The Architecture of the Comic Book City
October 12, 2011
In the opening of issue #2 of the Daredevil re-launch, you’ll find the Man Without Fear perched beneath the iron undercarriage of a fully realized replication of the High Line Park, complete with “10th Avenue Square” viewing platform, antiquated iron filigree, and passing traffic below. Resting on a authentically rendered steel column, our hero listens in on a conversation between two men above. The following image exchanges viewpoints, establishing a wide shot with the park’s infamous benches, concrete planks, and “wild” flora on full display. The interlocutors now appear at eye level; beneath them, Daredevil calmly (read: creepily) waits in anticipation. The scene is set.
To younger audiences not native to New York City, the images may appear as a fanciful construct, an amalgam of familiar park elements, bridge-like infrastructure, and urban scenarios, held together by considerable amounts of imagination. This is an introduction to architecture, not only to its more palpable aspects of scale and material, but, more importantly, to its narrative and theatrical capacities. These scenes unfold on the psychological terrain of collective urban experience, manifested by dark, empty public squares, brooding towers, schizophrenic glass office blocks, and derelict religious structures. In the case of Daredevil, and all others, the superhero maintains an asymmetric relationship with the built environment, on which his existence rests. Simply put, the city doesn’t need its superheroes as much as they need it. Read on!
Every superhero is inextricably bound to the city which gives birth to them. The existential grievances and paranoiac psychoses which plague all urbanites find their heightened expression in the absurd avatar: a spandex-clad, emotionally wrecked airborne suprahuman. So, it follows that a city as maddening and corrupting as New York would beget the largest number and most-diverse array of superheroes (and villains). In this world where a single bite from a radioactive spider constitutes the minimum grounds for superheroism, what forces might the pressures of modern urban existence unleash within the hero-to be?
Map of Manhattan in the ‘Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe’
Marvel Comics has its roots in Manhattan, particularly that expanse of real estate north of Chelsea and just south of Harlem where the grid is in full command. Whereas the city takes archetypal form in other comic book worlds–such as DC Comics’ capitals of Gotham and Metropolis, cities whose geographies are rendered mutable and repeatable by the demands of the narrative–the reality of Marvel’s characters is tied to Manhattan’s urban fabric, which, in turn, is indexed by the comic book’s gridded interface through which the reader simultaneously navigates both the Marvel world and New York.
Maps of Gotham, Metropolis, or the Flash’s Central City, among others, approximate the cartographic reality of Manhattan–the island city governed by a grid–but cannot account for the experiential inconsistencies that are enacted therein. The poverty of these representations prove incapable of registering the volatility of these shifting urban centers, formed by the accumulation of diverse experiences whereby the familiar (the grid, landmarks, parks) is subverted and read anew through Situationist techniques. Where Marvel insinuates its characters in a layered, uchronic reading of New York, so these non-cities, with their exaggerated proportions, distorted geometries, moody lighting and fractured vanishing points, reference the psychological topology of the contemporary city in constant flux.
Map of Metropolis from “Superman Returns”
Axon of Starman’s Opal City