ELKHART — He might not be a superhero, caped or otherwise, but Allen Stewart spends much of his time saving the comic universe one book, toy and object d'art at a time.
The curator of the Hall of Heroes Superhero Museum is on a crusade to attract visitors to the facility, an 11-year-old attraction housed in a two-story replica of the Hall of Justice.
“If we can bring 100,000 people here, we can go after the rare books, which are still out there,” said the West Virginia native, who envisions ultimately acquiring more space to display collections. "We do what we can with the funding we have.”
Stewart, 47, has appeared on the Sy-Fy Channel, the Travel Channel's “Toy Hunter” series, Stan Lee's “Super Fans” series and “Personal FX: The Collectibles Show,” among others to promote the museum. Such television appearances have helped draw foreign visitors, he said.
They mingle with fanboys, their sometimes clueless relatives, those whose taste tends to the idiosyncratic and the curious to immerse themselves in pop culture Americana. It's a place, Stewart points out, where they can all feel like a kid again.
The museum, a 501(c)(3) enterprise, features a Captain America No. 1 comic from 1941, more than 10,000 toys — a rare Superman wooden doll from 1939 among them — and 6,000 comic books, including every Marvel since 1956. The Captain America comic (worth an estimated $500,000 in mint condition) is the third rarest comic on the collectibles market, Stewart said. Hall of Heroes is one of only two museums to display one.
Obtaining No. 1 comics for, say, Superman and Batman, would require either magnanimous donors or hefty cash outlays since the handful of those remaining are “very difficult to find” and mostly in private collections, he said.
Stewart hopes to move into a new space in the North Pointe Plaza, along the Toll Road in Elkhart, sometime early next year. The glass front of the location he desires would feature an oversize mural of the Hall of Justice, not unlike the museum's current facade, which would be visible from the Toll Road.
There is ample parking near a Big R store, and the full collection, much of which is in storage now, could be displayed in a structure three times the size of the existing space.
There would be more room for the Hell Cycle actor Nicholas Cage used in “Ghost Rider” and the '65 Shelby Cobra that Robert Downey Jr. landed on when he first tested his armor in the first “Iron Man” film. The car was donated by Richard Rawlings of the “Fast N' Loud” television show, who bought it at auction.
In addition to an expanded gift shop, Stewart foresees a superhero-themed birthday party room where a hero would help celebrate and a superhero escape room where participants could match wits with a supervillain.
With the right advertising campaign, Stewart thinks 100,000 admissions could easily be within reach. Corporate donors could be key, he added.
Stewart, who has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of comic trivia, participates in approximately half a dozen comic conventions annually, offering insights as a historian. He holds a degree in history and education from Indiana University South Bend and he has a personal connection to comic book heritage.
Movie producers came to Sgt. Sam Stewart's home in West Virginia after World War II, requesting his cooperation in making a film based on his exploits in the European Theater. Allen Stewart's grandfather declined to assist. But comic artist Joe Kubert told the Elkhart resident he was inspired to create the Sgt. Rock series after viewing film portrayals of the 101st Airborne hero. Robert Kanigher was the comic's co-creator.
Not surprisingly, the World War II and post-war era, which was a high point for some comic sales, is Stewart's favorite.
Ex-servicemen, he noted, were avid readers, but the influx of darker comics such as Tales From the Crypt in the mid-1950s ushered in a troubled era for comics when “print runs went way down,” he said.
The book, “Seduction of the Innocent” by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, linked comic books to juvenile delinquency, then a nationwide concern. Churches and schools hosted mass comic book burnings, Stewart said.
“Everybody got thrown under the bus,” he said.
Now, Stewart provides a Comics in the Classroom program using comic books and superheroes to customize tours of the Hall of Heroes to teach art, English, literature, history, science and music.
It's his way of saving the world.