Clearly, people are spending big bucks on comics in every form. My next question: why? What is it about these characters and their stories that inspires readers' interest and collectors' lust? My quest had only begun.

Since comic heroes are always on a mission, I started by visiting with Mike Voiles, a super-fan with a calling of his own. Voiles, who runs a mind-blowing website called Mike's Amazing World of DC Comics, has vowed to collect every issue turned out by DC Comics, the parent company of Superman, Batman, and many other titles.

That's a tall order: Since its founding in 1935, DC has produced more than 30,000 issues. Voiles now owns about 25,000 DC books, plus another 10,000 or so from Marvel Comics and other makers. He spent $1,000 a month or more on comics for years.

Though Voiles is only 31, his comics knowledge stretches back to the 1940s and 1950s. He speaks fondly of the comics boom, when Americans bought 250 million to 300 million comics a year. At that time - dubbed the "Golden Age" of comics - a popular title could sell well over a million copies a month; today, the hottest sellers would be happy with a tenth of that.

Voiles specializes in DC Comics, but he also likes certain titles from its longtime rival, Marvel, home of the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and Spider-Man. Together, the two companies own about 70 percent of the comics market. As they've tussled over the years, DC and Marvel have made their characters more complex and realistic, giving them multi­faceted personalities and sending them out to grapple not only with villains and monsters, but with their own inner doubts and desires.