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.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.