It's impossible to visit the top of the Empire State building for the first time, particularly on an unseasonably warm, clear night in early spring, and not believe something momentous is about to happen. Is that the buzz of biplanes harrying an oversized and misunderstood ape? Namor the Sub-Mariner tearing off the building's spire in an act of spite against New York's land-dwellers? Spider-Man catching a breather on the spire? A young comic-book artist experiencing his first kiss with the man who plays his most famous character on the radio?
That sensation was particularly strong last week after I left a presentation at the New York Center for Independent Publishing. There's no denying the case that comics artists Danny Fingeroth, Frank Tieri, and Billy Tucci, and long-time comics commentators Gene Kannenberg, Jr., and Peter Gutiérrez made at the forum—that New York City has played an extraordinary role as a backdrop, home, and battleground for superhero comics great and small. But New York's persistent role in the comics raises an intriguing question: can there be superheroes without cities?
Even though in the DC Comics universe, early stories set in New York were transferred to the fictional Gotham City and Metropolis, the canonical street layouts and geography still have a suspicious resemblance to New York. And in Marvel Comics, New York was never remade; instead, the comics assigned new significance to familiar geography.
"The first time I came to New York, it was, 'This is where Gwen Stacy died!' 'This is where Dr. Strange' lived!" Kennenberg said.
When Galactus, a god-like destroyer of worlds targets Earth, "of course, he comes to Midtown Manhattan to set up," said Fingeroth.
New York's size and iconic skyline made for dramatic confrontations and high stakes when heroes and villains brawled in the comics, and the well-established reputations of neighborhoods meant that artists could imply a back-story for characters simply by noting that Daredevil grew up in Hell's Kitchen, or Spider-Man is from Queens.
Specific characters even grew up from New York's politics. The vigilante anti-hero Punisher debuted just a month after Abraham Beame was sworn as New York's mayor in 1974 and the city plunged deeper into a financial crisis, class conflict highlighted by the 1977 blackout. In the 1980 Dark Phoenix Saga, Nightcrawler, a member of the X-Men, jokes that a giant tree Dark Phoenix turned into gold as part of an attack on her former teammates "should solve New York's fiscal crisis for sure."
There's no question that so many comics feature New York because the industry was centered there. Gutiérrez pointed out that Metropolis, Superman's earthly hometown, was originally modeled on Toronto, but became more like New York because DC Comics was headquartered there.
But the role of New York and other large cities in the comics isn't just about shorthand or proximity. The architecture, both real and transliterated, makes for grand backgrounds. Fingeroth shot the photos of the New York skyline that became an iconic cover for one of his Ka-Zar comics: skyscrapers fill comics panels more easily than Midwestern wheat fields. And when those skyscrapers, or grand, swooping bridges are landmarks superheroes share with us, the events that happen there have particular emotional resonance. Gwen Stacy's death would have been shocking no matter the setting. But because the bridge the Green Goblin threw her off of, and where the whiplash from Spider-Man's webs breaks her neck, is the George Washington Bridge, the tragedy is written directly into a familiar landscape.
And the scope of cities also gives meaning to the scale of superhero conflicts. While violence and villainy are equally tragic whether they're committed in small towns or giant metropolises, the former can usually be defended or avenged by ordinary human determination. It takes a supervillain's vision to conceive of destroying New York to shock the world into a frightened peace as Adrian Veidt does in Alan Moore's Watchmen. And it takes Hercules's strength to literally drag a dislodged Manhattan back into place, as he did when he worked with Spider-Man in the Marvel Team-Up series.
It's true that superheroes sometimes venture to outer space on extraordinary missions to defend the source of all reality or on routine calls, like those that sometimes pull She-Hulk away from her court cases. And you can develop super-powers pretty much anywhere, even Alberta, Canada in the 1880's or in Cook County, Ill. in the 1980's. But when good guys and bad guys throw down planetside, they're usually in good company. And as young superheroes discover and learn to manage their powers they're drawn to the colorful teams and epic conflicts of big cities. If they can make it there, they'll make it, quite literally, anywhere.