National Superhero Day!

As a native of Metropolis and as a proud Superman fan, I’m happy to report today is National Superhero Day!

Truth, Justice and the American Way

Illinois has had its share of famous people. You can start with our four Presidents, and continue through a long list of famous entertainers, scientists, war heroes, authors, athletes, journalists, activists and other public figures. But one of the most famous Illinoisans fits into several of those categories: a mild-mannered reporter who puts on his cape and saves the day just when all seems lost.

We know him as Superman, and since January 1972 his home has been the Illinois city of Metropolis.

Superman was born Kal-El on the planet Krypton. His parents sent him to Earth just moments before the planet was destroyed. He landed in a farm field near the town of Smallville, where he was discovered and adopted by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent who named him Clark. As his superhuman abilities developed, his adoptive parents encouraged him to use his power for good, and he became a crime fighter in the nearby city of Metropolis, taking on the Superman costume and alias to hide his identity. All the while, his alter ego, Clark Kent, toiled away as a reporter for the local newspaper, the Daily Planet.

Superman’s story was first told by the writer Jerry Siegel and the artist Joe Shuster, beginning in 1938 with Action Comics #1. The tale of Superman, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and the many colorful characters of Metropolis has continued for more than 80 years as part of DC Comics, including books, movies, radio and television shows and more. Today, Superman is among the best-selling comic book superheroes of all time.

The Metropolis in which Superman lives and fights crime is a major city with skyscrapers and an enormous population. It is a far cry from the small town on the Ohio River which has proclaimed itself the “Home of Superman” for almost five decades.

A century before Superman was first published, the town of Metropolis was founded. It is located on the Ohio near the remains of an old French fort which would become the namesake of the surrounding county in 1843. It also became Illinois’ first state park in 1908. When Action Comics #1 hit store shelves, Metropolis, Illinois, was recovering from one of the most devastating Ohio River floods in history, which had struck the year before.

Over time the town grew, becoming the Massac County seat and reaching a population of just over 6500 in the 2010 census. It is an important rail and highway crossing between Illinois and Kentucky.

One of the leading industries in Metropolis today is tourism. This is in part due to the nearby Shawnee National Forest and the city’s riverboat casino. But probably the leading reason for the city’s status as a tourist destination was a marketing campaign in the early 1970s conceived by local businessman Robert Westerfield who sought to make the city the official “Home of Superman.”

Westerfield had a bold vision for how the town could capitalize on its connection to the great superhero. He conceived the idea of a giant Superman-themed amusement park, with a massive statue of the Man of Steel standing 200 feet above the entrance. City officials joined in the effort. On January 21, 1972, Metropolis mayor J.P. Williams led the city in officially declaring itself the “Home of Superman,” having secured the permission of DC Comics to lay claim to the superhero. The local newspaper even re-named itself the Planet in honor of Clark Kent’s employer.

That spring, state officials got involved as well, including members of the 77th General Assembly. State Representative Clyde Choate of Anna introduced House Resolution 572 on April 25, 1972. The resolution firmly put Illinois’ state government in support of the declaration that the Land of Lincoln was also the home of the Man of Steel.

“Whereas, Metropolis is, as everyone knows, the base of operations of SUPERMAN, the Man of Steel, battler for Truth, Justice and the American Way; leaper of tall buildings in single bounds; overpowerer of powerful locomotives; outspeeder of speeding bullets; changer of the course of mighty rivers; and performer of other important functions of not inconsiderable civic utility; and

“Whereas the civic leaders of Metropolis, Illinois, have finally decided that their illustrious citizen is, in fact, neither a bird nor a plane but a resource of not inconsiderable civic utility,” the resolution begins. It goes on to recognize Westerfield and the local civic leaders who took the initiative in helping Illinois lay claim to its superhero.

Unfortunately, the “Amazing World of Superman” theme park idea never really got off the ground. Some progress was made, but the drive was ultimately unsuccessful, hampered by the energy crisis and major economic downturn of the mid-1970s. However, some important civic recognition came out of the 1972 effort: the Project Superman Screening Committee started the tradition of honoring a local citizen for their “contributions to the civic welfare of Metropolis,” with the Superman Award. The first recipient was the Rev. Charles Chandler. Carmine Infantino of National Periodicals Publications, Inc., even donated the original Superman uniform from the television show to help promote the project.

While the theme park did not become a reality, the seed of an idea had been planted. When Christopher Reeve starred in the Superman movie in 1978, Metropolis found itself in the spotlight again, as city offices reported receiving numerous phone calls asking about Superman’s whereabouts.

In 1979, Metropolis hosted its first Superman Celebration, an event that has become an annual festival every June. The Celebration draws large crowds from across the country and around the world to the small Illinois town. Most years, it features a celebrity guest from the superhero world, including actors who have played Lois Lane and Batman.

The Celebration has also been a force for good through the years. After Reeve was paralyzed in an accident, Celebration organizers placed a giant “get well” card in the middle of the festival for well-wishers to sign, and also used the occasion to collect funds for spinal-cord injury research.

Just outside the Massac County Courthouse on Metropolis’ town square, stands a 15-foot tall bronze statue of the Man of Steel. It was built in 1993 and unveiled just in time for that year’s Celebration. The statue replaced an earlier fiberglass statue which had been dedicated in 1986. Local legend has it that the original statue was riddled with bullets over the years by vandals testing the claim that Superman was bulletproof. Local residents funded the statue project by purchasing bricks for the surrounding square. At the statue’s feet are inscribed the words of his motto: “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”

A few blocks up the street a visitor will find a statue of Noel Neill’s portrayal of Lois Lane on the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Superman. Across the street is the Super Museum, which is billed by its creator Jim Hambrick as the “absolute largest Superman collection on this planet.”

For more than 40 years now, fans of the caped superhero have made their way to southern Illinois for the annual Superman Celebration. While he won’t surpass Abraham Lincoln as Illinois’ most famous person anytime soon, Metropolis’ Man of Steel will always be our state’s most famous superhero.