This summer, Comic-Con International in San Diego drew 130,000 fans, and Japan's Comiket, a mass gathering for comics fans, quadrupled that number. Science fiction is a hot genre on prime-time television, and many shows, such as "Heroes," reflect the comic-book ethos.
On Broadway, Tony-winning director Julie Taymor is working with U2's Bono and Edge to put together a Spider-Man musical that will reportedly be the most expensive production in the history of theater. Then there are video games -- such as "Spider-Man: Web of Shadows," one of this year's most anticipated new releases -- which stir even more interest among Hollywood executives who know that film franchises such as "Harry Potter" and "X-Men" can pay off big in games, toys and other merchandise sales long after a movie's final weekend at theaters.
In other words, prepare for a steady parade of masked men in the seasons to come. Right now Warner Bros. has a string of superhero projects underway (another Batman film, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern and possible Green Arrow and Flash movies among them) and "Watchmen" due in theaters in March. Lionsgate has "Punisher: War Zone" due Dec. 5 and Frank Miller's "The Spirit" on Christmas Day.
Sony has "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" in May, and there's talk about a fourth movie for "Spider-Man," a franchise that racked up a staggering $1.1 billion at the U.S. box office since its launch in 2002. Hollywood newcomer Marvel Studios, meanwhile, has announced plans to make four more movies (another Iron Man movie and then Avengers, Captain America and Thor) after releasing two of this year's top 10 hits, "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk."
Taking the long view on all this was Lee, co-creator of Spider-Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four and most of the other signature Marvel Comics characters. The 85-year-old got some of the loudest cheers of the night when he went on stage, showing that the audience knew comic-book history.
Afterward, backstage, Lee was giddy.
"It's hard to believe how far everything has come. Who would have expected all this when we were sitting there thinking up superhero stories and just hoping kids would like them?" he said. "I don't see any end in sight for all this either. There are so many stories, and there's a huge appetite for them. It reminds me of when Hollywood was making westerns. There was always another one you could do, another cowboy story and another way to tell it."
Perhaps, but in 1959 there were 26 westerns on American prime-time television and now there are none, which suggests that superhero saturation may have consequences down the road.
For the moment, though, there is no end in sight, and Gerard Way, lead singer of the rock band My Chemical Romance, said the sector would thrive not only because of its commercial viability but also because of the nature of its creative community right now. Way writes "The Umbrella Academy," an acclaimed graphic-novel series for Dark Horse Comics, which he says has been approved by Universal to be a film as soon as 2010.
"The people that are making these movies are coming to it with a love of the comics and a respect for them, and I think that's why the fans are so passionate about these movies," Way said. "It comes down to the fact that for the first time, it's fans who are making these movies, and that makes all the difference in the world. It's not just capes that people like, it's watching movies made with great ideas and imagination. That's what makes them fly."