Liam Young, 21 04 09

You are either a DC fan or a Marvel fan. These two competing comic universes breed a strange kind of loyalty. Both have their own stable of celebrated heroes and reviled villains. DC writers have penned the adventures of Superman and Batman and Marvel has breathed life into the likes of Spiderman, Daredevil and the X-Men. Perhaps more intriguingly however, these two comic icons each have a very different approach to the rendering of the cityscapes in which their epic struggles of good and evil play out.

The DC atlas is made up of a universe of imaginary cities, worlds off the map, which can only be walked through the pages of their comics. Marvel heroes though, are always spotted flying through the streets of real cities, the familiar spaces that many of us mortals tread each day. DC invents extraordinary cities as stage sets for their stories, Marvel invents extraordinary stories that are staged in the everyday.  In different ways these two fictional worlds are expressions of our own dreams and fears, desires and frailties. They are reflections of the culture we aspire to, and the depths to which we see ourselves descending.

The DC universe is a collage of fragments of familiar cities rearranged as new icons of citiness.  They are archetypal, allegorical cities. It is said that Batman’s Gotham City is New York by night and Superman’s Metropolis is New York by day. DC cities become characters in themselves, Batman defends his city, it needs him and he needs it. “I can’t sleep, Gotham needs me” mutters Batman as he stands, cape billowing in the wind, face pelted with rain, illuminated by the batsignal lighting the stormy skies. Floating in the clouds above Metropolis Superman uses his super hearing to listen in to the troubled sounds of the city below, it almost talks to him as he waits for action; always ready to catch that teetering globe atop the daily planet, a precarious miniature of his fictional earth.

The real New York is home to most stars of the Marvel universe. Marvel cities are everyday spaces, familiars that we read in a new way when viewed through a comic lens. Daredevil lurks in the Hell’s Kitchen district of midtown Manhattan. This is the New York of the 80’s. It is a New York of broken windows, flickering neon, graffiti and street crime. It is a dangerous New York, before the family friendly glitter of the modern Time Square. Spiderman and the X-Men roam a more nuanced contemporary New York, fraught with all the contradictions and inconsistencies of the city today. They move about its public libraries, its museums, its recognisable landmarks. Familiar buildings are renamed and given a new fictional life as they become woven into heroic narratives. The ‘Marvel comics Guide to New York’ is a real life tourist guidebook to an invisible city that is only be seen through the eyes of comic geeks.

Rather than the conjured and imaginary cities of DC I find the abrasion of banal everyday worlds and the fictional protagonists of Marvel much more visceral. Not a complete flight of fancy but a tainted and more immediate re reading of the present. In our familiar cities we can more intimately imagine the consequences of such a fiction on the lives we lead. It is much harder to maintain the distanced and detached view when we are faced with the immediacy of more everyday implications.

The difference between DC and Marvel worlds is perhaps similar to the distinctions between the science fiction that takes us on a voyage into a distant future of spaceships and laser cannons rather than the darker, scarier work that immerses us in subtly skewed spaces of the familiar. This is also the form of speculative design work I find most exciting. Not the glamorous future cities of sinuous blobs and crystalline towers but more deranged and distorted everyday worlds that explore the implications of emerging technologies on the contemporary banality of the generic office or the suburban interior.

The fictional presents of the Marvel universe, albeit wrapped in spandex tights and viewed through x-ray vision, allow for new readings of the cities we have come to know so intimately. They are models for the deployment of our own speculative visions as testing grounds in which we can explore the wonders or the horrors of alternate futures, stage sets for optimistic possibilities or cautionary tales of a day soon to come.

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  • 1. Tuur  |  April 22nd, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Ben Highmore writes about this too, rather nicely, in his ‘Cityscapes. Cultural Reading in the Material and Symbolic City’. (chapter 6)

    In the 1930′s, there was DC Comics: Batman and Superman. Both superheroes were socially remarkable types, being extremely wealthy or coming from another planet. In the 1960′s, one could witness the rise of a new type of superstars, from a more ordinary and almost geeky, white collare origin. Peter Parker was bitten by a radio-active spider and became spiderman. In the same way, Fantastic Four and Daredevil, other heroes of Marvel Comics came from an ordinary background.

    Coinciding with the silver age of Marvel comics is an unprecedented expansion of office space; vertical expansion in the shape of skyscrapers. With these offices came a shift from manufacturing to office works, at the same time a shift in gender patterns of work.

    “In this context, Marvel’s silver-age heroes, drawn from a world of white-collar work, begin to look like a compensatory fantasy of remasculinization: from feminized office-bound weakling to muscle bound hero.” Along with this, the vertical and horizontal expanse of the city required fantasies of mobility for compensation. Hence, Spiderman’s ability to climb the sheer walls of Manhattan’s high-rise buildings and Daredevil’s easy jumping and swinging around the modern city’s obstacles.

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