The 5 Geekiest Cleveland Appearances in Pop Culture
By Arthur Chu
Now that LeBron James has come home, Cleveland’s star is rising among jocks, with Kevin Love joining him and making the Cavaliers a team to watch in the upcoming NBA season.
This is great news for sports-loving Clevelanders, but not so great for the nerdier residents of the Mistake By The Lake. For the past few years, Cleveland nerds had been able to hold it over Cleveland jocks that, while LeBron wasn’t here anymore, Captain America was, thanks to the tax incentive that helped our fair city stand in for New York, Berlin, and Washington, D.C. in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
As an underdog city, Cleveland has always held a special place in nerd culture. But if you want to be a real Cleveland nerd, brush up on these five examples where Cleveland has popped up that most people aren't aware of:
1. Howard the Duck
People who think the worst thing George Lucas ever did was The Phantom Menace or The Star Wars Holiday Special only think that because they’ve never seen 1986's Howard the Duck. With its deeply creepy protagonist, bizarre shifts in tone, and gross sexual humor, this flick is a crown jewel of bad cinema.
The best part is that Howard the Duck is based on a long-running Marvel comic book series and it broke the fourth wall and mocked comic book conventions long before Deadpool ever did it. Even though it was universally hated by critics, Howard the Duck was the highest-grossing film based on a Marvel Comics property until Blade in 1998, showing just how bad things used to be for comics adaptations.
And where else would an anthropomorphic duck from another dimension land when he arrived on Earth but in Cleveland, Ohio? It is, after all, the ideal setting for a self-aware, self-deprecating, intentionally terrible concept for a “superhero” to live.
Fun fact: When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1934, he originally hailed from their home city of Cleveland. However, when they finally got accepted by a publisher in 1938, National Comics insisted on changing Superman’s city to the fictional “Metropolis” to give him a broader appeal. Now the comics character Cleveland is irrevocably associated with is Howard the Duck. How the mighty have fallen.
2. American Splendor
Fine Line Features
The more your works include superheroes in spandex and capes, the geekier you are, with only one exception: Comic books, where it’s reversed.
Thanks to the many successful film adaptations, superhero comics are more mainstream than ever. But the true hardcore fans of comics—or, as we prefer to call them, “sequential art”—are the ones who laud the medium for its capacity to tell small, human stories about working stiffs like you and me who can’t shoot laser blasts out of any part of their bodies.
One of the leading lights of the underground comics scene was Harvey Pekar, whose autobiographical American Splendor series was a grim, painful look at life as a VA file clerk in the Rust Belt.
No one embodies the whole “Cleveland: You’ve Gotta Be Tough” masochistic machismo more than Pekar, whose “Life is a war of attrition” motto made him Cleveland’s “poet laureate.”
The film adaptation of American Splendor, released in 2003, is a must-see gem starring Paul Giamatti, and remains neck-and-neck with The Avengers for the title of “Best Comic Book Movie Filmed in Cleveland.”
3. Calvin & Hobbes
It’s a bit of local lore that Bill Watterson, the J.D. Salinger of newspaper comics, grew up in Cleveland suburb Chagrin Falls, and still lives in the area to this day.
Watterson has been open about Calvin & Hobbes being based on his own childhood, and even though few clues are given, all the detailed natural landscapes Calvin barrels through on his wagon will look extremely familiar to anyone who’s walked through the woods in Northeast Ohio.
The clincher is this classic panel showing a King-Kong-sized Calvin destroying a very faithful reproduction of historic downtown Chagrin Falls. The building he has picked up and is about to throw is Chagrin Falls’ perennial tourist attraction, the Popcorn Shop.
4. The second Hellmouth in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'
References to Cleveland as a less-than-stellar place are old hat in in pop culture—quoth the great sage Yakov Smirnoff: "Now, I make fun of Cleveland because everybody makes fun of Cleveland. I mean, every country has one city that people make fun of. In Russia, we used to make fun of Cleveland.”
The one that sticks out in my mind most, though, is Joss Whedon repeatedly dissing Cleveland by mentioning it as the location of the second Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Not only does it poke fun at the convenient Hollywood logic behind the first Hellmouth, the one Buffy is assigned to patrol, being under the incredibly telegenic idyllic LA suburb of Sunnydale, but it also serves as a kind of understated joke. No one outright talks about what’s going on with that other Hellmouth in Cleveland, but clearly there is no vampire slayer protecting Clevelanders from their city being above a dimensional gateway to Hell, and nobody in Cleveland seems to notice.
My favorite time this was referenced? The Season 3 episode “The Wish,” where we see an alternate universe where Buffy went to Cleveland instead of Sunnydale, causing Sunnydale to become a grim dystopia ruled by vampires (implying that that’s what Cleveland is like in our world). When alternate-universe Buffy arrives in Sunnydale, this version of her is, unlike the lovable Slayer we know, a brutal, merciless killing machine incapable of friendship or trust. Cleveland will do that to you.
5. The Ghost Whisperer
Melinda Gordon, as played by Jennifer Love Hewitt on TV's The Ghost Whisperer from 2005 to 2010, may have lived in the fictional town of Grandview, New York, but she was based on the real-life Mary Ann Winkowski, who lives in North Royalton, Ohio—right next door to my hometown of Broadview Heights.
A paid consultant for the show, Winkowski has been a local Ohio celebrity and exorcist-for-hire for decades. There haven't been any climactic battles between good and evil in her life, but Winkowski has monetized her special talents by giving self-help classes on how to de-haunt your own house, offered to dispel the curse on the Cleveland Indians for a fee (they haven’t taken her up on it yet), and, the crowning touch, has published a cookbook containing all the best recipes passed to her by departed spirits.
If the show was a very New York-take on what a ghost whisperer’s life would be like, Winkowski’s career is Cleveland to the core.