Superhero stories mesh easily with New York, whether it’s the new Jessica Jones series, which follows its super-strong private investigator around a noir Manhattan, or the first appearance of Batman, in 1939, soaring over the city. With the monumental views in all directions of skyscrapers, bridges, and the constant movement of people, it’s a ready backdrop for superhuman narratives. It’s also the hometown of many of the great comic artists and writers.
Superheroes in Gotham at the New-York Historical Society explores the New York origin stories of individual superheroes, including Captain America, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man. Some are more closely connected to the city than others, like Queens native Spider-Man, who in Cold War-era New York City is bit by a radioactive spider. His persona was created by Stan Lee, a son of Jewish immigrants from the Bronx, and Steve Ditko, who moved to New York after World War II on the G.I. Bill. Others’ ties to the city are more loose, like Wonder Woman, who is connected through DC Comics, which started and was long headquartered in Manhattan.
The exhibition is a curious mix of objects, from memorabilia to standouts such as Ditko’s original Spider-Man art. It dwells a little too much on some tangential pop culture, like props from the 1960s Batman TV series or the opulent Broadway disaster Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. With just three galleries devoted to the show, there’s much more to explore of the artists, writers, and comic industry institutions that developed in mid-century New York City.
Recently, the Bowery Boys history podcast did an excellent overview of this history, in Super City: New York and the History of Comic Books. “Just as a horror story often takes place in a haunted house, or a Western in a dusty frontier town, a superhero story most often finds itself in an urban environment, and for a lot of its history, that environment was New York City,” host Greg Young says in the episode.
As Young points out, many of the creators in the Golden Age of comics were children of New York City immigrants, including Bob Kane, who depicted Batman in a Manhattan that later became Gotham. The Thing from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four was from Yancy Street, probably a Lower East Side stand-in for Delancey Street where Kirby himself grew up. Steve Rogers, future Captain America, was also from the Lower East Side, Dr. Strange lived in Greenwich Village during its bohemian era, and Henry Clay Frick’s house (home to the Frick Collection) inspired the Avengers mansion. (Peter Sanderson, a guest on the Bowery Boys episode, rounds up many more of these sites in his book The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City.)
The Golden Age characters were mostly imagined by people born in the 1940s who grew up reading comics. In turn, in the 1960s, they melded action-packed narratives with their personal histories of forming identities as children of immigrants, all the while maintaining their respect for early comic history.
Not every artist or writer uses their own home as a setting, so what is it about New York that makes it so essential to comics? By visiting the New-York Historical Society exhibition and listening to the Bowery Boys podcast, you get a well-rounded sense of the influence exerted by the city, with its perilous and powerful skyscrapers, its diverse stories, and its sense of individual opportunity. This is likely why, although character origin stories change and costumes get updated, the new superhero movies and TV series keep filming in the city, continuing to cast it in its leading, heroic role.
Superheroes in Gotham continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through February 21. The Bowery Boys Super City: New York and the History of Comic Books podcast is available online.