This week’s topic comes to us by way of a missive from reader Chris W.:
Hey! Love the column! What (and where) the heck are Gotham City and Metropolis supposed to be? Are they just “DC names” for actual real-world cities like New York and Chicago, or are they completely independent entities? And if they are completely independent, then where are they supposed to be geographically? And do they have professional sports franchises?
I’ll be honest and say that “made-up cities” is definitely one of the things that turned me off to DC when I was a kid. Back then, Marvel’s use of “real-world” locations like NYC just seemed so much cooler. Marvel *has* made up it’s fair share of fictional geography, of course… but out-of-the-way locales like Latveria and the Savage Land never seemed quite as goofy to Lil’ Chris W. as DC’s Major American Cities You’ve Never Heard Of. I imagine that this is what Ben Edlund was poking fun at when he set The Tick in “The City.”
An excellent question, Chris. As you rightly point out, DC and Marvel have vastly different editorial approaches when it comes to geography. DC has always embraced the notion of giving most of their landmark characters their own fictionalized city, while Marvel, especially early on, took great pride in setting all of their characters’ adventures in a real-world Manhattan setting. What may surprise you is that, over the years, DC has actually been much more scrupulous about setting their adventures (fictional cities notwithstanding) in a real world with real consequences, while Marvel has historically played things pretty fast and loose when it comes to the long-term repercussions of their stories.
Both DC and Marvel’s approaches to geography have their roots in the 1940s. Early adventures of Superman and Batman in issues of ACTION and DETECTIVE don’t give much detail regarding where the stories are taking place, but by the mid-forties, both Metropolis and Gotham City had been firmly established as their respective heroes’ hometowns. (And to answer your question, Chris, Gotham City and Metropolis are both somewhere on the Northern East Coast, although they’ve never officially stated where. Some folks like to place Gotham in Jersey, but I refuse to believe that, and some place Metropolis in Delaware. And yes, they do have sports franchises. Metropolis is home to the Meteors (baseball, football), the Monarchs (baseball), the Generals (basketball) and the Mammoths (hockey), while the Knights (football, I believe) play in Gotham City.)
I think the rationale behind it was twofold: first off, making the cities fictional allowed the creative teams to have a little more freedom in crafting their heroes’ adventures. In particular, over time BATMAN writer Bill Finger and artists Bob Kane and Shelly Moldoff created a Gotham City like no city in the world, where oversized advertising billboards and statues abounded from street to street, and abandoned amusement parks, toy factories and aquariums littered the landscape.
Secondly, never saying precisely where the cities were located allowed the readers to keep a sense of immediacy about the adventures of their heroes. Gotham City wasn’t necessarily thousands of miles away – it could be as close as the next big city.
As for Marvel, the roots to their “real-world” approach can be found as far back as HUMAN TORCH #5, (Fall 1941), in which the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch have a knock-down, drag-out slugfest that takes quite the toll on New York City, climaxing in an assault on the city by a massive tidal wave generated by the Sub-Mariner (a sequence brilliantly re-envisioned by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross in their book MARVELS).
Although Metropolis and Gotham were established early on, it really wasn’t until the onset of the Silver Age that DC really began to establish their fictional cityscapes. As each revitalized superhero hit the newsstands, he was placed in his own unique city. Accordingly, the new Green Lantern could be found in Coast City, the new Flash in Central City, and so on. I think it was as a reaction to this reinforcement of DC’s fictional cities policy that Stan Lee early on decided that all of the Marvel characters should live and work in Manhattan. Why Manhattan? That was where the Marvel offices were located, and what better source of inspiration than the world outside Stan’s window. In addition to differentiating the books from DC’s and making the Marvel characters feel more “real,” locating all the characters in the same city allowed for very easy crossover of characters, so Spidey or Iron Man or the X-Men could easily make appearances in each others’ books, in some cases practically unbilled cameos.
This sense of community in the Marvel books, that anyone could meet anyone and anything could happen, served as quite a benefit to Marvel in building a loyal fan base who would collect everything the company put out, especially compared to DC’s comparatively disjointed editorial system. For example, when Superman would have a flashback about his college girlfriend Lori Lemaris, who just so happened to be a mermaid (No kiddin’!), the Atlantis she hailed from was not the same Atlantis that was seen at the same time in the pages of AQUAMAN, nor was it the same Atlantis that Batman and Robin may have visited six months previous, despite all of these books being produced by the same publisher, and all of these characters having met in the pages of JUSTICE LEAGUE.
Not that Marvel is completely innocent in the “fictional geography” department. While Marvel tends to keep its American cities relatively reality-based, it has no qualms about making things up outside the good ol’ U.S.A. Foremost on the list would be Latveria, the Eastern European homeland of Doctor Doom, as often seen in the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR.
As ruled by Doom himself, Latveria maintains a fierce neutrality in all world events, primarily because its ruler is too busy with his own plans for global conquest, and nobody dares invade for fear of the technological power at Doom’s fingertips. Another long-established Marvel creation is Wakanda, the African nation ruled by T’Challa, who serves in the Avengers from time to time as the Black Panther. Marvel’s Wakanda embraces the traditions of its African culture while being one of the more technologically advanced cultures in the Marvel Universe, thanks primarily to Wakanda’s rich mines of vibranium, one of those “only-in-comic-books” elements that you can’t easily find on the periodic table. There’s also the Savage Land, the Antarctic jungle paradise that’s home to dinosaurs, various non-human races, and Ka-Zar, Marvel Comics’s version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes.
But it’s really DC Comics who, over the years, has cornered the market on cities that aren’t there. Personally, I’ve always really enjoyed DC’s invented cities. I think it gives the DC Universe an almost mythological feel that’s most appropriate when telling tales of heroes and demigods. Let’s take a quick travelogue around the DC Universe and see who’s who, and more important, where’s where (these locations based only on supposition on my part, as a result of reading far too many DC comics as a kid. DC has never given official confirmation on any of their cities’ locations, and have not confirmed any claims made either by fans or by third-party sources, such as their role-playing games. So you can all put away your copies of Mayfair Games’ ATLAS TO THE DC UNIVERSE. It doesn’t count):
Metropolis, naturally, is probably the most famous of DC’s cities. The closest DC ever came to officially locating it on the map was a reference to it being “located near New York City and Gotham City on the East Coast of the United States.” Metropolis is best known for such landmarks as the Daily Planet and being the corporate home of LexCorp, as well as Galaxy Tower, broadcast source for WGBS, and S.T.A.R. Labs.
Metropolis was razed to the ground a couple decades ago or so, at the hands of a deranged and terminally ill Lex Luthor, then restored thanks to a concerted effort by its citizens and some mystical assist from the sorcerous big guns of the DCU. More recently, Metropolis as a whole was infected by a techno-virus from the alien conqueror Brainiac, providing the city with futuristic technology and architecture (although that take on the city didn’t survive the most recent “New 52” reboot.) Metropolis still has a shadier side, though, which can be found in the Hob’s Bay neighborhood, which is more ominously nicknamed “Suicide Slum.”
Unlike most DC cities, the small farming community of Smallville, where Superman was raised, is firmly located in Kansas, in keeping with Clark Kent’s Midwestern, agrarian upbringing.
Gotham City, like Metropolis, is located somewhere on the East Coast, presumably in the North. Unlike Metropolis, Gotham has clearly seen better days, with crime and corruption rampant, despite the best efforts of its resident protector. (In an interview, Frank Miller said he thought of Metropolis as New York City in the daytime, and Gotham as New York at night.) In the 1950s, Gotham was a much sunnier place, with giant typewriters and crossword puzzles decorating the rooftops, and a giant statue of Batman signaling incoming ships to come to harbor. (Seriously.)
Gotham has been thorough more than its share of crises, including a near-lethal epidemic, a crippling earthquake which ravaged the city, and the abandonment of the city by the federal government which followed it, as chronicled in the massive Batman crossover event NO MAN’S LAND. Thanks to the efforts of Bruce Wayne and a scheming Lex Luthor, Gotham City was eventually restored to at least its former glory, such as it is.
Coast City was located somewhere in central California and was the hometown of Green Lantern Hal Jordan for the first few years of his career. I say “was” because the city itself is no more, having been wiped off the map by a nuclear blast, set off by the Cyborg Superman during the massive “Death of Superman” storyline of a few years back. I’m pretty confident in my assertion about a Central California locale because I remember the story indicating that the nuclear blast also wiped Santa Barbara off the map, and since I was living in SB at the time, it somewhat caught my attention.
Also located somewhere on the West Coast was Star City, base of operations for the Green Arrow and Black Canary. In recent years, Green Arrow and Black Canary have relocated to Seattle, and Star City isn’t much seen these days.
Central City was the stomping grounds of Barry Allen, the second Flash. Before the Crisis, Central City’s Earth-2 analogue was Keystone City, home of the original Flash Jay Garrick, and located in the same place geographically on both parallel earths. Post-Crisis, Central City and Keystone City have been revised as sister cities, located somewhere in the Midwest. Personally, I always pegged Central City as somewhere in Missouri or Kansas. Keystone City is the home of the current Flash, Wally West, and has recently been re-imagined by FLASH creators Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins as a sort of blue-collar factory town.
The Silver Age Atom, Ray Palmer, taught at Ivy University, which was located in Ivy Town, somewhere in New England (although recent appearances have seemed to indicate Ivy Town as closer to New York…) .
Also in New England was Happy Harbor, the location of the Justice League of America’s Secret Sanctuary. The League convened here, well, happily, until JLA mascot and gofer Snapper Carr unwillingly gave up the HQ’s location to the Joker. Not long after that, the JLA constructed their orbiting satellite headquarters.
Midway City, adopted hometown of the Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl, is a little harder to place. I always thought of it as being somewhere in the South, although other sources place it somewhere near the Great Lakes. Since it hasn’t been used in years, let’s just call it as being in “the East” and leave it at that.
That pretty much does it for the original Silver Age DC cities. However, in the last few years, a new generation of writers who grew up with the notion of DC’s native cities have introduced their own. Here are a few of the highlights.
Nightwing has in recent years taken up residence in Bludhaven, an ugly harbor town up the coast from Gotham City, which is, at least according to creator Chuck Dixon, even more corrupt and unsafe than Gotham herself.
When Captain Marvel and company appeared in the DC Universe after the Crisis, they were natives of Fawcett City, named, of course, after the publishing company which originally created and produced the various CAPTAIN MARVEL comics in the forties and fifties. Considering that DC sued Fawcett practically into oblivion to prevent publication of Captain Marvel, I’ve always found this tip of the hat to be a bitterly ironic one.
Current issues of HAWKMAN have placed Hawkman and Hawkgirl in the Louisiana town of St. Roch, where Carter Hall serves as curator of the local museum.
During John Byrne’s late ‘90s run on WONDER WOMAN, he relocated the Amazon to the West Coast locale of Gateway City, but it hasn’t been seen much since Byrne left the series.
Writers Grant Morrison and Mark Millar created a fantastic series in 1996 called AZTEK THE ULTIMATE MAN, which placed their newly created hero in the city of Vanity. Despite a decent promotional push (including even membership in the Justice League), AZTEK failed to find an audience, and was cancelled after only 10 issues. Vanity hasn’t been seen since.
The best and most substantial of the second wave of DC native cities is Opal City, as created by James Robinson and Tony Harris in the pages of STARMAN. Described only as being located “inward from the east coast of America,” Opal City combines the art deco architecture of 1930s New York with the French-influenced cul-de-sacs and alleys of New Orleans. It’s surrounded by plains (and the mysterious and creepy Turk County), yet it has a thriving port and docks district, large enough for pirate ships to have passed through in the 18th century.
What makes the Opal great is its uniqueness: rather than being just a Gotham or Metropolis knockoff, Robinson and Harris created a city with a character and history all its own. It felt like Opal City had always been a part of the DCU, and that it had always been Starman’s city, all the way back to the 1940s. Opal City is still utilized and referenced in DC books today.
Ironically, considering that DC has a corner on the fake geography market, they tend to do the most damage to real-world geographical sites, although to their credit they try to stay honest to their own unique history afterwards. Not only was Santa Barbara wiped off the map, years back the city of Topeka, Kansas, was destroyed in the pages of Mark Waid’s THE KINGDOM miniseries, while the city of Montevideo, Uruguay, was all but vaporized by nuclear missiles sent by immortal conqueror Vandal Savage during the DC ONE MILLION crossover event authored by Grant Morrison. Marvel, on the other hand, tries to stay away from devastating actual places on the map. However, there are exceptions. Take for example Kurt Busiek’s final AVENGERS storyline, which not only devastated nearly every major city on the globe, but reduced the city of Washington D.C. to little more than rubble. However, in typical Marvel fashion, at the end of the storyline, all is restored and it’s like nothing ever happened. (If you think that’s bad, remind me to tell you about the time in an issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP when Hercules actually towed the island of Manhattan back to its proper resting place with a really long chain…) I think I prefer DC’s approach. You can mock the fictional cities if you like, but at least at DC actions have consequences.
This column originally appeared August 20, 2003.