How I helped Spider-Man save Santa Claus

A CNET News.com reporter spends a day learning to use Marvel's comic book creator, and in the process foils foes of St. Nick. Images: A superhero story

Let me say this, right up front: I don't know much about the Marvel Comics universe and the mythology around its characters.

So forgive me for the egregious mistakes I've likely made in the comic book I created for this story when it comes to who's a good guy and who's a bad guy, who works together and who works against whom. And for even raising the idea that Spider-Man, Elektra or Wolverine might take time out of their busy schedules to try to save Santa Claus.

There. I said it.

The thing is, I was faced earlier this week with a blank canvas: a brand-new copy of Planetwide Media's Marvel Heroes Comic Book Creator ($29.99, for Windows 2000 and Windows XP machines) and a pretty cool piece of software that lets you build your own comic book using some of Marvel's famous characters.

Among the characters on offer: Spider-Man, Wolverine, Elektra, Magneto, Dr. Doom and the Green Goblin.

The idea is that, drawing from a generous set of creation tools and a library of hundreds of images, you can build, page by page and frame by frame, a custom comic. You have access to all the stock comic exclamations like "BOOM" and "BANG" and lively, colorful block fonts with which to write narrative.

There are other versions of Planetwide's software, as well. The company is licensing it to all kinds of companies, including Sony Online Entertainment, National Geographic and Paramount Pictures.

Meanwhile, given that it's Marvel we're talking about, you can't import any of your own art. The company simply doesn't want people creating comics--which, by the way, can be published online using a built-in tool--that incorporate competing comic characters or, say, obscene images.

So, if you're the type who wants to create subversive material, you're just going to have to find a way to use your imagination with the stock art provided in the package.

For me, the exercise was to spend a day learning some of the tricks of the software and creating a comic for the benefit of you, my cherished readers. I had no printed manual, since the review version of the software I was given pretty much came with only digital instructions, though it did have a "quick start" install guide that included a few simple directions on how to manipulate things.

Nevertheless, I have to say that within 10 minutes of launching the software, I was doing just fine, even without consulting the help menu. Things are pretty intuitive, and after a few false starts, I was getting the hang of where to find the particular pieces of art I wanted, how to create new pages with the kinds of frames I wanted and how to build in the sort of text I was looking for.

Now, let's be clear here: my finished product, which accompanies this story, is not going to be mistaken for anything from Stan Lee. There's a spelling mistake, for example, and kudos to you if you can spot it, because I didn't until it was too late to fix it.

But I had a lot of fun, and spent way more time on the project than I thought I would.

Beware the Anti-Santa Liberation Front

The conceit I decided to pursue in the creation of my comic? That the mythical and evil "Anti-Santa Liberation Front" has set out, with just days to go before Christmas, to kill Santa Claus and ruin everything for the kids.

A devious and heartless goal, indeed. But thanks to the software, I had a palette of superheroes to recruit in my desperate attempt to save Santa and ensure happy holidays for all.

At first, I built the story frame by frame, panel by panel, pasting in images one by one and then adding text to them, because that's all I could figure out how to do.

But by page three or four, I was clear enough on the story I was writing and confident enough in how to use the tools that I was dropping in images three and four frames at a time, then going back to add text afterward.

In truth, this is a pretty fun piece of software, and particularly so, I would think, if you're a big fan of Marvel characters.

It takes a little while to get a handle on the tools, and to be sure, I only scratched the surface of what's possible. For example, the software enables adding animations to a comic, sound effects and other multimedia. I didn't use any of that, sticking solely to static images and text.

Nor did I use any of the sophisticated shading tools for text, and in the end, I stayed with about two different fonts, relying on a single font in two colors for most of the story.

But I was very quickly impressed with how easy it was to layer images on top of each other. The software includes both screenshots, which fill a frame, and clip art, which can be added on top of other images. The screenshots can be resized, though I did find it frustrating sometimes that they could not be sized exactly how I wanted. Clip art, on the other hand, could be sized precisely as desired.

A couple other nitpicking complaints I have are that the font color seemed to always default to red, and text always started with a shadow effect. That was appropriate sometimes, but often I found myself having to change those settings every time I added text, and that got a little annoying.

Ultimately, though, I went from knowing nothing about using the software to creating a nine-page comic which, though simple and silly, I was kind of proud of. All in the space of a few hours, and with no printed manual at hand.

It was fun. And in the end, that's the point, right?

Plus, and this was the big bonus, I managed to save Santa. All you kids out there, you know who to thank.

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