Identity Crisis

Cleveland's alter ego as Superman's birthplace is hiding in plain sight. It's time to build a superhero museum and embrace our dork side.

On a one-way street in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood, near graffiti-scarred foreclosures crumpling like pop cans, one defiantly intact house has received a reprieve from its neighbors' fate. The house, once falling apart but now restored, with a brick red porch and a blue third-floor peak, is the birthplace of the first modern superhero.

Jerry Siegel, a budding teenage science-fiction writer, lived here in the 1930s when he and his friend, gifted artist Joe Shuster, created Superman. A plaque installed by the nonprofit Siegel and Shuster Society declares they "gave us something to believe in."

But other than Siegel's home and a display in Beachwood's Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, Cleveland has done little to convey its pride in being Superman's birthplace. Maybe it's Midwestern humility or that comics aren't as cool as rock music, but we've treated our role in comics history like Kryptonite.

Just as Cleveland jumped onstage for our piece of rock 'n' roll glory, we should mark the 75th anniversary of Action Comics No. 1 in June 2013 by stamping a red and yellow shield on our puffed-out communal chest. We should build the first superhero history museum.

"It's as important an idea as it was to get the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here," argues University Heights native Brian Michael Bendis, writer of Ultimate Spider-Man and The New Avengers. "It makes that much sense."

Consider what our connection to rock 'n' roll history has brought us: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which gave our city a new identity to visitors, and the Rock Hall induction ceremony, coming back to Cleveland this month. The 2009 induction boosted our economy by $13 million. Also consider what a one-time association with a superhero blockbuster brought us. Last summer's local filming of scenes for The Avengers, coming out May 4, brought $35 million in direct spending, not to mention the excitement of seeing East Ninth Street engulfed in flames. Imagine what building on our status as Superman's birthplace could bring.

"There's something very specific about Cleveland and how so many things important to the birth of comics happened here," Bendis says.

Cleveland has an even stronger claim to comics history than to rock •n' roll history. Local DJ Alan Freed didn't invent rock 'n' roll. He introduced people to the music and defined it with a name. Siegel and Shuster, working here in Cleveland, created the superhero genre. The first costumed hero with superhuman powers, Superman kicked off the Golden Age of Comics, paving the way for Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America. The Man of Steel triggered the growth of the comic book industry, changed popular entertainment and inspired millions of imaginations. In 2005, VH1 ranked him the second-greatest pop culture icon, behind only Oprah Winfrey and ahead of Elvis Presley.

Cleveland's museum could include every influential superhero, from Spider-Man and Wolverine to the Justice League and the X-Men. The foyer could be dedicated solely to Siegel and Shuster, an explanation of "Why Cleveland?" The museum could show comics' place in American culture, from costumed crusaders' years as World War II propaganda to their expansion into graphic novels and their ubiquitous presence in summer blockbusters today. It could also cover the counterculture's response to superheroes, including Clevelander Harvey Pekar's American Splendor comics, which teach that it's heroic just to get out of bed in the morning.

Down the road, I envision a giant museum with a glimmering façade like the Fortress of Solitude. It'd be a dynamic nerdvana where fans could access the Bat Cave's computer to learn about science and history. They could climb a Velcro wall to imitate Spider-Man's sticky abilities. Bendis himself pledged original artwork if the place is ever built. So that's a start.

Terry Stewart, the Rock Hall's CEO, is also a former Marvel Comics executive. He's seen economics triumph over similar ideas before. Marvel donated $1 million to a museum in Boca Raton, Fla., but traffic through it didn't meet projections, so its collection is now at The Ohio State University. "To build one is the easy part," Stewart says. "To run one is hard."

Stewart thinks a Cleveland superhero museum would have to start small, in a wing of an existing museum such as the Western Reserve Historical Society. (Edward Pershey, a WRHS vice president, says he's very interested in the idea.) It'd have to prove itself to Marvel and DC's parent companies, Disney and Time Warner, before they'd sign off on any exhibit bearing the likenesses of their superheroes.

But there is hope. While we've been hiding our secret identity, Columbus has attracted a comic convention and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Pittsburgh has the ToonSeum, focused on cartooning. San Diego's Comic Con attracts 126,000 people annually and an estimated $162 million in economic activity last year.

We have something those cities don't.

Brad Ricca, a local college lecturer who made Last Son, a Siegel and Shuster documentary, has visited comic museums from New York to Japan. "One thing they don't have a lot of is superhero stuff," he notes.

Tourists could come here to learn the roots of the superhero. Superman was born in a Cleveland suffering from economic depression and a crime wave. Yet 1930s Cleveland was in every way the fictional Metropolis, the "City of Tomorrow." The Great Lakes Exposition and the bustling downtown, filling up with towering skyscrapers, fueled Siegel and Shuster's vision of a city worth saving.

Jerry Siegel explained it best in a 1988 letter to then-mayor George Voinovich.

"We looked up at Cleveland's Terminal Tower, and visualized a costumed figure ... whizzing through the sky around it, and then alighting atop it," Siegel wrote. "Here in Cleveland, [we] fashioned a Being who expressed, back in the Depression years, humankind's hope for a better world."

Superheroes are ciphers for our hopes for justice. They inspire the marginalized to choose courage over cowardice and good over evil. They inspired me to stand up to bullies as a child and, later, to join the Navy.

Maybe Cleveland has become too much like Clark Kent, whom Judi Feniger, Maltz Museum executive director, describes as "the meek person in all of us who has the superhero inside." Yet underneath the city's blue collar has always been a red cape.

It's time for Cleveland to embrace its cultural inheritance with a superhero museum. No one is going to swoop down and do it. This looks like a job for all of us.

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