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When Michael Uslan was a boy, comic books were widely considered a cause of juvenile delinquency. One day he watched in horror as a friend's father burned his son's beloved collection in a fireplace.
He never forgot it. When he grew up, he taught the first-ever accredited course in comic book folklore, launched the thriving "Batman" film franchise, and received the world's first fine arts doctorate in comic books. And now Uslan is teaming up with former Marvel Comics head Stan Lee for a free online course open to anyone: The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on American Pop Culture.
"We want to let the world know that comic books are as indigenous an American art form as jazz, and also a legitimate contemporary art form," Uslan told TODAY.com. "We also wanted to show how comic books exemplify American cultural history."
The MOOC (massive open online course) starts May 5 and is open for registration now. It's being offered by edX, a nonprofit online learning platform founded by MIT and Harvard that offers more than 450 free, open-source courses in humanities, math, computer science, physics, languages and more.
"We see MOOCs as the great democritizer," said Nancy Moss, edX director of communications. "Anyone, regardless of social status, income, or academic affiliation, may sign up."
The Rise of Superheroes is one of three new courses edX is offering in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution. According to Uslan, "there are three generations involved in this": himself, his son David — an executive in film production, publishing and new media — and Lee, legendary co-creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk and myriad other Marvel Comics icons.
Even though he started working in the comic-book business in 1939, the same year Batman was born, Lee is still filled with "P.T. Barnum energy" at age 92, Uslan says. "A lot of the time, history is not subject to good fact-checking. With Stan you get a chance to get it from a guy who lived it."
A producer on all the Batman movies from Michael Keaton's debut in the role back in 1989 to next year's "Batman v. Superman" starring Ben Affleck, Uslan says the five-week course will include "four or five short videos per week with self-paced interactive quizzes, curated lists, discussion forums and a Google hangout with live back-and-forth with us professors."
He'll also take students on a video tour of the "treasure trove" that is the Smithsonian's collection of comics and related materials. "It'll be like the last scene of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,'" he promises. "What secrets lurk behind those walls?"
Superhero comics are "a mythology that is now embraced around the world," Uslan says. "Isn't it great that they are finally doing this and honoring the creators that were denigrated and denounced and blamed for the rise of juvenile delinquency?"