Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Gotham City, Once and Sometime New York

20131203-150843.jpgA famous quote claims that “Metropolis is New York by day; Gotham is New York by night.” While it is tempting to make this connection, it is a problematic assumption to maintain.

A recurring gag in The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, humorist Robert Rankin’s hilarious take on nursery rhymes, reads: “It is a fact, well known to those who know it well,” that we can only truly know what we personally experience; that very famous people always have big faces; that at the moment of death, your entire life flashes before your eyes, etc. Translating Rankin’s light sarcasm to comics criticism, it would seem that it is a fact, well known to those who know it well, that the Batman’s Gotham City is New York. A famous quote often attributed to Frank Miller matter-of-factly states that “Metropolis is New York by day; Gotham is New York by night.” These identifications, however, are problematic, whether they refer to the fictional cities historically or in current publications.[1]

Comics scholar Richard Reynolds has pointed out that superhero comics continuity is “of an order of complexity beyond anything to which the television [soap opera] audience has become accustomed.” It is a mixture of “serial continuity” – the stories that have come before – and “hierarchical continuity” – the interrelationship between different comics at a given moment, across the entirety of the DC or Marvel line – that combine to establish “structural continuity”: the entire contents of a given fictional comics universe, including elements of the real world and any potential aspects that are not yet recorded (Reynolds used the example of Superman’s grandfather’s name, which had not yet been given but which, logically, must exist somewhere in the gaps between published stories). But continuity is not fixed, static, or predictable; it is malleable, shaped by the collective efforts of writers, artists, editors, and, sometimes, by fandom.

The Batman and his environs are no different in this respect. Thus, for example, Bob Kane, one of the Batman’s creators, once suggested: “Maybe every ten years Batman has to go through an evolution to keep up with the times”. And he did not appear fully formed. His reliance on gadgetry emerged over the first few issues. His origin story wasn’t told until Detective #33 (Nov. 1939). Similarly, his home turf took shape over time. His first appearance, in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), simply took place in an unnamed “teeming metropolis.” One of the series’ ghost writers, likely Gardner Fox, decided to call the city “New York” for a while; a fence was said to operate in the Bowery in Detective #30 (Aug. 1939), and the Batman rushes through “the dark of a New York night” in the next issue. Events in one story in Batman #1 (Spring 1940) take place in “a crowded street in lower Manhattan.” But the Batman’s New York was an anonymous city, rendered with low definition, little detail, and largely without recognizable New York landmarks; rather, it was a city that owed most of its atmosphere and population to gangster movies, hard-boiled detective pulps, and horror films.

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Gotham City gets its name.

By Batman #2 (Summer 1940), New York as setting seems to have been largely abandoned; a villain is said to have boarded a train from the Batman’s home town to the Big Apple. Bill Finger, another ghost, decided to come up with a name that had the suitable “mythic ring.” After considering several alternatives, he settled, as of Batman #4 (Winter 1940), to have the Batman fight crime in Gotham City. The rationale was simple: “Originally, I was going to call Gotham City ‘Civic City’. Then I tried Capital City, then Coast City. Then I flipped through the phone book and spotted the name Gotham Jewellers and said ‘That’s it, Gotham City’. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it. Of course, Gotham is another name for New York.” Indeed, the panel in which Gotham is first named also contains one of the most New York-suggestive early wide-angle shots.

Gotham is indeed one of New York’s many nicknames, given to the city by a group of satirists in 1807. Writing squibs, brief satirical essays, in which they poked fun at New Yorkers’ foibles and ridiculously formal manners, the writers dubbed the city Gotham, supposedly after what had happened in an English village of that name in the thirteenth century. As the story goes, the king was planning to buy a castle near the village, but the villagers realized that they would have to maintain the estate. So, in order to scare away the monarch, they all acted like idiots. The village since gained a reputation for stupidity in folklore. Given the vaguely noirish graphic profile of the comics Gotham, however, it seems likely that Finger did not know, or at least did not consider, this origin when he chose the name for his work.

In his first years, the Batman was out of the city as often as he was in it; not only was he not a one-city hero, he was not a fully urban one. More important, however, while there is of course more to a city than its name, the change from New York to Gotham City is important: it constitutes a renunciation of the claim and aspiration to verisimilitude. It is undoubtedly the case that the Batman’s adventures often make reference to the Empire City, but just as often they do not. Whether or not a measure of New York seeps into the mix is entirely up to the creators of each particular comic or cinematic venture. Writer Dennis O’Neil has said about his influential run, that “I just wanted to make it Gothic and spooky. I was being influenced by writers like [H. P.] Lovecraft and [Edgar Allan] Poe, and I didn’t think about Gotham City.” Writer and cartoonist Frank Miller himself tried to create a “bleak site colored by corruption”. The production designer for Tim Burton’s Batman movie has said that “I don’t believe in cinema vérité. You should create your own reality.”

In a conversation about The Dark Knight Rises, the third installment in Christopher Nolan’s suite of Batman movies, a friend who clearly was not aware of the fact that others know so well, remarked that she hated that the movie made Gotham into New York. She had loved what the Spider-Man movies did with New York, but said that the bleak world Dark Knight described is not the way New York is. She found it an offensive portrayal of a real place, but she would have found it a fine portrait of a fictional city. This observation points to an intersection between fiction and current events of a kind that often occurs in comics and cinema, and the way in which we often read into our popular culture. The renunciation of a New York identity allows cities like Gotham and Metropolis to be portrayed in starker, sharper tones.

Of course, it appears self-evident that Nolan’s Gotham in this movie is in part the New York of Occupy Wall Street. Connecting with recent events so explicitly is how Nolan and his crew can be said to have “made Gotham into New York.” But there is more to this particular cinematic Gotham; it is the product of imagination and a failure of empathy or understanding. The real-world protest movement and its discontents are refracted through a violent prism of Charles Dickens’ revolutionary Paris as it appears in A Tale of Two Cities. If the violence and kangaroo courts don’t give this connection away, the ending unequivocally does; the movie ends with a truncated version of one of the novel’s most famous passages, coming from a man who sacrifices himself for the greater good, as Bruce Wayne has done again:

I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss […] I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy […] I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence […] It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Gotham_map

A map of Gotham City, marking some of the city’s more famous landmarks.

Whatever the underlying thought and intention on the part of the city’s chroniclers, however, any version of Gotham is ultimately… well, Gotham. For all its occasional references to the world outside Batman narrative and continuity, and to other fictional representations of cities real and imagined, the city has been built and rebuilt many times in the more than seventy years since the Batman was created. Over time, Gotham has accumulated so much continuity baggage that a return to a strict identity with any city under only a thin veneer of fictionalization is impossible. Gotham has a history, geography, and architecture all of its own (going as far back as the 1600s), which cannot be broken from without serious effort on the part of comics creators. The same goes for movie-makers, including Nolan.

By the time Nolan made Dark Knight, for instance, he had already brought viewers to Gotham’s Arkham Asylum. If there are any real-world inspirations for Arkham, they possibly include Manhattan’s Bellevue, but likely more so the infamous British asylum Bedlam. Most prominent among inspirations, however, is doubtlessly H. P. Lovecraft’s haunting Sanitorium in the fictional Massachusetts village of Arkham. (As already noted, Denny O’Neil, who first introduced Arkham in 1974, was into Poe and Lovecraft.) Any version of Gotham or any place, landmark, or structure within its city limits is always represented within the boundaries of Batman continuity, but with reference to a number of other urban representations, meaning that any given Gotham City constitutes a distinct vision, with a distinct genealogy.

Thus, while it is easy and tempting to make totalizing claims about Gotham’s identity, those who assume that Gotham is always in some measure New York ultimately make the connection on faith. For purposes of comics criticism and commentary, the Batman should not be asserted as a New York character. At least not anymore. Or at least not always. Similarly, Gotham should not be equated with New York. Except for when it should.


[1] This post will deal only with Gotham. Metropolis can easily be made the subject of a similar discussion, not least based on the fact that when Superman first appeared, he was explicitly situated in his creators’ hometown: Cleveland, Ohio. Also problematic when considering the original iteration of Superman from a New York perspective is the fact that, according to artist and Superman co-creator Joe Shuster, Superman’s city was visually based on the Toronto of his youth.

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