Oh The Places You’ll Go! (When You Read Comics)

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?


Ryan Haupt is about to move out of a big city, this column may have been a way to help deal with that. Hear him deal with explaining science every week on the podcast Science… sort of.


  1. My favorite vacation spot is Gotham City. It’s not palm trees, sun and beaches…..but I still like it. 😉

    • “Go in the winter, when the snow covers everything up and the city looks bright and new.” – The Black Mirror (more or less)

    • I’m sure it’s mostly a personal local bias, but I see a LOT of parallels between Detroit and recent depictions of Gotham. I think a lot of Detroit-area Bat-fans were really disappointed when the state of Michigan couldn’t work out the tax incentives to allow The Dark Knight Rises to shoot here.

  2. Some of us live in the real Portsmouth

  3. One of the reasons I’m more of a DC than Marvel guy is because of all the fictional cities. They fit their respective heroes and they’re allowed to have personalities of their own.

  4. Funkytown

  5. If only I could make it to Themyscira (and they let me stay)

  6. I’ve always liked the idea of Latveria. It’s even better having studied Eastern Europe in grad school and trying to figure out what each different writer was trying to convey. Is Doctor Doom a Marvel U Kim Jong Il?

  7. Tom Katers taught me to stay out of the parks in Central City.

  8. What I like about Opal City is that it doesn’t seem like a terrible place to live as most other places in comics do.

  9. I love this short n sweet article cause it touches on one of my favorite things and reasons I was pulled into the DCU and stayed awhile and came to love it. Growing up a Marvel kid where many of my favorites were NY/hells kitchen based when I really got into the DCU a few years ago it was the escapism of nonexistent cities like Opal, Central, Keystone,Coast, Gotham, Metropolis and Themyscia. I especially liked Opal and Keystone cause it was Starman and the JSA with they’re rich history,nostalgia and multigenerational world of characters with connections to the rest of the DCU that made me wanna stay and long to come back. Comics to me are complete escapism and find them therapeutic more then many things these days and is why a few years ago I really got back into them after years of not reading anything. I love that these places only exist in a world I like to vacation to in my mind, I love the Marvel U (especially the X-men side, and maybe it’s partly cause they have fictional locations as well) but the timeless feeling I get from the DC cities is pure escapism and think we need more fictional cities in comics. I also want art deco posters framed like the Metropolis one above for a few DCU cities.. I appreciate the idea of escapism and travel ,forever and often as possible….it’s a way of life/state of mind I prefer to live by. Thanx for the refreshing article hitting a note I don’t hear anyone speak of but always feel myself.

  10. d4tis (@danny4tis) says:

    sorry to be pedantic, but its actually Oceanic 815

  11. Madripoor, I’m feeling lucky! Wait, is it a city or an island nation?

  12. Wakanda. It seems like the place you’d go on a school trip but come back to as an adult and really appreciate.

  13. I can definitely relate with your geographic fixation, Ryan, and the desire to reach beyond it and just enjoy the books. I’m Canadian, and we tend to obsess about fiction that’s set here, and how well or poorly it represents reality. I’m still interested in those things, but not out of an obsession to make it all “fit” any more. Setting is important to any kind of literature, and analyzing the setting teaches you a lot about the author’s intent, cultural perspective and the universe he or she has created. Sometimes they use real places that they know (like Marvel does, generally), other times by creating idealized fictional places that match the personality of their characters (like DC does, generally). Either way, it teaches you stuff about where they’re coming from, literally and figuratively.

    Being a map nerd, you might be interested in this map I made of Canada in the Marvel Universe, examining what Marvel’s gotten right or wrong about Canadian geography:


  14. I created an account just to comment on this one article. I too long to visit Opal City. It was my favorite character in my favorite comic series. If I ever have another kid and its a girl, her name is Opal.

  15. Yes, DC comics does a good job of this but a lot of comics do this. I have never been to New York, but a lot of its mythos to me were built on Marvel Comics. Also I don’t know if I’ll ever go to Cleveland in my life but Harvey Pekar certainly got me well aquanted with it.

  16. I would love to go to metropolis just to see the daily planet but heading to gotham city would just be totally awesome…… Wow the way your mind just wonders but I think the batman and robin movie gave me a a little imagination of movie which uis the movie I grew up with but thank god the dark knight and my new love for comics just destroyed such vision