METROPOLIS, Ill. — This wasn’t exactly the megalopolis that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster envisioned when they penned their first Superman comic books back in 1938.
No skyscrapers here. No teeming streets or city-slick thugs. The only movie theater was shuttered years ago and anyone looking for fine dining or fancy shopping had best look elsewhere. Not even an airport or train station, a rental car or a taxicab. The way to get here from Boston, short of a two-day drive, is to do what I did: Fly into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, take one of the two daily puddle-jumpers to Paducah, Ky., then arrange for transportation to get yourself the 13 miles across the Ohio River to this city of 6,900 that markets itself as Superman’s hometown but looks more like Smallville, where Superboy grew up.
Yet one weekend every summer this burg at the bottom tip of Illinois comes alive, with as many as 30,000 Superman fans arriving to celebrate the Last Son of Krypton. They come costumed to the gills in the hopes of being named Best Superman or Clark Kent, Best Lois Lane, Supergirl, Hero, Villain, or Duo. During the day there are Superman Jeopardy competitions and contests for Best Fan Film. There also are autograph signings and storytelling by a lineup of Superman celebrities that this year included the Smallville TV show’s John Glover, a.k.a. Lionel Luthor, and comic-book artist George Perez. At night the streets fill with the sounds and sights of George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, and other Men of Steel through the ages beaming off the walls of a makeshift movie theater.
I came for two reasons: to launch my book “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,’’ and to see, on this 40th anniversary of the Superman Celebration, what the hoopla was all about and what the real Metropolis looks and feels like.
I started, like nearly everyone does, at the enormous Superman statue. He stands 15 feet, weighs two tons, and is carved not of steel but bronze. This was not the first monument erected to the hero. That one was just 7 feet high and made of a relatively flimsy fiberglass, almost inviting the locals to test whether Superman really was bulletproof (he wasn’t), and it didn’t last long. The current version stands next to the county courthouse, hands on hips and eyes peering down the city’s three-block commercial district as if daring lawbreakers to try anything. Barack Obama posed in front of it when he was a senator from Illinois, a shot that became iconic when he ran for president four years ago.
From there it was a walk through town, in search of history. Metropolis, I learned, predated Siegel and Shuster’s Superman by 99 years. The area was originally settled by Cherokees, Chickasaws, and other Native Americans. The French took over from them, only to be supplanted by the British, then General George Washington’s Continental Army. Superman’s creators assuredly were thinking not of this riverfront community as the inspiration for their fictional Metropolis, but of Toronto, New York, or perhaps the futuristic Metropolis of Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie of that title. That didn’t stop Superman’s owner, National Periodical Publications, and the State of Illinois, from proclaiming the city in 1972 as the official hometown of Superman. No matter that Clark Kent grew up in Smallville. It wasn’t until he moved to Metropolis, locals point out, that he began his career as the world’s mightiest superhero.
Expectations ran high for what Superman could do for the struggling community, whose inclusion in Illinois conjures up images of the heartland but whose accents and geography make clear it is more Southern than Midwestern. Plans called for a $50-million theme park and a 200-foot-tall statue of the Colossus of Krypton to go along with the Amazing World of Superman Museum. Economic doldrums, however, forced the museum to close and the town to shift its hopes for economic salvation from Superman to the riverfront gambling halls run by Harrah’s. Yet the annual June festival has thrived, with this year’s marking four decades.
So why do tens of thousands of out-of-towners descend on this city every summer, when the heat can be sweltering and just getting here is a challenge? They come, they explain, to celebrate with like-minded zealots the love triangle that connects Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Superman, which has a side for everyone, whether you are the boy who can’t get the girl, the girl pursued by the wrong boy, or the conflicted hero. They come to honor their hero’s powers, which are the very ones they would have for themselves: the strength to lift boulders and planets, the speed to outrun a locomotive or a bullet, and, coolest on anyone’s fantasy list, the gift of flight. They come every June, the month Superman came to life, to pay homage to their champion’s instinctual sense of right and wrong.
For me, that appreciation of the legend — of not just Superman, but of the writers and artists, directors and actors who have sustained him for 74 years and counting — really crystallized during a panel discussion on the festival’s second full day. My fellow panelists included Superboy stars Gerard Christopher and John Rockwell, a threesome that had only enough drawing power to fill a third of our large auditorium, at least at first. Five minutes into our discussion Larry Thomas Ward, an author and our fourth panelist, entered the hall with a frail white-haired woman on his arm and the room went quiet.
It was Noel Neill — Lois Lane in the Superman film serials and five of six seasons of the original TV “Adventures of Superman.” Text messages began to fly, cellphones came alive, and within minutes the auditorium was standing-room only. Neill didn’t participate in the panel, she just sat with us and, by her presence, gave the proceedings a sense of authenticity. Afterward she posed for pictures with scores of fans. Ward, who co-wrote her memoir and helped her move to Metropolis earlier this year, had brought his 91-year-old friend out for her first public appearance in the city that embraced her warmly enough to have erected a statue in her honor. And everyone surrendered any doubts about whether this city deserves its moniker as hometown of the Marvel of Metropolis.