Let's face it. No matter how many Statue of Liberty shots you reference from the 1978 "Superman" movie, I won't be convinced that New York City is the real-world equivalent of Superman's Metropolis. No matter how much you praise the fitting glass and steel background of "The Dark Knight's" Looped boardrooms, I'll never believe Chicago, Illinois, is gothic Gotham City. Nor will I ever believe those comic book maps people have created that place both cities squarely on the East Coast. Writers can tell me these superheroic environments lurk near Connecticut; artists can draw skylines tying them to the Big Apple. People can say that Gotham City is New York City in the nighttime, and Metropolis is New York in daylight. But I'll never listen to them.
Because Metropolis is actually Chicago.
First off, look at any comic artist's rendition of Metropolis (I'll provide a few examples at the end of this post). It's almost always bright, there's tons of sky for Superman to zoom across, the buildings create steel canyons to be navigated and wondered at. The artwork almost always carries with it a tinge of young adults entering a city for the first time -- there's always an amazement at the towering buildings' architecture. You're never led to expect that everything could crumble or close in on the city's inhabitants at any moment (despite the fact that giant killer robots seem to arrive in town every five seconds).
I think this breathability matches with the perspective of Superman's creators: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They were suburban kids standing outside city life until they hit it big with the first-ever superhero. They probably saw Metropolis as the dream city, their nearest examples being Cleveland and Cincinnati. Their next nearest, and by far most thrilling example, was Chicago -- hog butcher to the world, yes; but peddler of mighty muckraking papers, home to all the major industry in the Midwest, and the bold advertiser of its lake shore and modern architecture.
Sure, Siegel and Shuster lived in New York City while crafting their Superman comics, but there's a Midwestern sensibility to the rhythms of their great Metropolis -- an optimistic belief that anything is possible coupled with a sort of Minnesota Nice flavor; all bolstered by its Kansas-raised champion. These artists never forgot their roots, making the city a wonderful, even beautiful place to live; you see more blue sky in an issue of Superman than you do in five issues of Captain America (who's based out of NYC). Even in contemporary comics, Metropolis allows small children to run across its rooftops and unconcerned citizens to hold giant concerts in its analog Millennium Park. Nothing about Metropolis' neighborhoods or neighbors reads as cynical East Coast, or competitive urbanite to me -- even in today's comics, where Metropolis currently makes do without its Superman. All this being stated, I still think the influences that drove Siegel and Shuster to build this shining Chicago should continually be interrogated, in order to better understand the world they were building for children (and adults alike) way back in the 1930s and 1940s -- a fantasy world which still persists today.
The reason comic books have carved such a deep niche for themselves in American culture has everything to do with their ability to generate and fulfill readers' fantasies. Siegel and Shuster and a host of other artists in their time were able to take the nearest reality they knew -- the impressive metropolis of Chicago -- and turn it into a fantasy city tailor-made to showcase a flying man, a man able to leap even its tallest buildings, proving to his fellow citizens that anything is possible in the new urban age. Siegel and Shuster took the spirit of Chicago and built it into every Superman panel; they took an idealization of Chicago's can-do attitude, and presented it in panel form for all to see, whether a reader was Midwestern or not. The result? Their fans could live in Metropolis, too, just like Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. They could be part of the action, and still are to this day, because DC Comics and its stable of writers have never changed their sunny approach to Metropolis. Even during the grim and gritty 1980's deconstruction of superheroes, Metropolis remained a beacon of hope to the middle America that defined Superman's upbringing, and likewise, defines his readership now.
So, comics thrive on the marriage of fantasy and reality. It may seem strange to think reality has anything to do with a medium that features supervillains riding dinosaurs and people running so fast they create alternate dimensions. But I'd argue that comic writers tweak their realities to create the ideals we all seek. In doing so, they create a powerful touchstone with readers. What I want to analyze in this blog is how the tension between fantasy and reality works in comic books (i.e., how far is too far when it comes to plausibility? can we have a flying man but not a bullet that shoots someone into space?). I also want to spend time discussing what we can learn about the collective American psyche from comic books. (What does our art say about us?) From time to time, I'll post thought pieces like this. But more often than not, I'll spend my time taking apart the comics I read, so I can figure out what I'm getting from them as a fan and a human being.
I look forward to whatever I learn on this journey, and I promise not every post will be as heady as this one. Because let's face it, as much as they're based on real world wishes, comics are a ridiculous adventure -- one that I'd love to talk about with anyone and everyone out there. So if you have any reading suggestions, let me know! I want to talk about superheroes, zombies, soldiers. Whatever! I don't discriminate.
Except when it comes to Metropolis being Chicago, that is.
Totally Awesome Poster Above: Justin Van Genderen.