Cleveland is to comic books as Motown is to music. But talk to some Clevelanders, and you’d be surprised how few know it.
Back in the 1990s, when I worked for The Plain Dealer, I interviewed a member of the mayor’s administration. I asked why the city does not do more to embrace its Super heritage. Where was the billboard of Superman welcoming people to his birthplace? Where was the “Birthplace of Superman” slogan on city advertisements and proclamations?
He looked confused.
“You do know that Superman was created in Cleveland, right?” I said.
He was shocked. He had no idea.
The whole genre of superhero comics was born here in 1938 when Superman, the creation of Glenville teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, graced the cover of the first issue of Action Comics. That was the beginning of the comic book revolution. Since then, the number of comic pros that have Cleveland links would fill this page.
It makes sense that New York City and Los Angeles would be at the top, since that’s where the biggest publishers and film industries are. But other cities have recently grown almost as important to the industry.
Recently, comics upstart Portland, Oregon, has become the place for creators to live and work. These days you can’t toss a batarang in Stumptown without hitting writers or artists such as Brian Michael Bendis (Superman), Matt Wagner (Grendel), Gail Simone (Birds of Prey), Greg Rucka (Wonder Woman) or Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel).
Other cities, like tiny Metropolis, Illinois, which shares the same name as Superman’s fictional home, exploit their tenuous relationship to Superman with annual festivals and museums. Even Toronto, where Superman artist Joe Shuster was born, touts its connection to Superman.
But Cleveland, the only city in the world that can claim to be Superman’s birthplace, has ignored Kal-El and the legacy of comics greatness he represents, even as there has been a groundswell of grassroots recognition.
I’d like to think the constant haranguing in my Plain Dealer comics column for 25 years built up the momentum to recognize Cleveland as a comics mini-mecca, but perhaps it’s just the right time. There are still some ignoramuses out there, and no one is shouting it to the world, but some Clevelanders are quietly owning our comics heritage.
One of the biggest developments was the creation of the Siegel & Shuster Society, which honors Superman and his two dads. (Full disclosure, I’m on the board of directors.) The society successfully convinced Ohio and DC Comics to make official Ohio Superman license plates, making us the only state selling them (take that, Oregon).
The Society created the Superman Welcoming Center at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and assisted the renovation of the home of Siegel at 10622 Kimberly Ave. in Glenville, complete with an impressive outdoor display.
With the indispensable aid of novelist and Superman fan Brad Meltzer, we raised more than $100,000 from fans around the world for the renovation.
On top of that, the Cleveland Public Library’s Superman exhibit drew record crowds, thanks to Amy Dawson, who organized the three-floor exhibit.
The one accomplishment that has thus far eluded us is the erection of a larger-than-life statue of Superman overlooking the city of his birth. We almost had one outside the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but the deal that included it fell through.
Don’t abandon hope, though. A statue may very well be a reality at another location.
Beyond Superman, the city has also quietly fostered some remarkable comics artists. Brian K. Vaughan (Paper Girls) found a love of comics while at St. Ignatius High School.
And John Backderf, known simply as Derf, honed his unique art style at the Akron Beacon Journal and The Plain Dealer before launching his own comic strip The City, and creating graphic novels like My Friend Dahmer (now a movie), Punk Rock & Trailer Parks and Trashed. His graphic novel on the shootings at Kent State University is due out in April.
“I consider Cleveland part of the greater Ohio comics scene, and I think there’s plenty of respect there,” Derf says.
That scene percolates from Columbus, where the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum at Ohio State University is a magnet, he says. “I’ve lived in Cleveland most of my adult life, but I’m from Akron and went to school at Ohio State,” says Derf, “so my roots are in all those places.”
The best-known working comics creator with Cleveland roots today is Bendis. He worked for Marvel Comics for 17 years before moving to DC Comics in 2018.
He urges young artists to perfect their craft and not to be lured by the bright lights of the big cities. That’s what he did, growing up in Cleveland before moving to Portland.
“I’ve long preached to young comics creators about the advantages of living and working here in the Midwest,” Bendis says. “Why go broke living in New York City or Portland? Move to a funky Rust Belt city where living is cheap and there’s a lively comics scene. You don’t need to live in an expensive city in order to make it in comics. I’m a great example of that.”
So are Ohio-connected creators such as Jeff Smith (Bone), P. Craig Russell (Sandman) or Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants), says Bendis.
Sean McArdle, an artist and writer from Canton, is too. His forthcoming series, co-written with fellow Cantonite Jon Judy, is a fanciful tale of a battle of wills between Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin called The Fuhrer and the Tramp. It was nominated for a coveted Eisner Award this year.
“Cleveland should be very proud of its pop-culture history,” says McArdle. “Superman was the birth of a genre that encapsulates almost the entirety of our pop culture and it came from the streets of Cleveland.”
That legacy extends beyond cape-and-tights comics to more naturalistic creators such as Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, McArdle says. And Northeast Ohio’s affordability means creators like McArdle can make their own contributions to that canon.
“The comparatively low cost of living made it somewhat easier to live a decent lifestyle and provide for my family while honing my craft,” McArdle says. “I was blessed with just enough poverty and struggle to keep me hungry, and enough prosperity and abundance to not feel that my children had to suffer or go without.”
But cheapness alone isn’t enough to build a scene. If it was, Cleveland’s would already be world-renowned. Bendis, who attended the Cleveland Institute of Art early in his career, says the city should do more. Locals should continue to lift up great indie conventions, like Genghis Con (held Dec. 1), Bendis says. But the big shots need to step up.
“I’d like to see a bit more support for comics from the institutions in Cleveland — the art museum, the Institute of Art,” says Bendis. “I think that would be an incredible benefit to Cleveland’s rep.”
He’s right. Cleveland should recognize its unique place in the comics world with tributes to Superman, festivals, statues, a museum and more support for struggling artists.
We should embrace and share our history, and take the advice given by the Man of Steel himself: “Do good unto others and every man can be a Superman.”
Read more: From our December 2018 issue, "Why We Need Superman Now." Created here 80 years ago, the man of steel gets a modern makeover in the hands of Cleveland native Brian Michael Bendis — just when we need him most.