ELKHART, Ind. – Allen Stewart has a special bond with superheroes.
As a youngster, he spent every dime from his paper routes on superhero comics and toys and refused to throw anything away. His fever never abated, not as a teenager, not after he entered the military, not after he started a family, and so, when he became an adult and made some money in real estate, he decided to splurge.
About $100,000 later, he had built the Justice League’s Hall of Justice in his backyard.
This was a dozen years ago. And, he thought it was really cool, ideal for storing his 65,000 comics and 100,000 superhero-centric artifacts.
But it wasn’t perfect. Stewart’s Hall of Justice sat at the end of a gravel path, not a reflecting pool; its facade was stucco, not marble; it wasn’t accented with modernist sculpture like the real (that is, animated) Hall of Justice, but a rusting totem of an old basketball net.
He set aside a little space in the Hall of Justice for his wife’s car but she “was just not into it at all,” he said. After he bought one of Tony Stark’s sports cars from “Iron Man,” then Nicolas Cage’s “Ghost Rider” motorcycle, he pushed his wife’s car out.
They divorced soon after.
Still, the Hall of Justice was becoming a draw. Within a few years of opening, he had 10,000 annual paying visitors, and had expanded to include a 9-foot-tall Hulk statue, a Captain America shield used in the 2011 movie, rare Superman toys, original artwork and the debut comics of nearly every major superhero. The website Roadside America called it a kind of “superhero seed bank.”
But with great ambition comes great headaches. Visitors parked on his front lawn, and sometimes there wasn’t enough parking. Though he said he was drawing about 10,000 paying visitors a year, Stewart believes that twice that many drove up and sat outside his home deciding if this was an actual museum, but then drove away.
“We needed to make a transition to a professional space,” he said. “We’re a national-level museum, but it’s hard for people to take it seriously when it sits in your backyard.”
And so, on Labor Day weekend, Stewart reopened the hall in an old auto parts store in a strip mall. It has been expanded to 5,000 square feet. The collection — which he calls the largest superhero memorabilia collection in the world — is worth about $5 million, he estimates.
The best time to visit is when Stewart is there. He is an exhibit all his own, with a body of knowledge to be reckoned with and an endless stream of anecdotes.
“Welcome to the Hall of Heroes Superhero Museum,” he gushes, and then the information starts flooding out in a rapid-fire stream of consciousness:
“Our museum is divided roughly in half, this side Marvel, that side DC. ... We start with Marvel in the 1940s, then known as Timely. ... These letters are between Allen Belman and Stan Lee — Allen worked on Captain America early on. ... That issue, that’s the first appearance of Captain America and it shows Captain punching Hitler in the face. ... ”
Displays are arranged chronologically and the financial investment represented inside each shifts abruptly from carnival tchotchke to Ben Affleck’s “Daredevil” cane and Ryan Reynolds’ “Deadpool” mask.
“And this is our Hollywood set,” Stewart continued. “Here is the motorcycle from the movie. It has no motor, it’s 11 feet long, 750 pounds and basically [sculpted] resin stretched over a Harley. Nick Cage sat on this in front of a green screen.” It resembles a large plastic toy. For $10, Stewart will let you sit on it.
“Over here, the 1965 Shelby Cobra that Iron Man crashed into in his garage.” For another $10, you can drape yourself across the crumpled side of this car, like Robert Downey Jr. did. “Teenage boys always do it and when their parents are standing there I say, ‘Your Facebook photo! For the ladies!’ See, I’m not one of those stuffy historians.”