The sun was just starting to rise when I woke up in the front seat of my parents’ minivan. We were on our way back to Chicago from Nashville, traveling overnight through the flat and repetitive landscape of southern Illinois so my mom and I could sleep during the most boring stretch of the journey.
My dad, always a morning person, was extra chipper, tapping on the steering wheel and singing out loud to the radio with a smile on his face. “Wake up your mom,” he said, “we’re making a stop soon.” It was 6:30 AM and there wasn’t an exit in sight. “Where?” I asked with little hope. (Was this going to turn into a foraging trip? My dad would often point to weeds growing along the highway and proclaim, “That looks edible!”)
But before he could answer, a giant billboard said it all: “The Massac County Chamber of Commerce welcomes you to Metropolis, ‘Home of Superman.’ ” The Man of Steel himself—or at least the version of him from volume one of the comics—soared across a map of southern Illinois.
Metropolis isn’t just a small town trying to be cute: in 1972 DC Comics rewarded Metropolis with the sole right to the title “Home of Superman.” The city erected a 15-foot-tall bronze Superman statue in 1973; five years later it hosted the first ever Superman Celebration, a gathering of comic book artists, celebrities, and fans honoring the superhero with film screenings, costume contests, and more. In 1993, the Super Museum opened, bringing together more than 20,000 pieces of Man of Steel memorabilia.
And even though the town’s rural location and tiny population (around 6,500 people) are more reminiscent of Smallville, the farm town in Kansas where a young Superman first landed, the real Metropolis is trying its darnedest to mirror the bustling fictional metropolis of, um, Metropolis in every way possible. You just have to look for it to see that it’s there.
The bronze statue was the only thing my dad, a longtime Superman fan, wanted to see. As we wound our way downtown from the highway, the buildings and businesses we drove past seemed as if they were plucked straight out of Superman’s world: there were a few generically named City National Banks; the local supermarket, Big John’s Grocery, had its own giant statue of a grocer (Big John, I assume) in the parking lot. A giant casino looms over the city, the perfect location for an evil mastermind’s lair. The local paper is even called the Metropolis Planet.
The statue of Superman stands at the center of town, hands on his hips, cape blowing in the wind, on a pedestal that reads truth. justice. the american way.
My dad posed for a picture at Superman’s feet, a huge grin on his face. After I snapped the photo, he looked longingly at a nearby row of cardboard cutouts—ones of Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Superman, and a phone booth—wondering how much time we could spare before getting back on the road.
We took a glimpse of the Super Museum’s offerings (it opens bright and early every day between 8 and 8:30 AM, and will let you stare in the windows even earlier than that). Inside the museum is Superman aficionado Jim Hambrick’s impressive personal collection of toys, props, and costumes—including a rare George Reeves outfit from Adventures of Superman.
We were the only people milling about the town square in these early morning hours, but Metropolis isn’t always so calm. This was the off season, when tourists can take their time perusing the town’s oddities. But thousands of people from across the world come to Metropolis every year for the Superman Celebration.
“A lot of our town uses it for people watching,” says Trish Steckenrider, Metropolis’s director of tourism. “You see a lot of men in tights.” In fact, throughout the weekend, the hashtag “#menintights” is used to document the costumes of fans who wander through.
When the festival started in 1978—the same year Christopher Reeve first portrayed the Man of Steel on the silver screen—the town statue was only six feet tall and the celebration lasted only one day. “It was just a local event,” Steckenrider says. “A local pastor dressed up as Superman and posed for pictures.”
This year’s celebration, from June 9-12, features celebrity guests like Mehcad Brooks and Peter Facinelli from Supergirl, a film festival of fan-created work, trivia nights, scavenger hunts, a parade, and more.
Metropolis has some sights outside of the shadow of Superman—Fort Massac, Illinois’s first state park, boasts a disc golf course, a 14-mile bike trail, trout pond, nature trails, and campgrounds. Then there’s Mermet Springs, a lake and park that offers scuba diving lessons and hosts archery competitions throughout the year. But even those locations can’t escape Metropolis’s legacy entirely—Mermet will host the Superman Classic Archery Tournament June 21-23.
As for my dad, he’s already planning his return trip. There’s nothing he regrets more than not getting a photo with his head on Superman’s body. If you find yourself in Metropolis, Illinois, this summer, don’t make the same mistake. v