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COLUMN ONE

For Fans, the Image Still Flies

Everyman becomes Superman during a wacky weekend of hero worship in Illinois. But behind the revelry is a deep respect for virtue.

June 16, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

METROPOLIS, Ill. — In this town, for this weekend, everyone was a kid.

Fathers and grandfathers sat outside long past midnight, debating plot twists in comic books. They spent way too much money on toys.

Middle-aged men pulled on blue tights and red capes and forgot about their paunches. They puffed their chests and flexed their biceps and felt, for a moment, like heroes.

The 25th annual Superman Celebration drew more than 20,000 fans of all ages -- effectively doubling the population of rural Massac County, in the southernmost tip of Illinois. Some came for the carnival rides and the corn dogs. Some for the arm wrestling competition.

Most everyone was here for Superman.

They flew in from California and Hawaii and Texas, wearing Superman T-shirts and visors and capes. They drove for hours from Michigan, Kentucky and Ohio, in cars emblazoned with Superman logos. From Florida, South Carolina and New York they came to honor the comic world's oldest superhero -- a defender of truth, justice and the American way for 65 years.

Steve Leslie, in full costume -- boots, briefs and all -- thrust his arms joyously into the sky, as though to take off in flight, when two little kids ran up to ask for a photo. He is 51. He wears a hearing aid. He admits he could use a few more muscles. But for this day, in this town, he could live out his dream. He almost felt he could fly. "I've been a Superman fan since I was a kid," said Leslie, who's from Kansas City.

The X-Men may have flashier costumes. Batman definitely has better gadgets. The Hulk might even, possibly, be stronger, though that's debated in online forums. Superman, however, has endured in part because he's a straight-up good guy.

"The comics today are dark and double-edged, but Superman is always clean-cut. Plus he can fly, and he has a secret identity. What more can you ask for?" said Gary Lindgren, 47, an appliance designer from Michigan.

Though edgier superheroes sometimes mock him as the "big blue Boy Scout," Superman holds his own in two current TV shows: the animated "Justice League" on the Cartoon Network and the teen drama "Smallville" on WB, which traces Clark Kent's adolescent angst.

"I don't want to say it's a religion, but he is an inspiration. It's amazing what Superman means to people," said Jim Hambrick, who moved from California to Metropolis with a 750,000-piece collection of Superman memorabilia to found the Super Museum.

Metropolis does not look much like the big, brooding city where Clark Kent works as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, when he's not zipping around the universe fighting crime. A faded riverfront town of about 7,000 set amid farmland that stretches flat to the horizon, it looks more like Mayberry -- or maybe, Smallville, the fictional Kansas town where Clark Kent grew up.

But the Illinois Legislature, seeking to boost tourism, officially recognized Metropolis as the Hometown of Superman in 1972. DC Comics sanctioned the boast. And the town raised $120,000 for a 15-foot bronze statue in front of the courthouse, now called Superman Square. There's also a green boulder Kryptonite "meteor," a safe distance away.

"Metropolis is like Mecca for Superman fans. You have to come," said Steve Younis, 31, a graphic designer who came from Australia.

"You see the Metropolis signs and you pick up the Metropolis phone book and for a few moments, you get to pretend he's real," said Jeff Germann, 41, of Springfield, Mo.

Don Shackleford, a 42-year-old freight loader, drove from Xenia, Ohio, in a vintage wool costume. He was sticky with sweat. But he couldn't stop beaming. He had been a Superman fan since his grandfather yanked him over to the couch to watch reruns of a black-and-white TV show when he was 3. He still feels the magic.

"Superman always does the right thing," Shackleford said. "There's very little of that left in this world."

A young man ran up with a camera, asking for a photo.

"Feel free to look heroic," he suggested.

Shackleford -- stoop-shouldered and graying -- barreled out his chest obligingly.

"With the children, it goes without saying that they're totally in awe of Superman. But you see all these adults walking around with starry eyes too," said Karla Ogle, the event's co-chair.

Introduced as a comic-book hero in 1938 -- during the Great Depression, as war loomed in Europe -- Superman won over Americans with his strength and his virtue. He used his powers to do good, but he didn't flaunt them. He was unassuming and unbeatable.

The character took off, and Superman was soon putting villains in their place on the radio, on TV, in the movies and even on Broadway. He's still at it today: In the latest issue of the Adventures of Superman (No. 617), he battles sinister twins from the 5th Dimension who are after Daily Planet Editor Perry White.

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