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August 1, 2011

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Superheroes the latest Manhattan walking tour

"I don't get the whole Harry Potter thing," a young boy says to our tour guide as we trudge down a midtown Manhattan street, the pavement glistening in the beastly mid-July sun.

"I don't either," says our guide, empathetically.

Potter, Shmotter. The boy wizard, pop culture hero though he may be, simply has no place on the Superhero Tour of New York. No, this two-hour walk is about traditional comic superheroes: Spider-Man, Batman, Captain America, the Green Lantern, Superman. Fans come to honor not only them, but the geeky guys who created them.

Indeed, geeks are very welcome on this outing, run by the Celebrity Planet company and usually hosted by the very geek-friendly Paul Lepelletier, a former comic cartoonist himself, now an advertising art director. He's come dressed for our tour in a belly-hugging shirt splattered with cartoon Popeyes, shorts, and a Superman baseball cap from Metropolis, Illinois, the United States (the hometown of Superman, duh).

"Geek is my secret identity," Lepelletier quips.

Our tour begins, fittingly, at Jim Hanley's Universe, a comic book store just across from the Empire State Building. I've brought along my 8-year-old and 10-year-old kids, but truth be told, the tour is not perfect for that age group. When kids of that age think superheroes, they want something truly visual.

No, this is a tour for people who love nothing more than to stand by a nondescript building and learn that the Batman creator once worked there. Or to stand on the street corner where Peter Parker, in the "Spider-Man" movie, was dropped off by his Uncle Ben, who was about to get killed.

Occasionally, fans do something a little crazy, like turn up in full costume - or get engaged. "We had two men, tourists from New Zealand, who got engaged in front of the famous globe in the Daily Planet building," Lepelletier recalls.

Dino and Gina Plakas are here with their three kids, from Plainview, New York. Dino, in fact, is a freelance comic artist. All five are wearing some kind of comic book reference - a T-shirt, or, in Gina's case, a green shirt in honor of the Green Lantern.

Early on the tour, we stop for a look from afar at the Flatiron Building. Where, Lepelletier asks, have we seen this? My son pipes up immediately: "It's the Daily Bugle in 'Spider-Man'!" "Yup," the guide says approvingly.

Soon, though, he loses the smaller kids with a long reference to William Randolph Hearst and his decision to put comics in the papers as a way of getting parents to buy them. The older ones, though, pay rapt attention.

He takes us next to a Park Avenue building where Will Eisner, the comic entrepreneur and artist who created "The Spirit," once had his studios. "I had the honor of being Eisner's assistant," says Lepelletier, now in his 50s, proudly.

There's more: Also in that building worked a certain Bob Kane, who comic fans will know created Batman (first, he tried a "bird man" - that didn't fly). We also hear how "Batman" the TV show, with its "Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel" cliffhanger, saved the then-faltering Batman franchise from oblivion.

We learn how Kane felt about the nipples on George Clooney's Batman suit. You want better trivia? We hear about Kane's California gravestone, which our guide has seen and which not only has a bat symbol on it, but coincidentally lies near the grave of a real-life Bruce Wayne.

Farther up Park Avenue we see the home of Kirk Alyn, known as the first actor to play Superman, in the 1948 film. It's just across from the home of Lenore Lemmon, one-time fiancee to the more famous Superman of the 1950s TV show, George Reeves. (A discussion ensues on the cause of Reeves' mysterious 1959 death.)

We also hear about some luminaries who've been on the tour: Cyndi Lauper, Lepelletier says. Two guys from the show "Entourage." Someone from ABBA, he thinks. And someone from the rock band Twisted Sister.

At 417 Fifth Avenue, we spy a former home of Marvel Comics. We also get some history involving World War II and the use of imagery like Captain America. The kids are distracted until we approach the imposing marble structure that is the main branch of the New York Public Library.

At which point my son, revived, yells out: "Hey, it's the Ghostbusters museum!!" Well, close, anyway.

Lepelletier notes that, yes, the Ghostbusters were here. But not just them. Here on the corner of 40th and Fifth is where Peter Parker's uncle was felled. AND ... this has nothing to do with superheroes, mind you, but it's also the same corner where Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie Bradshaw broke up with Mr Big in the "Sex and the City" movie!

There's more: The Chrysler Building (a Spidey perch). Grand Central Station. The News Building on East 42nd Street, where we walk through "the very same doors," Lepelletier says, "that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder walked through in 'Superman.'" (There, of course, it was the Daily Planet, while in the real world, the building once housed the New York Daily News.)

The tour usually ends at the Overlook Bar, where art by prominent cartoonists graces the walls. Alas, the bar is closed on this particular day. So we part by the famous globe in the Daily Planet lobby. The comic geeks are disappointed about the bar, but happy overall.

Dino, the comic illustrator, seems almost misty as he tries to sum up what comics mean to him.

"They're today's mythology," he says thoughtfully. "Batman? He's Zeus."

As for our host, he marvels that he gets to do something he likes so much and call it a job.

He created the tour a year ago in April with Celebrity Planet co-founder James Bonney, and does it three days a week - in rain, snow or, as we experienced, severe heat.


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