Big Characters in The Big Apple

When I visited New York City at about ten-years-old I needed to see as many locations related to the Marvel universe as possible. (Yes, I was- and am- a big geek. Moving on.) I made my own very, very simple Spider-Man Tour check-list of the real-world local inspirations for Marvel universe events, which I still have! (Okay I am a very, very sentimental big geek. Moving on.)

Apparently I wasn't alone. Among the great revelations of the "New York, The Super-City: Superheroes in New York" panel held about two months ago on March 9th by the Center for Independent Publishing and sponsored by was the discovery that yes, even professional comics historians think about such 'geeky' things. I was delighted to learn that noted comics historian Gene Kannenberg Jr. had the same thought as I did upon visiting the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time:

'wow... that's where Gwen Stacy died'

But this panel discussion was about more than the inner-thoughts I share with professional comics historians, it was about the wonderful inter-textual waltz between reality and fiction that superhero comics (really, all comics and all art) have been dancing since as long as they've existed. Urban centers seem to have held especial fascination to visual storytellers since the turn of the Twentieth Century. And there ain't nowhere as urban as The Big Apple.

The event was part of a series on "Labor, Landmarks, & Literature" covering "the way comics' creators used New York City as a setting an inspiration, and even a character in their works". New York City's influence on the cultural imagination of the country at large is, of course, monumental. We've all known this for years thanks to the film world's heavy use of the city as locus for story after story (as I write these words, I'm sitting in on a friend's NYC movie shoot). But the use of The Big Apple as the inspiration and setting for stories in the comics medium has gotten comparatively smaller attention and this is what Peter Gutierrez's (@Peter_Gutierrez) wonderful evening panel helped to rectify.

Will Eisner loved to quote what Jules Feiffer wrote in his book "The Great Comic Book Heroes" about Eisner's creation The Spirit: "his nose may have turned up, but we all knew he was Jewish." (Feiffer, 39). Eisner usually simplified/clarified it to: The Spirit didn't have a big nose, but everybody knew he was Jewish. By the same methods, even though his home was a littered slum-land noir playground called Central City, everybody knew it was New York. But some fictionalizations aren't so clear-cut...

Superman lives in Metropolis.
Batman lives in Gotham City.

Two major urban centers that reflect these two heroes' personalities/philosophies: one unflinchingly positive, the other dark and brooding.

[Comics panel images of the DC universe cities are from their respective pages.]

Everybody knows and agrees upon this. But where do they REALLY live? What's the real world model? Christopher Nolan's film "The Dark Knight" presupposes that everyone will accept a re-tooled Chicago as the stand-in for Gotham, despite the fact that painstaking effort was put into the first film to create a unique fictional CGI cityscape for the Caped Crusader to slink through based on the Gotham City of the current comic-books.

It was always my understanding that "gotham" is just old-english for city or something, and thus was one of the nicknames for the biggest city in America: NYC. (Actually, a little research leads me to the discovery that it means a home 'where goats are kept' but I suspect once upon a time that was the height of civilization...)

However, Clare vehemently disagrees with this interpretation, pointing out to me that Chicago's fame as the first home of organized crime in America makes it a far better candidate for the source Bill Finger and Bob Kane used to create Gotham in the late-Thirties. I knew "Gotham" is the nickname for New York City, so I figured NYC was the only logical location for... Gotham. Metropolis, the home of Superman, is a city of steel canyons that looks like certain parts of this city and like no where else in the world. But the truth is that no part of Manhattan gleams with such a clean white sheen. So Gotham City = New York or Metropolis = New York? Or both?

For that matter what about Star City, home of Green Arrow, or Keystone City, home of the Golden Age Flash?

As you can see it's all pretty impossible to determine conclusively. Hell, the DC writers can't even decide what state all these cities reside in!

The answer according to these assembled historians, comicsmiths, artists, writers, and editors seems to be that while nothing is sure, bet on The Big Apple.

The second major point of the evening's presentation was more interesting to me as a long-time Marvel Comics fan: Spider-Man, Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four live in New York City. Plain and simple. It was no question that Stan Lee's placing of Marvel's major heroes and villains in front of the backdrop of New York was going to figure heavily in the evening's talk.

That was the great thing about having former Marvel Comics editor Danny Fingeroth (@DannyFingeroth) on the panel to talk about the ways his era utilized the setting that Stan Lee passed down to them. [He was the editor responsible for several cool (and some downright silly) photo covers for Marvel's comics in the mid-Eighties (like the one above for "Marvel Team-Up" #128) featuring photos of real New York locations with either costumed actors -cough- intern and future comics artist Joe Jusko -cough- or drawings superimposed over them.]

The different strata of New Yorker culture are represented in Marvel's comics from the homeless kids Spider-Man helps out and the junkies Daredevil 'interacts' with to the rich and famous models Patsy Walker parties with and the dignitaries the Fantastic Four meet in the Baxter Building.

The creators themselves and their characters have almost always been New Yorkers. As a result, the powers that be at Marvel felt there had to be some effort in their comics at addressing the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in 2oo1 and this was the next topic of March's panel. This was even more interesting to me as I had given a small presentation myself about the comics world's reaction on the sixth anniversary of the attacks in my second to last year of college. "The Amazing Spider-Man "#477 was the first topic, followed by Marvel's "Heroes" charity publication and the ones from other companies that followed. The speakers focused on the famous issue of "Amazing" and moved on to talk about other comics reacting to the attacks including Art Spiegelman's "In The Shadow of No Towers".

This also brought the discussion to the work of panelist William Tucci. Tucci's "Shi: Through The Ashes", which was also for charity, tells not only a fictional story about his character Shi (who fights in a secret half-millennium-old war, sometimes on the streets of NYC in the dead of the night) but also about real fallen New York City firefighters and policemen whose accounts were related to him by their fellow servicemen.

Comics utilizing the history and real locations of New York City with both satirical and memorial intent are legion and often fascinating. As a comics maker/historian/reporter I reveled in the chance to get a refresher in the history of Comics' interaction with the mythical and real sides of New York City as well as learn about work I had never seen adding new chapters to that story.

[This drawing of Ana Ishikawa (a.k.a. Shi) in the ash cloud created by the fall of the World Trade Center towers from William Tucci's "Ashes to Ashes" was among the images displayed during the presentation.]

~ @JonGorga

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