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.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.