It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman's hometown! Sort of.
Those of us who grew up on comic books know the superhero's fictional home was Metropolis. Its deep southern Illinois twin is out to help us relive our youthful fantasies with a giant statue of Superman and a jam-packed museum dedicated to him.
The town along the Ohio River also hosts an historic state park, a casino and a nearby draw for scuba divers from around the world, making Metropolis a good place to spend a day or two. Still, it is fair to say Superman puts Metropolis on the map.
That is no accident, according to Trish Steckenrider, tourism director for the Greater Metropolis Convention and Visitors Bureau. The town started in the late 1800s, long before superheroes made their debut.
"The founders thought we would be the Chicago of Illinois because of our location on the river and named it accordingly," she says. Nearly a century later, when the comics industry declared Superman's hometown to be Metropolis, people started asking if the town was named for him.
Some creative locals decided to embrace the fun and got National Periodicals Publications, the forerunner of D.C. Comics, to declare in 1972 that Metropolis, Illinois, would be Superman's official home, Steckenrider says. "We have a contract still in effect today that allows Metropolis to use the tagline 'Home of Superman' for economic and tourism purposes."
The connection pays off for the town as thousands stop for a photo in front of the iconic statue, built in 1993 next to the Massac County Courthouse. Containing 4,000 pounds of bronze, the statue rises 15 feet.
Two blocks north, a Lois Lane statue and a "Daily Planet" globe further celebrate the tale of newspaper reporter Clark Kent turned superhero and his love interest, Lois.
Visitors can learn more of the story by stopping at the Super Museum, housing one of the largest collections of Superman memorabilia in the world. Longtime fan Jim Hambrick opened the museum in 1993, beginning his collection with a Superman lunchbox when he was a child. His family carries on the tradition.
Today the small museum includes a dizzying array of artifacts from movies, TV shows, comics and games. Costumes, props, toys, advertisements and photos grace the walls and cubicles. Life-size mannequins portray various Superman characters.
A gift shop offers Superman T-shirts, toys, comics and other souvenirs. A Superman figure bursts forth from the wall outside the museum.
The museum, gift shop and statue are popular spots for the 15,000-20,000 fans who flock to Metropolis for the annual Superman Celebration, June 10-12 this year. Steckenrider says a main feature is the chance for fans to interact with celebrities affiliated with Superman movies and cartoons the town brings in every year. (This year's crew will be announced later this spring.)
The three-day celebration also includes games, costume contests, music, a collectors' auction, a car show and plenty of food.
Fort Massac State Park on the Ohio River also draws a crowd for its encampment the third weekend of October, Steckenrider says. Other times the park offers picnicking, camping, disc golfing, hiking, fishing, boating and hunting during season. The park's location on the river's bank yields scenic views of the bridge that connects Illinois to Paducah, Kentucky.
A paved 3.6-mile bike and hike path beginning at the Superman statue and going through the state park is wheelchair accessible.
Nearby Mermet Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area is another spot to fish, hike, boat and hunt in season. The area features a 452-acre lake and bike trails.
More famous among scuba diving enthusiasts is Mermet Springs in Belknap. Steckenrider calls it "one of our hidden gems in southern Illinois. People come from all over the world to train, and it is a big playground for divers." The deep spring is 8.5 acres and contains some underwater attractions added to enhance dives, including a 747 airplane used as a movie prop.
Those who prefer indoor activities may be drawn to Harrah's Casino along the river in Metropolis. Steckenrider says the full-service casino is a major draw to the area and includes a hotel, dining rooms and live entertainment.
Other lodging options include several chain hotels and inns. Steckenrider notes that most non-chain restaurants in Metropolis are mom-and-pop operations popular with visitors.
Visitors also can find lodging and restaurants across the river in Paducah, home to the National Quilt Museum, mural art on the city's floodwalls and several historic sites.
For more information about Metropolis and its surroundings, go to www.metropolistourism.com.
Mary Bohlen, a former wire service reporter and UIS journalism professor, writes about nearby travel for Illinois Times and ReGeneration.