New York City: A Character in Comics

Since Graphic Universe is based in New York City, much less on the 72ndfloor of the Empire State Building, I couldn’t help look outside and think about the city’s name and its relationship to the world of comic books. After all, New York is not just the automatic choice for a generic backdrop in all those comics through the decades, but the city often takes on a unique character all its own.

And now Graphic Universe has gotten into the mix. Our final and arguably best Twisted Journeys installment, Hero City, puts New York City front and center. What’s more, the book’s superheroes and villains whose names like Greenwich, Waverly, and Tweed make full use of well-known New York landmarks while action and mayhem erupts throughout the city.

Famously known in comic books as “Gotham City” and “Metropolis” (and probably a couple more I don’t know of) the first inklings of alternate names of New York City came on the scene well before comics themselves. In fact, “Gotham” was a name New Yorkers started calling their beloved city in the early 1800s when writer Washington Irving lampooned the city in one of his essays, borrowing the name from a small town in Nottingham, England called Gotham. DC Comic’s Batman series first mentions Gotham City in early 1940. “Metropolis”, home of Superman, on the other hand beats Batman by a few months initially appearing in late 1939. But the early days of the Superman comic books found several cities vying for the Man of Steel’s hometown identity including Cleveland (co-creator Jerry Siegel’s hometown) and Toronto (co-creator Joe Shuster’s first choice). Of course, the word metropolis means any large, busy, and densely populated city. The famous German filmmaker Fritz Lang immortalized the name “Metropolis” in his seminal 1927 science fiction film.

No doubt the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens helped spur the imaginations of early comic book creators’ concepts of superheroes adventures in the “city of tomorrow”, namely New York.

Jeremy Hsu writes in an article for LiveScience website (link) that “The original Human Torch came from Timely Comics, a forerunner to today’s entertainment behemoth Marvel Comics. He became one of Timely’s first big characters along with Namor the Sub-Mariner…The Sub-Mariner arose from the mind of writer Bill Everett, who was scrambling at the time to come up with an answer to Superman’s sensational debut in 1938. Like many other comic book writers, Everett called New York City his home and likely attended the World’s Fair.”

Marvel’s Spider-Man also finds itself doing business squarely in New York City. But, in this case, New York is New York and no need for a name change here. Though, it’s refreshing to note that young Peter Parker resides in a house in Forest Hills, Queens—a regular neighborhood in New York’s outer borough, rather than some fancy loft in the heart of Manhattan.

And the list continues. Comic book artist Frank Miller, who’s spent many years grinding away in Hell’s Kitchen, credits his daily experiences in this storied Manhattan neighborhood as fodder for writing works like Daredevil: Born Again.

Numerous recent comic books have made New York home base too. From Jason Little’s 2002 Shutterbug Follies about Bee, a photo lab technician, who takes it upon herself to solve strange and mysterious events in the city to Peter Kuper’s Stop Forgetting to Remember, a semi-autobiographical tale that prominently features the city.

They say New York is the city that never sleeps. This is certainly true when it comes to comics as well. And the non-stop four days of the humongous New York Comic Con reinforces that thought. All of this ensures New York City’s (Gotham City, Metropolis, etc.) continued reign as the comic book capital of the world.