.

The big drawback: Comic Book Creator is not so simple to learn. It was made for people who understand how to use design software, not children.

The company disagrees with that assessment, but based on my tests, unless your child is at least 8, you'll need to sit together to create a comic book. And, before you start, I strongly suggest a parent or an older sibling first take the time to understand how to use the program.

But, with patience, you will be rewarded with a finished product your child will cherish.

When we printed our first comic book and I read the credits listing my son as a writer, the smile was as big as they get.

The next morning, you could see his pride as he brought his homemade comic book with him when he climbed into Mommy and Daddy's bed to join us as we read the papers.

It wasn't easy getting to that moment, however.

I tested the software on a Hewlett-Packard laptop running Windows Vista. I was told the software works on Vista, but I was not getting optimal results.

I dealt with a series of unnecessary annoyances that still allowed me to use the software but prevented me from reaching its full potential. For example, the software touts 100 design templates; I had a choice of four.

Planetwide has released an update for Vista (it runs on PCs using Windows 2000 and above), and after determining I did not have that update, they sent me a new copy.

Mark Politi, a vice president at the company, said they would do the same for any customer, free of charge, who may have purchased a version not quite ready for Vista.

The software includes more than 300 scenes to choose from. They are shown as thumbnails along the left side of the main creator page. Once you pick a scene you want, such as the Green Goblin tossing a pumpkin bomb at Spider-Man, you drag and drop it into a comic panel.

The thumbnail scenes, as well as another 100 pieces of clip art, are very small, making it practically impossible to determine if it is a scene you want to use without enlarging it first. Hence, I often needed to drag a scene into a comic panel to see if it was appropriate. If I didn't like it, I hit delete. If I did like it, I then dragged over a text balloon to start writing pithy Spidey-like dialogue.

Although 300 scenes and 100 pieces of clip art sound like a lot, it is not villain deep. There are only a few scenes with the Green Goblin, Rhino and Doc Ock, for instance, which can limit your storytelling.

It would be impossible to create a "Spider-Man versus Venom" comic book. Instead, our first effort was titled "Spider-Man versus Just About Everyone."

But, as I got familiar with the program, I learned that if I cropped tightly on some scenes I could reuse different parts throughout a story. Big, bold images are the hallmarks of today's comics anyway, so this was a fine discovery.

With the clip art, you can overlay an image onto any scene. It is particularly useful to show Spider-Man swinging along the tops of buildings.

Also with the clip art, the images of Spidey and his foes often are of a different vintage. A 1960s-era Green Goblin is mixed among the more modern variations. It can give your story an odd effect sometimes, but I found this charming.

If you want to test the software, Planetwide is offering a free trial download of its original comic creator program (not the Marvel version) Saturday at www.mycomicbookcreator.com.

Although our creation will not match what our friend Robert will show us Saturday at his store, Marvel Heroes will keep us busy drafting potential story lines for Spider-Man 4.

Eric Benderoff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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