GRANITE CITY, Ill. – Mike Meyer was nervous about letting an obsessed acquaintance anywhere near his sprawling collection of Superman treasures. When the man finally talked his way into his home, Meyer got a real-life lesson in truth, justice and the American way.
Using his girlfriend to distract Meyer, Gerry Armbruster in August raided much of the Man of Steel stash in the basement and spare bedroom of Meyer's tiny home. Armbruster secreted away six boxes holding thousands of comic books and dozens of action figures, along with an assortment of model John Deere tractors.
At the time, Meyer -- living off his part-time McDonald's job and Social Security checks for a mental disability -- says he lost a bit of his soul.
Armbruster soon got nabbed, and Meyer got back everything but the mini tractors. In fact, after word of the crime made its way through cyberspace faster than a speeding bullet, Meyer's collection actually started to expand, thanks to help from oceans away.
Donors from Paraguay to the Pacific Rim inundated Meyer with a sea of Superman items, from autographed pictures to classic comic books -- even a Man of Steel lunch box. Meyer paid it forward, giving most duplicate items to a St. Louis children's hospital.
"I never realized I had so many friends," Meyer, 48, gushed of the outpouring fanned by online Superman message boards and a Facebook page titled, Save Superman -- Help Mike Meyer. "All I wanted was justice done, this guy behind bars and my stuff back."
The final piece of that wish came this week, when Armbruster, 37, pleaded guilty in Madison County just east of St. Louis and was sent to prison for six years for the theft. Armbruster also got a simultaneous six-year term for roughing up an elderly man he tried to rob two weeks after ripping off Meyer.
Initially Meyer wanted him to get double the prison time, but he later acknowledged that was "probably greedy."
"Justice did prevail, and this will give him some time to think," Meyer said.
A portly man with wispy eyebrows and a child's charm, Meyer not only adores the Man of Steel but lets the superhero's do-good ideals permeate his life, right down to his answering machine message: "Every man can be Superman."
Since news of the theft spread, Meyer has been somewhat of a cause celebre. He learned of Armbruster's sentence while on an all-expenses-paid trip to Cleveland, where Meyer -- decked out in an early Superman costume -- got a rare tour with fellow Superman aficionado Keith Howard of the boyhood home of Jerry Siegel, one of the comic superhero's co-creators.
He's gotten a call from Brandon Routh, who played the Man of Steel in the 2006 movie "Superman Returns." And he has fielded plenty of kitsch, from handmade sketches -- some from Mexico -- to hand-stitched decorative pillows from California bearing Superman's likeness. A Pennsylvania man even shipped him a mini Superman pinball machine.
In Meadville, Pa., midway between Pittsburgh and Erie, stay-at-home dad Andrew Copp happened upon Meyer's misfortune while mining social network websites about comic books. Copp said he found the theft appalling, "but I was more touched by everyone giving back to a total stranger."
Determined to help, the Navy veteran and former electronics worker studying to be a veterinary technician scoured his attic for Superman comics. Then he decided to part with a far more personal keepsake: a Superman logo hand-painted by his 8-year-old daughter, and captioned in child's handwriting: "Woosh Superman!!"
"It was amazing to see how this wonderful story turned out," Howard said. "Mike is a fantastic man, pure all the way to his soul. Just a gentle spirit, and he is what he is. He has the spirit of a small child, and he appeals to all of us."
Meyer started amassing his Superman collection two decades ago, partly to dull the ache of trying to get over a girl.
"This is what kept me going all these years because I've had bouts of depression," said Meyer, still frustrated about being single but at peace sharing his cluttered home with his two trusty sidekicks -- dark, mixed-breed dogs Krypto and Dyno.
Meyer doesn't know what all of the Superman stuff is all worth, though it's clearly in the thousands of dollars. Armbruster got only $600 for the stolen items, and Meyer calls that "an insult."
Much of the assortment consumes the basement. Its door to the outer world, which Meyer suspects Armbruster used to scurry away with his things, is now nailed shut. Down there, shelves are lined with Superman action figures and other trinkets, along with Man of Steel books, insulated coffee mugs, lunch boxes and puzzles -- even a lava lamp and wastebasket. Boxes of the comic books Armbruster once stole line a wall.
Bad knees keep Meyer from getting down there to admire his collection more than once a week. He spends more time observing the assortment of other items in a spare upstairs bedroom, where Superman bedding accents walls covered by Man of Steel posters. The art includes pictures signed by Margot Kidder, the Lois Lane of several film versions of the comic book classic.
To Meyer, it's all a reminder of an icon who simply did the right thing.
"He has all these powers. He could just shape the world to his own liking, but instead he submits to authority and helps people," Meyer said. "If this man actually existed, there'd be no Gadhafi, no al-Qaida or bin Laden. There'd be no deficit or a lot of the bad stuff that's happening."