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.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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