'Man of Steel': Superman a true Midwesterner

Jim Hambrick, who runs the Super Museum in Metropolis, said: "I came here from Los Angeles, so I know what it's like to arrive and learn the language of the Midwest and become acclimated. The people here like that the streets roll up at night, right up until they don't like that their kids always leave because they can't find anything for them here."

Which is what Superman does: He moves away.

"Actually, Superman is so Midwestern he would be from any Midwest Rust Belt area," said Brad Ricca, who teaches literature at Case Western University in Cleveland and recently wrote "Super Boys," a history of Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. "But Superman is from Cleveland because his creators came from Cleveland. The first stories are basically in Cleveland. Superman fights hoods and guys who beat their wives, and the city looks terrible and has these generic problems. It's so Cleveland. Superman even sends a telegraph back to Cleveland. It's hard to say if Superman is staunchly a Midwestern literary figure, but he does pack his bags to ply his trade in the big city, which is another example of Midwest brain drain."

It's also kind of perfect that Siegel and Shuster, sons of immigrant Orthodox Jews who settled in the heartland, would create him in Cleveland, which is technically in the Midwest, though it doesn't much feel like it.

If Superman has a tendency to seem a bit too upstanding, too wholesome, that may be because, to an extent, his Midwestern values were intensified later, by DC's East Coast writers.

"The farm stuff didn't come in until after Siegel and Shuster, in the late 1940s, when Smallville was invented," said author Tom De Haven, who wrote a well-received 2005 literary novel, "It's Superman!" "I've even heard the first Smallville was going to be in Maryland." Likewise, Ricca told me he always believed Superman's Kansas roots were "an Easterner's arbitrary idea of the Midwest, just a stand-in for the Midwest, for Middle-American values."

Nevertheless, it stuck.

"I see Superman now as a Midwesterner in the sense that he has definite moral values," said Larry Tye, who wrote "Superman: A High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero." "And as a born and bred Bostonian, (I think) that certainty of right and wrong is probably a heartland quality."

In a similar vein, Zachary Baker-Salmon, who produced the balletic "Superman 2050" for Chicago's Theater Unspeakable, said: "Superman is about not being a jerk, not being arrogant, nobody is better than anybody else. We're definitely embracing Midwestern stereotypes, but I do think that moral compass makes him the most Midwestern superhero."

Frankly, Superman's self-congratulatory decency, that sense that he stands for justice and morality in a way no one else could understand, grows exhausting and probably hasn't helped his relatability. And yet there's a secret to getting Superman right while still retaining his Midwestern character, explained DC's Scott Snyder, arguably the most sought-after superhero scribe in comics, now writing "Superman Unchained": Remind the audience that Superman is sincere but not always right.

"Traveling through the Midwest I always think of things as being big and small at the same time," Snyder said. "You're humbled by the landscape but feel huge if you're the only thing there most of the time. Which speaks to Superman. He is the most powerful being on the planet but a deeply human character."

Which is somewhat the feel you get from Plano, a pocket-sized drama surrounded by an epic, the modesty of its sand-colored bricks and quiet streets slouched alongside a grand, green horizon. Indeed, the next time you're driving into Plano, watch for the welcome signs along U.S. Route 34, amended recently to reflect a significant chapter in Plano's legacy. The signs are large and tasteful, and the greeting welcomes you to Plano, birthplace of the mechanical farm harvester. Then beneath that, a boast: "Smallville, USA." Then beneath that, in a much smaller font, a qualifier: "Scenes from 'Man of Steel' were filmed here."

Civic pride with an asterisk. Superman would approve.

cborrelli@tribune.com | Twitter @borrelli


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