The Cities We Deserve, Not the Cities We Need

12 Comic-Book Cities With Personality (for Better or Worse)

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1. Gotham City

“Gotham City. Clean shafts of concrete and snowy rooftops. The work of men who died generations ago. From here, it looks like an achievement. From here, you can’t see the enemy.” Debuting this month on Fox, Gotham promises a fresh look at the “secret origins” behind many familiar characters in the Batman books, including a young, freshly orphaned Master Wayne. But the title should be a tip-off that the series will also spend some time exploring one of the biggest characters in the Batman mythos: Gotham City itself. Once described by Batman writer/editor Denny O’Neil as “Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November,” Gotham City is exactly the kind of place you would expect to find crazed maniacs and masked vigilantes clashing in the streets. Just say the word “Gotham” to anyone you meet and see how fast they imagine dark alleys, looming skyscrapers, steam billowing from manholes covers, and a constant grayness only occasionally punctured by an oversized typewriter or coffee cup perched on rooftops. Why is the city such a festering ground for corruption and psychoses? Some say it’s because of the ancient bat-demon that was trapped under old Gotham Towne by the nation’s founding fathers during the Revolutionary War, an entity that spreads its tendrils of evil all through the city that grew on top of it. But of course we know better than to believe those silly old folk tales… don’t we?

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2. Metropolis
Compared to Gotham, Metropolis feels downright antiseptic, but there’s more to “The Big Apricot” than the gleaming billboards proclaiming it to be the proud home of Superman. As befitting the world’s most powerful superhuman, Metropolis is described as one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the DC universe, a place where 11 million people live and work amid skyscrapers that bear more than a coincidental resemblance to Manhattan’s skyline. Come for the chance to see the city’s favorite son swoop through the sky; stay for a tour of some of its more recognizable landmarks, including the iconic Daily Planet building, LexCorp Towers, the main branch of S.T.A.R. Labs, the Superman Museum, and the Superman statue in Centennial Park (but stay clear of Hob’s Bay and Suicide Slum, where you’re likely to get your wallet nicked by newspaper-hawking street urchins). Or if shopping is more your thing, enjoy a visit to the world-famous (ahem) Stacey’s department store or (ahem) Spiffany’s Jewelers (which no doubt inspired the classic film Brunch at Spiffany’s).

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3. Smallville
Metropolis’s actual location has bounced around the map, with most sources placing it somewhere in the U.S. Northeast, usually adjacent to New York City. The 2001 Smallville series relocated it to about 100 miles east of the small Kansas town where young Clark lives, which makes for a much easier commute for the characters. The two places still couldn’t be further apart, though; Smallville is typically depicted as a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, a slice of small-town Americana with front porches, white picket fences, malt shops, friendly police chiefs, pies warming on windowsills, you name it. And the people? Why, you couldn’t ask for a friendlier bunch guaranteed never to ask pesky questions about all the weird stuff that keeps happening in their town, or to ever take that red-headed girl seriously when she claims that nice Kent boy down the road is actually Superboy. Ha ha! Girls are so silly.

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4. New York City (Earth-616 version)

There’s a reason why 9 out of 10 invading alien armadas in the Marvel universe choose Manhattan as their landing point, and it’s not because they enjoy live theatre. Right from the get-go, New York City has always been the centre of the action for Marvel’s heroes, with many of them making the city their home and base of operations: Avengers Mansion, Four Freedoms Plaza, Peter Parker’s home in Queens, Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen stomping grounds, Doc Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum… The result is a version of New York City only slightly more colorful and hyperkinetic than the real thing — a place where the locals know, sure, they could be the next victim of some rampaging monster or super-villain who’s inexplicably drawn to the Big Apple, but dammit, that’s the price you pay for living in the greatest city in the world! (Though I don’t even want to know what insurance rates would cost in a city where “acts of God” are routinely committed by actual gods.)

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5. Opal City

Introduced in James Robinson’s Starman book in 1994, “the Opal” hasn’t been a part of the DC universe as long as cities like Gotham or Metropolis, but it has already been established as the home of many DC heroes, including the Elongated Man, Phantom Lady and, of course, all the members of the Knight family to don the Starman mantle. Generally assumed to be located in Maryland, Opal City often feels like a mash-up of New Orleans, Manhattan and the Old West, with its many beautiful Art Deco buildings, distinct French influence and legends of Western lawmen coming east to bring order to what was once a chaotic city. Those lawmen were later replaced by the masked heroes, who may have been the universe’s way of counteracting the dark magic that permeated the city right from the start. Hey, did you know the architect who planned Opal City’s great expansion in the early 20th century was also a fervent Satanist who christened his buildings in blood so the lines drawn between them formed a perfect five-pointed star? The tourism brochure probably left that out.

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6. Riverdale
Like Springfield, home of a guy who was once thrown from a car and told to stay out of Riverdale by a bunch of “lousy punks,” the town where Archie Andrews hangs his hat is more a state of mind than an actual place; as an editor once said, “It could be anywhere that kind people live and just have fun, like Archie and his friends.” What we do know is this: it has a mall and a main street, a beach, a drive-in theatre, several factories owned by Lodge Industries, a large high school with many sports teams, plenty of parks and farmland on the outskirts, and a soda shop/teen hangout with a name that’s the bane of spelling purists everywhere. The population is fairly homogeneous (though more non-white families have been spotting living there in recent years), and their immediate acceptance of Kevin Keller suggests it’s a socially progressive place despite the fact that some residents are still driving jalopies from the 1920s. So… Vermont? Let’s go with Vermont.

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7. Astro City
Astro City is Alex Busiek’s greatest creation, a city packed to the rafters with superheroes and civilians whose attitudes toward the caped set alternate between awe and indifference. Standing in the shadow of Mount Kirby, Romeyn Falls changed its name to honour Astro-Naut, a superhero who saved the city shortly after the Second World War, and it’s a name that suits the place well. After all, it’s evocative of a chipper, more optimistic time that you can still see reflected in the city’s architecture (Shadow Hill excluded), as well as in the can-do attitudes of the average citizens, who are just as likely to be the heroes in Busiek’s stories as the masked figures who fly/leap/drive all around them. Or as Busiek said in a recent interview, “The people of Astro City, whether longtime residents or newcomers, superheroes or ordinary citizens, tend to have been knocked around by life in one way or another, swept up by forces they can’t control. If they retain hope, if they keep an open heart, things seem to work out for them, but if they despair they may be lost. I don’t know if that’s something I believe, or if it’s just the way the stories have worked, but it seems to be a pattern that recurs a lot.”

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8. Sin City
And then there are the cities that are so far gone down the toilet it’s a miracle anyone still wants to live there. Officially called Basin City on maps, the locals call this city in the American West for what it is: a place of rampant corruption and vices, the type of city where the cops charged with keeping order are little more than yet another gang of armed thugs who don’t dare step foot in entire parts of the city, like The Projects or Old Town. At the top of the pile of sleaze is the powerful Roark family, whose members include a corrupt senator, a corrupt cardinal, a corrupt… well, you get the idea. Below them are countless numbers of thugs, hit men, prostitutes, wiseguys, mercenaries, drug dealers, serial killers, white slavers, and anyone else who thinks they can survive the darker corners of Frank Miller’s imaginings. As you might expect, tourism is not exactly a growth industry — though if you do find yourself nearby, check out the abandoned amusement park built around the Santa Yolanda Tar Pits. Just play it cool if you notice one of the locals dropping by to make a “deposit” while you’re there.

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9-10. Keystone City/Central City

For years, Central City was little more than a generic backdrop for Flash stories, with only the Flash Museum setting the place apart from any of the numerous other generically named cities patrolled by DC’s heroes. Keystone City, established as the Earth-2 counterpart for Central City and home of the Golden Age Flash, was pretty much the same. That changed in the early 2000s when Geoff Johns took over the Flash’s book; Keystone and Central became twin cities separated by a river, with both taking pride in their status as the industrial heart of the American Midwest. Keystone is a blue-collar town, the kind of place where unions still hold sway and the people take pride in making products stamped “Made in Keystone”; Central City is more white-collar, with a thriving theatre scene second only to New York City (they’re still talking about that one crazy puppet show a few years back). Sure, they might have their problems — constant escapes by convicts at the nearby Iron Heights penitentiary being one of them — but they can always count on the Flash being there to help out. Or as he once put it: “Keystone City, Kansas. Central City, Missouri. Forever united, and under my protection.”

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11. Neopolis
Top 10 marked Alan Moore’s first foray into original superheroes since Watchmen, and it was worth the wait. A damnably clever concept, the book mashes Hill Street Blues (ask your parents) with every superhero trope you can think of. In this world, the end of the Second World War saw a lot of newly minted superheroes and villains with nowhere to go, in a world where no one was eager to take them in. And so was born Neopolis, a city where everyone’s a god, mutant, alien or superhuman being, and not everyone adheres to that “with great power comes great responsibility” stuff. Policing this unruly lot are the officers of the Tenth Precinct, who deal with invisible perverts, shape-shifting killers, and occasional incursions from other dimensions. As you might expect in a city with giants, space-time rifts and super-powered pets, the cityscape can look a bit chaotic to outside eyes (and traffic’s no picnic with blind taxi drivers using their Zen mastery to guide their cars), especially with the demographic-targeting advertising plastered all over the city. But for this lot of working-stiff capes, there’s no place they’d rather call home.

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12. Mega City One
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone living here thinking of it as home. But then, when the alternative is living in a place called the Cursed Earth… Fans of Judge Dredd’s stories likely don’t read them for lessons in urban planning, which is probably a good thing; consistency of place has never been a hallmark of the long-running strip, with even the boundaries of the futuristic city changing from time to time (at its largest, it encompasses the North American eastern seaboard from Montreal to Miami). A few things tend to stay constant, though; it’s always crowded, filthy, and dangerous, with most residents either living in “blocks” (giant, self-contained apartment towers of 50,000 or more) or as nomads in “mo-pads” on the city’s many roadways. It’s built atop the ruins of the old cities that once stood proud, and God help you if you fall down far enough to explore those ruins. Finding a Starbucks might be a challenge, since coffee and sugar are both banned substances, but if you’re lucky you might be able to score a few sessions in an Aggro Dome or a Dream Palace to help escape your hellish existence for a short while. Wait, did we say hellish? Sorry, that sounds harsh. We meant to say… um…. Enjoy your visit! 

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