Q & A 19: What is your favorite geographical place in comics?

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?

Anika

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.

Caroline

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.

Jennifer

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.

Sigrid

The City.

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?

  • Caroline

    You know, I think it’s great that we didn’t plan this, but Anika & I ended up talking about places we like because they are essentially imaginary, and Jen and Sigrid talked about places they like because they’re grounded in reality. I tend to like the argument that all cities in fiction are really imaginary cities, but I can’t deny that I’m more drawn to stories about L.A., where I’ve never spent any significant amount of time, than New York or San Francisco or D.C., which I know reasonaboy to very well. Of course, my second favorite fictional city is Baltimore, which I’m also pretty familiar with, but I got to know fiction-Baltimore before real-Baltimore, so that might be the difference.

  • Gotham! For every single reason that Anika said. I really can’t add to that at all, because it is awesome.

    (Although New York would be a close second. It is home, pretty much.)

  • Yay for Gotham. She’s a lady that should be enjoyed and protected. I like your little comment on her most famous son 😉

    Great article as always girls.

  • Dan

    I have to go with Anika on this one. Gotham City is as much a character as any hero or rogue in a Bat-book. More than Metropolis. More than NYC in the Marvel Universe.

    Part of the appeal is that it could be any city in the world. Sure, I like to think of Gotham as a stand-in for my hometown, but it also has aspects of Chicago and Boston. The gothic architecture gives it the subtle hint of a European city. Another draw: sure, you might get held hostage and tortured by a killer clown, but at least you don’t have to worry about giant robots or alien despots invading. Can you say the same, Metropolis?

    A close runner-up would be DC’s twin cities: Keystone and Central. Not only are they the hometowns for my favorite non-nocturnal heroes, but they have a solid base of hard-working, blue collar American values.

  • @Caroline My inability to connect to wholly fictional worlds has a lot to do, I think, with my lack of interest in high science fiction and fantasy. I thrive on the grounding in reality, and if it’s a reality with which I’m intimately familiar, all the better. (Someday, I’ll write a truly epic treatise on New Jersey Stories and what they mean to me. Kevin Smith and Bruce Springsteen and Tom Perrotta and even, yes, Jon Bon Jovi.)

  • Caroline

    @Jen So would you be indifferent to New York stories if you grew up where I did? I mean, New York had no more reality to me than Narnia did until I was 18. I’m really curious about this.

    Re: the discussion of DCU geography, I randomly want to throw out a recommendation of the ‘Wild Ride’ trade from Ed Brubaker’s ‘Catwoman’ series, which is a lovely whirlwind tour of these imaginary places.

  • @Caroline I would be less specifically obsessed with New York, certainly, but I love stories set in San Francisco and Los Angeles that really delve into the specifics of place, and I’ve never been west of Pennsylvania. The same goes for London, of which I’ve only seen the airport. I just really love real places — and their history. Why invent things when there’s so much out there to explore that already exists? Seeing things I know and have experienced in fiction is an extra thrill, but simply seeing real places is the next level down. I’ve never been to California or Narnia, but I know which one I’d rather read about.

  • Caroline

    So does it matter that the Hell’s Kitchen featured in Daredevil doesn’t exist anymore, and that Chandler’s Los Angeles essentially never did? In other words, is it enough that real names are used as touchstones, or does there have to be accuracy?

  • @Dan I love Keystone and Central! They had so much character, and are just such a contrast from Gotham and they are just awesome.

    I also loved Bludhaven. I am WEIRD.

  • I much prefer DC’s fictional cities to real ones. Maybe there’s more mystery there. For me, my favorite is Opal City, so wonderfully portrayed in the Starman series. Opal is old and new, it’s retro and quirky, its edgy but not so depressing as Gotham. It celebrates its heroes the way Keystone & Central loves its speedsters.

    Gotham City is actually a close second, especially the art deco version of the animated series with its airships. (I have a weakness for zeppelins, okay?)

  • @Caroline I don’t think just names are enough, but I’m ok with a certain amount of fictionalization to serve a story. The liberties Marvel writers take with New York as a necessity of the superhero genre and the liberties Chandler takes with L.A. in the service of noir work for me because there’s still a basis there in the real cities, in their geography and certain special characteristics. (To be fair, I’ve only read one Chandler novel, so I can’t really speak to his work, but I’ve read books upon books of Francesca Lia Block’s L.A., which is probably even more fictionalized.)

  • Dan

    I think using the right names and basic geography of a real place are enough if you just want setting. But, if you want your fictionalized city to be a character all by itself, you need more. You need to capture a city’s soul, which is what many Marvel writers do with NYC and what Chandler did with L.A. (even if it wasn’t the “real” L.A.). Needless to say, creating your own city makes this easier…just like it’s easier to imbue a fictional character with “soul” than it is to try and recreate it from an actual person.

    That may have officially crossed over into Ramble Territory. Sorry.

  • Twyst

    i like limbo… :)

  • I’ll have to agree with Anika.. I love Gotham City

  • i would never want to live there, but it makes for great reading…

    gotham city!

    so cool looking. so atmosperic! i love it!