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Goin’ to Metropolis

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It’s one of those places that I’d driven past more than once and had always promised myself I would visit. So when my day job took me to Metropolis, Illinois, last spring I was probably more excited than I should’ve been. Metropolis! Though I knew intellectually I was just visiting a small southern Illinois river town (pop: 6700), the name still rang through years of comic book history. If nothing else, I was definitely gonna get my picture taken by the giant Superman statue.

The town itself is so far south in Illinois that you might as well be in Kentucky. (One of the first things I see getting off I-24 is a billboard advertising “Cheap Kentucky Cigarettes” just four miles away.) As I drive into town, a large sign welcomes me to the “Home of Superman;” when I hit downtown, the first thought that comes to me is, “This is Smallville – not Metropolis!” The town water tower has a faded painting of the Man of Steel emblazoned on it; several stores have life-sized headless Superman cut-outs that you can pose behind if you’re skinny enough. A block away from the statue, a calico cat casually crosses the street right in front of me, unperturbed by traffic.
Downtown Metropolis looks like your typically struggling Midwestern small-town: empty storefronts, the remains of what used to be a viable movie theatre. There are several factories along the Ohio River, one of ’em a plant where duck decoys are painted, and a Harrah’s riverboat casino can be found at the end of the Ferry Street. Can’t help wondering what Kal-El would say about the presence of a gambling den in his fair burg – seems like something more appropriate to Gotham City.
The fifteen-foot statue is located in the center of town, just across the street from the Massac County Law Enforcement and Detention Center (which seems convenient). Unlike the tower, this paint job’s retained its luster (though the statue’s blue boots are clearly worn from winter wear). Since its unveiling in 1993, plenty of tourists on their way to Memphis have taken a side trip to get their photos snapped here. I can see why. There’s something striking about seeing a comic book colored statue in the middle of a real-life town (as opposed to, say, Disneyland or Vegas).
Not too far from the detention center is the Superman Museum, a combination gift show and collection display run by a California collector named Jim Hambrick. Hambrick used to travel with his collection, sometimes in the presence of Kirk Allyn (Superman from the 1940’s), but now he’s settled in Metropolis. From what I can tell, he’s doing a bang-up business selling souvenirs by mail – while I’m visiting, I see him hauling a large cart full of priority mailers across the street to the p.o.
In the back for $3.00, I get to view the man’s Superman collection, which is pretty extensive indeed: a restored costume from the George Reeves series, props and posters from all the movies, more Metropolitan merchandise than you can count. After a while, the plethora of red and blue images gets visually overwhelming. In the end, the display is less about Superman and more about one guy bragging about all the cool stuff he owns. But, you know, if I had a collection as mighty as this, I’d probably rent an old storefront and start showing it off, too.
One thing I wouldn’t do: I’d keep away from the theme music. The whole time I’m in the museum/store, soundtrack music and cartoon theme songs (not just Superman but the Spidey and Space Ghost themes) are piped through the building. Bet that gets old fast, I think.
Back in the shop, I do a quick perusal through the comic book selection: it’s spottier than your average comic book store. The selection is DC-heavy, of course, but the toy and merchandise selection is considerably more varied. I buy a fifty-cent postcard; later, at a Metropolis Drugstore, I’ll buy a run of Harley Quinn comics. It’s appropriate: the character is currently stomping around Metropolis with her gal-pal Poison Ivy.
Don’t get my picture taken by the statue that first trip into town. (Next day, one of my co-workers snaps some pics with a disposable camera.) After another long look at the superhero monument, I drive back to the Holiday Inn Express. Halfway there, I come upon a selection of display flowers that appear to’ve spilled out of a truck. Bouquets and broken vases are festooned across the lane, swatches of color almost as impressive as the bright primaries on the Superman monument.
I have been to the statue. And though I can’t say that my life has significantly changed by the experience, it was, well, pretty neat. . .
(Reprinted from Pop Culture Gadabout)

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.