Ask Chris #222: This City Hates You
Q: Can a setting, location, or place actually be “a character,” as people often say about Gotham City or Bioshock’s Rapture, and if so, what exactly does that mean? — @Jon_Ore
A: Technically, no. No matter how well-developed or intriguing a setting is, no matter how many good stories have been set there or how characters and creators have talked about it, it’s still just that: A setting. The action and development, even if they’re a reaction to the setting or have effects on the setting, are all things that happen to characters. The setting just provides the backdrop.
Practically, though, they can be close enough that for all intents and purposes, they might as well be characters, with everything that comes with it.
As for what that means, well, the simple version is that the setting is defined so well that the reader can get a familiarity with it that’s on par with their understanding of the characters, and like with the characters, it’s not just about knowing fictional street names and neighborhoods, any more than understanding Batman comes from just memorizing those charts of what he carries around in his utility belt — although it will not surprise you to learn that I’ve spent a pretty significant amount of time doing both of those. Instead, it comes from an understanding of how that setting works, what kind of challenges it’s going to present, and how it’s going to react as a collective unit to the events of the story. And it starts with making the city feel as distinct and realized as a character does.
So let’s take a look at Gotham City, because really, if there’s any location in comics that’s a character, it’s that one, and it starts with how distinctive it is. To be honest, Gotham City didn’t really become Gotham City as we know it, the terrifying urban nightmare so thoroughly dominated by crime that it takes a billionaire dressed like Dracula just to keep things down to a manageable level of constant anarchy, until the ’70s. Really, it was just a slightly exaggerated caricature of New York, right down to the TV show claiming that it was right across the river from “New Guernsey.” But even before that, the seeds were there for Gotham to have a character all on its own.
When you get right down to it, it goes all the way back to the Golden Age and those Dick Sprang skylines full of billboards made of oversized props that could be converted into rooftop deathtraps or turn the city skyline into a dynamic obstacle course.
Sprang’s skylines were so distinct, in fact, that they became synonymous not just with Batman, but with Golden and Silver Age comics as a whole, this visual imagery of a world so weird that advertising companies would build 30-foot robots on top of buildings and installing massive, fully functional typewriters around every corner. But really, it was something unique to Gotham City itself, and as a result, it set the tone from the very early days that while Gotham might’ve been a stand-in for New York, it was a stand-in that was a whole lot bigger and weirder.
And that became the prevailing idea as the stories evolved. Denny O’Neil, who was largely responsible for Gotham’s evolution as both a writer and along-time editor, famously referred to Batman’s hometown as “Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November,” and Year One‘s gritty, thoroughly corrupt Gotham was certianly Miller and Mazzucchelli’s vision of New York in the midst of the ’80s crime wave. Even the recent Zero Year‘s Gotham is NYC through a comic book lens, written by New York native Scott Snyder as being a city that actively presents people with challenges to overcome and opportunities to make yourself into the person you want to be.
But at the same time, there’s the idea underneath it all that there’s something actively antagonistic about Gotham, something that flows naturally from Batman’s origin story, where the richest and nicest people in the world are shot dead in the middle of a nice neighborhood by a killer who fades back into the night with a smoking pistol and half a string of pearls, leaving their kid to go become a science ninja in order to try to make things right. That’s the turning point, the moment that Park Row becomes Crime Alley, and the moment that Gotham City wakes up and starts throwing things at this person that it’s created, shaping him into this unstoppable crimefighter. At the heart of it, there’s the feeling that no real city could create someone like Batman — let alone the seemingly endless roster of villains that rise up from acid tanks or cryogenics labs to fight him — because no real city has produced those people. You start to get the idea that it has to be something within the city itself that’s doing it.
And that creates a circle that shapes both the character and the setting. Batman becomes a product of fears about life in the city and all the crime and danger that goes with it, and Gotham City then becomes a product of being a setting built for Batman stories. It all keeps snowballing down that particular hill until you’ve got those Anton Furst designs that fill every available surface with gargoyles, or the long shadows of Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s animated Gotham, where the brightest the sky ever gets is a deep blood red.
And seriously? I love that Gotham City, particularly those red skies. I just want to see people talking about the weather in that town. “Hey, what’s it like outside today?” “Red.”
Anyway, the flipside to that is that it only really works if there’s a mutual flow between setting and character that can shape both, something within the nature of how each one works that allows for them to be defined as well as they are, and that’s not always there, even when you’re dealing with a really great character.
Just look at Metropolis.
In a lot of ways, it’s pretty fitting that Superman’s hometown has the most generic possible name for a city, because there’s just not a whole lot of character there. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of character in the cast — Between Clark Kent and his immediate supporting cast, there’s four of the most interesting characters in the history of superhero comics and one of the top five dogs — but the city iself is a whole lot of nothin’. Everything I said about Gotham City is dependent on Batman being there, sure, but when it comes to Metropolis, is there anything you can say about it other than “Superman lives there?”
Even the old contrast between the two, the Frank Miller line about how Metropolis is New York during the day and Gotham is New York at night favors Gotham — the night is inherently more mysterious and dramatic, especially when you’re reinforcing themes of crime and the fear thereof. The only thing you really get out of the daytime aspect is that you can see how tall those buildings are, which I imagine makes leaping them in a single bound significantly more impressive.
There have been a few attempts to give Metropolis its own distinct identity, and oddly enough, both of the ones that immediately spring to mind have been built on the idea of reflecting Superman as “The Man of Tomorrow” by giving him a futuristic city. Neither one has worked, which, let’s be real here, is probably because “The Man of Tomorrow” is probably the fifth or sixth nickname that comes to mind when you think of Superman, somewhere after “Action Ace.”
The first was from around 2000, where fears about the Y2K bug went through the bizarre game of telephone that is a comic book plotting session and ended up coming through as a story where a computer-rendered version of Brainiac came back from the future wearing bike shorts and “upgraded” the city to have a ton of future technology, like flying cars and a giant monorail that would make Lyle Lanley proud.
It’s a neat idea, and I really respect the attempt to give Metropolis some character, but it required a bunch of weird gymnastics to work with right from the start, explaining why this far-future technology only worked within Metropolis city limits — as students of political science may recall, bringing B13 technology to the rest of the world was one of President Lex Luthor’s many unfulfilled campaign promises. On top of that, there’s the obvious problem of trying to figure out what far-future technology looks like in a universe where Amazo, Cyborg, nanobots and the Justice League’s teleporters already exist. It’s hard enough trying to figure out how to do Legion of Super-Heroes without making it seem retro; lumping Metropolis into the mix too is just complicating things.
Similarly, the Kurt Busiek/Carlos Pacheco run during the “One Year Later” era took an interesting stab at a variation of the same idea, marking off a section of Metropolis as the “Avenue of Tomorrow,” essentially a miniature Silicon Valley where a bunch of present-day scientists were working on creating the cutting-edge tech of the present-day DC Universe. Again, it’s a nice idea — and plays off of S.T.A.R. Labs being a Metropolis-based enterprise — but there wasn’t much done with it. By its nature, technology in Metropolis is always going to be in the shadow of Lex Luthor.
There is, however, one really interesting take on Metropolis that I like an awful lot, and it comes from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origin. It’s far and away my favorite thing those two have done together — and while that might sound like faint praise if you’re a regular reader, it really is good — and a key part of that is how they treat Metropolis. In a lot of ways, it hearkens back to Miller’s daytime/nighttime comparison, but there’s one addition twist that presents it in an entirely new way: Basically, Metropolis used to suck real, real bad.
I really like that idea, that Metropolis before Superman was just this grimy city full of grumpy, cynical citizens who were lorded over by Lex Luthor as an evil Willy Wonka, but Superman showed up and changed all that. Superman is the reason that it’s daytime in Metropolis, and Superman is the reason that people look up in the sky. It’s a really great idea that gives an underlying purpose to Metropolis’s (relatively generic) cheer, but it ends up saying more about Superman than about the city.
Incidentally, there are two other cities in the DC Universe that I think do the City-As-Character job as well as Gotham does: Starman‘s Opal City and Aztek‘s Vanity, both of which were the product of concerted efforts to invest the setting with a unique character and a lot of history to play off of. It probably works better in Starman, given that Robinson, Harris and Snejbjerg had 80 issues and a heroic legacy stretching back to the Golden Age that they could work with and draw from, but they ran with it. They perfectly captured the idea of a city that was inextricably tied to the past in both artichetcture and attitude, right down to having the streets haunted by a p-p-p-pirate ghost!
Vanity, by contrast, suffers by only ever having eleven issues to work with, but Morrison, Millar, Harris and Champagne do a pretty stellar job of carving a city that felt like it had been part of the DC Universe all along out of whole cloth. The trick, I think, is that they weren’t subtle about it — they named the place after one of the deadlier sins — but that sense of danger and corruption running right below the surface was a tangible element of the book right from the beginning.
Of course, they cheat more than a little too by having the Joker show up and declare that it’s actually a worse place than Gotham City, but if you can’t throw a few celebrity endorsements in to get your book off the ground, then what’s even the point?