Thursday, July 20, 2006
Superheroes in the suburbs?
Saw the new Superman Returns movie last week, and while it had some good sequences, on the whole I was somewhat disappointed. Maybe two stars out of four. The actors felt too young to be plausible for the story. It would have been better if they had rebooted it entirely, like Batman Begins, rather than try to have the story in continuity with the first two Christopher Reeve movies.It seems that most superhero comic book stories take place in urban centers, not suburbs or rural areas. Superman is in Metropolis, Batman is in Gotham City, and most of the heroes of the Marvel universe, from Spider-Man and Daredevil to the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, all live in a hero-overcrowded New York City. And there's a strong East Coast bias; very few heroes are based in the west. Of course, this reflects the fact that both DC Comics and Marvel Comics are headquartered in New York. And Superman and Batman were created in the 1930s before suburbia really came to the fore.The reason I’m thinking about this is because I just read the trade paperback for the first collected volume of a new DC character, Manhunter, who by day is a district attorney in Los Angeles and by night is a costumed vigilante that uses weaponry confiscated from captured supervillains. There’s a sequence where the protagonist, Kate Spencer, is standing beneath the “H” of the Hollywood sign (the closest thing Los Angeles has to an iconic landmark like the Statue of Liberty), and she muses to herself, “Now I know why there are so few active metahumans in L.A. Everything is so spread out. It’s not like I can swing from skyscraper to skyscraper.” Then she starts to follow a supervillain using a tracking device. Because she can’t fly, she gets in her car and drives to follow him. She thinks to herself, “This is pathetic. I need a jetpack or something.” Unlike older East Coast urban centers, Los Angeles and other newer cities in the south and west are decentralized, multicentered metropolises that are suburban in form. As folks in LA know, you need to drive to get anywhere. (One of the improbabilities of 24 is that it seems to only take Jack Bauer twenty minutes to get places. If 24 really reflected LA, an episode would feature Jack stuck in traffic for the full hour.) I find it interesting that Manhunter’s writer, Marc Andreyko, acknowledges the geographic challenges of urban/suburban sprawl. It always seemed kind of unlikely that Batman or Spider-Man could travel great distances across a city simply by swinging from webs or bat-lines. Or that the Batmobile never gets stuck in traffic. Now I’m trying to remember if any major superheroes are set in suburban contexts. Nothing really comes to mind. Green Lantern was set in Coast City (an LA doppleganger), the Flash takes place in Central City/Keystone City, which are Midwestern cities like St. Louis, and Hawkman and Hawkgirl patrol St. Roch, which is the equivalent of New Orleans. For a while, Wonder Woman was based in Gateway City, which I think was supposed to be San Francisco. I think Green Arrow’s Star City is somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, like Seattle or Portland, but I’m not sure. Superman, of course, hails from Smallville and moved to Metropolis, signifying the American historical shift from rural to urban areas. (Sometimes Metropolis is written as an East Coast city, perhaps in Rhode Island, while other times, as in Smallville on TV, Metropolis is in Kansas, the big city closest to Smallville, like a Wichita, about three hours away. The best quote I’ve heard is from comic book writer Frank Miller, who says that Metropolis is New York during the day, and Gotham City is New York at night.) If any suburban superheroes come to mind, let me know. And if you’re a comic book fan, check out the blogs Loud Time and Strangely Dim by my pal Dave Zimmerman, author of Comic Book Character.