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.   

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.