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Part One: Location, Location, Location, and the High Cost of Heroes (and Villains)

Why do so many superhero stories take place in places that never were, or versions of the here and now that kind of . . . aren’t, quite? And how do those fictional cities and towns manage to recover from having superheroes and supervillains around? They can be, to put it mildly, quite destructive. In part one of this occasional series, we’ll look at where the big fights take place, and what it can be like to have superheroes and supervillains around.

Creative Approaches to Geography

You’d think that superhero stories would take on extra heft and relevance by being situated in more recognizable times and places. And, indeed, Marvel’s superheroes use half of that equation—taking place in something that’s more or less recognizeable as modern day(ish) New York City and environs, and up and down the east coast, and with Runaways (and now apparently the X-Men) out on the West Coast. DC, on the other hand, mostly takes place in unrecognizable places, vaguely modernish. The superhero stories from other writers and publishers take either approach as seems appropriate for their purposes. However, almost none of them refer to recent actual events or directly comment on the recent past. In part due to the lead time for publication—anywhere from two to six months or even more—and in part because that would date and stale the stories. And it turns out, in fact, that one thing that superhero stories can’t really tolerate is increased heft and relevance.

An interesting contrast between the two major publishers: DC refuses ever to say for certain where any of their imaginary lands and cities are—because that would both tie writers down, and screw decades of previously screwed up continuity, and the fanboy screams of angst and anguish would be just awful—while Marvel has published an actual two-volume atlas of the Marvel universe. Combining real and fake locations side by side—and with additional fake entries for mutants and nonhumans in real places—Marvel has gone into great detail about just how their world is set up, providing guidance for writers, and bliss to continuity fetishists and completists alike. (OK, I tease the Marvelettes, but if DC were to publish any such official thing, there’s every chance that I’d be on that like white on rice.) That difference in documentation also reflects the differering approaches the major publishers have to where people live and work and die in their universes; Marvel generally—but not always—prefers to work with actual places, while DC almost, but not always, prefers the unreal.

In a very odd way, the cities where heroes live wind up being characters in their own right. Look at the DC universe, for example. For the most part, the superheroes live in places that never were and never will be. Metropolis seems to be a shining, gleaming city of hope, as befits Superman, while Gotham is dark and both gothic and deco, as befits Batman. (Albeit darker and deco-ier since the last set of Batman movies.) Opal City is a gracious, European/New Orleans-style city with brighter deco influences, which somehow works for Starman, and so on and so on.

Metropolis skyline Gotham  skyline and batsignal Opal City and Starman

By contrast, Marvel’s New York City is . . . well, New York City, but with relevant Marvel-specific locations mapped onto the existing city.

Apart from the architecture and presentation, Metropolis and Gotham City are the most remarkably mobile cities that you’ll ever see. Way back in the mists of prehistory, when I was a young’un, it was taken as gospel that Metropolis and Gotham were what was left of New York when you divided it up the East and Hudson rivers, so that New York was now three smaller cities. Later on, things started moving around a bit. For a while, Metropolis and Gotham were outer major suburbs of New York City. These days, to the extent it can be determined, Gotham has apparently moved off to southern New Jersey while Metropolis has settled down in Delaware . . . unless it’s one of the stories that Grant Morrison is writing. He’s been fairly clear that he still views Metropolis and Gotham as cities surrounding New York—in his Seven Soldiers series, he notes that the cities are the ugly stepchildren of New York—which means that depending on which writer is handling the story, the cities are in very different places at the same time. Something quantum happening to allow simultaneous different locations at the same point in spacetime, no doubt. (For the sake of sanity, we will ignore the TV series Smallville, in which Metropolis has apparently come rumbling in from the east to obliterate and sit on top of the current location of Kansas City, Kansas, possibly dragging a major lake or bay in its wake.) Oddly enough, of the two major cities, Gotham is better defined, with an actual Tourist Map to Gotham City, coming from Gotham City Secret File and Origins #1 and the “No Man’s Land” story arc. Kurt Busiek reportedly once said that he thought that the DC Earth was just a bit larger than our own, thus allowing North America to be bigger, and for the east coast to have room for three cities with over seven million people each to sit near each other.

Both DC and Marvel have created particularly malleable geography when it comes to places outside North America. Wee tiny countries get inserted in Europe (for example, Marvel’s Latveria—otherwise known as Dr. Doom’s land—or DC’s Austanberg, where Checkmate gets to blow things up real good every now and again) or Africa (Black Panther’s Wakonda or Teth-Adam’s Khandaq or Jezebel Jet’s . . . whatever country it is that she’s ruling that she’s never actually in anymore). In part, the point of the strange African countries seems to be to allow them to have royalty, which largely are no longer recognized in most extant countries except for Swaziland.

By contrast, Marvel in general prefers to set its stories in real cities, in part for the extra emotional bang that you get for seeing familiar buildings and places get knocked around. Thus, in and around the recent Civil War storyline, major chunks of New York and Stamford, Connecticut, have been destroyed. (Though, to be sure, many people probably don’t realize that Stamford is a real place.)

Of course, the advantage of having both invented and mobile geography is that you can demolish it without aggravating people quite so much. I mean, readers might get just the teensiest bit upset at a superhero fight that knocks the capital off the Chrysler Building, for example—or they might think it’s the coolest thing ever! (Witness the enthusiastic reaction of people to the on-screen destruction of practically every major American city in the film Independence Day.) On the other hand, you can have major celestial and other events land on top of and destroy a fictional major city, and none of your readers really care. For example, Bludhaven gets destroyed by a supervillain landing on it—and in one of the few instances where DC notes that people died, let alone how many, we’re told in Adventures of Superman 648 that the official death toll is 100,068. That said, almost all of the superheroes and other people we actually follow and care about were out of the city for various reasons related to all the Infinite Crisis going on at the time, so it’s not as though it seemed to matter quite so much. Even Gotham has been largely destroyed once before, during the “No Man’s Land” story arc in which a major earthquake virtually demolished the city, and yet left Metropolis, Opal City, New York, Philadelphia, and the rest of the eastern seaboard essentially untouched, in pure defiance of known real-life geology . . . but then, of course, we’re not talking about real-life geology, are we?

Damages, doom, despair and agony

Every superhero story has, possibly once a year, if not more often, a knock-down, dragout fight between superhero(es) and supervillain(s) in the superhero’s chosen town. It may start in midair, on the ground, and it then it rumbles through the city—whichever one it is—no matter how hard the hero tries to prevent it. Why? Because it’s dramatic! Because showing a big super fight that’s bad enough to punch holes in buildings, maybe even knock a few down, is utterly and absolutely cool! . . . for certain very adolescent values of “cool,” that is. After all, watching demolitions is cool, right? Seeing all those buildings implode is awesome and fun, right? . . . only . . . most buildings being deliberately demolished aren’t still in use. They don’t have people in them. You can enjoy the mayhem because you know that the worst that should happen is that a bunch of construction people get to spend the next few months cleaning up the mess.

In Superman: Birthright, a revisioning of Superman’s origins from when he first left Smallville through his early days in Metropolis, the latter city takes one hell of a shellacking. Lex Luthor—who, in this version, has for no apparent reason whitewashed his Smallville past out of existence and doesn’t admit to remembering Clark Kent—starts out with a plan to hijack military equipment as a test that gets partially thwarted by Superman, but only after a lot of damage is done.

Superman confronts Luthor

Later, Luthor becomes so bone-deep furious at Superman, and so weirdly power-mad that he essentially starts an actual war in the streets of Metropolis, complete with his own private army and tanks and major ordnance. During a significant portion of the battle, Superman is nothing more than a semi-conscious, kryptonite-weakened, semi-invulnerable building-destroying projectile.

Luthor attacks Metropolis
Luthor attacks Metropolis

That said, Birthright is unique in the DC universe in that the death and destruction of that titanic battle actually are mentioned in context, if not precisely accounted for, as Supes tries to rescue one of Luthor’s generals from the kryptonite bomb implanted in his chest.

Superman threatens Luthor

Metropolis gets pummeled three or more times a year, at least once in Action Comics, once in Superman and once in whatever the year’s special title is. This year’s extra poundings come courtesy of both All-Star Superman and Trinity. Strangely, these are almost always entirely independent events. You’d think having large chunks of your city demolished a few times a year would be more memorable. But no, not so much. More typically, as with the below scenes from All Star Superman—in which a sentient, if unusually quite small, red sun falls on the city, wreaking quite a lot of havoc as a result, followed by Luthor doing his usual thing—Metropolis just gets beaten to a pulp. Yet somehow, nothing really quite seems to happen, aside from a lot of falling masonry and a booming business for auto replacement. I would imagine, however, the insurance industry is not at all amused. I wonder if they can exclude “acts of superhero” from their coverage? Do falling suns count as coverable events?

Superman fights Solaris, page 19

Superman fights Solaris, page 20

Luther wrecks Daily Planet and signficant chunk of city

(Don’t ask about Luthor’s war blimps being used in a modern(ish) day city. Just . . . don’t. Blimps are a DC thing, OK?)

The proximate trigger for Marvel’s Civil War event was the destruction of a hefty chunk of Stamford, Connecticut, as the result of a fight, symbolized by the deaths of 60 children in an elementary school. (Note: I’ve read only a small portion of Civil War, since I’m not a Marvelette, so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies.) The New Warriors, a superhero group, took on a group of supervillains somewhat too powerful for them. Nitro, one of the villains, used his explosive abilities and took part of Stamford out, killing 612 other people including the aforementioned children in the process. This followed other events, notably a partial destruction of Manhattan in Secret Wars, and the Hulk taking out a piece of Las Vegas, that made the public feel that a Superpowers Registration Act might not be the worst thing around. However, one of the reasons that this was so notable is that such destruction is usually not much more acknowledged than in the DC universe. Individual deaths, yes; Marvel notably kills off more people—heroes, villains, and bystanders—than DC would ever be comfortable touching these days. (Note: “these days.” We’ll get back to that in part two.) But the costs of having superpowered people around, in terms of the widespread destruction, not so much until recently. It’s why Civil War stands out quite so much, for acknowledging that cost—and forcing the heroes to realize that it was actually happening.

People attack Captain AmericaCaptain America sees the damage to New York

Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, published by DC’s Wildstorm subsidiary and not part of the DCU, stands out because it always has acknowledged the costs of having superheroes and supervillains around. Sometimes in minor, offhand ways here and there, and sometimes more dramatically. In the “Welcome to Astro City” story, a father and his daughters witness an attack by godlike beings that heavily damages part of the city. But when they come out of their house the next day, Astro City’s public works sections are already cleaning up the damage to infrastructure, and people are pitching in to help out those displaced by the fight. In the “Supersonic” storyline, an older superhero—the titular Supersonic—is convinced to come briefly out of retirement to fight a battle. He’s blackmailed into service by someone who wants to show the world, and the city, that the old guys still got it. And, as it turns out, there really was nobody else who could have saved the day available at the time. However, because he’s not as young, not as fast, not as strong, great swathes of Astro City get destroyed by the battle.

Astro City‘s current “Dark Age” storyline involves two brothers observing, from the opposite sides of the law, the difficulties that come when superheroes and supervillains are out of control and the costs they inflict are unacknowledged. Charles and Royal Williams’ parents are murdered by a supervillain group, and their home deliberately set ablaze, when a fight between those villains and the Silver Agent, a superhero, careens into their apartment. Even knowing that the Silver Agent is one of the good guys, ever after, they can’t help thinking of him with some distrust and dislike, so they’re not terribly surprised or unhappy when he is accused—falsely, as it turns out—and later executed for a murder the city soon discovers that he didn’t commit.

Part of the collateral damage of their violent introduction to superheroes is an interesting divergence in their world views; Royal pretty much decides, “Why bother? You’re just going to get crushed by beings more powerful than you can ever be, so you might as well get what you can, while you can, however you can,” and becomes a thief and small-time gangster, while Charles decides that others need to protect the little people like them as best they can, and becomes a policeman.

These are the sort of interesting stories that make people recommend Astro City to those who don’t normally like superhero comics, and that make people who like superhero comics for their sheer escapist qualities shun it like the plague. After all, if what you want from your superheroics is big bang boom, and adolescent fantasies about barely-limited powers, and sheer escape, it just doesn’t do to be reminded that powers that great would have great costs that would be paid sooner or later by someone, and if you lived in a superhero world and had no powers, chances are it might be you.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at crime and punishment in the superhero world, and why it looks as odd as it does.

Iain Jackson is a big ol' comics nerd who lives and writes in Chicago.
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