Meet Bat Boy, a wingless hybrid of human and flying mammal who reportedly discovered Saddam Hussein's Iraqi spider hole and competed on "American Idol." His colleague Ed Anger is an irate conservative columnist, whose three-decade oeuvre presaged Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Politically connected extraterrestrial UFO Alien correctly predicted the winner of presidential races from 1980 until 2008, when his streak ended. PhD Ape is the world's smartest chimpanzee.
These are Neil McGinness' X-Men, ripped from the pages of the defunct supermarket tabloid Weekly World News. But are they worth anything more than a few laughs?
McGinness, who joined a group of unnamed investors to buy the archives of the fake-beyond-belief news source in October 2008, believes Weekly World News and its characters represent a "Marvel in the rough," referring to the comic book house and movie studio.
He doesn't mean that Hugh Jackman would play Bat Boy in a movie. McGinness compares the tabloid's 30-year archive of faux news stories to the Marvel comic book catalog that Walt Disney & Co. bought last year for $4 billion. As Disney plans to push Marvel's plot lines through a variety of media formats and merchandising outlets, Bat Boy LLC would give the Weekly World News characters new life in comic books, books, TV shows and merchandise.
Putting the hypothesis to a test, Bat Boy LLC released its debut comic book based on Bat Boy, Ed Anger, UFO Alien, Ape PhD and others in January. There are talks of a TV show, and products such as Bat Boy guitar cases and skateboards are in production.
"These aren't superheroes per se," McGinness says. "They are characters in the mock-heroic genre."
Disney's 2009 acquisition of Marvel Entertainment Inc. may be the model storybook acquisition. CEO Bob Iger referred to Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men and more than 5,000 Marvel characters as a "treasure trove."
Other media houses have similar plans. Last year Viacom Inc. spent $60 million on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a franchise that has exploited TV, film, video games and merchandising opportunities but needs repair.
Late last summer, Time Warner Inc. announced the creation of DC Entertainment Inc. to ensure that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and other comic book heroes would be properly exploited throughout "all media platforms."
Weekly World News received props in "Men in Black" from Tommy Lee Jones, who used the paper to track aliens. There's a musical about Bat Boy (not created by McGinness) that plays the college circuit. Otherwise, the WWN troupe has a limited track record in big media, compared to Marvel, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Superman. Unlike Disney, Viacom and Time Warner, McGinness, a former executive in IMG Worldwide Inc.'s entertainment and comedy divisions who headed corporate development for National Lampoon Inc. and was vice president of marketing for Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video Entertainment, does not control massive television and film distribution operations.
So Bat Boy LLC has had to outsource. It is working with Creative Artists Agency and New York literary agency Harold Ober Associates Inc. An "autobiography" published this year by Simon & Schuster Inc.'s Scribner imprint will chronicle Bat Boy's life. The company is also developing an animated TV show with DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc.
IDW Publishing, a San Diego unit of IDT Corp., is producing the comic book. "I've been a big Bat Boy fan since I saw him in the paper about 10 years ago," says IDW publisher and editor-in-chief Chris Ryall.
IDW publishes a mix of original and licensed stories. The Weekly World News characters are "the closest we have gotten to superheroes," Ryall says. The company has produced original comics like "30 Days of Night," which became a film for Sony Corp. But it also deals with outsourced franchises such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, G.I. Joe and the Transformers. "We're buying name recognition for a lot of these projects," Ryall says.
The WWN stories are aimed at teens and older. They include comic references and in jokes, and they wallow in irony. "It's partly that the concepts are so ridiculous and colorful," Ryall says. "People with a pop-culture, savvy mindset are going to get a lot out of it."
These days, it has become relatively common for movies to become comics, or vice versa. It's not typical for subjects of newspaper stories to beget comics.
While traditional media has been battered by the recession, movies have been more resilient. Lazard Capital Markets reports box office revenue increased nearly 10% in 2009. Underscoring the value of recognized characters, the firm expects the top five titles this year all to be sequels: "Iron Man 2," "Shrek Forever After," "Toy Story 3," "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."
Frederick Moran of Benchmark Co. LLC observes that while box office receipts grew last year, the number of big-budget films decreased. A film from a comic or other book may pose less of a risk because it already has an audience. "The fact that some of these characters have a historical following gives the studio more certainty that the film will succeed even if it doesn't have big-name actors," Moran says. "A name actor like Tom Cruise would be a draw; certainly a name hero like Superman, Batman or Spider-Man represents a draw."
Marvel's appeal only grew when it proved it could develop a superhero with limited mass-market recognition, Iron Man, into a hit movie. Viacom is trying to reposition the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which began as a comic book. CEO Philippe Dauman pitched investors on Viacom's ability to "revitalize this once-vibrant franchise" through Nickelodeon's TV channels and merchandising as well as Paramount's movie arm, which plans a 2012 film.
"Animation has broad appeal that can be easily shared around the globe," Dauman said during an earnings call following the acquisition. He added that the company is scouting for more "low-priced intellectual property opportunities" in the vein of the Ninja Turtles.
Weekly World News may be "low-priced intellectual property," though McGinness will not disclose what he and his partners paid. The label "low-brow intellectual property" might also fit.
Decades before "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" peddled fake news, Weekly World News reported on a faux reality that truly stretched reasoning, not to say good sense. While Bat Boy LLC aims to push the tabloid characters into multiple media channels, the company is still doing what its predecessor did best, cranking out weird fabrications. McGinness has a team of writers penning bogus news at WeeklyWorldNews.com. "The entertainment news category has never been hotter," McGinness says.
McGinness' experience at National Lampoon provides one more model for what he is trying to achieve with Bat Boy. The "Vacation" and "Animal House" movie franchises both developed from pieces that ran in the magazine. "If there is anything I drew from National Lampoon," he says, "it is that individual stories have the potential to become ripe opportunities in Hollywood." You don't have to be PhD Ape to know that.