By Stephen Brown
BERLIN (Reuters) - He has rippling muscles, a cloak and the standard-issue briefs, but "Superhobo" is not your average comic-book hero: his torn bodysuit, shaggy beard and the bottle of beer in his fist all tell of a hard life on the streets.
"His muscles are firm but he has no fixed abode" proclaims the slogan of "Superhobo" comic ("Superpenner" in the original German), which hit the streets of Berlin on Monday in an attempt to boost sales of a newspaper sold by down-and-outs.
The humor is dark: the craggy-faced superhero sleeps on a bench in his woollen cap, dreaming of beer, and the people he rescues gag at his foul breath.
But the homeless, the unemployed and the poor immigrants who picked up an armful of the "Strassenfeger" newspapers to sell around Berlin, with the comic as a free supplement, did not seem to find the idea offensive.
"It's just a bit of fun," said Daniela, a 40-year-old who has been touting the "Strassenfeger" (Street Sweeper) at a central Berlin train station for the past two years.
Her customers are commuters, people waiting for a taxi and forecourt smokers. For each copy she sells at 1.50 euros ($2), she gets to keep 90 cents ($1.20).
Muffled against the cold with a fleece over an overcoat, the unemployed kitchen worker - who would not give her surname for fear of putting her welfare payments at risk - said the comic seemed to be good for business, grabbing people's attention.
Lots of people shook their heads when Daniela approached but Frank Henseler, a 56-year-old in a tie and scarf visiting Berlin on business, leafed through the Superpenner, his cigarette smoke billowing in the cold air, and bought a copy.
"The comic is interesting and I'd like to have a look, and I happen to be reading a book right now about homeless people in Paris," he told Reuters.
EAST EUROPEANS TOO
In the best Marvel comic tradition, the hobo gets superpowers by accident when an intern at a secret service lab takes a bottle of mysterious green liquid, which "looks like a urine sample", and gives it to the tramp by mistake.
Endowed with superhuman strength when he downs a beer, he and his sidekick "Gutter Girl" take on "The Baddies".
When he's close to defeat, "Convenience Store Man" - identified none too subtly as a member of Berlin's largest minority by his moustache and a Turkish flag - saves him by providing a beer in the nick of time.
But the aim is serious: "Not every hobo is a Superhobo", read the posters advertising the new comic, inviting people to buy the paper or donate via the website www.strassenfeger.org.
The comic is the brainchild of Robert Krause, creative director of advertising agency Scholz & Friends, who hopes the polemic style will draw attention to the plight of the homeless.
"The important thing is that people buy the comic, because we want to help the homeless simply by increasing their sales and generating more donations," he said in an interview.
Although Europe's largest economy has proved resilient to the euro crisis, German charities warn that poverty is on the rise. The aid agency BAGW says the number of people without a home rose 15 percent to 284,000 between 2010 and 2012, and could rise a further 30 percent by 2016.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city had plentiful cheap housing, especially in the east. But the city sold off many flats, and locals say gentrification is driving up rents. In last year's German election, both sides promised to cap rent rises.
Helmut Cladders, a volunteer at Strassenfeger, which has a fortnightly run of 15,000 copies and is one of the two biggest such publications on the streets of Berlin, said lots of Polish immigrants sell the paper and more East Europeans are arriving.
"Lots of people coming to Berlin from Romania and Bulgaria are selling Strassenfeger too," he said, distributing the paper to vendors from an old caravan in a street behind Zoo Station, an area once renowned for drugs and prostitution.
Marta, a young Polish woman with no apparent superpowers and hardly a word of German, said that after five years in Berlin she had "no home, no family and no money". Taking 10 copies on a sale-or-return basis, she disappeared with a smile.
($1 = 0.7314 euros)
(Additional reporting by Jasmin Rietdorf; Editing by Michael Roddy and Mark Trevelyan)