Friends of New World Comics cosplay as part of Super Hero School, a program designed to engage young readers with comic books. (Keara Berlin)

The story of a local comics shop owner’s educational campaign reads like a Spider-Man-inspired allegory. Its protagonist’s motives are self-serving at first, and only through loss does he find a greater purpose.

Buck Berlin, owner of New World Comics in Oklahoma City, started Super Hero School to promote his store. The idea came after he noticed children interacting with his cosplaying employees as if they were the characters being portrayed. From there, Berlin became a DIY casting director, costume designer and writer. In May of 2012, he started recruiting his friends and shop regulars, clothing them in craft foam and brightly colored fabrics to act as heroes. They became ambassadors to fictional worlds, introducing children to comic books through lightly scripted improv.

“We thought if we presented characters that were very well known and some that weren’t as well known that when the kids started reading comics they wouldn’t be quite so out of the game,” Berlin said. “[If] you’re reading Justice League, you know who Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are, but when Red Tornado shows up you’re like, ‘Hey. Who’s that guy?'”

Volunteers say they get as much out of the event as kids do.

“They get a chance to meet their heroes and make memories,” said Whitney Cotton, who has been volunteering since 2016. “It’s exciting just to be a part of that.”

Shop owner: ‘It’s more than just selling comics’

That excitement spread when people began requesting Berlin’s hodgepodge cast of untraditionally trained actors for appearances. One request brought them to a charity event for children with terminal cancer. After the appearance, parents from the event notified Berlin that their child had died two days later.

“He had lost his vision and hearing, and he willed himself to get better so he could talk to Spider-Man. And then the next day [his vital signs] went back and then two days later he was gone,” Berlin said. “And it was the, ‘OK. What we’re doing is more than just playing dress up.’ It’s more than just selling comics. We are doing meaningful things for people.”

Berlin and his troupe of heroes began showing up to schools. He started talking to students about bullying and bringing free comic books as incentives to improve their reading scores.

“Oh my God. Yeah, it worked,” Berlin said.

Comics spur interest in reading

Larry Long, Britton Elementary PTA Community Outreach Coordinator, contacted New World Comics when organizers of the school’s Reading Night were worried that their children had grown too old for Dr. Seuss books and were losing interest. Long said after the visits from New World staff and after the shop had donated hundreds of comics, interest in reading grew. The school saw an increase in requests for specific titles, specific genres and books overall.

“The more you know, the more you’ll enjoy and the further you’ll go in life,” Berlin said.

New World Comic Con 4

10 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 28
State Fairgrounds
More info

Long suggested that most children don’t like to read for various reasons. Maybe prior educational systems have failed them, and its embarrassing to admit how far behind they are. Some students learn differently and feel dumb when confronted with a singular teaching style. Some students simply don’t like the subject matter. Having been a disinterested student in the past, Long knew firsthand how comic books could jump start an interest in reading.

“I have been a comic book reader since about age 7 or 8 and a customer of New World for years,” Long said. “[Reading comic books] helped me through a very difficult time in high school with World War II history class.”

Long said reading All-Star Squadron, a comic set during World War II, helped him to better relate to his lessons and remember important dates and people.

Interest in comics shared by boys, girls alike

Sometimes the cosplayers are surprised to learn that the kids know more about their characters than one might expect. (Keara Berlin)

Berlin said two things surprised him about the type of children his show attracts: their age and gender.

“We’re getting a lot of really really young kids and a surprising amount of young girls, which is completely against trend,” Berlin said. “We have way more girls than boys that show up to this.”

Heroes Ball

6 p.m., July 27
Skirvin Hotel

Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy

Berlin said the average age of children who attend his shows hovers around 5 to 7, and his crowd is 70 percent young girls.

“I honestly thought it was going to be 80/20 boys,” he said.

New World Comics produces a 90-minute show every two weeks, prompting Berlin to frantically recruit volunteers and create costumes every 14 days.

Cotton said learning about obscure character’s back stories can be one of her biggest challenges.

“Sometimes you might play a character you never followed,” Cotton said. “And some of the kids know way more than you realize and will always ask you about the things you don’t know.”

George Carle, who spends his days as a reports analyst in the banking industry, said some of the costumes he’s had to don for Super Hero School have been uncomfortable and claustrophobic, sometimes obscuring his vision or hearing. Despite this, he finds reasons to continue helping.

“I grew to realize that, one day after so many years, that I developed a circle of friends, that they’re friends for social reasons,” Carle said. “Previously, if I had friends it was related to family. Or if I had friends it was related to church. Or to school. And for the first time, I was like, ‘Wow. I got friends just for being friends.’ It was just an unusual thing for me. It took me a while to even realize it was even there.”