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Triple A: Urban Legend
Meeting in a darkened room in a side street somewhere in London in early 2002, the Ninth Art editors discussed a subject close to all their hearts: the city.
From the real world New York to the fictional Gotham, cities are a firmly established part of the language of comics - but are they a foundation, a background, or something much bigger than that?
ANDREW WHEELER: Most comics seem to have an urban setting. Urban settings are what the audience is familiar with. Therefore it's my assertion that the city is a major character in the pantheon of adventure comics. As significant a figure as the man of steel or the dark knight detective. But it's the character we ignore.
ALASDAIR WATSON: I think it can be. There's the old saw that Metropolis is New York by day and Gotham is New York by night.
WHEELER: Yeah, although some say Metropolis is, I think, Boston or Philadelphia.
WATSON: The problem I have with DC's cities is that they don't use real ones. But it gives them leeway to do loads of shit; you couldn't treat Batman's city like they have if it weren't a fictional one. Two plagues, an earthquake, a federal disaster zone... You couldn't do that with a real city.
WHEELER: If you're talking about the city in comics, Gotham is probably the first one people think of.
WATSON: Gotham, I agree, really is the character people don't talk about. I agree with your theory in that regard. But it's had to become that character because Batman is attached to it.
ANTONY JOHNSTON: Is it the case that Batman is such an outlandish character, because he's a non-superpowered character who nevertheless has all the trappings of a superpowered character - that they had to create a city around him that is more outlandish, so he didn't seem ridiculous?
WHEELER: That's probably very true. If you're a pantomime character, you have to be on the stage. And that's why I think so many comic cities are hyper-real. The art deco city. Art deco has never died in comics. Every city in comics has a Chrysler building or three.
WATSON: If you're Scott McCloud, even your villain has a Chrysler building. [See Dekko in ZOT.]
JOHNSTON: Most of those types of cities are in sci-fi comics/superhero comics. I'm including things like Gotham and Metropolis. Now, most of Marvel's stuff is set in New York City, but New York is kind of a sci-fi city in and of itself. It's an absolutely unique city in the world. For a foreigner like myself, when I first went to New York and saw the architecture and the skyscrapers, it made me think, my God, is this place really real?
WHEELER: New York is a highly significant city because it's the gateway from the old world to the new. That's why it's an iconic city. More of an icon than Superman. It's the city where the immigrants came in and were faced with this huge expanse of land.
JOHNSTON: It's the land of hope.
WHEELER: Exactly. In a way it represents what superheroes are meant to be. The idea of man's leap forward to the next thing. Hope and idealism. I could draw Augustinian models into it at this point, but I don't know if we want to enter into a theological debate.
WATSON: Go for it. Make us look clever.
WHEELER: One of St Augustine's presentations of morality was the concept of city versus garden; that the city is the physical representation of the material world, and the garden, as natural, is the spiritual world. The garden is given to us by God, the city is what we create for ourselves. To get in contact with God, we need to leave the city and return to the garden. Go back to Eden.
JOHNSTON: You often get this fundamentalist view all over the world that cities are a hive of corruption and indecency.
WHEELER: Exactly. We've got flipsides of the same idea here. On the one hand it's progress, on the other, it's corruption. It's either taking us away from God or it's furthering us as man, and that's actually the same idea, presented in contrary ways.
WATSON: You can pull that back to Gotham and Metropolis if you accept that Superman represents God and Batman represents man.
JOHNSTON: I think that implies that cities are where heroes are most needed.
WHEELER: Because the city is the crucible of morality.
JOHNSTON: If there's one place where evil is most likely to fester, it's going to be in the cities, therefore that's where the heroes are required.
WATSON: When I think of evil in America, I don't think of the cities. I think of the bits where they fuck their cousins and eat the chipmunks.
JOHNSTON: Funnily enough, I think of George W Bush.
WATSON: He fucks his cousins and eats the chipmunks, doesn't he?
WHEELER: No, he fucks the chipmunks and eats his cousins.
JOHNSTON: So maybe that's why the city in comics is so prevalent. Because that's the place that needs heroes.
WATSON: The city is where man is most man.
JOHNSTON: And most likely to go wrong. Or become corrupt.
WHEELER: Teams tend to travel all over the world, but solo heroes - The Spirit, Superman, Batman, The Flash, Starman - they have their own cities. Even Nightwing, when he was spun off from BATMAN, moved to the next city. V, from V FOR VENDETTA, is the only strictly London-based superhero I can think of.
JOHNSTON: I'm reminded of something that Jeff Noon said to me...
WHEELER: Oh, what, old Noonie?
JOHNSTON: My mate Jeff. He said it's much easier to set stories in places like London and New York, because there is more potential for anyone in the world being there. The whole point of a city is that they're easily accessible, and you never know who's around the corner. When you live in the country, you know everyone. You know what's going on; very little changes. In the city, things change all the time. There's much more potential for stories. It's easier to set stories in big cities because people are more willing to believe that anything can happen there.
WATSON: I'm trying to think of other major comic book characters who are based in London. All I can think of is Jack the Ripper.
WHEELER: FROM HELL is such a textured work because of its setting. Obviously it couldn't be set anywhere else, but London really is a character in that book. It's London of 100 plus years ago, and there's all sorts of people there, from Wild Bill to the Elephant Man. It's a cosmopolitan metropolis. It's texture that cities provide.
WATSON: Having recently re-read PROMETHEA, which is set in New York; all the sequences in the early part of the book have the captions 'TEXTure'. They're information about the world that Sophie Bangs lives in. I would love to say that London is a 'character', but there's an appalling lack of London comics.
JOHNSTON: In terms of comics, it isn't a character, but in terms of literature, it is.
WHEELER: In literature, it's the city. It beats New York hands down. But given how many British creators tend to lead the charge in comics, it's amazing that London doesn't get any development. I suppose that's because of the audience the writers are playing to. It's a real shame.
WATSON: FROM HELL, probably more than any other comic, has made London a character. Which is impressive. Regardless of the series - no fucker read the series, everyone read the collection - one book made London a more appreciable character than ten years of HELLBLAZER. I find that interesting.
JOHNSTON: I don't think it's a bad thing that so many stories take place in cities, because cities do lend themselves to stories, but it is easier. It's much more difficult to set a story in a rural or communistic environment.
WATSON: It depends how unafraid you are to say, well this is the rural environment, but things are a bit weird here.
JOHNSTON: It's not impossible, by any means, but I do think that's why cities are more common. It's easier and people will relate to it more and forgive more.
WHEELER: I think if you are going to do a story in a rural environment, weird is about all people do seem to do. When do you see a story set in a rural environment that isn't about people who are a bit weird? And they're only weird because they're in a rural environment. Put those people in the city and you wouldn't think twice about them.
WATSON: But if you dump the contents of HAPPYDALE into the city, they're still going to look a bit weird.
JOHNSTON: But HAPPYDALE is a city.
WHEELER: In American terms. But if you were to spread those people across New York, they might not look so strange. Yes, there's a man in a dinosaur suit, but I've seen weirder things in London. In York, you'd go into a pub and Death would be sitting at the bar having a pint, and you'd realise, oh, it's the guy from the ghost walk. These are things you see.
WATSON: I have to agree - walking around Coventry, arguably the most soulless city on earth, I turned a corner and there was a pair of clowns who walked up to me and started singing the POSTMAN PAT theme.
JOHNSTON: This is, I'd like to continue deceiving myself, a fairly English thing. You wouldn't necessarily get them in America.
WHEELER: I don't know. You'd get it in Japan. You get youth culture that is very anti-establishment and therefore extremely out there, people dressing in ways that are incredibly striking.
WATSON: Worth noting that Japanese comics are not always set in the big city. UZUMAKI is set in a suburb or Tokyo, but it's on the fringes.
JOHNSTON: SHADOWSTAR is set on a remote island. So is BATTLE ROYALE.
WHEELER: Are Japanese cities sufficiently centralised? I think they're largely patchworks of cities, in the way that many American cities are. There are some American cities that have a huge, substantial centre, but most American towns are called cities and they're only suburbs patched together. There are the cities that we think of as cities in this country - New York, Chicago, Seattle - and then there are cities like Peoria...
WATSON: I don't think of Peoria as a city.
WHEELER: But it is. Most American towns are called cities. These aren't the archetypal cities. The archetypal cities, the ones where you set a story, are the ones with a centre. You set the story in the centre, or you're not really setting it in the city.
JOHNSTON: The archetypal comic city is New York, I don't think there's any doubt of that. Metropolis, Gotham, Keystone, Millennium City, they're all basically New York. I can't think of any American comics city that is comparable to, say, San Francisco.
WHEELER: Even DC's west coast cities are still basically New York.
JOHNSTON: Maybe Nightwing's city is closer to something like Chicago?
WHEELER: I think it's more in the mode of something like Pittsburgh.
WATSON: I'm given to understand it's a decaying industrial town.
WHEELER: Yeah. Detroit or Pittsburgh. Steel cities.
JOHNSTON: Whenever American comics refer to a city, they are generally thinking of New York. And maybe Spider-Man's got a lot to do with that. And the Fantastic Four.
WHEELER: In DC's books, everyone lives in New York, but they all live in a separate New York. In Marvel books everyone lives in the same New York, and a lot of the characters are New Yorkers. Daredevil, Punisher, Spider-Man. Avengers Mansion is in Manhattan, walking distance from the Fantastic Four.
JOHNSTON: Do you think Marvel has had a lot to do with New York's position in comics?
WHEELER: Yes, Marvel has made New York the touchstone moreso than DC has. The reason Marvel has done it is abundantly clear. It's a romantic interest in its hometown. What DC tried to do is to get away from it, and found itself inexorably dragged back, unable to think beyond its own surroundings.
WATSON: There are ways I think of a story as a London story. The only American city I can think of as having its own kind of story is New York. London stories and New York stories, but after that... "There are a million stories in the naked city." But there are only two cities I can think of as having a million stories in them.
JOHNSTON: To foreigners like ourselves, New York is pretty much the only city we can associate with a certain atmosphere and a certain kind of story. Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle Chicago; they're all big American cities. Dallas even. Yet speaking as a foreigner, I couldn't conjure up the atmosphere in any of them in what I would consider to be an adequate manner.
WHEELER: I wasn't passionate about New York. I think it's a more convincing city in fiction. In life, I didn't feel any passion in that city. But it's developed a reputation, and that's what allows it to be a textured and vivid character. I suppose that's what it is. Vivacity. If there's life and colour in a city, then it can be a character, because characters in comic books have to be colourful.
JOHNSTON: And by associating themselves with New York, the great majority of comic cities co-opt that vivacity, that mythology. They imply they have this massive history. Because these are huge cities with tall buildings and a long history, where anything can happen.
WATSON: Yet in popular culture, what happens there is FRIENDS.
WHEELER: So is my theory right?
WATSON: Yes and no. There are a couple of cities that are characters, but they're the same characters every time. Keystone City is not a character. Opal City is not a character.
WHEELER: They're just shades of New York. Let's face it, in TRANSMETROPOLITAN it's never named which city it is, but...
WATSON: It's New York.
JOHNSTON: The same as William Gibson's Sprawl. It's New York. Judge Dredd's Mega City One is New York, down to the border of Florida.
WHEELER: So in the future, New York doesn't just inspire other cities; it actually eats them.
Wheeler, Johnston and Watson are the Ninth Art editorial board.
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