Last month, our boy in red and back hit the Windy City. Hard. How hard? He's already helped blow up an el station, and smashed through several exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry, all while hot on the trail of the racketeer who murdered his acrobat parents back in the day. And soon he may be forced to unmask in a city that hates people with masks. Talk about painting the town red.
As a resident of the Chicagoland area, I've been tickled pink by all the geographic nods made (see the above Willis Tower) and names dropped (the Western station gets special mention, obviously) throughout the book. And after seeing the Lyric Opera of Chicago's Oklahoma! this weekend, I was primed to focus on place while catching up on Nightwing's recent adventures. See, what's most impressive about the classic 1940's musical is its evocation of the West. You may be sitting in a theatre while Curly paints a corn-fed morning for you, but it sure doesn't feel like it. It feels like you're riding alongside him, checking on the cattle and breathing in the bracing air. You are transported, through the sweet mix of music and language. (Edit: God, the mention of Oklahoma didn't even hit me till right now. Seems inappropriate now. Thoughts and prayers to the Plains states tonight, and in the many days following.)
I have already written about the transportation inherent in the comics form. Like Nightwing, I too get to stand behind the glowing Congress Hotel sign in issue 20. I get to ride on top of an el train and yell, "Wahoooo!" with our hero. His daredevil trips around the city are facilitated by focused, clean artwork -- DC's new house style -- and buoyed by narrative reliance on that old Illinois chestnut, political corruption. The world is recognizable enough that I can imagine looking out for heroes swinging between skyscrapers the next time I'm downtown. But ... I won't. Because what's really missing in this Chicago story is the actual problems Chicagoans deal with. Gangs, theft, a criminally under-served public school system, stuff like that. Oklahoma! at least addresses the fact that it's about the Sooners' rough frontier life. Nightwing's missing a like-minded opportunity, one inherent in its real-time location.
Now, don't get me wrong. I think it's smart that writer Kyle Higgins makes Chicago a city with an as-yet-explored vendetta against vigilantes. And it's probably for the best that the villain is less the shady mayor protecting the racketeer assassin, and more a creepy guy in a mask interested in Youtubing torturous pranks he's concocted. But when heroes rub up against the real world, problems can ensue. Like when Captain America dug people out of the World Trade Center in a story woefully pointed at addressing terrorism through bland bad-assery and an over-the-top, self-centered character dilemmas (i.e., Cap unmasked himself to better serve the public -- you know, after witnessing the death of real-world thousands). Or when Bane cashed in on Occupy Wall Street to make the last Batman movie seem super-relevant. Or when Superman decided to walk across America, starting in a Philadelphia I've never seen before. Truth be told, that story lost my love as soon as Superman placed a certain order at a greasy spoon.
My favorite comics tend to place icons in front of the audience, and then strip the heroic images down to the very human feelings that first generated them. It's no wonder, then, that my favorite fake place in all graphic design is Astro City. Kurt Busiek's Astro City is a metaphor for all comic book cities, a combination of every dark and light place existing in pulp fiction. The characters that live there are ALL heroes, whether they be an average citizen helping innocent bystanders escape falling skyscrapers, or the Superman stand-in, Samaritan. By pulling from Marvel and DC's back-catalogues, and making reupholstered heroes work as metaphors for other heroes, with the city a home for any possible allegory, Busiek invites us to see ourselves in his fantasy world. Not only does he invite us to step into Astro City, he sends us on the road outta town with a better understanding of human nature. There, we sidestep taking the real world for granted -- as only a set-piece or plaything. There, we learn.
So far, nothing in Nightwing's Midwestern odyessy shows me that Higgins wants to interact with our reality, or restyle it. Over in Gotham, Batman and Batgirl are working on opposite ends of gentrification. No such sociological mission statement exists here. Dick is simply after the man who killed his parents. Personal stories are great places to start a run, as Higgins did with an intriguing arc about Dick's circus past. But moving into a second major story, I often want authors to expand the scope of a character's journey. Is Dick the hero Chicago needs? Why? Why not? Or if he's not the hero for this metropolis, how are the readers able to pitch in? It's a series of questions that are hard to avoid, when a writer sets out to play in reality's sandbox.