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The City and the other City

So, Gentle Readers. You have probably been wondering what about the great fictional cities in the American cultural consciousness?

That’s an interesting question. I’m not altogether sure what you mean by it, but I think you have to count Gotham City and Metropolis at the top of the list. When you think about the number of people who have read or watched stories that take place in those cities, and the number of people that have written stories that take place in those cities, I don’t think there’s any question about their place in our culture. I suppose you could add the Emerald City, maybe, although it seems like a distant third. What am I missing? Orbit City?

Anyway, what strikes me about Metropolis and Gotham City is how little I know about them as places. I mean, they are both New York City, of course, and they both have harbors, and so are on the sea. But does Metropolis have a river that runs through or alongside the city, and if it does, is it going North-South or East-West? Is Gotham City’s infamous high-crime inner-city neighborhood north of Town Hall, or is that the stretch of mansions that holds Stately Wayne Manor? Where’s the University? How far out do the suburbs go?

Now, I don’t read the Batman or Superman or Justice League comics; my familiarity is mostly through movies and television. Well, and I have read some of the comics, sure, over time, but I’ve never been a consistent reader. So it may just be that Gotham City and Metropolis do have consistent landmarks, and I just don’t know about them. Or it could be that part of the American Cultural Consciousness is that Gotham and Metropolis are constantly remaking themselves, the bridges and towers of yesterday’s Gotham disappearing into the blank we call history. Certainly, part of the fun of the first few Batman movies of the nineties was the way that Gotham was an entirely different city each time around. And yet, I wonder.

Can you think of half-a-dozen landmarks in Metropolis or Gotham City, and have some sense of their relationship to each other in the imaginary geography? Is that just true of fictional cities in general? I think I have more of a sense of the map of Springfield, for instance, but that may be my misimpression, or perhaps the result of my having watched a higher percentage of Simpsons episodes than Batman books.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Are our impressions of Metropolis and Gotham City different from our impressions of New York and Chicago and Miami? How many people who haven't lived in a particular city really know anything about its geography, even if they've visited or read about the city frequently?

I know things about New York City from having driven there, and looked at a map, so I know for example whether there's a river and sort of where it is and where the boroughs are. I haven't done that for Chicago or Miami, and thus don't know those things about them.

Is there a canonical map of Metropolis or Gotham? I suspect not, which makes it particularly hard to know where anything is. For the cities where you do feel like you know their landmarks, are there any where you've never, ever seen a map of the city? I'd be somewhat surprised -- I don't think I'd understand the geography of the Greater Boston Area at all without having spent a fair bit of time looking at maps.

I mean, they are both New York City, of course

Objection from the native Midwesterner: Gotham City is, of course, New York with the serial numbers filed off, but we of Flyover Country make a strong bid for ownership of Metropolis (although the internet informs me that, Smallville aside, most recent canonical sources place Metropolis in coastal Delaware. Harrumph.) Christopher Nolan casting Chicago in the role of Gotham City in the Batman Begins soon-to-be-trilogy, instead of its usual analogue was... grating... to some of us, although the dramatic utility of multi-decker streets is obvious.

Fictional cities that evoke the modern "metropolis" are likely to have amorphous geography, I would guess, since the vastness and diversity of the city is likely to be part of what they are trying to capture. (I really need to read China Mieville . . . ) There are a lot of other reasons, both practical and thematic, why fictive cities in superhero comic books would not be given fixed landmarks or roadmaps.

Ficitional medieval cities, on the other hand, are more likely to be rendered in precise description. Minas Tirith, for instance. It's been a long time since I picked up a Thieves' World book, but my impression is that the parts of the city, and their relation to one another, was given some description. The City in Swordspoint and its sequels has defined neighborhoods that are divided by class and style, and the alert reader could probably construct a rough map of at least parts of it.

New Crobuzon is cool, of course, but I've come to prefer Ambergris, and Nessus is still king.

In the quest for what appears to be a non-existent map of Nessus, Gene Wolfe's megalopolis in the Book of the New Sun, I partook of an Internet quiz on the subject of Greek mythology, scoring the title "Guru" of Nessus lore. So there.


Well, and in the case of New York, I think both the East River and the Hudson, as well as the Brooklyn Bridge and the GWB (at least) are sufficiently well documented in movies and books and television. But then, those are real things. And I have never spent time in Pittsburgh, but I know there are three rivers. I know that Baltimore's harbor area is toward the East, because, you know, that's where the ocean is. I don't know that I've ever seen a map of St. Louis, but there's an Arch and the river runs north-south and the poorest neighborhood is on the east side of the river. I could be wrong, of course, but I do have that in my head.

I think the choice to not have an Official Canonical Map of Gotham was probably a deliberate choice, and not necessarily a bad one—when you have a long-term group project like that, you have to decide what bits you want to make sure are consistent, and what bits you are willing to leave in the background, like. They could have made a map, and then told anyone working in the Batman world to follow it, but that presumably would have restricted some of the writers and artists (and then there are the issues about development and growth (or more likely decay in Gotham) to keep the map 'up-to-date').

I do wonder if the issue is the modern city v. the medieval city (as Chris suggests) or the American imagination versus the English imagination (and I have no idea about fictional cities in other culture's imaginations), or whether it is more about the multiple hands involved in the development of the city, or what. I do think that Tolkein's cities (Minis Tirith most of all, but even Bree is pretty well-defined) are unusually clear, but that is probably just Tolkein, rather than the English Imagination. I couldn't really guess what the great fictional cities in the English cultural consciousness are, now that I think of it. Camelot? St. Mary Mead? The island of Sodor? Borchester?


Please take a look at a map of Baltimore.

The Island of Sodor! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

You win the Internets.

Sure, you laugh about Sodor, but I know where the damned harbor is.


Sure, the harbor's where Salty works.

The interesting thing about maps of the Island of Sodor is that there are way more features and interesting spots on that island than ever show up on the map, and the size and locations on the island seems to be as much a case of which trains are involved as geography. The locations on the map doesn't seem to correspond to scale, so much as resolution.


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