Captain Underpants
A SUPER-HERO-sized display promotes Captain Underpants' latest adventures.

A decidedly unorthodox protagonist -- a school principal transformed by two mischievous students into a briefs-clad superhero -- has been making kids laugh and cash registers hum since 1997, when he first appeared in Dav Pilkey's The Adventures of Captain Underpants. Released by Scholastic/Blue Sky Press simultaneously in hardcover and paperback, this chapter book now has a combined trade and book club in-print figure of 1.1 million copies. And one month after its shipping date, its sequel, Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets, is flying out of stores at a similarly fast clip: the in-print total for this title has already reached 50,000 copies.

As illustrator of Sue Denim's Dumb Bunnies books (now also a Saturday morning CBS-TV series) and author of several picture books, Pilkey had previous hits to his credit when the original Captain Underpants title appeared. But he was surprised at how quickly the book took off.

The author hastens to laud Alan Boyko, v-p of product management for Scholastic Book Fairs, for the book's early success. "There may have been some hesitation about Captain Underpants on the part of some people at Scholastic," Pilkey speculated. "But Alan didn't care what anyone else said. He bought a ridiculously high number of copies for the book fairs, and as it turns out they sold like hot cakes."

Lots of hot cakes. Boyko estimates that his division of Scholastic, which sponsors book fairs at some 80,000 schools annually, sold more than 500,000 paperback copies of The Adventures of Captain Underpants. Boyko called it "the perfect kid-friendly book. It's every kid's dream to create a superhero who d s outrageous things." Similarly, Boyko has taken the plunge(r) and thrown his support behind Talking Toilets (which Pilkey dedicated to him) and anticipates that this sequel will sell "a million copies" through Scholastic Book Fairs alone.

At least one retailer was relieved to receive her shipment of Pilkey's latest release, for which her young customers -- mostly boys -- had long been clamoring. "We had kids dying a thousand agonies that they had to wait so long for the second book," reported Jill Brooks, children's book buyer for the three Anderson's Bookshops in suburban Chicago. "We began taking names and phone numbers and promised we'd call them the second the books arrived. By the time they did, we had 90 kids on that list. We sold more than 100 copies during the first five days we had the book."

By the second week in February, that figure had reached 254 copies, well on its way to catching up to Anderson's sales totals on the original Adventures, of which the three outlets have sold 906 copies in total (814 paperbacks and 92 hardcovers). Feeding the Captain Underpants frenzy this time around is the Naperville store's window display. which arranges copies of the book alongside a toilet seat, a roll of the promotional toilet paper and, in Brooks's words, "the largest pair of men's underwear we could find in a local clothing store for big and tall men."

Birth of a Superhero

Though Pilkey's principal-turned crime fighter is a relative newcomer to the printed page, he has been buzzing around the author's imagination for many years. Pilkey made his first doodles of Captain Underpants back in parochial school, after his teacher banished this class clown to the hallway -- and even moved a desk out there for him. "I'd fill the desk with pencils and paper," Pilkey recalled, "and whenever I ended up out in the hall I'd draw pictures to relieve my boredom. Then I began making comic books, since they seemed to make my stories come alive." And several of these tales revolved around one Captain Underpants.

After embarking on an illustrating career in 1988, the author spent a good deal of time visiting schools, where he explained to youngsters how he launched his career in the school hallway. "Inevitably, the name `Captain Underpants' would come up," Pilkey recalls, "and though I cracked jokes throughout my presentation, the mention of this name would get by far the biggest laugh. And whenever I mentioned the title of one of my early Captain Underpants comic books, which involved talking toilets, the room would explode into laughter. That's when I knew I had to do a book about him."

When publishers didn't respond to Pilkey's comic-book treatment of this superhero, the author decided to reshape the story into a somewhat more conventional novel format and created the characters of George and Harold, the pranksters responsible for their cranky principal's transformation. The author explained that this duo, whose own homemade comic books are reproduced in the pages of Adventures and Talking Toilets, are "kind of like the yin and yang of my personality. I'm shy and introverted and more like Harold. But when I was a hyperactive kid, my George side came out more often than it d s now."

The Eugene, Ore.-based Pilkey has already penned four subsequent capers centering on his scantily clad champion, including one due next fall: the appetizing-sounding Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds).

Scholastic hopes to inspire kids to create their own Captain Underpants adventures through a current promotion billed (with hyperbole worthy of the Captain himself) as "the contest of the century!" Prizes for the winning stories include a T-shirt, signed copies of the new book and rolls of toilet paper featuring the plunger-toting hero. The publisher is announcing the contest in the pages of the paperback edition of Talking Toilets and through displays available to booksellers.

Though Pilkey said he is gratified when parents report that Captain Underpants has helped turn their TV-watching kids into readers, he views this as a bonus. "If my books can help kids get excited about writing and reading, that is great, but that really isn't what I was after," he said. "Really, I just wanted to make them laugh." Mission accomplished, with the help of his valiant crusader "for Truth, Justice, and all that is Pre-Shrunk and Cottony."