Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Take Manhattan

Take Manhattan, The Real Cities We Know and the Fictional Cities They Inspire
by Paul O'Brien

logo of Pat O'Brien at Ninth ArtNew York plays host to a lot of stories, but this past weekend (New York Comic-Con, February 25th and 26th, 2006) was the first time it played host to a major comic convention. Paul O'Brien looks at the distance between the real cities we know and the fictional cities they inspire.
27 February 2006

Source: Ninth Art

The article which follows is not really about comics. Or maybe it is. I'm not sure.

Before writing one of these columns, I usually go back and check the news sites just in case there's something I'm overlooking (or, even better, something obscure yet interesting). As I sat down this week, it struck me that I couldn't remember anything at all happening recently. Mind you, I've been busy, so maybe I just wasn't paying attention. But after going through the usual routine I satisfied myself that, yes indeed, nothing very memorable had happened. Marvel have put out some financial results, and Top Cow have appointed a new EIC, but I can't honestly say I care particularly about either.

The New York City Comic-Con logo

Of course, there is a plain and obvious reason why nothing much has happened this week, which is that everyone was saving their big announcements for the weekend. For this was the weekend of the New York Comic-Con, which I gather is the first truly large-scale comic convention in New York city. color photograph of the New York Comic-Con floorNo doubt, by the time you read this, all manner of thrilling announcements will have been made and relayed to the rest of the world through the traditional medium of some Newsarama bulletpoints and some publicity art from the slide show.

The fact that New York has not previously had a major presence on the convention circuit strikes me as rather remarkable. I would have thought that New York was such a blitheringly obvious place to hold a comics convention that it must have tons of them. After all, it's a major city with lots of major guests right on its doorstep. It seems positively bizarre that this hasn't been done properly before.

'This was the weekend of the first truly large-scale comic convention in New York.'

black and white photograph of the Empire State BuildingFor Americans, perhaps the absence of a New York convention on the circuit has always been apparent. To be honest, I never really pay any attention to where they're held. They all blur into one. Wizard World Cairo, the St Petersburg ComiCon - it all boils down to a scribbled report on Newsarama, for all that it affects me. It had never really occurred to me before that New York might have slipped between the cracks of the circuit. After all, it's New York.

The thing that's always interested me about New York, though, is that it's not just a city. It's also become a standard setting for popular fiction. For our purposes, this applies particularly to the Marvel Universe - where aliens sometimes seem incapable of landing anywhere else - but it holds true across all media. In fact, the Marvel Universe illustrates the phenomenon rather well. Creative types based in New York choose the city because, well, it's their city and they love the place. Other people come along later and reuse the setting because it now carries all the associations that they want it to have. New York is the archetypal cosmopolitan American city, and there's a reason why SEX IN THE CITY was set there rather than, say, Denver. On the other hand, it's slightly less obvious why FRIENDS was set in New York, since the basic premise can be transplanted wholesale to any major American city. New York, in this context, simply registers as 'default'.

color painting of the Statue of Liberty by Lynne NeumanNew York is hardly alone in this regard - Londoners also demonstrate a somewhat baffling conviction that their city is beautiful and soulful rather than sprawling and graffiti-ridden. British stories arbitrarily set elsewhere in the country tend to seem tokenistic in a way that London-set stories don't. The recent series of Doctor Who features the alien hero battling a surprising amount of evil in the vicinity of Cardiff, not because of any particular plot point, but simply because the series was made by BBC Wales and Cardiff was close at hand. This registers as just slightly weird and incongruous to British eyes, although perhaps not to Welsh ones. The same story in London would seem intangibly more natural, simply because we're so used to seeing it used as a backdrop that it no longer jars. This is, in fact, a very good reason for not setting your stories in London if you want the incongruous elements to stand out.

'New York is not just a city. It's a standard setting for popular fiction.'

panoramic color photograph of London at dusk

To an extent this use of London is disguised because the city has many convenient plot points to hand - for example, it's the seat of government, and thus gets to do all the stories which, in America, would be set in Washington. New York, by comparison, is simply a very major city with a massive media presence.

black and white stylized drawing of LondonI suspect there is a rather fundamental disconnect between the way New Yorkers see their city and the way the rest of us do. Of course, there's a disconnect for every city - the Edinburgh I live in is not in all respects the same one promoted by VisitScotland, which could charitably be described as an idealised subset of the whole. ("Every step is a revelation - an alleyway which reveals an ancient courtyard, or a wynd which opens up a new panorama.")

CGI color still of Gotham City at the 'magic hour' by Warner BrothersFor New York, however, this phenomenon has an added dimension. If you actually live in New York then your basic understanding of the place is formed by wandering around it. You will see New York on TV and, most likely, react to it as a semi-idealised distortion that is ultimately secondary. Whereas for the rest of us, not only is the media version of New York the primary one, but effectively it's the only one. But, at least in my case, this doesn't result in my thinking New York is really like the city on television. On the contrary, it means that I experience New York primarily as a setting for stories, and not as a real place with actual inhabitants at all. It takes a conscious effort of will on my part to visualise the city in any other terms. For me, New York is a place where characters live, not people. Obviously, I don't mean this literally - but it's the primary association that the city has for me.

Perhaps this is why news stories from New York always feel slightly strange to me. It's not supposed to do non-fiction. And the idea of the city not having a comics convention, when they have one in Bristol, seems thoroughly wrong. The NYCC will bring New York ever so slightly further into line with the way I'm subconsciously convinced the city is meant to be. For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, I find that inordinately comforting.

CGI color still of Gotham City at night from the film 'Batman Returns'

Paul O'Brien is the author of the weekly X-AXIS comics review.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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