In Q & A, a weekly feature of Fantastic Fangirls, we ask our staff to tackle a simple question — then open the floor to comments.
What is your favorite geographical place in comics?
Excuse me. I’m going to wax poetic.
Gotham City is a character in herself. She’s special because she could be Chicago, New York, Boston, London, Baltimore — but she’s not. She has the best and worst elements of each but a character all her own. She’s not just the imposing, gothic skyline or the rooftops her most famous son frequents. She’s more than the criminals that populate the police department, the DA’s office, and the government as easily as the streets and hospitals. More than these characters — and that is the right word for them even inside the pages of story — more than these characters so determined to drive everyone to the insanity they embrace. She’s more than the champions — heroes or vigilantes or something in between, but champions –more than the champions who sprung from the circus and the boardroom and shared tragedies to try and stave off the darkness by adopting it. She exists outside of the subway and the harbour and the sewers and the spotlight that shines a symbol unique to her city, to her guardian. All of that is Gotham but Gotham is still more.
I lived outside of Boston during the Big Dig and I remember walking out of South Station into an early morning mist and thinking this is what Gotham looks like. But to me Gotham is most like the last stop of Boston’s blue line: Wonderland. I love it. I know it. Sometimes I spend a token just to go down to watch the train pull in. I don’t get on. I don’t want to get there. I don’t want it to be real. I want it to be Gotham.
Los Angeles is my favorite fictional city. Some nitpicker might dispute that statement on the grounds that it actually exists, but I’ll stick to my guns. The L.A. that I love doesn’t have anything to do with the place I spent a long weekend in 1993, the traffic-earthquake-and-plastic-surgery capital of the Western United States. Fictional Los Angeles is a location I first encountered in the “Three Investigators” boy-detective mysteries I read as a kid (they rode around in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce! that they won in a raffle! they hung out with Alfred Hitchcock for no good reason!) As I grew up, I discovered L.A. as the landscape for crime novels by writers from Raymond Chandler to Walter Mosley, the brutal domestic fiction of Raymond Carver, and — my sentimental favorite — the backstage Hollywood stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then there were movies like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Chinatown,” and television series from “Angel” to “Six Feet Under”: not to even mention the scores of shows and movies that show you bits and pieces of Southern California while desperately trying to look like someplace else. As different as these fictional presentations may be from each other, they all touch in some way on the city’s uneasy identity, a sense of being a place that shouldn’t really exist. It’s a company town for the manufacture of dreams, which rarely mesh with the realities of the people who live in the Hollywood sign’s shadow.
If there’s one comic book series that captures the sense of fictional L.A., it’s Marvel’s The Order, the Matt Fraction/Barry Kitson series that ran for 10 issues in 2007-08. The story of California’s homegrown superhero team, The Order first shows our heroes in action against a wildfire, and the page is framed by quotations about L.A.’s experience with this particular form of disaster. (In this case, the fire is actually caused by a metahuman dubbed “Infernal Man,” but you know — details.) Throughout the series, Kitson works images of real L.A. locations and buildings into the backgrounds of the panels. At the same time, the mythical L.A. finds its way into the narrative. The team leader, Henry Hellrung, describes himself as a ‘one-time actor, according to Wikipedia’ — the fact that he used to play “Iron Man” on television is his only obvious qualification for the job — but if he’s done with professional acting, he can’t quite seem to find his way out of show business. Other members of the team have more successful relationships with the entertainment industry — one character is basically Jessica Simpson, another is essentially Angelina Jolie — and the whole premise not-so-accidentally resembles a reality TV show. But the characters of The Order are less notable for the media figures they resemble than for the dreams and ambitions they struggle with and don’t always achieve. It’s the gap between perfect image and messy reality, and the heroes’ attempt to bridge it, that makes The Order a real L.A. story.
For a kid growing up in the commuter suburbs of central New Jersey, there’s only one city that matters: New York City. Since early childhood, the skyline across the water has captivated my attention and imagination, my hopes and dreams. I still remember begging my parents, city-hating types who prefer wide expanses of green lawns and forests, to take me into New York for the first time to see Cats on Broadway for my 10th birthday. For years afterward, though all I’d seen of New York (other than Staten Island, which, as everyone knows, doesn’t actually count) was the small stretch of road between the Wintergarden Theatre and the nearest parking garage, I cherished that memory, hoping for the next time I’d be able to visit that magical city, with its lights and plays and museums and restaurants and subways and traffic and noise. And then, when I was finally old enough to do such things on my own, I started using the trains and buses of NJTransit to visit New York regularly — first to see Broadway shows, and, later, to visit newfound friends who lived there, to sit in diners and Starbucks for hours on end and talk about nothing in particular, to wander the streets and parks and subway stations looking for something interesting to do. I became finally comfortable with this city I’d always loved from afar, and now, at 22, New York City is the primary target of my job search.
Given all this, it seems unsurprising that, when it comes to comic books, my primary allegiance is to Marvel, where New York City is the center of the world. I’ve always loved fictional representations of New York City as much as the city itself — it’s the tie that’s bound most of my nerdy obsessions, from the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side of Newsies to the late 1980s/early 1990s East Village of RENT. Fictional portrayals of New York matter to me because New York matters to me — because I can picture the events in the places they occur. Superman flying over Metropolis skyscrapers means little; Batman guarding the alleys of Gotham City has no effect. But when I see Spider-Man slinging down 8th Avenue, I can’t help but get a tiny thrill. It excites me to imagine Avengers Mansion fitting snugly between the buildings I’ve seen facing Central Park, or to imagine the Baxter Building among all the other great towers of concrete and glass. It’s important to me that Peter Parker grew up in Queens, where one friend lived for several months; that Steve Rogers’ immigrant family scraped by in tenements that looked much like those I’ve explored in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum; that Matt Murdock protects Hell’s Kitchen, where another friend’s mother grew up. Even the tragedies mean more because of their grounding in reality — in my reality: Gwen Stacy falling from the George Washington Bridge, the civilians trapped by the Skrull invasion trying to survive in the subway tunnels, Rev. William Stryker preaching anti-mutant hate in Madison Square Garden. The presence of New York City makes Marvel comic books real to me, grounding them despite the presence of magic and spandex and supervillainy. My heroes’ city is my city, and I couldn’t be happier.
It doesn’t have a name, though Alison Bechdel has said repeatedly that it is based somewhat on Minneapolis, MN. It’s just the City, the place that contains the antics of Mo, Sparrow, Ginger, Lois, Clarice, Toni, and the rest of the Dykes to Watch Out For. In the recent collection, Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Ms. Bechdel included a map of the City. (I tried very hard to find the map online, but failed.) I laughed aloud at that map. I couldn’t have produced it, but this City, with Madwimmin Books, Buns & Noodle, Papaya Republic, Bounders — with its schools, colleges, co-ops, parks — this is a place I know by heart, even though I couldn’t drive from one place to the next. But I’ve been to the hospital there in winter, I’ve been at Pride in the summer.
I know the geography of the City over time — what’s changed since I was in college, where I would take my kids to play now. I could actually live in the City — I could make a home there. Unsurprising, really, since Bechdel’s characters inhabit a world based on my world. A world based on a large, liberal city in the Upper Midwest, with a social constellation populated from the varieties of queer life since I came out. These are the coffee shops I went to when I was 26, the clubs I danced in at 22, the snow-covered streets I navigate with small, bundled children in tow. In a sense I already live in the City, and kudos to Ms. Bechdel for creating such a place.
What about you? What’s your favorite geographical place in comics?