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Region's comic-book connections run deep
METROPOLIS, Ill. -- Over the years, Superman has saved Metropolis from all sorts of villains, from Brainiac to Bizarro to General Zod.
When Southern Illinois' coal mines started closing in the late 1980s, Metropolis faced an economic threat as formidable as any plot Lex Luthor could have hatched.
Superman, according to gift-shop owner Adam Siebert, helped save the day.
Siebert operates a comic-centric gift shop at his father-in-law Jim Hambrick's Superman museum in downtown Metropolis.
The Super Museum and a nearby 15-foot-high Superman statue draw thousands of visitors annually to the quiet Ohio River town on U.S. 45 about 65 miles east of Cape Girardeau.
During the winter, Siebert sees 200 visitors a day; in the summer, that number rises to 1,000, he said.
"It just depends on the weather. ... We get people that come from Korea, Japan, Australia," he said. "We got a guy [from Australia] that comes about every four years for the Superman festival. He works at McDonald's and saves up all his money and comes here."
The museum, which moved to Metropolis from Orange County, Calif., in the early 1990s, is packed with Superman memorabilia -- more than 65,000 items, representing about 15 percent of Hambrick's collection, Siebert said.
Metropolis isn't the only town that benefits from comic-book enthusiasts' passion.
Locally, Cape Comic Con director Ken Murphy has said he expects more than 1,200 collectors, creators and fans to pour into Cape Girardeau this weekend for the annual event.
Strong to the finish
While Superman keeps Metropolis safe, Mike and Debbie Brooks of Chester, Ill., 50 miles north of Cape Girardeau, help preserve the legacy of their community's hometown hero.
Nine years before Superman's 1938 DC Comics debut, Chester native Elzie Crisler Segar gave the world Popeye the Sailor Man.
A bronze statue of Segar's spinach-fueled sailor stands next to a visitors' center near the east end of the Mississippi River bridge connecting Chester with Perry County, Mo.
A plaque on the pedestal identifies another local man, Frank "Rocky" Fiegel, as Segar's inspiration.
"He would take on three guys at one time, and that was no problem," Mike Brooks said of Fiegel.
In 1994, Brooks and his wife -- who lived in Tennessee at the time -- bought the historic Chester Opera House, whose onetime owner served as the inspiration for Popeye's hamburger-munching friend Wimpy, and opened a Popeye memorabilia shop and museum called Spinach Can Collectibles.
"You know, there's a lot of towns that would give their eyeteeth to have something as big as Popeye," Brooks said.
Nationwide, comics are big business: Last year, Diamond Comic Distributors sold more than $517 million worth of comics, trade paperbacks and magazines to North American comic shops, according to comichron.com, which tracks comic sales.
In Chester, Spinach Can Collectibles has about 2,000 Popeye items on display, and Debbie Brooks estimates she and her husband have at least 5,000 more items in storage.
Mike Brooks pointed out the oldest item in the museum, a 1931 tin toy featuring Popeye carrying a pair of birdcages.
He said the strangest Popeye item is the one they didn't buy: a cushioned toilet seat with Popeye characters that lit up.
"We've never seen another one," he said, his voice tinged with regret.
The items they do have are enough to attract visitors.
"We've had people from 72 countries, all 50 states," including "Twister" star Bill Paxton, who once dropped in for a visit, Debbie Brooks said. "You never know. People know Popeye all over the world."
Careers in comics
Closer to Cape Girardeau, the region's comic connection can be found in the work of two Jackson artists.
Murphy, the Cape Comic Con director, said Roy Thomas and Gary Frederick worked with the renowned Stan Lee at Marvel Comics during the 1960s and '70s, which Murphy referred to as the "Silver Age of Comics."
"They are historically significant in the world of comics over the last 40 years," said Murphy, who recently brought another local artist, Nathan Bonner, to downtown Cape Girardeau for a comic-drawing workshop that attracted about 50 participants.
Bonner, a Southern Illinois University instructor and 1995 graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, said young artists benefit from drawing with old-fashioned pencil and paper.
"They're very enthusiastic," he said. "It's always nice to see children interested in drawing and getting away from the electronic media."
The event certainly had Ariel Barr's interest. The Jackson 6-year-old considered the possibility of creating her own comic book as she worked on her fourth drawing of the afternoon.
"Well, I am a good artist," she said, showing off a drawing of an alicorn -- a sort of unicorn-Pegasus hybrid from the "My Little Pony" cartoon.
Nine-year-old Julien Keesee prefers to create his own characters.
"I like to go free-mindedly," he said. "I have a vivid imagination from my best friend. He actually just recently moved away, and in our old school, we used to just get pieces of paper and just start drawing."
The boys created superheroes based on themselves, Julien said.
"We would, like, find a crystal, and then we would grind it up and eat it some way, and one of us would get, like, super speed or something," he said.
Brooke Bradley, 19, of New Madrid, Mo., came to the workshop with a folder full of anime-style drawings and a head full of ideas for a comic series called "Minney's Magical World."
Bradley, who is considering a career in comics, said she learned from Bonner's presentation.
"The most useful thing is basically on drawing the anatomy," she said. "That part is tricky every now and then."
Across the table from Bradley, 15-year-old Tess Rosenthal of Hillsboro, Mo., flipped through her own sketchbook, which included everything from cyborgs of her own design to detailed pencil drawings of characters from the long-running BBC series "Doctor Who."
The Doctor is in
Rosenthal might appreciate one of Metropolis' newest attractions.
Superman, it seems, isn't the only humanoid alien with a fondness for phone booths to find his way to Metropolis after the destruction of his home planet.
Outside Daily Star Comics, Will Bruhn has constructed a detailed replica of the TARDIS from "Doctor Who," a time machine disguised as a British police telephone booth.
"[My wife] thought I was nuts," he said.
Bruhn figured the TARDIS might attract customers to his shop. If it didn't -- well, at least he'd have his own TARDIS.
As he spoke, a couple from Kentucky stopped to check it out.
Bruhn hopes to draw more sci-fi fans to Metropolis with a special event he is holding to coincide with the town's annual Superman festival.
On June 14, actress Sophie Aldred, who appeared on "Doctor Who" in the late 1980s, will be at Daily Star to greet fans and sign autographs.
"I want to bring a lot of Whovians here and also put my shop on the map," Bruhn said.
- Coming events for comics fans (03/21/14)