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By Joe Naiman

San Diego Comic Fest addresses urban design in comics


Last updated 4/4/2019 at 3:14pm

Most comics take place in large cities: “Superman” is headquartered in Metropolis, “Batman and Robin” operate out of Gotham City and the actual New York City is used for “Spider-Man” and the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

There are exceptions. The “X-Men” are in a New York City suburb. “Jughead and Archie” are in a small town. Bruce Banner operates out of a university setting if his anger doesn’t bring “The Incredible Hulk” lead character into a more urban environment.

San Diego Comic Fest included a March 8 session titled “Urban Geography and Comics” which noted the roles of city design in comics. San Diego City College urban geography instructor Lisa Chaddock led the panel and was joined by comics historians T.J. Shevlin and Ron Coleman.

“When you look at comics, have you ever noticed it’s all in cities, cities or outer space?” Chaddock said.

The majority of comics, however, are set in places such as Metropolis, Gotham City and even formally New York City.

“I don't think we often give the city as much credit as we need to,” Chaddock said.

Metropolis and Gotham City bear resemblance to New York City but are fictional. If an actual city is used more attention must be paid to details.

“You have to make sure your street is right,” Chaddock said.

Use of actual roads including highways leaves a comic book or movie vulnerable to inaccuracies – the town of Hill Valley in “Back to the Future” is at the intersection of U.S. Highway 6 and U.S. Highway 395, which is in Bishop, and Marty McFly and his parents grew up in a less mountainous place.

Shevlin said that an established real or fictional city can portray a lasting image.

“With Gotham, it looks like it hasn’t left the 1930s,” he said. “It’s always easy to use Gotham or Metropolis because they’re the most easily explained.”

Chaddock grew up in the Fletcher Hills area of eastern San Diego County and graduated from Grossmont High School. She has seen San Diego County’s population grow from approximately 250,000 to approximately 4 million. Coleman is originally from Los Angeles and now lives in Oceanside.

“San Diego's not a place that gets put in comics a lot,” Coleman said. “Probably a lot of it is the big publishing houses are in New York.”

Chaddock said that a fictional city can appeal to readers who haven’t lived in an actual large metropolitan area.

“Part of the magic of comics is putting you in that place,” she said.

“What doesn’t get a lot of love as far as comic books go are small towns,” Shevlin said.

Shevlin said that a small town where a superhero was raised is an exception.

“Smallville, Kansas, is all about Superman,” Shevlin said. “It couldn’t be anywhere else but a small town.”

That is also the case for the Blue Valley, Nebraska, which is home to the Flash.

“Blue Valley loves that they have their own superhero,” Shevlin said.

The superheroes give the small towns recognition elsewhere.

“When they get a bit of it, it’s so important to them,” Shevlin said.

In the small towns, streets are used for parades to honor the superheroes. In the urban areas streets are used for battles between superheroes and villains.

“Most things are happening on street level,” Chaddock said. “Your streets are the place that they happen. The superheroes tend to make a mess of the streets.”

Coleman said that a fictional company called Damage Control now cleans up cities when damage is caused by superheroes. His wife works for the city of San Diego’s parks department, and Coleman said that significant paperwork would be required to rebuild infrastructure damaged during superhero activity.

At the beginning of this century, Batman was absent from Gotham City for three months – not because he didn’t care about the damaged city but because Bruce Wayne was in Washington, lobbying for federal assistance to rebuild Gotham City.

The damage to cars and buildings impacts the citizens of a city with superheroes.

“For regular people the insurance premiums you’re paying are through the roof because of that,” Shevlin said. “They left New York because they couldn’t afford it anymore and nothing was going on.”

Chaddock said that the destruction of a city’s area can benefit artistic liberty and can also allow for urban renewal without impacts to historical structures.

“Urban geographers have this term they call burdens of the past,” she said. “Sometimes people want to get rid of a city. They want to rebuild.”

Rebuilding cities destroyed during superhero activity allows fictional urban planners to make changes. The same can be said for those who plan scripts rather than municipal development.

“Artists look at this as an opportunity to do something different,” Chaddock said.

“I can see a writer wanting to wipe it out and start over,” Coleman said.

New York City and its surrounding area has multiple communities, so the X-Men can be in the suburbs while the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spider-Man can be in separate parts.

“You can easily do something like that,” Shevlin said.

Another urban geography term is “landscape of power,” and skyscrapers can portray this.

“The thing about a landscape of power is its authority,” Chaddock said.

Tall buildings often evoke thoughts of important occupants of the top floors such as the Gotham City police commissioner’s office or the Daily Planet editorial department. Tall buildings also allow superheroes to take action at the top of such structures – or even above the skyscrapers.

“Most comics have some element in them, but nobody does this better than Superman,” Chaddock said.

Urban infrastructure is enhanced by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles utilizing the sewer system to travel.

Archie, Jughead and their friends live in Riverdale, which is a small town but not a rural one.

“It is a small town. It just has the feel, though, of density,” Chaddock said.

Superman and Batman precede the Interstate highway system. Destroying a freeway in Los Angeles would be one of the best ways to cause havoc in that city. The use of real highways in “Back to the Future” or elsewhere can restrict a fictional town to a specific area. Chaddock believed freeways are underrepresented in comics for another reason.

“Freeways I don’t think have the character a lot of times. With streets you have character,” Chaddock said.

Structures are further away from a freeway than they are from the streets. The streets of urban cities or small town village centers allow for more buildings.

“Our cities, if you think about it, are mostly set up in a grid,” Chaddock said.

That allows for a point of reference.

“Our suburbs tend to be windy streets,” Chaddock said. “You’re going to see the house and not much else going around that.”

Culver University in Willowdale is where Bruce Banner works in his capacity as a professor. A university campus is not gridded but has buildings.

“The university setting is another landscape of power,” Chaddock said.

That is due to the knowledge from the universities.

“With Bruce Banner and with Spider-Man being involved in the research end of things, when you think about it we do attribute in the landscape an awful lot of specialness to schools,” Chaddock said. “Artists have always portrayed schools, universities, as places where things happen.”

Chaddock was an adjunct instructor at Cuyamaca College before taking a full-time position with San Diego City College.

Joe Naiman can be reached by email at


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