METROPOLIS, Ill. - Past the funnel cake stands, the BMX bikers and the autograph tents at the annual Superman Celebration stands an unexceptional building that signs advertise as Artist Alley and Writer's Way.
It may not sound as glamorous as having a photo taken with Superman himself, but a visit with the comic artists and writers there can give fans a glimpse of what goes into making a superhero - and why the characters mean so much to so many.
"Whether it's an introverted child who really needs it, or somebody who's totally confident in (his) own skin, everybody needs something to aspire to. And I think that's what superheroes do," said Jim Hall, who began drawing professionally for Marvel Comics in 1993, and has since worked for DC and Dark Horse Comics. He said it's the only kind of artist he ever wanted to be.
This year marked Hall's third visit to the uniquely family-friendly celebration. In between signing autographs, Hall explained why it's the only comic event his wife, Christina, will attend with him.
"It feels unlike anything else," he said of the Superman Celebration. "(Kids) are full of wonder, excitement and amazement."
For Elliot S! Maggin, a main writer for DC Comics from 1971 to 1986, the initial attraction to comic heroes had less to do with wonderment and more to do with politics. Maggin found his way into the trade after writing a term paper about DC hero Green Arrow for a history class at Brandeis University, where he was an undergraduate. He disagreed with his B-plus grade - a paper about a comic book hero should get either an A or an F, he said - so he remade it as a comic book script and sent it to DC. Artist Neal Adams chose to draw the script, and the rest is superhero history.
Of the characters he wrote, "Superman was the best. (But) the characters I identified with most were things like the Joker and Lex Luther, because I never got used to the idea of making anybody evil," he said.
Maggin said the world of comics has changed since he left to start his "real" job at health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente. Now the industry is more concerned with licensing characters for movies, and circulation of actual comic books has dropped. But he doesn't seem all that disappointed.
"I love them," he said of comic book movies. "My favorite was the second Avengers movie."
Then there are the comic history buffs, like Brian Morris, an author set to discuss the 75-year legacy of Batman later that day. Morris knows a lot about the story of the Caped Crusader, who first appeared in 1939 as a response to Superman. The two have since enjoyed a sometimes rocky, but generally respectful, relationship.
Like the other writers and artists, Morris takes comics semi-seriously. He found his favorite incarnation of Batman in the goofy 1966 Adam West film, and loves the Superman Celebration for its laid-back, welcoming feeling.
"A lot of comic (conventions) are a grown-up club," Morris said. "It's good to see the fans of tomorrow."
But when it comes to the question of what draws all these generations of fans to Metropolis, Morris turns a bit more serious. The appeal of all this - the tights, the capes, the gadgets - lies in seeing someone live up to an ideal.
"(A superhero) is someone who is what we'd like to be, or what we'd like to see in others," Morris said.
The Superman Celebration continues through today. Artist Alley and Writers Way opens at 10 a.m., and a host of other events will be held in the hours leading up to the 5 p.m. closing ceremony at the Superman statue. For more information, visit supermancelebration.net.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.
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