PITTSBURGH (AP) -- He towers over the land, his muscles rippling and blond mane blowing in a windstorm of his own making. Wielding his trusty magical hammer, he crushes villains as easily as he romances beautiful women.
Thor, epic god of thunder, was inspired by Norse mythology. But his modern, movie-star incarnation was born on the pulpy, hand-drawn pages of 1960s comic books. He will storm into your local multiplex again next month, one of the many superheroes who have escaped the illustrated panels of comic books to dominate not only our movie theaters and TV screens, but much of our pop culture landscape, from toys to clothes.
But while comic book characters are everywhere, comic books themselves remain mostly a niche product.
Take Arkham Gift Shoppe, for instance, a small comic book store on the northern fringe of Pittsburgh. When regulars arrive to pick up their monthly orders, some slip in with all the stealth of Catwoman eluding Batman. These guys carefully hide their comic-buying habit, or the extent of it, from their girlfriends or wives (yes, they have those) because these women "aren't cool with them spending their money on something so juvenile," shop owner Jeff Bigley says.
How is it that the painstakingly inked comic pages where these wildly popular characters were born still don't get the attention and respect that fans say they deserve?
Chris Sims of Sumter, S.C., waits for the befuddled reaction when he tells people that he reads, writes about and creates comic books for a living. The popularity of Marvel's blockbuster films has made it only a little less awkward for him to admit being an avid consumer of comics.
"If you tell somebody you read 'Captain America' now, they know who you're talking about," says Sims, who blogs at websites including ComicsAlliance.com. "The characters' being visible lessens the kind of stigma of reading comics, because people know those characters and have affection for them."
But only to a point. Amanda Osman-Balzell is a married opera singer raising a toddler daughter while attending graduate school. When new friends visit her Tempe, Ariz., home, they raise eyebrows at her stash of comic books.
"They see that we have comic books," she says, "and they look at us like, 'Really? You guys look so normal.'"
She explains that many of today's comic books boast intricate artwork and story lines far more complex and thought-provoking than their big-screen counterparts. But friends roll their eyes when she describes comics as "literature."
Lina Krueger's life is very different from Osman-Balzell's --she's a single woman in her 20s working in Washington, D.C. -- but her love of comics garners an identical reaction.
"A lot of guys are like, 'Really?'" Krueger says.
In her spare time, she blogs at girlsreadcomics.com, hoping to fight that attitude.
Is it simply a problem of supply and demand? Many towns lack a brick-and-mortar comic book shop. And who needs to hunt for one when television is suddenly stocked with heroes and their friends?
"Green Arrow" has stuck around for another season, and that series' producers are considering a spin-off "Flash" series. "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" premiered to solid ratings, despite the absence of any actual Avengers on screen. And deadline.com described Fox's recent acquisition of the new TV series "Gotham," featuring a young, not-yet-commissioner Gordon, as "one of the biggest drama deals this season."
A fictional comic book shop is featured on the popular CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory." But the lead characters who hang out there are socially stunted, and the running joke is that attractive women never, ever set foot in the store.
Another challenge may be that those accustomed to the shock and awe of blockbuster superhero movies are bored by even the most vividly drawn comic book.
A generation ago, only a comic book or cartoon could depict an apocalyptic clash of titans just as easily as it delivered an intimate, whispered moment between two characters. Live-action movies needed a thousand extras and weeks of shooting to do the same.
The science of computer-generated animation, which has rocketed forward even in the years since Robert Downey, Jr., first climbed inside an Iron Man suit, now does the same trick on a vastly larger scale. How can a 10-by-7-inch booklet of stapled paper compete with a thundering IMAX screen?
And there are roadblocks to luring new readers.
Many of today's fans began reading comics as kids in the '80s and '90s, says Caleb Williams, founder and editor of SuperheroMovieNews.com. But "I don't see kids reading comics now," he says, partly because no one issues kid-friendly comic books tied to a movie release.
Mature themes and violent imagery leave parents frustrated "that a little girl can't read 'Wonder Woman' and it's hard to find a Batman comic for little boys," says Sims. And public relations disasters like DC Comics' recent contest to have readers submit drawings of Batman villain Harley Quinn committing suicide while naked in a bathtub didn't endear comics to parents of young readers.
Could all of this spell eventual doom for the humble comic book? Will comics eventually be shouted down by their larger, louder, blockbuster offspring?
Hardcore fans aren't worried. If anything, Sims says, some comic book readers wish their favorite characters hadn't become quite so mainstream.
Seeing soccer moms in superhero T-shirts and hearing co-workers complain about Ben Affleck's casting as Batman "removes some of the faux-specialness of being a fan," he says. "You're not a unique snowflake because you like Spider-Man anymore."
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Melissa Rayworth writes about lifestyles topics for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mrayworth.