METROPOLIS, Ill. – In this sleepy Ohio River town that claims Superman (search) as its favorite son, 50-year-old Jim Hambrick has landed somewhere between reality and fantasy.
All things Superman rule here, from the 15-foot bronze statue of the buff comic-book hero on Superman Square to the "S"-emblazoned T-shirts that can be found just about everywhere.
Images of Superman grace the water tower and billboards, pointing the way to downtown. A phone booth in the business district is just for show — it doesn't have a phone.
In the midst of it all is Hambrick, owner of a storefront souvenir shop and Super Museum — with a sign out front that bills the one-time furniture store as "the Largest Superman Collection on the Planet."
"It's a borderline obsession for me; I had to channel it somewhere," the married father of four said, decked out in a Superman T-shirt that hardly stands out in this town he moved to 13 years ago from Hollywood.
"We all need a hero, and Superman is the grandest of them all," he said.
The 166-year-old town of 6,500 residents has no real connection to the fictional crimefighter, beyond the fact that Superman's co-creator, Jerry Siegel, happened to name his setting "Metropolis" when he first wrote the strip in the 1930s.
But it's a place that's more Mayberry than Metropolis — where few visitors can resist being photographed next to the Superman statue, their chests puffed out and hands on hips in classic Superman style.
Locals have called this Superman's official home since the early 1970s, when the Illinois Legislature declared it to be. The local newspaper was The Metropolis News until 1972, when it became The Metropolis Planet to get it more in line with the fictional Daily Planet that had Clark Kent — Superman's alter ego — and Lois Lane on the payroll.
Crime is as visible as vapor, as one might expect in the digs of a caped crimefighter, aside from those who years ago found the square's previous Superman statue so hideous they blasted it with gunshots, proving it couldn't outrun a speeding bullet.
"We're the only Metropolis in the whole United States," boasts Karla Ogle, chairwoman of the recent Superman Celebration, staged each spring for the past 27 years.
Tens of thousands of people stop in Metropolis each year, and residents expect to see that already muscular tourism trade flex even more with two new Superman-related flicks due out in 2006.
One's about a fictionalized detective (played by Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (search)) investigating the death of George Reeves, television's Superman in the 1950s; it co-stars Ben Affleck as Reeves and Diane Lane. The other is the much ballyhooed "Superman Returns (search)" starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey.
With those movies, "we've got some coattails to ride on," Hambrick said.
Inside Hambrick's store, the Superman theme blares across a wide collection of comic books and the typical tourist fare of T-shirts, shot glasses and action figures.
Need some Kryptonite? The $5 price for a rock painted a glowing green apparently hasn't made shoppers' knees buckle — Hambrick says he sells a wheelbarrow a week of the stuff.
Hambrick grew up without a father and found a role model in TV's Superman. His collection, which he values at $4 million, started at age 5 with a Superman lunchbox.
"That's what started the madness," he jokes.
The 75,000 items on display are just one-fifth of his total collection. His most prized item: a glass-encased Superman costume Reeves wore in 1957 TV episodes. Hambrick values the get-up — the last of 11 he says he's owned over the years — at $250,000.
The museum also has props and wardrobe items from TV episodes and movies, as well as collectibles including Superman peanut butter.
During Metropolis' recent Superman festival, aspiring actor Christopher Dennis — with dyed black hair that gave him a striking resemblance to the late movie Superman Christopher Reeve — walked the streets in the Man of Steel's regalia.
"It's a blast," Dennis, 37, says as a young boy calls out: "Hi, Superman."
He shakes the boy's hand, then hoists him into his arms for a picture.
"The biggest pleasure is putting smiles on children's faces," he says.
Jeremiah Osteen, 6, and his brother Jonathan, 3, also got their picture taken while Dennis was in Hambrick's shop. The boys from Cincinnati wandered about wide-eyed as their parents scrambled to keep up.
"We always wanted to come here," said Jack Osteen, their father and a lifelong Superman fan.
Great Caesar's Ghost! Superman's hold on the imagination spans generations.
"I like that he's super," Jeremiah says, staring at a Superman suspended from the museum's ceiling. "I always wished I could fly, too."