A multiple listing service — which facilitates the exchange of information and offers of compensation among participating real estate brokers — isn’t the typical backstory for a comic book superhero.

And Mr. Is, a play on the MRIS acronym for the Washington, D.C.-area Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. MLS, is not the typical superhero.

"Frankly, there wasn’t one in our space. And frankly, our industry could use one now to give everyone an upside in a down market," said Jonathan Hill, vice president of business development for MRIS.

Officials at MRIS, the nation’s largest MLS with about 60,000 members and a service region that spans fives states and 22,000 miles, conceived of Mr. Is to promote the redesign of HomesDatabase.com, the MLS’s public-accessible property-search Web site. The revamped site is expected to launch in August.

John Bennett, a graphic designer at MRIS, is the artist behind Mr. Is, the star of an online comic strip that made its debut on Tuesday at http://www.mrisstory.com.

MRIS participants have already developed a range of pronunciation variations for the acronym, from "Maris" to "amorous" and "Mr. Is."

"We grabbed that last term and ran with it," Hill said. "It obviously creates a male character, and why not a superhero?

"We can see Mr. Is becoming a voice for MRIS and really a voice in the MRIS discussion."

In less than 24 hours after its launch, the first episode of the Mr. Is saga, titled "The Torrent," attracted about 5,000 visits. The episode begins with the backdrop of a lightning storm in the Washington, D.C., area. Real estate agent Phil Willson receives a call from a client who is inquiring about for-sale properties viewed on some real estate Web sites.

The problem: stale listings. "Most of those listings are already sold, expired or withdrawn, as in off the market," Willson says. "That’s the problem with using Web sites not tied to the MLS. They look nice, but often contain just a fraction of the inventory and can be out of date."

To himself: "Interlopers. What a mess."

There will be four episodes in Mr. Is’ initial adventure, Hill said. And while he offered no major plot revelations, he did say, "Any good comic has a hook at the end to bring people in."

MRIS is also planning a video and print ads to promote the relaunch of its public search site.

HomesDatabase already attracts about 1 million hits per month, and Hill said the goal is to make it more attractive to consumers and more productive for MLS participants.

There is still industry debate about whether MLSs should play an active role in the public display and promotion of participants’ property listings, and Hill said the new version of the site will hopefully present a convincing argument for other MLSs to follow in MRIS’ online footsteps.

"The purpose is to drive traffic to the site and then (drive traffic) to broker sites … there is no other agenda. In that regard we’re really being an advocate for the brokers and the listings. We hope other MLSs do pay attention to what we’re doing here and witness our success," Hill said.

The current version of the site does not provide MLS participants with any data about which properties the Web visitors are viewing, and it does not provide direct links to broker sites, but that will change with the relaunch, Hill said.

Consumers should also like the look and functionality of the redesigned site, he said. MRIS hired a consulting firm to conduct consumer research. "It is the best money we’ve ever spent so far as the development." The new site will represent a "complete structural change," he said, with a simplified search process and a "much more compelling" user interface.

He also said the new site will incorporate more "Web 2.0" design elements, with "clean color gradients and lots of white space." There will not be any advertising on the site — just property listings information, he said.

As for Mr. Is, expect Episode 2 in mid-July. At the close of the first episode, agent Willson has vanished from his home office amidst lightning strikes — leaving behind a cracked computer screen, a spilled mug of coffee and wisps of smoke.

Hill said of the comic strip, "We are really gratified by the reception so far."

***

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