In the opening of issue #2 of the Daredevil re-launch, you'll find the Man Without Fear perched beneath the iron undercarriage of a fully realized replication of the High Line Park, complete with "10th Avenue Square" viewing platform, antiquated iron filigree, and passing traffic below. Resting on a authentically rendered steel column, our hero listens in on a conversation between two men above. The following image exchanges viewpoints, establishing a wide shot with the park's infamous benches, concrete planks, and "wild" flora on full display. The interlocutors now appear at eye level; beneath them, Daredevil calmly (read: creepily) waits in anticipation. The scene is set.
To younger audiences not native to New York City, the images may appear as a fanciful construct, an amalgam of familiar park elements, bridge-like infrastructure, and urban scenarios, held together by considerable amounts of imagination. This is an introduction to architecture, not only to its more palpable aspects of scale and material, but, more importantly, to its narrative and theatrical capacities. These scenes unfold on the psychological terrain of collective urban experience, manifested by dark, empty public squares, brooding towers, schizophrenic glass office blocks, and derelict religious structures. In the case of Daredevil, and all others, the superhero maintains an asymmetric relationship with the built environment, on which his existence rests. Simply put, the city doesn't need its superheroes as much as they need it.
Every superhero is inextricably bound to the city which gives birth to them. The existential grievances and paranoiac psychoses which plague all urbanites find their heightened expression in the absurd avatar: a spandex-clad, emotionally wrecked airborne suprahuman. So, it follows that a city as maddening and corrupting as New York would beget the largest number and most-diverse array of superheroes (and villains). In this world where a single bite from a radioactive spider constitutes the minimum grounds for superheroism, what forces might the pressures of modern urban existence unleash within the hero-to be?
Map of Manhattan in the 'Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe'
Marvel Comics has its roots in Manhattan, particularly that expanse of real estate north of Chelsea and just south of Harlem where the grid is in full command. Whereas the city takes archetypal form in other comic book worlds--such as DC Comics' capitals of Gotham and Metropolis, cities whose geographies are rendered mutable and repeatable by the demands of the narrative--the reality of Marvel's characters is tied to Manhattan's urban fabric, which, in turn, is indexed by the comic book's gridded interface through which the reader simultaneously navigates both the Marvel world and New York.
Maps of Gotham, Metropolis, or the Flash's Central City, among others, approximate the cartographic reality of Manhattan--the island city governed by a grid--but cannot account for the experiential inconsistencies that are enacted therein. The poverty of these representations prove incapable of registering the volatility of these shifting urban centers, formed by the accumulation of diverse experiences whereby the familiar (the grid, landmarks, parks) is subverted and read anew through Situationist techniques. Where Marvel insinuates its characters in a layered, uchronic reading of New York, so these non-cities, with their exaggerated proportions, distorted geometries, moody lighting and fractured vanishing points, reference the psychological topology of the contemporary city in constant flux.
Map of Metropolis from "Superman Returns"
Axon of Starman's Opal City
Much like his creator, Stan Lee, Peter Parker was born and bred in New York, growing up in Forest Hills before later settling in Manhattan where he attended college at Empire State University (in the East Village) and worked as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle. As the Amazing Spider-man, Parker became a media sensation before he had even finished high school, largely due to J. Jonah Jameson's constant publicization of the Webhead's whereabouts, and could be seen fighting a colorful cast of villains all over the city, from the tops of Roosevelt Island cable cars to Times Square. Parker's first love Gwen Stacy fell to her fate at the hands of the Green Goblin, who cast her off the side of the George Washington Bridge (in fact, the Brooklyn Bridge--a factual error perpetuated throughout the series).
Gwen Stacy plummets to her death from atop the Brooklyn Bridge.
Spidey does battle with the Punisher and Nightcrawler on the Roosevelt Island cable car.
In one issue, Spider-man occupies Wall Street, out chasing policemen in his ridiculous (thankfully, short-lived) Spidey-Mobile--a scenario as puzzling as Kanye West's recent visit to the protests.
After the Goblin destroys the original Daily Bugle building, a second, designed by John Jameson Jr., son of the tabloid's Editor-in-Chief J. Jonah Jameson, was rebuilt at the corner of East 39th and 2nd Avenue.
In Sam Raimi's 2001 film, the Daily Bugle has taken up residence at the famed Flat Iron Building at 23rd and 5th Avenue.
The Avengers' Mansion
Stan Lee himself admitted that he derived the design and location of the Avengers' Mansion from the Frick Collection, the celebrated art museum at East 70 Street and 5th Avenue. The mansion, which housed the hundred of superheroes that formed the Avengers' lineup, was donated by the father of Tony Stark (Iron Man) to the league, which periodically remodeled the facilities thereafter. In much the manner of the Frick, the Avengers' Mansion is set back from 5th Avenue, apparently at the request of Iron Man and Thor, and its lawn is bordered on all sides by a low perimeter wall.
The Frick Collection
Of all of Marvel's heroes, none could make a better claim to bragging rights for the largest (and most expensive) headquarters in the city than the Fantastic Four, the superhero clan that found it necessary to outfit an entire skyscraper solely for their crime-fighting purposes.
The Baxter Building
Located at 42nd and Madison, the thirty-five story Baxter Building was a marvel of labyrinthine spaces, the cross-section of which reveals at least five different labs, an observatory, a rocket silo, and a giant map room. Conspicuously missing is adequate lodging for the Thing and the Human Torch, who must make the daily commute from the suburbs.
Early depictions of the Daily Planet building
The Daily Planet, from Superman Returns
The headquarters for The Daily Planet, Metropolis's daily newspaper and Clark Kent's place of employment, features an iconic rotating globe that crowns the office building, an Art Deco tower with appropriate step backs and Neo-Gothic flourishes. The Daily Planet building, which first appeared with the globe in a cartoon series in the early 1940s and was later incorporated into the tower's comic book depictions, greatly resembles the Paramount Building, the thirty-three story clock tower that looms over Times Square.
The Paramount Building, 1927
Gotham City, in the 70s
While the earliest representations of Gotham City portrayed the city as a pulp, film-noir set piece, later depictions rendered the urban center under a constant darkness of a thunderstorm, with silhouetted Manhattan-like skyscrapers aping the pyramidal outlines of the Woolworth Building and the American Standard (Radiator) Building. This Gotham is a layered composition, filled with dramatic, expressionistic but not yet apocalyptic scenes foregrounded by the gritty realism of historical brownstones juxtaposed against the abstraction of distant rising towers.
Wonder Woman lassoing a toppling tower
In contrast with the Gotham's bleak cityscape, Wonder Woman's world is bright and optimistic, embodying the promise of post-war America. The city, and its industry, are cast in a bright gold light, much as in the period photographs of the heyday of skyscraper building, in which new glistening structures were set in the hazy afterbirth of daybreak.
The Empire State Building
Anton Furst's Gotham
Of Gotham City's later iterations, the city undergoes a great transformation into fully-realized dystopia, as evidenced by the Gotham of Batman: The Destroyer Series and Anton Furst's conceptual drawings for Tim Burton's Batman. In the Destroyer comics, which themselves acted as a tie-in to the Burton film, Batman navigates a dying metropolis, a monochromatic world of crumbling infrastructure and derelict monuments.
Piranesi's Carceri d'invenzione (imaginary prisons) served as the obvious inspiration for Furst's charcoal-rendered world overtaken by insanity.
When writer Scott Morrison launched The Manhattan Guardian and Seven Soldiers in 2005, he gave comic book readers a glimpse of an alternative New York, one in which the wildest architectural schemes of the last century had been constructed. Peaking from this fictional Manhattan skyline are an unbuilt office tower designed by Hans Hollein for Chase National Bank, an elevated highway proposed by the much-villainized urban planner Rober Moses, and the city's Grand Hotel, as envisioned by Gaudi over a century ago.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Key Project for Ellis Island, 1959
Frank Lloyd Wright's project for Ellis Island, a megastructural basin which features multiple domed structures, expansive shopping malls, and several apartment complexes, is a predominant landmark of Cinderella City, the home of the Manhattan Guardian.
Mister X and his Radiant City
The Vortex Comics series Mister X is set in a dysptopian city designed by the eponoymous architect whose radical theories of dwelling--"psychetecture"--gives birth to the "Radiant City", a metropolis with a Bauhaus aesthetic whose extreme angularity and rationalism induce insanity within its denizens. Mister X attempted to design out unhappiness, ugliness, and disorder from his city, but it now lays in a dilapidated state. The architect eventually assumes responsibility, and the series chronicles his attempts to right his wrongs.
Le Corbusier's Voisin Plan (1925), the origins of the Radiant City
Aside from sharing the name (and some of the goals) of Le Corbusier's conceptual city, the comic's hero bears an uncanny likeness to Corbu himself, albeit cracked out and masked by a heavy set of shades.
Le Corbusier's silhouette