SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the singing diplomat. But first, next week readers of comic pages in more than 400 newspapers across the country will take a visit to the birthplace of Superman. Not the planet Krypton. Remember, Krypton blew up. Readers of the strip "Funky Winkerbean" will visit Cleveland. Seventy-five years ago on that city's east side, a teenager named Jerry Siegel came up with the idea for a comic book character with superpowers. Since then, the house where Superman was born, if you please, has become a destination for comic book fans from around the world, even some other comic characters. David C. Barnett of member station WCPN paid the house a visit and has this report.
DAVID C. BARNETT: Tom Batiuk keeps an old 64 count box of Crayola crayons on a shelf in his studio in Medina, Ohio, about a half hour west of his boyhood home in Akron. Scrolled across the frayed top in the handwriting of a 7-year-old is a single word: Superman.
Mr. TOM BATIUK (Comic Strip Creator): I guarantee you, if you look in that box of crayons, there is no blue, there is no red. It's all totally used up.
BARNETT: Batiuk doesn't need them today. He uses pen and ink for his syndicated comic strip, "Funky Winkerbean." But when he was a kid, Batiuk says he drew the man of steel countless times. So imagine his surprise to find out that Superman was created just up the road in Cleveland.
Mr. BATIUK: It was like an epiphany. It was like, wow, somebody from Cleveland can do that, you know. I mean, it was really cool. And it just - it showed me that, you know, almost anything was possible.
BARNETT: Four hundred miles away in Philadelphia, Michael Sangiacomo made a similar discovery. Years later, he came to Cleveland to work as a mild-mannered reporter for the Plain Dealer, where he made no secret of his boyhood passion.
Mr. MICHAEL SANGIACOMO (Reporter, Plain Dealer): It was one of the first things that I talked about in my job interview because they said, what do you know about Cleveland? I said, well, it's the birthplace of Superman obviously.
BARNETT: Legend has it that the idea came to young Jerry Siegel in a dream on a sleepless night in 1933. The story goes that he jumped out of bed, scribbled down some notes, and ran over to the house of his artist buddy, Joe Shuster. And together they came up with the story of a superman.
(Soundbite of movie "Superman and the Mole-Men")
Unidentified Announcer: Many years ago when the planet Krypton, home of a race of supermen, exploded in space, the sole survivor was an infant boy who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
BARNETT: But there's a darker story behind the creation of Superman. Several years before the man in the red cape was ever committed to paper, Jerry Siegel's father died of a heart attack when robbers broke into his clothing store brandishing guns. That story came to Mike Sangiacomo's mind as he stood in what was once Jerry's room in the old Siegel house on Kimberly Avenue.
Mr. SANGIANCOMO: You start imagining and, sort of, you can't help but look out the window at the same scene pretty much that Jerry saw when he was a kid when he created a hero who could fly above it all, who could not be killed.
BARNETT: The youngest of six children, Jerry Siegel was in junior high school when he lost his father. And after that he became increasingly immersed in the world of comic books and science fiction. Siegel and Shuster shopped their character around for years before finally selling it in 1938. Action Comics #1 came out in the late spring. And today an original is one of the most-prized comic books in the world.
Mr. SANGIACOMO: Over the years, as comic creators would come to visit Cleveland for one reason or another, they'd call me. And the first thing they would say is, hey, are you going to take us to the Superman house?
BARNETT: "Funky Winkerbean" writer Tom Batiuk asked that question last year. And the two of them took a ride up to Cleveland's Glennville neighborhood.
Mr. BATIUK: I went up there with Mike, and I got to stand in the house where that great story took place. It was inspirational.
BARNETT: Over the past 70 years, there have been changes along Kimberly Avenue. A once thriving, middle-class Jewish community is now home to working-class African-Americans. Several houses are boarded up, evidence of the region's foreclosure crisis. Standing on the porch of a home painted in bright red and blue is Jefferson Gray, the current owner of the Superman house.
Mr. JEFFERSON GRAY (Owner, Superman House): For a lot of people, their hero, the Superman. We had a couple who drove from South Carolina about three weeks ago. They came up, and they heard about Superman, and they wanted to take pictures on the porch. And they were just excited(ph), so they drove all the way to Cleveland just to do that. So I couldn't say no and not let them take them. That's just the way we are.
Mr. HARVEY PEKAR (Comic Book Writer): That's nice. A goodwill ambassador for Cleveland.
BARNETT: Harvey Pekar's dour face breaks into an uncharacteristic smile as he chats with Jefferson Gray. The Cleveland writer is best known for his slice of life American Splendor comic books that document the mundane details of his own life. Pekar doesn't have much use for the superhero fantasies of Jerry Siegel.
Mr. PEKAR: I mean, I didn't think he was all that great. He just got in on the ground floor, you know. Comic books were just coming out in those days, in the '30s, you know. And so they came up with this super character and knocked everybody out, you know.
BARNETT: Harvey Pekar has made a career out of writing about outcast characters. But for Tom Batiuk, who felt like something of an outcast himself as a kid, the legend of Superman meant a whole lot.
Mr. BATIUK: For somebody like that, superheroes are very, very important. Those stories do - they do what superheroes do best. They save you.
BARNETT: For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.