Friday, August 27, 2010

Wait, New York is a real city?

Bully the Little Stuffed Bull lives in New York City, and his recent post about Doctor Strange mentions that real New Yorkers never call for a cab to the airport: they either hail one in the street, or call a "car service".

That got me thinking about the Fictionopolis, and the conceit shared by publishers and many fans that Marvel Comics are more "realistic" for eschewing such constructs.

Perhaps Marvel New York had some verisimilitude back when Stan and Jack and most of the rest of the Marvel creators actually lived in NYC, or were at least from there, tapping into its rhythms, into the lyric cant and jargon of its inhabitants. Once the House of Ideas started casting its net wider, however, employing writers and artists from across the country and the world, it became as much a fiction as Metropolis or Gotham.

Here's a secret: even in the '60s, it never did feel any more authentic to a kid growing up in Southern California. East Coast cities in general, and New York specifically, are entirely different from their West Coast counterparts. The New York of comics and movies and television might as well have been Metropolis.

Or Bespin.

Or Minas Tirith.

Of course, on the other claw, I never thought twice about the palm trees and brush-covered hills surrounding the low-lying sprawl of Adam West's "Gotham". After all, that was what the Real World looked like, right? Native Californians never notice California Doubling until we travel outside the bounds of the Bear Flag Republic: the world on TV looks like the world around us. It never occurs to us that Angela Lansbury's Maine has a whole lot of chaparral scrub along its Mendocino cliffs.

I can understand how Marvel must feel to Easterners and New Yorkers, though -- or how it must have felt at one time. One of my favorite comics as a hatchling in the '70s was Marvel's Werewolf by Night. I enjoyed all of the horror-themed heroes of that era, but Jack Russell's adventures had a special appeal, because it wasn't set in that mythical, far-off land of New York. Jack hailed from Los Angeles, and the wide, open streets, the palm trees, and LAX's iconic Theme Building often graced its pages. The sun-drenched daylight scenes contrasted not only with the moody, broody moonlit nights in which Jack's alter-ego played, but with that strange and claustrophobic city crammed full of capes and costumes, mansions and Baxter Buildings, in which Bakshi's animated Spider-Man could swing and swing for hours without ever running out of Thoroughly Useful Vertical.

As an adult living in San Jose, New York City is still an alien world to me. A couple of years ago, I was watching CSI: New York, and found my attention caught by one of those sweeping camera pans across the Manhattan cityscape. For the first time, I really looked. at what I was seeing, and realized that I simply had no touchstone for it. San Francisco is a tiny peninsula with a distinctive skyline, but most of the tallest buildings are along one of two streets. Oakland and San Diego each have a tight, localized cluster of tallish buildings. Los Angeles has a larger one, rising up out of nowhere in the middle of the eternal suburban plain, but they were largely erected after my move North.

And San Jose? San Jose is cute. It has a burst of the Tall, right there where the freeways meet, no more than half a dozen buildings that are only considered "skyscrapers" by the truncated standards of a seismically active region. It looks like Town, as in "goin' to Town", the local civic center of a far-flung rural community.

Which is exactly what it was, right up to the middle of the last century.

Those sweeping camera pans, though ... New York goes on for blocks and blocks, for miles and miles, with a density that is flat-out incomprehensible for someone from the Sprawlwest. The buildings I consider "tall" are medium-sized in that urbscape. I finally caught a glimpse of the urban archetype that inspired Asimov's Caves of Steel, of planet-wide cities, of the Human Hive.

I was ... intimidated.

It's an appropriate setting for the larger-than-life conflicts of the Pantheon of the Twentieth Century, most assuredly.

But it's still not real to me.

Not yet.


SallyP said...

There really is no comparison between the east and west coasts when it comes to cityscapes. I live in Connecticut but I grew up near San Diego, so I'm familiar wih both, and yeah, there are a LOT of movies and television shows that look just like California...even though they are set in Maine, or Arizona, or Kansas...or whereever.

New York INTIMIDATING. I've only been a few times, but I'm freaked out each time. That's why I like Boston so much better. Too bad they practically never show Boston in a comic book.

Your Obedient Serpent said...

That M&M game I mentioned on your blog, with President Waller?

Its primary setting was Gotham City, which, on my map, is where Boston should be.

The Waynes are so totally New England Old Money ... and Gotham is so totally part of Lovecraft's Massachusetts.

SallyP said...

Wait...Gotham is...Boston? But Boston has hardly ANY gargoyles!

But the old money part, oh yeah.

Your Obedient Serpent said...

Yeah, but it has ghouls in the subways. =D

Wow. Come to think of it, my Gotham-Is-Boston thing predates the modern gargoyle-filled depiction.

How's Boston stocked for Giant Props?

SallyP said...

Ok, I'm with you on the ghouls in the subway. Unfortunately, old Beantown is a bit light in the giant prop department.

It's quaint though. Quaint as hell.