Look up! Among the skyscrapers! On superheroes and the American City

Gotham City. Image: DC Comics.

Superman, as everyone knows, lives in Metropolis; Batman lives in Gotham. Elsewhere in the DC Comics universe, Green Arrow is usually based either in the real Seattle or fictional Star City, while different versions of the Flash have worked out of both Keystone City or Central City, which are either in separate universes within the multiverse or just over the bridge from each other depending on the current state of continuity. Green Lantern comes from Coast City while other fictional cities like Fawcett City, Hub City and Bludhaven dot the DC map of the USA.

Over at Marvel Comics things are a bit simpler: the heroes mostly live in New York, and while there are fictional small towns, and whole fictional countries outside the USA, the Marvel heroes are generally grounded by their existence in contemporary American cities.

Regardless of publisher, American superheroes live in American cities, and while those cities have different moods and characters they’re all modern American cities with everything you would expect: skyscrapers in the middle, suburbs around the edge, industrial areas in between.

So why is this? For a start, like a lot of American publishing the major US comic book publishers were based in New York. The relationship between that city and the genre is a whole different article, but for now let’s just say that the editors, writers and artists in the early days of comics were telling stories about the skyline outside the window of their offices and studios. Most of the creators of the most famous superheroes were born or partially raised in New York, although Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were residents of Cleveland, with the latter citing the Toronto of his childhood as an influence on Metropolis.

The American city, especially in the period between the late 1930s (when the core DC superheroes were created) and the early 1960s (the dawn of the Marvel Universe of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and so forth), was also a fertile source of stories – the most plausible place for violent, pulpy stories to happen, a landscape of naive gamour and potential danger. Reading the early Superman stories by Siegel and Schuster, or the first Batman strips by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and their associates, you can feel the trickle down of 1920s and 1930s movies and pulp storytelling, of the city as a place where fedora wearing gangsters lurk in every alleyway.

As well as being a place where there was plenty of crime to face off against, the mean streets where heroes could prove their mettle against mean men, the city was also a place of glamour: a place where lazy rich guys like Bruce Wayne and mild mannered reporters like Clark Kent could spend their time between encountering gangsters, jewel thieves and mad scientists. The comic book city is a place of adult thrills and adult dangers, as understood by young readers, including those who live out in small towns or rural areas. It’s telling that the most well known small town in comics is Smallville, the idyllic hometown of Clark Kent where he was raised by his loving adoptive parents. Familiar prejudices and presumptions about the safe rural heartland and the exciting but sinful city are reflected on the page.


Comic books are of course a visual medium, and aside from the story possibilities the city gave the writers of these stories, it cannot be underestimated what a gift a cityscape is to the comic book artist. Superhero comics were cheap, ruthlessly commercial publications churned out quickly by working artists paid by the page; and the stereotypical US cityscape allows for a quickly sketched in, dramatic landscape of silhouetted rectangles for skyscrapers and blocks for warehouses. To look again at those early Superman or Batman comics, many of the stories take place in a delightfully naive idea of a cityscape sketched in with a few lines and four colours.

Later artists – especially Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, visual architects of the Marvel universe – would bring a greater sophistication of visual grammar and dynamism to comic book art. But it remained the case for many decades that a skyscraper could be rendered in the background as a rectangle with squares for windows – more precisely rendered than in the 1940s, but the same dynamic, angular simplicity. This simplicity has served superhero comics well as they’ve been adapted into animation, another medium which favours an economical use of inked lines.

In recent decades the American superhero comic has declined as a cheap form of entertainment for children and become mostly an expensive hobby for adults, and the visual language and the part the cityscape plays in it has changed. While supehero comics have always used the city to provide a – sometimes wonky – sense of scale to the storytelling. With Superman flying up among the rooftops or Galactus stomping between the towers of Manhattan, the more detailed artwork in modern superhero comics uses the city as a special effect on the page. When Batman jumps off a gargoyle now, many artists will provide an eye-popping panel where highly rendered, digitally sharp skyscrapers in the background point down to the distant ground, the more complex pallete available to digital colourists increasing the reader’s vertiginous sense of perspective. While some artists still produce brilliant work with simple lines and stark, sharp backgrounds, in many cases the city skyline is rendered in dense, work-intensive detail, each window precisely drawn.

The urban storytelling of superhero comics has also changed over time, to reflect changing concerns. Gotham City will forever be a place where some aspects of the 1930s never ended, striped suits and fedoras never quite going out of fashion; but Batman and other heroes turned more to fighting street punks and urban decay in the 1970s and 1980s, while the 21st century has seen concerns about terrorism and mass societal breakdown creep into the stories. 

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks the New York based superhero industry reacted with respect and a moratorium on mass destruction in the American cityscape, with at least one major superhero comic cancelled. But as with the rest of pop culture the comics industry steadily regained its capacity for creative destruction, working through real life nightmares within its stories.

Combined with the greater detail and realism in comic book artwork, this can create uncomfortable parallels between fantasy and real life – superpowered characters knocking each other through skyscrapers in a simple cartoonish art style is just men smashing through big boxes, while the same scene illustrated with a detailed level of rubble and carnage creates difficult associations. As with so many aspects of a subgenre created for children but now predominantly aimed at adults, scenes of urban destruction populated by brightly coloured heroes and villains walk a fine line between catharsis and poor taste.

The intertwining of simple heroic storytelling and deep underlying concerns about urban life has been a part of the genre for eight decades now. And with superheroes more prominent in pop culture than ever it doesn’t look like this strange ongoing relationship is going to stop any time soon.   

 
 
 
 

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