As a younger man, I cared too much about making things “fit.” I wanted to know where on the map I could find Gotham City, what were the directions to Genosha, and where was that freaking island that Oceanic 816 crashed on! Actually, if I’m being honest I mostly just cared about the cities. National borders change in certain parts of the world often enough that I had an easier time accepting that there was an eastern European fiefdom nestled somewhere in between the countries I already knew, but the idea that a fully realized American city could exist and persist without a location drove me nuts.
That may sound weird, but think about it. Nations are, at times, little more than lines on a map, easily changed by occupation or border skirmish. Redrawing the lines in and of itself doesn’t actually effect what’s inside the borders. Whereas cities have to be built, they have to be sustained, and they don’t just disappear. In comics, even destroyed cities get brought back to life, e.g. Coast City. Obviously this means I had more of a problem with the DCU than with Marvel. I have my own issues with Marvel geography AND their over reliance on the Big Apple, but those are separate gripes to what I’m bringing to the table here.
And as icing on the cake some of the cities of the DCU are obvious analogues to real cities here on Earth-Prime, so do our cites even exist in that world or are they replaced with these cheap knock-offs? I’m looking at you “Portsmouth City.”
It may sound like I’m still upset by all this (I’ll admit I got a little fired up typing it all out) but I really have moved on. At some point I just stopped worrying and learned to love the fantasy of it all. Anthony Bourdain is fond of saying, “Be a traveler, not a tourist.” I love this and try to live it, even at home. I’m constantly searching for new nooks and crannies in and around Nashville. When I first moved here I would just pick a cardinal direction and bike roughly that way until I go too tired, then I’d loop around and come home by as different a route possible. I really like the act of exploration, I think if I’d born at the right time you’d have found me racing Amerigo Vespucci up and down the coasts of the New World (just think, we could all be living in the “United States of Ryanerica!”).
And the more I relaxed about the fake geography the more I was able to treat comics like those long afternoon bike rides, as explorations of new places, slowly showing each new facet of these mythic locales. But I don’t think it was just myself maturing, I think it was also some comics I read along the way. Starman is the first and foremost example that comes to mind. Opal City is just so well done in every regard. The architecture, the scenery, even the fact that it’s a city for coffee lovers; those details are the ones that make it work as more than just a place but as a character. And of course, Astro City, I mean, it’s the name of the book for crying out loud. Clearly Busiek knows this town, and while I don’t get the same structured feel from Astro as I do from Opal, I have no doubt that it exists, just maybe not on pages I get to see. I feel like I’ve gushed on both these books/places before so I won’t dive too deep here, but I’m sure they both contributed to my ability to step back and see things differently than as an anal retentive map nerd (NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT).
This attitude opened me up to really trying to get into the character of other unique fictional cities. No longer was thinking of Gotham as New York’s dark side. Metropolis became a location unspecific oasis of technological achievement and Midwestern values instead of the weird Chicago/Toronto/daytime New York monster my pre-relaxed mind had merged it into. And a truly skillful writer like Geoff Johns was even able to make Central City and Keystone City into sister cities, each one giving the reader a different insight into their respective scarlet speedsters.
Saying it’s ok to not know, to leave something ambiguous, to just go with the flow; none of these things come easy to me, and I bet I’m not alone, but forcing myself to grow in this way is one of the most freeing feelings when it comes to reading comics I’ve had since discovering indie books. It also makes me slightly melancholic for places like Opal City, which is weird because not only have I never been there but there’s no there to go to. Yet there are days where I long to sit outdoors at a café drinking good black coffee, smelling the breeze blowing in from the fields of surrounding Turk County, and chuckle as a lanky man in a dark coat and hat ambles by. At the day it’s escapism pure and simple, but that’s what comics some days should be about. Furthermore, I’ve escaped from my annoying need to know into a place that feels almost like home.
What about you? Where you heading next?