Saturday, April 29, 2006

Spandex in the City

I was chatting with one of my urban planning friends (Hi, Mike!) at an outdoor cafe (because that's where urban planners hang out) about the recent death of Jane Jacobs, godmother of the neourban movement, savior of Soho, and one of the greatest intellects of our century.

The essence of Jane Jacobs' message (cities=socioeconomic rainforest, suburbs=socioeconomic desert) is almost as close to my heart as the joy of comic books. But that shouldn't surprise me: comic books are essentially urban.

Superheroes and their foes do not hang out in shopping malls (the Superbuddies notwithstanding). Like many of the specialized products of the city, the spandex set require a dense urban setting to flourish. Suburbs and small towns do not foster abandoned warehouse districts, giant props, and the poorly guarded banks, jewelry stores, and art museums that are the necessary backdrops for caped conflict.

Except Smallville. Smallville has everything. Scientific research labs. Mints. Whales. Everything.

Why is James Robinson praised? Great plotting? Jack Knight? No; Opal City. Where did the Secret Society attack? Blue Valley? The Deep Amazon? No; Metropolis. Do the residents of Wayne Manor and Arkham stay in the burbs to battle or do they meet in the city over cappucino?

Tell me, those of you raised in the surburbs: did reading comics distort your expectations of life in the Big City? When you first toured Central City (or moved there) were you crestfallen that it wasn't night 24 hours a day, that the police didn't have blimps, and that obscenely wealthy pearl-dripping matrons weren't walking their little lord Fauntleroys down every dark, trash-strewn alley of menace?


CalvinPitt said...

Actually, I believe comics may have helped to make me the mainly anti-urban person I am. At least, when you combine it with my general unease around large groups of people. St. Louis is too large for me; New York would be completely overwhelming.

That isn't to say I don't live in a city, but it's only about 35,000 people, not really large enough to attract the costumed set.

Regardless, I don't think I could handle living in a place where a man who looks like a clown sprays me with toxic gas from a fish because he thinks it's funny. So the fact that doesn't seem to match reality would probably be a relief to me.

Sharif said...

I'm glad you brought up this topic. I've always loved that comic heroes sprung out of urban ghettos with paeans to street life; written to ambitiously create pastorals out of tenements.

I fell in love with Opal City immediately. It mediated Chicago for me when I first moved out there. Still, it's interesting to see D.C. make a real city more vivid to readers after decades of Marvel dulling and deadening the beauty of New York. Manhunter's tours of LA make me remember exactly why I ached for it so many years after I'd moved away. What a brilliant touch to move Kate out of West LA One Year Later and to stick her in Silverlake. I have a feeling that little detail is meant as a serious insider's clue as to the changes the character has undergone during the lapse of the story. Anyway, thanks for returning to this topic. There's a lot to mine from it.

Roel said...

I grew up in the suburbs. I read comics my entire life. I moved to NYC after college and lived there for a couple of years. And, um, "underwhelmed" would NOT be the exact term I would use to describe trying to grasp the New York city experience.

The Fulton Fish Market after midnight. Alphabet City. The Meatpacking District. Wandering through Harlem alone by mistake as darkness fell and I walked into a drug deal while the lady wearing a snake watched across the street. These were not bland settings.

I've had my ribs crushed as everyone squeezed into the train at rush hour in Times Square. I saw men chasing each other with knives as people stood around and watched. I saw a gang attack a teenage kid on crutches. I ran for cover when I found myself caught in the middle of a homeless riot at a Burger King. I saw people lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from the head. I saw junkies hiding in the space between subway cars late at night as they pushed needles into their arms. My roommate crashed a U-Haul truck into an armored car while it was making a pick-up from the bank, causing the armed guards to drew their guns and point it at my head. I spent a couple of months living in a model's storage closet because our lease wasn't worked out correctly. I spent another couple of months living in an office of the Tropical Disease Center at Lenox Hill Hospital when I couldn't find an apartment, and had to sneak into showers when the hospital staff wasn't around. And the cafe where I wrote the first draft of my manuscript? It no longer exists, because terrorists flew two planes into the building and blew it up about five years ago.

So. Was I "crestfallen that it wasn't night 24 hours a day, that the police didn't have blimps, and that obscenely wealthy pearl-dripping matrons weren't walking their little lord Fauntleroys down every dark, trash-strewn alley of menace?"

Scip -- the answer is "no." No, I was not.

Truth was much stranger than fiction.

And no matter how many comic books I had read as a kid, NYC had many moments of pure and complete terror. And if you lived there long enough, you didn't give it a second thought...

(Note: I am actually visiting NYC again this weekend to see some friends. So I probably should not have dredged up all those memories. When listed all at once, it makes survival seem unlikely. Huh.)

David said...

Hmm - I think you've hit on one of the things which fundamentally attracts me to comic books: I'm a total urbanist. Give me density anyday - I like the environment where "the guy with pink hair" isn't descriptive enough to identify someone uniquely.

I'm going to think about this more- good stuff...

Kathy said...

Er, Central City is in Western Kentucky - it is a "small town". Here are the basic facts from -
Median resident age: 38.0 years
Median household income: $27,371 (year 2000)
Median house value: $55,600 (year 2000)

Races in Central City:

White Non-Hispanic (87.6%)
Black (10.7%)
Hispanic (0.8%)
Two or more races (0.5%)
Ancestries: United States (25.7%), English (4.9%), Irish (4.6%), German (4.2%), French (1.1%).

No Flash noted as in residence. I know - I used to live near Central City...

Diamondrock said...

I have yet to spend a great deal of time in a big American city. I currently live in the fourth largest city in Japan, so I'm certainly getting an interesting urban experience.

As for growing up... It wasn't the suburbs. The town I grew up in was basically Smallville (or Smallville as it really would be). Central Illinois, population 32,000, and surrounded by cornfields. I'm basically Clark Kent (I've had all those same "naive" values instilled in me over the years). Well, I'm Clark Kent without the amazing powers, anyway...

Isaac said...

Roel, that's an awesome post.

I grew up in the Texas countryside, not even in the suburbs, and the nearest city wasn't really "urban" all that much. And I was a bit of a Marvel zombie when I was a wee lad, so I had a lot of childhood preconcepts of New York City before I ever saw it with my own eyes.

Now I've lived in the post-industrial Northeast for about a decade, and I get into New York a few times a year for events or to visit friends. I still, to this day, think Spidey is going to swing by when I see one of those cylindrical rooftop water-tanks that are so common on apartment buildings downtown. City architecture makes me think of Spider-Man. (Not the Avengers or the Fantastic Four, so much -- maybe because they never really interacted with the architecture except to rip holes in it.)

I also still think of NYU as "the school Peter Parker goes to."

Scott said...

Well, I know your blog is more DC-oriented, but I do recall walking around Greenwich Village trying to spot that funky window in Dr. Strange's sanctum sanctorum - there was a point at which enough of the artist either lived in or near NYC or had good enough photo reference that you really got a sense of the real architecture from the Marvel Comics. So, you'd have moments where you saw the ice skating rink outside Madison Square Garden and it looked just like it was waiting for a Sentinel attack...

however, I also have to agree with the earlier respondent - the real NYC was always a stranger experience even than suggested by the comics.

Simeon Bankoff said...

What you say is exactly why I keep trying to get my friends to read "Ex Machina".

Simeon Bankoff said...

OK, on a related but not-completely relevant tangent, it occurs to me that Jack Knight (even in San Francisco) would make a better heir to the GA Green Lantern power than anyone else. They tried to do it with Jade but it never quite took. Jack would be nearly perfect, although it would risk being a re-tread of the Starman series ("heroic legacy/parental guilt")

Anonymous said...


When did you live in NYC?

I grew up in suburban CT, but since high school have mostly lived in cities (Philly, Chicago, Cincinnati).

I spent a good deal of time in Manhattan last summer and fall, working at an office in the meatpacking district, and staying in hotels or taking the train in from CT.

The only thing that stood out, to me, was the way that every third person (or more) was listening to an iPod.

I understand NYC has improved a bit in the last decade, so I was wondering when you were there.

Roel said...

Hi Anonymous,

I lived there twice in my life. From 1996-8. I spent two years down by the South Street Seaport (the Fulton and Gold Street area.) Then I moved and lived in a model's storage closet for a couple of months in Astoria.

I moved there a second time in 1999-2000. That is when I lived in the Tropical Disease Center of Lenox Hill Hospital.

I want to clarify: I did not feel NYC was dangerous. I felt it was compressed. Because of the sheer number of people living there, experiences were hyper-accelerated. If you were to run into a violent incident once every 10,000 people -- it might take a couple of years in the area I grew up. In NYC, it might take 5 minutes. It is the Law of Statistical Probability, the Law of Really Big Numbers. By spending three-plus years in the city, I was bound to end up seeing a couple of crazy things.

Did I spend 24 hours a day living in a state of heightened terror? No, I did not. I actually enjoyed NYC, and found it to be a fun and exciting time of my life.

But -- when terrorists decide to fly planes into buildings, NYC seems to be at the top of my list.

I'm not sure if I have a point, or an agenda. I'm just saying I experienced a lot of wild things when I lived there.

Roel said...


One added note: You used to work in the meatpacking district? I walked through there all the time (getting off the subway at 14th and walking down to Jane Street.) Did you ever run into the transvestite hookers, the tall black men with blonde wigs who would make their appearances around midnight, offering to take you on a date behind a dumpster? That is one of my most vivid memories of the meatpacking district. Apparently, it was a pretty common occurrence back when I lived there.

(Scip -- I did not mean to hijack this thread. Carry on and keep up the good work.)

Bones said...

I'm a West Coast kid, and totally urban, but I never pictured the caped set running around LA--not even Hollywood!--San Diego, or any Bay Area city. Never. Does not compute. Urban superheroes always seem a NYC phenom.

Now, that is not to say that I have not seen spandex-clad people running around out here, just that "superheroic" is not an adjective that ever comes to mind.

methane said...

I mentioned before (when Scipio first discussed the immensity of Central City), that I was a slightly dissapointed the first time I saw New York. I still enjoyed it, mind you, but I'd gotten the idea from comics that all those buildings were much bigger than they actually are. Turns out, they're just big.

Mike said...

Hey Scip! Thanks for the wonderful urban planning conversation and coffee on Saturday evening. In case you're interested, the city planning website I mentioned was Really great articles.

ABS said...

When I go to a city, I still usually ask myself, "Could Spiderman get around here?"

The answer in most towns is no, or yes but only in a 10-block downtown. The only one I've been to where the answer was an unequivocal yes was NYC, of course. Unfortunately, I haven't been to Chicago yet. Downtown LA is big, but doesn't cut it.

Bill said...

I've been living in New York for around five years now and my New York doesn't match Roel's. Guiliani really fumigated the place so you've got to put in a bit of effort to find the sleeze and creeps in most neighborhoods. On the other hand, walking through midtown it takes remarkably little imagination to add the Baxter Building or Spider-man to the skyline. The outside of the natural history museum may as well be Avengers Mansion and the inside is packed with giant props, mystic artifacts and strange meteorites. And Doc Strange's sanctum sanctorum is always just around the corner in the Village.

I think I'd feel differently about the city if I grew up on DC comics. DC's Silver Age cities were larger than life in a way that Marvel's Manhattan never was.

Reuben said...

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