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Using Superhero Comics to Teach Young Children Intellectual Property Concepts

by Linda Kocis & John Schlipp on September 23, 2015

On January 5, 2014, The Simpsons television series aired “Steal This Episode.” Homer Simpson discovers that he enjoys pirating movies so much that he decides to share them with his neighbors. He installs a large outdoor movie screen and offers lawn chairs and popcorn for his friends to view the illegally acquired flicks. He doesn’t charge admission so he thinks he’s within the law. However, the FBI learns about his questionable downloading and arrests him. In 2014, The Simpsons celebrated its twenty-fifth broadcast season making it the longest-running American sitcom. According to TV by the Numbers, “Steal This Episode,” was watched by more than 12 million viewers.1

Perhaps this illustrates how popular cultural icons, such as The Simpsons, have been successfully utilized by school teachers and college professors to engage students with what is normally considered boring topics. There are numerous books and websites devoted to such applications. For example, during the very first season of The Simpsons, episode two (“Bart the Genius”) provides an ideal lesson discussion opportunity for students about scholastic honesty. Bart cheats on an intelligence exam and learns the real liability of dishonesty, experiencing multiple encounters of others’ retaliation to his actions. A website called Creative Thinking (http://creativethinking.nku.edu), designed for educators’ use and developed by the authors of this article, offers related lessons about plagiarism and copyright awareness utilizing film clips, such as this one from The Simpsons.

Animation of varying types, including animé, appeals to a wide range of ages, especially children and teens. Teaching young people about intellectual property can be a challenging task. Using pop cultural resources and animation to relate to a younger audience makes this task both fun and educational.

Intellectual Property Information Literacy

As intellectual property librarians, we have collaboratively worked with children’s librarians, teen librarians, school librarians, and other educators. Our goal is to promote many types of Intellectual Property Information Literacy (IPIL) programs in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky metropolitan region.

After conducting successful science inventor patent programs for children—on behalf of Patent and Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) libraries representing the United States Patent and Trademark Office—we were searching for ways to include other intellectual properties, particularly trademark and copyright, as well as topics such as music, arts and humanities, and business entrepreneurship. These types of “creativity and innovation” programs have included InventorFest2 and Creative Thinking,3 which is an online K-12 intellectual property awareness curriculum to teach youth about originality and avoiding plagiarism. The Creative Thinking site also includes an original interactive database entitled “Which Simpsons Character Is Your Intellectual Property Profile?” Students test to see which Simpsons character they compare to, in relation to intellectual property challenges such as plagiarism and copyright.

Before offering superhero intellectual property awareness programs for public libraries, we presented an engaging IPIL book discussion for a regional middle school student workshop at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). The popular tween novels Masterpiece by Elise Broach (2008) and Scumble by Ingrid Law (2010) were utilized to engage students to analyze the creativity of these books’ characters. Students proactively explored synthesizing research skills while learning to respect others’ intellectual works. They learned how to avoid plagiarism, while becoming aware of copyrights, trademarks, and patents that could also apply to their own creative and innovative works.4

Superheroes and graphic novels have also been tied to library research lesson plans for high school students, such as Joan Upell’s “Creating 21st Century Superheroes,” published in the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Learning4Life lesson plan database.5 Upell’s instruction demonstrates the wide-ranging possibilities of educating students on multiple topics. It is also tied to the AASL/Common Core State Standards Crosswalk. A similar lesson plan, “Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens,” posted on the Scholastic website for teachers, claims that, “educators have reported great success when they have integrated graphic novels into their curriculum, especially in the areas of English, science, social studies, and art.”6

Recently, science graphic novels have been published that can support students’ academic success. Studies have demonstrated that science-themed comic books, utilized to supplement traditional teaching resources, can improve student learning and attitudes towards science.7 There are even educational comic books with intellectual property as the main subject, published by World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain.8 These best practices and resources further assisted us in our use of the superheroes theme in educating younger audiences at public libraries about intellectual property.

Running Superheroes through a Pedagogical Pace

For our public library intellectual property awareness programs for children and teens, we utilized the same pedagogical approaches mentioned previously and applied them to the history of superhero comics. We introduced how intellectual properties were associated with the concept of superhero characters and their creators. Our initial public library target audience was for ages 6 through 12. We avoided any clip art of proprietary superhero images, only using generic artwork for the published promotional materials. After our first round of presentations, we discovered that the content presented was received even better by 8- to 12-year-olds. Later, we adapted the program for teens and adult audiences at other public library venues.

We collaborated with branch libraries at both the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County (PLCH), and the Kenton County (KY) Public Library (KCPL). The branch libraries handled all of the publicity and venue set up, including displaying related-topic books onsite to supplement our program content. We asked the branch librarians to have plenty of paper, crayons, pencils, felt-tipped markers, and so on available for younger children to create their own superhero artwork or stories. We prepared a visually engaging PowerPoint presentation to support our topic, and showed a few superhero cartoon clips from YouTube to supplement our talk. This was especially important for the younger attendees. We displayed short 6-to-12-minute film clips that were authorized promotional presentations from the studios representing DC Comics and Marvel Comics. We also found perfectly fitting film clips from YouTube which provided instruction on how to draw a superhero.9 We supplemented this drawing instruction with a few “How to Draw a Superhero” workbooks or educational webpages. The Cleveland Public Library also provided its own Superman crossword puzzle and trivia sheet that we distributed at the venue for older teens and adults. Cleveland is the home of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. Additionally, a local comic-book shop retailer co-presented with us at one of the older teen and adult venues. The retailer was able to bring along plenty of free sample comic books and memorabilia for attendees. Inviting local artists that specialize in drawing animated characters or superheroes for a demonstration could be considered too.

We presented another version of this superhero matinee program (that we called “Behind the Mask”) for teens and adults at PLCH’s second annual Comic Con series. This audience included adults who were actively working on artwork or graphic novels of their own, as well as teens who were interested in drawing or writing. We again used the history of comics to introduce intellectual property concepts. We talked about freedom of expression challenges, such as the now defunct Comics Code Authority10 that was adopted in 1954 to regulate the content of comics. We also answered many thoughtful copyright questions from the audience. The organizer of the Comic Con series commented: “Thanks for putting on that great program! I think your program was one of the most educational yet fun ones we’ve had so far.”

At the first annual iMAGiNExpo (a free community creativity and innovation seminar)11 at KCPL’s Covington branch in May 2014, we presented the “Behind the Mask” program to an audience of mostly teens who were fascinated by the YouTube video of an artist creating a superhero in real time. This audience was very interested in the drawing aspect of the program, but were also introduced to some basic intellectual property concepts. As with the younger participants during the summer programs, the seed concept about intellectual property was planted.

How to Host a Superhero Intellectual Property Program at Your Own Library

It’s easy to create a superhero intellectual property awareness program at your library by adapting the following outline to your program’s unique audience needs:

  1. Start the program by displaying an image of a large group of superheroes from a book or website. Ask the attendees questions such as: What are superheroes? Which words best describe superheroes? Can you provide examples of some of the super powers that they possess? Which sidekicks do they have? Who are their archenemies and nemeses? Which mediums convey the stories of superheroes? Who creates these characters and stories? What theme ties these stories together? This leads well into detailing the history of comics, showing examples from notable earlier era characters and using a few short videos from YouTube. For instance, the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, and Barney Google are great examples of early newspaper comic strip characters before the development of superheroes. Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, and Dick Tracy offer examples of transitional heroes at the dawn of the Golden Age of superhero comic books (1930s to 1950s), which featured Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Subsequent eras include the Silver Age (1950s to 1970s) with such works as the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer, the Bronze Age (1970s to 1980s) with the Amazing Spider-Man, and the contemporary Modern Age today with long-standing and new characters alike. There are many books which provide more historic details, such as Gail Stavitsky’s Reflecting Culture: The Evolution of American Comic Book Super Heroes.12 (This portion should last about 15 minutes.)
  2. Introduce the intellectual property subjects of copyright, patent, and trademark and apply these concepts to the superheroes and their creators. Returning to questions about authors and artists leads well into this topic: How do these authors and artists create these works? Have you written any creative short stories, songs, poems, or drawings? Are you an author or artist? How might you write about or draw superheroes? How do artists and authors protect their intellectual works? For the older teens and adults, discussing common literary storytelling techniques from related instructional books is effective.13 For all audiences, books or short YouTube video clips on how to draw superheroes are displayed. (This portion should last about 15 minutes.)
  3. Next, instruct younger participants to create their own superheroes. Ask them which special powers they will create. Will s/he use any gadgets? We suggested that they give the superhero a name, too. In our programs with youth, participants shared their creations with the group. We reminded them that they were now the copyright holder of their very own superhero drawing! For the older teen and adult groups, we asked if they had created any intellectual works related to our topic. If so, we asked them to compare or contrast their original characters’ innovative attributes to those of any characters from a popular book or movie. Then we discussed which intellectual properties (e.g. patent, trademark, or copyright) might apply to their characters or stories.14 In addition, you might ask older participants to apply their scientific innovation and/or artistic creativity to dream up an invention of application or technology within their field of interest that would support a superhero or a villain. (This portion should last about 30 minutes.)
  4. To wind down the program, display library books and videos about superheroes for customer checkout and for further discussion to tie the use of videos to the pedagogy of intellectual property awareness and the educational aspect of the workshop. (This portion should last about 10 minutes.)
  5. Optional concept: invite a local comic-book retailer or animation artist to participate. Also, refer to recently published newspaper or magazine articles related to intellectual property and superheroes. For example, the local Cincinnati Enquirer15 published a timely news story about the seventy-fifth anniversary of Superman, including a photo of the original writer Jerry Siegel and cartoonist Joe Shuster looking over Superman sketches while visiting the Enquirer art room in 1942. Other articles of interest included “Marvel’s Superhero Licensing,” featured in the June 2012 issue of WIPO Magazine.16

Observations and Feedback from Program Participants

The question-and-answer sessions near the start of the program were very popular for discussing the superhero characters; that is, comparing Marvel versus DC characters or villains associated with specific heroes or even gadgets and gizmos associated with superheroes. The younger kids were extremely enthusiastic to answer questions posed about the various characteristics of the superheroes and which ones were their favorites.

The history and origins of Batman was among the most popular of the characters discussed. Attendees were surprised to learn how old the publishing origins were of the early DC characters, around the year 1939. It surprised them to learn that was the same era of the classic film The Wizard of Oz. This led to a discussion about book adaptations to films and television programs. This, in turn, helped to pave the way for the copyright and authorship topic.

When authors and artists were discussed in more detail, students were very engaged to chat about the intellectual property concepts protecting creative works. We tied this concept to their original drawings, poems, superhero gadgets, or costumes. We demonstrated the use of drawing a copyright © symbol. This led into the concept of originality versus plagiarism and the characterization of copycats as literary villains. We discussed the public domain by presenting the superhero American Crusader from the early 1940s by a company that went out of business and subsequently entered into the public domain as many others did from that era.17 We defined copyright, trademarks, and patents next. Trademarks were associated with the Marvel and DC brands and characters. For our teen and adult programs, we discussed how the term “super heroes” is a federally registered trademark18 for toys and comic books that is co-owned by DC Comics and Marvel Comics. We displayed US Design Patent D329,321 from the year 1992 for the Batman headdress from the popular film series.

Near the close of our program, we asked the younger participants to draw their own superheroes or favorite interpretations of the characters they liked. They were very excited to create their own drawings, and some children even wrote short stories and poems. Some invented unique super-gadgets in their drawings, too. When they were ready, attendees shared their works of art with others. An onsite popularity poll was implemented where everyone applauded when each child presented and described their work in front of the others. A grand-prize winner was determined and announced, while everyone received motivational adhesive stickers. Instructional coloring and drawing sheets were provided as references when attendees needed inspiration or ideas.

Multiple children’s librarians participating noticed that although the younger kids might not have fully understood the concept of intellectual property, they felt that the seed had been planted. For example, they understood the authorship tied to ownership concept and that copycats were dishonest and wrong.


Superheroes once again have come to the rescue, this time to save the day with public library programs that educate our youth about the legality and respect of the intellectual property of others. Who knows, perhaps Batgirl a.k.a. Barbara Gordon (the Gotham City librarian in the Batman comic) has utilized similar programming for the children of Gotham City to learn about intellectual property. Such awareness programs about intellectual property can be based upon best practices and the proven pedagogy of educators’ related lessons and librarians’ information literacy instruction, making all of our library customers more aware of intellectual property.

References and Notes

  1. Sara Bibel, “Sunday Final Ratings: ‘Family Guy’, ‘60 Minutes’ & ‘The Mentalist’ Adjusted Up; “The Simpsons’, “Bob’s Burgers’, ‘The Best of Jimmy Fallon’ & ‘Betrayal’ Adjusted Down,” TV by the Numbers, accessed June 30, 2015.
  2. John Schlipp, “Best Practices and InventorFest: Community Partners and Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDLs),” Intellectual Property (IP) Journal of the PTDLA 4, no. 2 (Nov. 2007): 1-12; accessed June 30, 2015.
  3. John Schlipp, “Creative Thinking: A Student-Centered Approach to Plagiarism and Copyright,” Kentucky Libraries 74, no. 3 (Summer 2010): 28-32.
  4. John Schlipp and Linda Kocis, “Using Popular Fiction to Spark Student Creativity and to Teach Intellectual Property Information Literacy (IPIL),” Kentucky Libraries 77 no. 1 (Winter 2013): 26-32.
  5. Joan Upell, “Creating 21st Century Superheroes,” Language Arts Lesson Plan Published in AASL Learning4Life Lesson Plan Database,” accessed Oct. 22, 2013.
  6. Scholastic, “A Guide to Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens” lesson plan, accessed July 1, 2015.
  7. John J. Meier, “Science Graphic Novels for Academic Libraries: Collections and Collaborations,” C&RL News (Dec. 2012): 662-65.
  8. Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Tales from the Public Domain: BOUND BY LAW?, accessed July 1, 2015; and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), “Publications for Young People and Schools,” accessed July 1, 2015.
  9. Illustration & Drawing Tips: How to Draw a Superhero,” YouTube video, 5:26, posted by expertvillage, Oct. 9, 2008, accessed July 1, 2015.
  10. Amy Kiste Nyberg, “Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval,” Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, accessed Jul. 1, 2015.
  11. Eileen Fritsch, “Cincy Is Creative: iMAGINExpo 2014 Inspires Creators to Think about Intellectual Property Rights,” WCPO.com, June 1, 2014,
    accessed July 1, 2015.
  12. Gail Stavitsky et al., Reflecting Culture: The Evolution of American Comic Book Super Heroes (Montclair, NJ: Montclair Art Museum, 2007).
  13. Dennis O’Neil, The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics (New York: Watson-Guptill, 2008).
  14. Steve Brachmann, “How to Get a Trademark for a Comic Book Superhero Character,” eHow, accessed July 1, 2015.
  15. Jeff Suess, “Superman Created by Cleveland Duo: Man of Steel Debuted in Comics 75 years Ago,” Cincinnati Enquirer (Apr. 28, 2013): B7.
  16. Nicole J.S. Sudhindra, “Marvel’s Superhero Licensing,” WIPO Magazine (June 2012), accessed July 1, 2015.
  17. “Public Domain Super Heroes,” Wikia, accessed July 1, 2015, http://pdsh.wikia.com/wiki/Public_Domain_Super_Heroes.
  18. Matt Brady, “Super Hero Trademark Story,” Newsarama.com, Mar. 27, 2006, accessed July 1, 2015.

Further Information

See the foundation of our presentation and activity based upon exercises from Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, volume 25 (Thomson Gale, 2007), page 11, lesson planner utilizing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

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