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The Three Essential Characteristics of a Great Comic Book City

When does a city stop being just a setting, and start becoming something more?

Sadly, I was unable to take part in this past weekend's San Diego Comic Con coverage, but Tony and Sara did a lovely job in giving us 'Viners enough videos and interviews to satisfy our appetite. However, it's back to business for me, as I have another column to throw out at you.

This time, I'd like to take the chance to deconstruct one of the most important places in comics: the cities in which they take place.

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Because, after all, cities are a lifeblood in many of the comics we read, as they serve as the setting in which heroes go about their daily lives. This article isn't meant to deconstruct setting as a whole (I might get to that later); instead, I'd like to talk about the role of a large, urban, metropolitan area and how it serves purposes within a book. I mean, what's a hero without a city to protect?

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Cities are great because they allow for a number of different backdrops to occur without shifting the identity of a location. Take, for instance, Gotham City: within the city boundaries you have locations like The Iceberg Lounge, Arkham Asylum, Crime Alley and Old Town. You have infrastructure like the ones being used in Gates of Gotham, with its own architecture and character. In essense, Gotham is as much of a character in Batman's universe as Bane or Two-Face; it is cold, unforgiving and ruthless.

On the flip side, take Metropolis: its aesthetic is completely different from Gotham's, which help it form its own identity. Metropolis, to me, has always been the "city of Tomorrow" type of place - it's very clean, productive and bustling. The city is the "day," to Gotham's "night," which is factored into the type of stories you can tell in both places. Lex Luthor's criminal empire doesn't seem quite as grungy as the Penguin's.

My point is, a setting (especially a large one, like a city) should maintain an overall consistency, even if the regions within them look different. Of course, a fringe neighborhood populated by one type of ethnic group won't look the same as a busy downtown core, but the mood of both neighborhoods should remain the same: they have to use the same public transit, put up with the same mayor, and abide by the same police.

A good example of this is The City from Transmetropolitan. The City is never named in the story, nor do we get an adequate map. However, from the first issue of the series we are given an inside look at both the people that inhabit it and the environment in which they live. We are shown its best and worst spots, its local food joints, its high-end hotels and its back-alley bars.

The City becomes a living, breathing character that we read about as the story progresses. We cheer for The City. We bemoan its fate. We realize how it screws the people who live inside it and how it can be manipulated by outside forces.

It becomes something greater than a backdrop.


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One of the problems I have with Marvel's New York City is the super-hero-per-capita statistic: since everyone seems to live there, it becomes unfeasible that anyone would actually perpetrate crime.

A good city should have a sense of scale in order to define boundaries of a hero's "turf". Spider-Man and Daredevil have Queens and Manhattan, respectively, while Manhattan just seems to be a free-for-all zone.

DC characters seem to avoid this problem by giving capes their own (fictional) city to take care of; Coast/Opal/Star/Gotham/Keystone/Fawcett City are perfect fits for the heroes that protect them, as they can be tailor-made as such. However, when you throw real-world geography into the mix, it's hard to maintain a level of realism: the Avengers, SHIELD, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Iron Fist and Daredevil all being in the same (albeit large) city just seems a bit crowded.

That's why I enjoy the X-Men's recent move to San Francisco; the area is relatively uninhabited, and this allows it to be used in a way that serves the book. Utopia needs to be an island? Throw it in the Pacific. Need to deal with some foreign soil? Go across the ocean to Japan. Need them to become embroiled in US politics? Well, California's a hotbed for that sort of thing.

The setting, in that case, conforms to whatever it needs to be, but is The X-Men's home.


While the majority of the characters we read about have illustrious lives as heroes, we have to still remember that real people still need to populate the panels we read. Comic cities are not ghost towns, nor do they spring up people when it's most convenient. A good writer will actually allow the town to function normally while inserting fantastical situations into it.

A good example is this: what large city doesn't have public transit? Libraries? Universities or high schools? Construction sites? Homeless? Newspapers? All of these normally-mundane things can be used as tools by the writer to give us something realistic, while allowing otherwise-crazy events to occur.

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Brian Wood's Post-War-Manhattan in DMZ is another great example of a city where extraordinary things can occur while still retaining some of its reality. Though the military presence is felt very often, we're shown from the first issue that it's possible to be "normal" while living in the zone. People live and eat on rooftop patios, DJs perform at underground clubs and restaurant owners grow food in backyard greenhouses.

People are still able to live while the story happens around them, which is illustrated by the lovely side-stories that Wood does in-between arcs. DMZ's city setting is as important to the story as the main characters, and some of my favourite parts of the story have been when we're given a look at how it still manages to function when bombs are going off everywhere.

Wrap Up

In the end, these settings are only as good as the writers who craft them; they're not all going to be the same, nor will they follow the same template. However, it's important to consider if the location performs an important role to the story, and that whether it can be interchanged with any other. Like I said earlier, stories in Gotham may not be able to be told in Metropolis.

I don't think Batman would do well without all those gargoyles to hang from, anyways.


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