(Comic) Tales of the City

I am actually beginning this article as I sit in the back a town car, stuck in traffic on my way to New York City (I am in town, very briefly, for work). The setting is fitting, because the subject is the setting–in this case, a discussion of a few books where the city is a major character in the story.  

Cities are obviously more than points on a map, or areas of land demarcated by “Welcome to” and “Now Leaving” signs. Cities are beings made up living beings, with a character and voice all their own. I remember my first nights after I moved to New York, the sound of the traffic, swelling and releasing, was very much the city breathing, sometimes sleeping just for a few minutes, before being waking up with a start.  Cities have a wardrobe, of course, I am looking now at the grey skies outside of JFK, framed by old freewill walls with ivy splayed along their faces. The sights, the smells, all make New York one of the most formidable characters you could ever hope to meet.

Now, as of this writing, it was just 24 hours ago I was in Newport Beach, California, about the farthest away you can get from the mangled lanes near the Jamaica Ave freeway exit. My grandparents have a vacation house there and I was able to use it before new renters came in to use it for another year.  This was going to be my last beach-y vacation for the summer, I guessed, and I wanted to spend much of it reading, so I went to my trade self and picked up a few I hadn’t read in years and realized that they all told stories where the location–the city–played a fairly prominent role, both in terms of plot, design and mood.

The first trade was Dean Motter and Michael Lark’s Terminal City, the trade was originally published in 1997 (Motter and Lark did a great Batman tale, by the way–Batman: Nine Lives).  I really liked this book when I picked it up years ago and although it feels a bit dated, it is still a lot of fun. It’s basically a whodunit that serves as opening to a longer series (not everything is figured out), so there is a fair amount of backstory for each character and sometimes heavy handed narration providing enough backstory to get you ready for the ling haul.  

As you can imagine from the title, the once gleaming Terminal City set the tone for the series. It is featured prominently throughout the series, with stirring full page panels (it doesn’t hurt that one of the main characters works as a window cleaner) showing the art-deco inspired skyline, with the head of a Colossus always sitting in the background. The characters travel throughout the many neighborhoods, from deserted metal beaches (the sand long since washed away) to lavish hotel lobbies. Much of the action actually takes place in the hotel, and Motter has a good time creating a Fawlty Towers kind of environment, complete with an always cranky robot manager who is constantly berating his human bellman, named, appropriately enough “Manual”.  There is a lot of winking in the story (we have two French brother who mimi Abbott and Costello, constantly bickering about the works of an artist named “Watt” (“‘Watt is his name?’ ‘Yes, exactly!'”) and the mysterious owner, who was once a famous movie star who takes in one of the main characters, letting her sleep in an empty room — where, of course, a murder has occurred. There are in-jokes a plenty, with some very familiar robots popping up here and there and nods to other books and movies sprinkled throughout. It makes the book fun, but it verges on a little too cute at times.

The best part of re-reading this book was rediscovering Michael Lark’s work. We all know how great he is in Gotham Central and Daredevil, but it’s a real trip to see his much simpler-feeling work from 15 years ago. The basics are all there, of course, but it just feels simpler, less sketchy, like he was playing it a bit safe. It works, though, and the color, though also a bit basic, does the job.

Whereas Terminal City often takes place in the one resplendent buildings of an age gone by, Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Oeming tell the seminal Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl? trade in the gritty muted tones of the alternative present. When I started getting back into comics, I was able to catch Powers right near the beginning–I just had to buy the first trade and I have been picking it up in single issues ever since.  

Powers, as you probably know, is at its core the story of detectives who have a job to do, superheroes be damned. Most of your familiar with the characters (I think Walker and Deena make one of the best crime solving pairs ever), so I won’t discuss them too much this time around. What’s interesting is that as much as we learn to love the characters through their dialogue and expressions, it really is the situations and interactions that bring them to life. The city in Powers is all urban grit and frustration — this is a very street-level story, with many scenes ending with our heroes watching powered beings fly into the air.  As such, the buildings and lighting are very harsh, with much of the detail spent on the characters–the city itself frames the story, gives it a tone, but doesn’t drive it as much as, say, Gotham or Metropolis.  The city a crowded wasteland, and strong shadows, with its deep blacks and jarring highlights, basically tells the reader, “you ain’t getting any inspiration from me, kid.”

So, at first glance, why even mention the city that Powers takes place in?  Because a city is not just buildings and alleyway, forlorn streetlights and soulless skyscapers.These trappings of a city do a great deal to frame this particular story, but it is the media that really tells the tale, with a voice all its own. We’ve seen this time and time again, perhaps most succinctly in Dark Knight and Watchmen with all of the television scenes, but I think Bendis uses the media really well in this book as well, especially when Walker and Deena have to go around asking the heroes and villains for clues as to who was involved in Retro Girl’s murder. The city acts as the narrator, much like the mute lady in red from Terminal City, literally giving us the word on the street.  To be sure, Terminal City uses the media to introduce stories and provide backstory as well, in very well written newsreel segments–I actually read a few out loud in that newsreel voice..I just had to!  Powers, on the other hand, really drives home the lamely informative, often exploitative desperation that is the local television news.

Speaking of the local news, when it comes to using media as voice of the city–or, in this case, its underground–I just have to point to Channel Zero by Brian Wood to really drive the point home. In so many ways a tone poem that seems to have paved the way for DMZ. New York may not be a warzone in Channel Zero, but it is a battleground nonetheless, where pirate broadcasts are the IEDs the government is worried about.  The city is New York–a very real New York, with inked photographs of various sections and aspects of the city pepper sprayed throughout.  

Jennie 2.5, our heroine, is fighting against the government-run media, who has fallen prey to self-righteous religious interest groups and passed the chilling Clean Act, which basically takes away freedom of speech and replaces it with freedom to shop.  If you couldn’t’ tell already, it’s classic Brian Wood at his most subversive, and, I must admit, at his most prescient. I tend to find a reason to read this book every year, and it resonates at a different frequency each time.

The book is stark, very black and very white, just like the story. Jennie 2.5 succeeds in her mission about halfway through, and then we see the aftershocks (such as they are) of her efforts to get people to WAKE UP. The pages are awesome; I wish Brian Wood would draw a few issues of DMZ every so often, instead of “just” doing the covers.  The story is pretty good, it sometimes gets constricted to feeling like a paranoid rant at a spoken word concert, but its commentary on the media, censorship, the government, the public’s short memory and blasé regard for their freedoms makes this a very good book to check out.

Of course, New York, the center of the world, is the perfect place to set this kind story, with the city’s rooftops, aerials, subways and billboards all playing major parts, both supporting the government’s crackdown and corporate advertising while giving Jennie just enough room to spread her chaos.  Throughout the book, Wood has provided all kind of anti-propaganda signage, which are supposed to photocopied and plastered everywhere. It would be a bit cooler if they were actually stickers and, much cooler if they didn’t actually mention the book and Wood’s website, but hey–even when you are telling people that they should “Wage War” with a video camera or accusing people of belong to the “United States of Generica,” you gotta pay the rent, right? I thin Jennie 2.5 would totally agree, but she’s probably squatting in some warehouse anyway. Back to my point, though, the city of New York is a constant presence in the story and it is beautifully done.

Comics are always transporting us.  Whether it be New Krypton, New York, Gotham or an Indian rez, the setting of a book is as important as the characters and themes. These books are just some examples the popped out to me when I was looking at my shelf, but there are obviously so many books that I could have written about–I am looking at the shelf right now, and I wince that I didn’t mention Local–but you get the idea.  In comics, the back ground is a fertile ground, and given that we spend so much time soaking in these images, it is always great to see how comic creators use their locale to help tell the story.  

What about your favorite books? Are there any books that you like where the location really played a significant role? New York is such a fertile ground for Spider-Man, Daredevil and others…where else have you been taken to?

Mike Romo is an actor in LA who has lived in cities most of his life, except for when he was a kid living in a growth called Red Bluff, CA with a cat, a dog, a fish and a visiting cow. Try emailing him here, or checking twitter


  1. I really enjoyed Batman: Nine Lives and felt the setting was essential to the quality of the story. 

    I also feel the rural setting (using real locations) in The Walking Dead is essential to the way that book works.  It would be a very different story if the book were set in a city (as most other zombie books/movies seem to be).  I may be a bit partial to that setting as I grew up in rural Kentucky and now live in rural Georgia.  (I know they are heading for DC at the end of the 10th trade, but I haven’t read past that point.)

    It might be worth noting that someone plotted EVERY significant event from The Walking Dead in Google maps. Seeing everything on this map lends an added sense of realism to the story: http://bit.ly/9zM03 

  2. @Mike – I don’t understand why your posts don’t get more responses.  They are generally well written, well reasoned, and interesting.  Perhaps it is because people have seen you dance?

  3. I loved Terminal City.

    I think Starman was a huge series for me in showing me how important a city could be to the overall story. I think Metropolis and Gotham have often been just an excuse for "generic city" in the past, but re-reading Robinson’s Starman omnibus, I’m struck again by how every corner has its own little tale. Sometimes Robinson would just throw something out there and never pick up on it again. I love those little tidbits.


  4. good notes, guys–I agree, Starman is just awesome when it comes to the environments, right on!!

    I must admit–I have no idea what to do about Walking Dead. Is it too late to even start this? Should I just get the first big trade?  Thanks for the nice feedback, @stuclach…I hope my dancing doesn’t dissuade people too much!  I am glad you liked it, though!

    thanks for the comments and suggestions–yes, I am going to go re-read that Batman:Nine Lives this weekend…so good..



  5. Great piece, Mike! People neglect setting too much, so it was great to see this angle. 

    Terminal City sounds awesome. Gotta get on that.   

  6. @mike – Its never to late to start TWD

    I didnt start till 3 trades in and finished them all in one night.

    Quick read, but always worth it.

  7. @Mike – The first hardcover of TWD is some of the best work I have ever read.  It is never too late to read something of that caliber.  Luckily, my library has each of the hardcovers, so I was able to catch up rather quickly after learning of the book’s existance.  My librarians are very good to their comic book fan patrons.

  8. I think that one of the better examples of setting in story telling in recent memory was Fell.  I thought that Snowtown was a fascinating place that was well explored for what little we got of it.

  9. Good stuff.  There are a slew of other great ‘city’ books.

    Astro City, Top Ten.  The Damned. Those are definitely great city character books. 

  10. @Mike You really need to read Walking Dead. I just started a month or so ago by picking up the compendium, and I’ve already caught up. It’s a little expensive, cost me around a eighty dollars for everything (compendium, two trades, and the four issues of the current arc), but its worth it. It’s hands down my favorite series of all time.

  11. Nice article, I too am a big fan of location in all my fiction, whether it’s movies, TV, comics etc.  Homicide was always a great tv show for the importance of setting.  Comicswise I’m immediately reminded of LOCAL, which was really all about places.  The other great one would be Hellblazer.  Modern urban Britain is the foundation of that book, in all it’s (sometimes ugly) glory.

  12. Anyone know a book which setting is located in seattle? I’m just curious

  13. @Mangaman: Mike Grell’s GREEN ARROW.

  14. Green Arrow was a GREAT Seattle book. I recall it using the city well.

    Also: Steve Seagle’s House of Secrets series.

  15. Now that i have time for a thorough read, great job, Sir.

    Speaking of Brian Wood, "New York Four" was real hard to put down. Growing up in a average suburb, that book made me jealous of that lifestyle id only see in the movies.

    damn you Michigan

  16. oh, I loved New York Four–but I am sad…will it ever show up again?

  17. @mikeromo: Since the Minx line was killed it’s doubtful. 🙁

  18. Gotham After Midnight. Reminds me of all the crazies that come out in Seattle.