Friday, May 18, 2007

The Character of New York City

One of the tropes of superhero comics is that the hero and his city reflect each other.

Scipio Garling at the Absorbascon has written extensively about the fictionopolises of the DC Comics world, the imaginary cities that, over time, have established themselves as architectural echoes of their protectors: the neo-futurist Metropolis is home to the Man of Tomorrow; cloud enshrouded gothic Gotham is haunted by Dark Knight; Central City has the wide open spaces needed for a hero who can encircle the Earth in under a second; even the quiet and pastoral Smallville reflects the hopeful and nostalgic Adventures of Superman when he was a Boy.

This theme is an updating of the more classic trope that the king embodied the country he ruled, and as he faired, so faired the kingdom. L'√Čtat, c'est moi, as King Louis once said.

But what of the Marvel heroes, the ones who work a) in real places and b) almost entirely in New York. How can New York BE Spider-Man AND Iron Man, Daredevil AND Dr. Strange, and each member of the Fantastic Four as well?

Well, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko did something very clever: they carved up New York and placed their heroes in the neighborhoods that fit best:

Industrialist Iron Man is a leader of Wall Street;

Dr. Strange has the sweetest Greenwich Village bachelor pad and lifestyle ever;

Daredevil fights on the side of the angels in Hell’s Kitchen;

And Spider-Man’s at his very best as the hero of Queens.

And the Fantastic Four, well that’s extra clever. While the Baxter Building fits neatly into the Mid-Town collection of art deco skyscrapers, the members of the team reflect New York's four boroughs.* Ben Grimm is Brooklyn-born and bred; hot-head Johnny Storm is a Yankees fan and ladies man like any Bronx boy aspires to be, motherly Sue Storm fits into the more residential Queens (and I'm guessing is a Mets fan, just to annoy her brother), and is there a better name for a Manhattan-ite than “Mr. Fantastic”?

Later writers would add Luke Cage, Hero for Hire of Harlem, and the Punisher, scourge of Sheepshead Bay. And with each story, with each issue, the city would gain more and more personality, more and more character, until it seemed to breathe.

Which is why I think it’s kind of silly when fans and Joe Quesada insist Marvel Comics take place in “the real world.” The Marvel Universe just isn’t real. Not just that super-powered soldiers and alien invasions would warp the course of history, but by their very legendary nature, superheroes imbue any city they exist in with mythic qualities.

When seen through the mask of Spider-Man, New York becomes a fictionopolis, a place as alive, as full of personality and absurdity and horror and hope as any Metropolis, as any Gotham.

When Spider-Man swings through Manhattan, New York lives!

* “Jon, everyone knows Staten Island doesn’t count.”


Tom the Bomb said...

Although I think Marvel's new effort to spread out its heroes makes sense, I always liked the idea of a city just PACKED with heroes and villains. Anybody could run into anybody else without even trying.

P.S. I always loved that photo cover with Cap and Spidey, even if I don't love the Vermin story inside.

Richard said...

Luke Cage was the hero of Times Square, not Harlem -- that's the seedy Times Square of the Seventies, mind you, with the peep shows and x-rated movie houses, but also the bustling metropolitan scene that John Shaft strides through in the opening scenes of the movie that helped inspire the invention of Luke Cage in the first place.

I like the idea of the FF as representing the boroughs -- I'll even suggest that Willie Lumpkin commuted to work from Staten Island if it helps any -- but the connection is only symbolic, as the characters' actual neighborhoods of origin probably don't correspond to that scheme. (Wasn't Sue supposed to be Reed's "girl next door"?)

I've lived on Bleecker Street for over 30 years, and I still look for the distinctive top floor window of Stephen Strange's house. I'm pretty sure I know where the building must be, but the window is concealed as if by magic...

Michael Hoskin said...

I don't think Tony's ever been much of a Wall Streeter, especially not as Stan Lee conceived him-- Tony lived & worked on Long Island in the 60s and he usually turns up there now (aside from the 80s-90s when he lived & worked in Silicon Valley).

Steven said...

Luke Cage was the hero of Times Square, not Harlem

Tony lived & worked on Long Island in the 60s

I did not know that.

the connection is only symbolic, as the characters' actual neighborhoods of origin probably don't correspond to that scheme.

Almost certainly. (Though Ben Grimm IS from Brooklyn, like his creator, Jack Kirby.) Obviously the brother and sister grew up together, wherever they're from originally. And I have NO idea where Reed grew up, though I thought he met Sue in the lab.