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

Fables on the BBC

Via Rich Johnston comes this cool Fables ad, which I guess ran in the UK over the weekend during a Doctor Who marathon:

This is neat, because it is basically the kind of thing Jon was begging to see more of last week; people can put comics adverts on television and Vertigo is putting comics adverts on the telly (well, at least in Britain, anyway), which is a huge step in the right direction.

Now, before we get too excited, Rich suggests that Vertigo may have not bought the space so much as traded some with the BBC, so they may not have actually sought out the time for the 30 second spot so much as taken the BBC up on an offer of barter. With that said though, DC/Vertigo/Warner/Whoever did decide to give up a chunk of (very valuable) advertising revenue to run the ad and this is extremely important because it means that DC/Vertigo/Warner/Whoever thinks they can sell comics by advertising them on television. Cool, right?

Well, mostly. Rich has some complaints about the ad copy (which is fair enough- the man does do advertising for a living), but the major problem I have with the ad is that it sells Fables as a series of graphic novels, which it is not. It is a series of comic books. The distinction may seem fine and, to be honest, it is, but it is also extremely important. COMICS is a medium, much like literature or film. A "graphic novel" is (to borrow a term from improv) a long-form kind of comic, while a comic book is a short-form (again, an improv term) example of the medium. Therefore, Fables is a long running comic book which, as a general rule, runs 32 pages per issue while 1001 Nights of Snowfall is a graphic novel set in the Fables universe.* There are other things that separate comic books from graphic novels (for instance, comics are generally part of a series while graphic novels are generally stand-alone) but these are mostly generalizations (this week's Serenity: Float Out is a one-shot while Maus has two volumes, for example) and, therefore, to distill the differences to their essence is to discuss length.

Hence, the problem with the advert calling Fables a series of graphic novels; Fables is a series of comic books, which is occasionally collected into something resembling a graphic novel. This is the heart of something I call The Comics Consumption Problem: because collections resemble graphic novels we treat them as such and, therefore, we consume them as such. The problem is, collections of comic books are just that- collections of comic books! To treat them as graphic novels is to consume them differently than they were intended; it is to consume them as one story rather than as serial chapters of one story. This may not seem like an important distinction, but it is a very important distinction- telling a story serially over a period of months is different than telling a story in one big chunk (this is part of the reason that television differs from film, for example); it forces a creator to put the same sort of overall structure in an individual issue that he or she would put in the series as a whole, when taken together and it forces us, the reader, to read in a very different and specialized kind of way.

I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't buy collections- they do a lot of good, and there is a reason they exist. I am suggesting, however, that there needs to be a new standard, a new way of understanding them that differs from both comic books and graphic novels. We need to understand them in their own terms.

The Fables advert on the BBC is really cool and, like I said, I think it is a step in the right direction. I do, however, think that it represents a kind of thinking about comics that moves us backwards in other ways, ways we need to be very careful of.

*Whether or not 1001 Nights of Snowfall actually counts as a "graphic novel" is an interesting question- most of it is comics, but some of it is actually illustrated prose. A discussion on how to treat something like this will have to wait for another time.

Don't Look Now...

... but Jon Gorga is published! Check out his story, entitled Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki Hayao, and Japan in the Nineties, over at The Modern Look.