Where are Gotham City and Metropolis – and what do they have to do with New York?

The most famous residents of Gotham and Metropolis. Image: DC Films.

If Gotham and Metropolis are both aspects of New York, then is there a New York in DC Comics? And where are all these made up New Yorks anyway?

Last time in this slot, I talked about the role of the contemporary American cityscape in the superhero genre, and skipped quickly over the specific role of New York, both as a real place and an influence.

As I said in my earlier piece, both DC and Marvel Comics were based in New York (although the former has now moved to Burbank, California as a fully operative multi-media node within Warner Bros), and many of the comic book creators and editors are New York natives. So the presence of the city as the world outside the window isn't too surprising.

For Marvel in particular, New York has a ridiculous gravity. In the long years of his old aged anecdotage Stan Lee has reiterated that one of the things that made his Marvel heroes, created c1960, different from the DC heroes created at the dawn of the Second World War is that they were rooted in a real place. Spider-Man grew up in Queens, and swings between the skyscrapers of Manhattan; Daredevil is the defender of Hell's Kitchen; while the Fantastic Four's Baxter Building is a landmark on the skyline of the Marvel version of NYC, in a similar way to the Stark/Avengers Tower in the movie version. The appeal of the Marvel universe, Lee has frequently said, is that a reader could imagine looking out of their window and seeing Thor fly past – and that window would normally be one in New York.

New York works as a setting for superhero stories – partly for all the reasons I cited in my earlier article about the presumptions and prejudices readers have about the modern city, but also because of a general cultural knowledge of the diversity of New York itself. We all have a vague idea from countless other films, TV shows and so forth what the different parts of New York are like, of the differences between Manhattan and the Bronx and Harlem.


Adaptations in other media have often succeeded when capturing if not the real life mood, but the reputation, of a specific part of New York – Netflix's Luke Cage works best when it centres its vision of Harlem as a nexus of African American history in the stories, many of the Spider-Man movies' most memorable moments come from local colour, while the Punisher movie that relocated the action from cold, urban New York to the sweaty sprawl of Florida lost a lot in the relocation.

The universe of DC Comics does have a New York – at various points the Justice League have been based there. But the city is also cited as an influence on the two most famous cities in comics, arguable the two most famous fictional cities in pop culture: Metropolis and Gotham.

There's a quote everyone uses talking about New York and the homes of Superman and Batman, and it's so good I'm not going to resist using it here. Dennis O'Neill, a writer and editor who made pivotal contributions to both Superman and Batman comics, said that, “Batman's Gotham City is Manhattan below 14th Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night of November. Metropolis is Manhattan between 14th and 100 Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year.”

Even if you don't get the exact geographical references, you know what he means. Metropolis is New York from the eyes of the gawping tourist staggered by its striking beauty and modernity, as Clark Kent is in most versions of the origin, rocking up at the Daily Planet in hope of getting a job with a red and blue costume stuffed in his rucksack, a small town boy arriving in the big city.

Gotham is the New York of the urban nightmare, dark and threatening, emphasis on the cracks and the gargoyles and the tenements rather than the shining lights, and like Metropolis we're seeing it through the eyes of a very specific guide, a scion of one of the city’s oldest families who combines the deep memory of the city's grubby history with the personal trauma of losing his parents to the city's crime at an early age.     

So if Metropolis and Gotham are both New York, and there's also a New York in the DC universe, then where do they all fit? 

Well, as with everything in the world of superhero comics – where continuity shifts over time based on changing priorities and different creators not remembering or, frankly, caring much about what went before – there is a generally accepted idea that Gotham and Metropolis are not far from New York City itself, and close to each other. One placement has the cities on opposite sides of the Delaware Bay, with Metropolis in Delaware and Gotham in New Jersey.

Image: DC Comics.

At other times they've been further apart. And to confuse matters Clark Kent's home town of Smallville was cited as being in Kansas, meaning that either Smallville is a long way from Metropolis or Metropolis is a long way from the firmly East Coast Gotham. Both interpretations are valid, and as Superman can fly and Batman has access to a supersonic jet it rarely makes much difference to the stories how far the cities are apart from each other. Superhero stories are expressions of our concerns and desires, and really its psychology, not geography, that keeps Superman and Batman out of each others’ cities, rather than distance.  

Similarly, while the fate of superheroes is these days controlled less from New York, home of print publishing, and more from Hollywood – Marvel Comics are still NYC based, but the company is owned and controlled by Disney - it's hard to imagine Metropolis or Gotham warping into a version of Los Angeles. Gotham and Metropolis may both be versions of New York, but they're also abstractions of the characters who inhabit, drawing from real life cities but then twisting geography and architecture to fit their heroes better.

The gothic edifices and gargoyles of Gotham wrap around Batman, and the shining towers of Metropolis complement Superman, as snugly as the tight costumes they both wear. They're inspired by New York, but having existed on the page for eighty years and filtered through the imaginations of countless readers who have, themselves, grown up to write and draw comic book stories, they have an existence of their own in our collective psyche.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.