Been thinking about New York and Comics Again

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past eight or nine years or so thinking about New York City and comics. A lot of time. This thinking even brought me to New York for three years, to live and do research at the Gotham Center for New York City History as a Swedish Research Council International Postdoc.

The basic outline of my thinking is this. That New York City is a comics staple is as undeniable as it is unsurprising. Some of USAmerican comics’ most influential actors have lived and operated there since the comic strip industry’s beginnings. New York’s dramatic cityscape and its famous landmarks have provided fodder for decades of graphic storytelling. And the city’s special place in the USAmerican and international imaginary makes it a readily recognizable setting for a mass readership. Because of this, fans and academics often claim that New York has a special relationship with comics.

This New York–comics relationship, however, appears axiomatic, a cultural myth that disregards the historical importance of other major comics centers; discounts thousands of comics not set in New York; and ignores the creative contributions of non-New Yorkers to the city’s comics images. Most important, it obscures historical, thematic, political, generic, and contextual differences between New York-set comics produced over several decades. As philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote: in myth, “things lose the memory that they once were made,” and, through an erasure of dialectic, complexity, contradiction, and depth, come to “appear to mean something by themselves.”

New York is certainly not without complexity or contradiction, nor are comics free from dialectic or depth. Historically, New York is an extreme example of ethnoracial and socio-economic diversity, serving as both a home to the established elite, a precarious shelter for outcasts, and the point of entry for millions of immigrants. It has been the scene of both boot-straps ascensions and headlong falls into abject poverty. It is a city of fantasy and rapid change where it is nearly impossible, metaphorically, to walk the same street twice and have the same experience. It is a place that is impossible to grasp in its entirety. Indeed, every urban experience is different, and every urban representation requires an individual “imaginative mapping,” based on what the creator knows and is excluded from, and constructed out of fragmentary views and “archival” images in ways that challenge readers’ familiarity with the scene, even as it plays on it.

The image of New York in comics, then, like that of any represented city, is never merely mimetic of material space, but always a selective and ideologically informed symbolic montage or composite, if not always consciously so. Produced for general consumption, comic books and graphic novels often address current events and articulate what is perceived as the essence of the attitudes of their time and place. Being anchored in their immediate context, they often mirror or criticize contemporary society and strike both conservative and radical notes, constituting cultural artifacts in which a largely neglected historical record is embedded. Thus, New York-set comics can provide deeper insight into popular understandings of the city in the 20th and 21st centuries by challenging or reinforcing what we know.

Since I came back to Sweden, I’ve had to put my research on the backburner, but this spring I’m getting a chance to come back to it in style and you’re all invited to join! There’s still time to sign up for the course I’m giving on New York and comics at the Gotham Center for New York City History. We’ll be dealing with matters large and small pertaining to the ways the city has been imagined and portrayed, what that means, and how it connects to the city’s history and to different understandings of what the is and has been. Everything will be framed in relation to theories of representation and imaginative mapping, and there will be plenty of discussion. See the link above for more information.

The course runs for four weeks online, on Saturdays and Sundays, and starts on March 6, 2021.

An notable update is that until the end of February, if you sign up for the Gotham Center’s newsletter, you get 25% off!

Martin Lund is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Malmö University who mostly researches comics.