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Dear Mr. Alice:

I was wondering, why do so many of our superheroes, such as Batman and Superman, wear capes? With the type of work these men do, I would think that the capes would be somewhat cumbersome.

-- Kurt D. Sadrow, National City

We dialed up Shel Dorf, founder of San Diego's ComiCon. He's a cartoonist and a well-known comics historian, a specialist in Dick Tracy. He consulted on the movie. He was a longtime friend of both Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman's creators, and of Bob Kane, who invented Batman. Some of their conversations covered the early inspirations for the two characters.

Actually, Superman began life in 1933 as a burly villain partial to white T-shirts and dress pants. He had been given his super powers by an evil scientist. Pretty quickly, though, they turned him into a flying crime fighter, and by 1934 he had acquired his Clark Kent alter ego, a legitimate job, Lois Lane, his tights, and his cape.

As Shel Dorf recalls it, one of the inspirations for Superman was the pulp fiction character Zorro, who was also a mysterious caped crusader with a dual identity. While Zorro defended his Mexican brothers in the pueblo of Los Angeles, the mild-mannered Don Diego Vega (Zorro without the mask and cape) whined a lot and read poetry. Zorro had been introduced in a magazine serial in 1919; Douglas Fairbanks portrayed him in a popular 1920 silent film. By the time Siegel and Shuster created Superman, Zorro was already an icon.

As a practical matter for the artist, giving Superman a billowing cape allowed Shuster to emphasize movement and drama in his drawings, as the figure flew through the sky. And because the heart of cartooning is the ability to play God in your own little two-dimensional world -- to defy logic and the laws of physics -- there never was any danger that Superman would trip on his cape or get it caught on a TV antenna.

Batman, no flier, didn't need his capelike bat wings for transportation, just for his bat identity. He was the thinking man's superhero -- a sly guy with gadgets. Well, at least until Adam West got ahold of him. The bat wings, says Mr. Dorf, owe their slightly menacing look to one of the famous drawings from Leonardo da Vinci's sketchbook of fantastic flying machines. The trailing edge of each wing is scalloped in what is the cliché bat on every Halloween wall decoration, even though it resembles no real-life bat.

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