Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Urbanism of Superheroes

Batman Begins (2005), Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900), Superman Returns (2006)

In his book about the creators of golden age comics, Men of Tomorrow, Gerard Jones writes:

The superman was scarcely a new idea and was in fact a common motif of both low and high culture by the early Thirties, the inevitable product of those doctrines of perfectibility promoted by everyone from Bernarr Macfadden to Leon Trotsky. The word had descended from Nietzche’s Übermensch through Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, but it was easily wedded to ideas neither Nietzchean nor Shavian. In Germany Adolf Hitler was claiming that a whole nation of supermen could be forged through institutional racism and Militarism, and his popularity was rising steadily. In America the idea of eugenic was being explored as Ivy League universities… Even leftists could use the word: a Cleveland radical named Joseph Pirincin argued in his lectures that socialist production methods would create a ‘superabundance’ of goods and opportunities, would make the citizens of a socialist future a ‘veritable superman’ by our current standards.

That Depression Era mash of eugenics, nationalism, and progress/self-improvement, when introduced into the settings of the already popular crime pulps, gave birth to two enduring strains of superheroes: those that are inhumanly-super, like Superman; and those that are merely humanly-super, like Batman. Each has a place, an urban setting. More than childhood trauma or costume choices, it is these negative spaces that surround the heroes that make them what they are.

Both these ur-superheroes were recently re-imagined for Twenty-First Century film audiences and their urban settings updated. The phone booths are gone from Metropolis, and the scale and squalor of Gotham's slums has grown even more horrible. The realist pessimism of Gotham and the idealist optimism of Metropolis are attitudes about city life that have their origins in the very earliest moments of the modern world, but it is a false and outdated dichotomy.

Batman & Machiavelli

Batman is the Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli of comic books. Machiavelli's 1513 political treatise, The Prince, is a primer on how to be the God Damn Batman. The Florentine poet justified rule by force, advised that it "is much safer to be feared than loved," and counseled the powerful to use subterfuge and illusion as means to their ends. Batman's role demands that he, exactly like Machiavelli's Prince, stand above us as a paragon of moral virtue, and that his moral certitude justifies the violent means he employs. Batman is humanly-super: stronger, smarter and faster, but also morally superior. He is not simply a stand-alone figure however, he (and the crime-fighting overmen he inspired) require us to accept the grimmest judgment of our all too human nature. For Batman to function, city dwellers must be reduced to vermin. Gotham is a portrait of the city as a rat's nest.

This vision of Gotham reached its peak in 1986 with the publication of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. In Miller's story Gotham City had been overwhelmed by gang violence, a playground for youthful superpredators, and populated by the sorts of passive "bystanders" who supposedly stood by and watched as Kitty Genovese was cut down. The story we were being told was that cities were ungovernable, escalating crime was unstoppable, and we, the people who lived in the cities, were cowardly, corrupt, and morally bankrupt.

Superman & Sir Thomas More

Superman is the Utopos of comic books, and Metropolis is the city-as-it ought-to-be. In Sir Thomas More's 1516 political fantasy, Utopia a conquistador named Utopos invades a peninsula somewhere in the Americas, makes himself king, and founds the perfect state:

Utopus, that conquered it (whose name it still carries, for Abraxa was its first name), brought the rude and uncivilized inhabitants into such a good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind. Having soon subdued them, he designed to separate them from the continent, and to bring the sea quite round them. To accomplish this he ordered a deep channel to be dug, fifteen miles long; and that the natives might not think he treated them like slaves, he not only forced the inhabitants, but also his own soldiers, to labor in carrying it on.

One of the earliest stories Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman, wrote about the Man of Steel, was a story in which Superman confronted juvenile delinquency by tearing down the slums where the troubled youth lived so authorities would be forced to build “decent public housing.” In Batman's Gotham, human-nature makes the city a bad place. In Superman's Metropolis, exactly like More's Utopia, it is the city that makes people bad, and it needs to be physically reordered for it to be a "good place" and for "the rude and uncivilized inhabitants" to be brought to "that measure of politeness." Superman isn't just any sort of utopian; he's a Modernist.

The "Superman in the Slums" story appeared in 1939, the same year that New York World's Fair opened, celebrating the theme of the World of Tomorrow. DC comic would print special editions comics featuring Superman for the Fair and even sponsored a Superman Day. One of the Fair's organizers' and the man who embodied the vision of housing projects and superhighways that would "displace outmoded business sections and undesired slum areas" was the Modernist urban planner Robert Moses. Slum clearance was the heroic utopian labor of the day, and he was the man responsible for bulldozing more acreage of "slum" housing then any other.

Map of Utopia (1595), Action Comics #8 (1939)

The “splendid housing conditions” that Superman's creators, Siegel and Shuster, so admired, were exactly the sort of no-nonsense housing blocks Robert Moses would bulldoze whole sections of New York City to build. This was no coincidence; Moses was one of the most influential men in America in 1939. His ideas about city planning would not only shape New York, they shaped cities around the world.

According to his nemesis, the urbanist Jane Jacobs, in 1961 Moses planned to level the existing housing stock in New York's Greenwich Village (where she lived at the time) and "mass-produce a new 'neighborhood,' formed for the most part by large, identical buildings." Superman's mission in 1939 was clear-cut; to get rid of crime-ridden slums, and replace them with rationalized modern structures where crime would be a thing of the past. As it turns out, the reality was a bit more complex.

Due to the efforts of Jacobs and her neighbors the Village was not bulldozed. The neighborhood was categorized as a slum and slated for clearance, not because of a crime problem, or sewage running through the streets. It was, and is, one of the nicest areas of New York City, but because of the density and age of housing stock the Modernists categorized it as a slum. While ‘slums’ were portrayed as crime ridden in comic books, the term as it was used by urban planners, politicians, and bankers had nothing to do with public safety. The reasons for clearing them were dogmatic. Modernist planners believed a good city ought to be new, allowing them to separate residential and commercial areas, provide suburban lawn-like green space, and should be isolated for the corrupting influences of bars. In her first book Death and Life of Great American Cities Jacobs systematically attacked these presumptions. Argued against playgrounds and parks and championed wide sidewalks and neighborhood bars.

Jane Jacobs & Wonder Woman

In her second book The Economy of Cities Jacobs explained that Moses' scheme for the Village would have cost $35,000,000.00 (in 1964 dollars) and would have destroyed "more than seven hundred existing dwellings, the expenditure would have resulted in a net gain of 300 dwelling units and a net loss of 156 businesses." Jacobs and her neighbors successfully resisted the slum clearance efforts and even offered an alternative scheme. They proposed the city use already vacant lots in the neighborhood and build new stock there. Jacobs says the alternate plan would have displaced no one, cost only $8,700,000.00, and would have added 475 dwellings.

Jacobs accused Moses and other modernist planners of being utopians. While that charge is usually taken to mean unrealistically optimistic, Jacobs carefully constructed criticism of the Modernist makes the charge of utopian far more pointed and reveals just as much about More as Moses. The vision of mass-produced block replacing the chaos of neighborhoods has been with modern cities since Thomas More described his Utopia:

He that knows one of their towns knows them all—they are so like one another, except where the situation makes some difference… Its figure is almost square… Their buildings are good, and are so uniform that a whole side of a street looks like one house… they say the whole scheme of the town was designed at first by Utopus, but he left all that belonged to the ornament and improvement of it to be added by those that should come after him, that being too much for one man to bring to perfection.

Robert Moses & Superman

In his book about utopias and scifi, Archaeologies of the FutureFredric Jameson makes it is clear that Thomas More’s Utopia grew was a reaction against the “irritant” of commerce and money that in More’s time “remained episodic,” flaring up within the fairs and cities, but not yet an element of rural life. Utopia reflects More’s “nostalgia for monasticism.” And the brand of anti-urban fantasy he spawned at the dawn of the modern era set a pattern that is still in play, that by imposing rational order onto the chaotic and congested space of the city. Like Moses, Superman was probably against bars, most urban reformers were (and probably still are). Jacobs was bucking dogma and common sense when she wrote a thoughtful and convincing defense of bars as important elements within a healthy city block.

The agenda of the Modernists was for the forthright moral purity of basic rural life to be restored to those poor lost city dwellers. Exactly like More, Modernist planners believed that by re-ordering cities physically, moral orders could be re-organized as well. History has shown that they were wrong. The splendid housing conditions built by the moderns had their own problems. In Chicago, where I grew up, housing projects were geographically isolated from the greater city and used as holding pens for the poor, in a city referred to by the KKK leader David Duke "segregation city" (that was a drag), the projects became racially segregated ghettos. In his graphic novel Give Me Liberty Frank Miller, Batman's great chronicler, fantasized about encapsulating the crime and disorder of Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green housing projects underneath a geodesic dome. (Miller is a Sith.)

Superman & Robert Moses

As a part of his American Icon series, Kurt Anderson did a really detailed and interesting profile of Superman. The piece discusses how after the "Superman in the Slums" story (which had Superman fighting the national guard), the editors at DC reigned in Siegel and Schuster. Superman lost any political edge and increasingly became an "establishment figure," no longer challenging the authorities. It wasn’t until Frank Miller’s Dark Night Returns was published almost fifty years later that Superman’s political role as an establishment figure always loyal to the American state was once again tested. In Miller's story America was on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets. Batman and Superman are at loggerheads. Batman was in a "by any means necessary" battle with street crime and Superman had effectively become an arm of the US Military; a super-human Ollie North serving at the pleasure of a comically decrepit Ronald Reagan.

The birth of Metropolis (and its shadow Gotham) took place at the end of the Great Depression and the earliest moments of WWII. Miller's story appeared at the end of the Cold War, at a moment when American cities were spiraling downward from years of neglect and the world faced a true existential threat. The two stories bookend a period of ferocious urban development shaped by a powerful anti-urban pessimism that was shared by all corners of the Ideological divide. One of the few things that nearly everyone could agree during the Cold War; communists and capitalists; liberals and conservatives, was that cities were violent incubators of sin and vice.

Superman: Red Son, & The Watchman

Jane Jacobs is a notable and prescient exception. In 1968 she wrote about how that pessimism shaped urban policy on both sides of the ideological divide at the height of the Cold War. She relates the story of how the Rockefeller Foundation invested in building a contraceptives factory in rural India.

The Rockefellers, early in the 1960s, decided to build a factory in India to produce plastic intrauterine loops for birth control. At the same time they were undertaking to combat the Indian birthrate [in the mistaken belief that poor people perpetuate poverty by multiplying excessively], they also wanted to curb migration to Indian cities. A way to do this, they thought, was to set up industry in small settlements instead of cities.

Mao Zedong & Kal-El

Jacobs reports that the experiment was a fiasco; that the factory had to be closed down and moved to a nearby city. She presciently questioned the premises the Rockefellers were working from. She wrote that the Rockefeller’s little fiasco “casts light on the great fiasco of Chinese economic planning of 1957-58, so hopefully called the Great Leap Forward.”

The planners of this program shared with the Rockefellers the belief that village industry would be more wholesome for a predominantly rural country than city industry. In Part, for reasons to be mentioned later in this book, the policy seems to have been a defense measure, but it was also, in part, evidently based upon the conventional belief that cities are superficial economically while rural production and rural life are ‘basic.’

According to Jacobs the Great Leap was designed to counter the movement to cities, as well as to industrialize China rapidly, but “In spite of heroic efforts, few of these factories ever got into production, the program was abandon after two years. The economic corpse of the attempt dot China.” While Jacobs does not discuss it, one could add the racist regime of South African Apartheid to this list. Starting in 1948 and lasting until the 1990s, Apartheid was an effort to create an Industrialized economy while simultaneously excluding black workers from city life. Of all the modern urban planning experiments, this was probably the most hideous and strange, but again, it was founded, in part, on the same urban pessimism that was shaping cities around the developing world (the other part being a particularly septic racism).
At the same time it was becoming apparent that the utopian reform of the slums promised by Robert Moses and valorized by Superman’s Metropolis was a failure, scientific findings based on rat studies confirmed the grimmest fantasies of Gotham; bolstering the septic racism and anti-urbanism of those who feared and misunderstood the “inner city.”

Batman Begins (2005), John Calhoun's "Behavioral Sink" (1970)

In 1962 Scientific America “published a seminal paper by experimental psychologist John B. Calhoun entitled ‘Population Density and Social Pathology.’” It wasn’t until 2000, when American cities were well into their recovery that Calhoun’s scientific metaphor of rats and humans was rebutted in that same magazine by the primatologist Frans de Waal:

[Calhoun’s original] article opened dramatically with an observation by the late- 18th-century English demographer Thomas Malthus that human population growth is automatically followed by increased vice and misery. Calhoun went on to note that although we know overpopulation causes disease and food shortage, we understand virtually nothing about its behavioral impact.

This reflection had inspired Calhoun to conduct a nightmarish experiment. He placed an expanding rat population in a crammed room and observed that the rats soon set about killing, sexually assaulting and, eventually, cannibalizing one another. Much of this activity happened among the occupants of a central feeding section. Despite the presence of food elsewhere in the room, the rats were irresistibly drawn to the social stimulation— even though many of them could not reach the central food dispensers. This pathological togetherness, as Calhoun described it, as well as the attendant chaos and behavioral deviancy, led him to coin the phrase “behavioral sink.”

Calhoun’s behavioral sink helped harden anti-urban biases into a scientifically-based dogma, de Wall and his coauthors admitted:
Primate research initially appeared to support the harrowing scenario that had been presented for rats. In the 1960s scientists reported that city-dwelling monkeys in India were more aggressive than were those living in forests. Others claimed that monkeys in zoos were excessively violent. Those monkeys were apparently ruled by terrifying bullies who dominated a social hierarchy that was considered an artifact of captivity—in other words, in the wild, peace and egalitarianism prevailed. Borrowing from the hyperbole of popularizers, one study of crowding in small captive groups of baboons even went so far as to report a "ghetto riot.”

Planet of the Apes (1968), All Star Superman (2005)

In an essay about the science fiction author Charles Stross the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman observed that “Modernization turns out to be pretty hard to do. I may have a better sense of this than most, because I’m an economist of a certain age. When I went to grad school in the mid-70s, I thought about doing development economics – but decided not to, because it was too depressing. Basically, circa 1975 there weren’t any success stories: poor countries remained obstinately poor, despite their access to 20th-century technology.”

Elsewhere, Krugman says that it wasn’t until the mid 1980s, that development tactics began to be effective, but he admits that economist still don’t understand why. Krugman is referring to efforts to develop third world economies, but modernization is urbanization. (Something the Rockefellers and Chinese learned the hard way.) Jameson observes that Utopia was published “...almost exactly contemporaneous with most of the innovations that we have seemed to define modernity (conquest of the New World, Machiavelli and modern politics, Ariosto and modern literature, Luther and modern consciousness, printing and the modern public sphere).” Curiously the one innovation Jameson leaves off his list is explosive urban growth that in the 16th century began its spread around the globe.

The God Damn Rudi Giuliani & The Dark Knight

That explosive growth has most often been pointed to as a negative. That was the case in the mid 1980s when Frank Miller’s wildly violent Gotham was first published. City life the US was at an all time low, violent crime was skyrocketing and suburban malls seemed to be about to deliver the killing blow to already stressed downtown shopping districts. Miller’s Dark Knight was fingering a very real wound, but what he couldn’t know then (and judging by everything he has done since, has still failed to absorbed) was that his grim vision of city life was about to be overturned, not by scientific studies, but by urbanites themselves.

On his website, Malcolm Gladwell, who made his reputation writing about street crime, admits that, “The startling decline in crime in major American cities in the mid-1990’s is a mystery. No one predicted it. Everyone thought that high crime rates were a permanent feature of urban life.” The moment Gladwell is the same bewildering moment that Krugman is referring to. Only a few years later city life would pass through a change so profound that observers are still at a loss to explain it. Urban crime dropped so precipitously in the 1990s that explanations ran the gamut from legalized abortion, that social change may resemble disease tipping points, and even (my current favorite - thank you Felix Salmon) that since the removal of leaded gasoline from the market young men are less violent. (I do not give NYC's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, any credit for the drop in crime. Crime rates continue to drop in cities where no special action was taken, along with cities like New York that aggressively policed minority communities.)

In his 1999 article de Waal explained what city dwellers themselves had already begun to show, that Calhoun's findings were flawed. A better understanding of apes and more carefully designed studies, make clear that primates are not rats:

Our research leads us to conclude that we come from a long lineage of social animals capable of flexibly adjusting to all kinds of conditions, including unnatural ones such as crowded pens and city streets. The adjustment may not be without cost, but it is certainly preferable to the frightening alternative predicted on the basis of rodent studies.

Like the mysterious changes in the effectiveness of developmental efforts that has Krugman scratching his head, economists, policy makers, and pundits are still not sure why urban violence has been dropping. The evidence on the ground, that violent crime rates are continuing to fall, is bolstered by de Waal's findings. It is no longer a given that cities are violent "behavior sinks."

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (1968), Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman (2005)

In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand recasts Calhoun’s urban pessimism in terms of cultural and environmental hope for our global future. He calls cities “populations sinks.” In Brand’s judgment the Calhoun's behavior sink becomes a needed reservoir akin to the much-celebrated carbon sink. Brand unsentimentally points to the positive qualities of population density, not only because city dwellers have fewer children, use less energy and generally have a much smaller carbon footprint than their rural counterparts, but because cities are engines of creativity and positive social change. “Cities are wealth creators.” He writes, and he points out, they are the future:

The ten-thousand-year flow of people to cities has become a torrent. In 1800 the world was 3 percent urban; in 1900, 14 percent urban; in 2007 50 percent urban. The world cross that threshold – from a rural majority to an urban majority – at a sprint. We are now a city plane, and the Greener for it… At the current rate, humanity may well be 80 percent urban by mid-century. Every week there are 1.3 million new people in cities. That’s 70 million a year, decade after decade. It’s the largest movement of people in history.

Kowloon Walled City (1898-1987), The Narrows

To sustain the fiction of cities as rats nests for 21st century audiences, the director Christopher Nolan created a massive third world slum directly across the river from the fictional American Gotham. In Nolan's Batman Begins "The Narrows" is a neighborhood so dangerous, "Cops only go there in force." The architecture of Nolan's slum is recognizably that of a Brazilian favela, or Mumbia squatter settlement.

Like Jacobs in 1961, who was opposed to Modernist slum clearance and saw density as a positive quality invisible to her contemporaries, Brand sees the high density of slums of contemporary South America, Asia and Africa as the model for future city life. While Jacobs pointed to so-called slums as healthy, but underserved neighborhoods in Boston and New York, and argued that they were positive examples to be emulated by planners, Brand points to vast squatter cities that house billions of people globally as feral urbanism that needs to be legitimized and fostered. The favelas and katchi abadi are thousands of times larger then the neighborhoods Jacobs wrote about, but Brand points out that San Francisco started out as a shanty town, and while he is quick to admit that "new squatter cities look like human cesspools and often smell like them," these are still neighborhoods, they are a legitimate form of urban development. These are not the "breeding ground for suffering and injustice" that Nolan has cast them as. In Brand's description squatter cities are vibrant:

Their narrow lanes are bustling markets, with food stalls, bars, cafes, hair salons, dentists, churches, schools, health clubs [I am quoting], and mini-shops trading in cell phones tools, trinkets, clothes, electronic gadgets, and bootleg videos and music. This is urban life at its most intense. It is social capital at its richest, because everybody in a slum neighborhood knows everybody else intimately, whether they want to or not. What you see up close is not a despondent populace crushed by poverty but a lot of people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can.

Kowloon Walled City & Jane Jacobs

Explosive urban growth is modernity. Utopia is to urban growth as industrial agriculture is to wild growth. Utopia is the expression of an anti-urbanist bias; a desire to tame cities; to rationalize and control their growth; to impose moral order. Rem Koolhaas calls the explosive urbanism of early 20th Century Manhattan a “culture of congestion” and blames European modernism for "lobotomizing" the "Capital of Perpetual Crisis." In a nice bit of post-war symmetry, the Situationist International idealized the confounding and compressed center of the old Ville de Paris, defending it against a brand of modernist development widely seen as American, and prompting Raul Vaneigem to proclaim:

“Our position is that of combatants between two worlds - one that we don’t acknowledge, the other that does not yet exist.”

These are the same forces that denuded Superman and turned him into a creature of the establishment, and justified Batman’s uncompromising violence If squatter cities are indeed the world of tomorrow, one is left to wonder what a feral superman would fight for, how he would fight, what he would fight against, and what kind of city it would take to support him. At the time The Matrix premiered I remember thinking that this was the superhero movie I had waited for my entire life (I cannot describe how much it bummed me out to watch Spiderman climb around suburban corporate developments). I was struck by how different the city and the hero both were from either the crime fighter or the superman. The film held out the promise of something new, something feral.

Christopher Reeves (1978), Keanu Reeves (1999)


  1. I don't know if its just my computer, but your whole website looks incredibly messed up right now.

  2. Firefox is not working, not sure why. Safari and Crome are OK. Anyone have any thoughtS?

  3. This is a really interesting article, John, a great read. I've always held a weird fascination with the dual-presentation of NYC in the WB Superman and Batman cartoons at the end of the last decade. The show would be either Superman or Batman and you could always tell which it was by the opening shot of the sky: Metropolis was always a bright, sun drenched blue while Gotham's burned red at night...

  4. Thanks Brian, glad you enjoyed the post. Full disclosure: I was always a Marvel guy. But a Batman obsessed artist I went to grad school with used to say that exact same thing - Gothem is Manhattan at night, Metropolis is Manhattan durring the day. I've noticed in the Nolan movies however Gothem favors Chicago. I am trying for the third time to read "The Ten-Cent Plague" (I really liked men of Tomorrow), Hajdu say Metropolis was a fictionalized Cleveland.

  5. John,

    I love where you are going with this. You mention the Matrix at the end. It would be great to see you extend your parallels to modern filmic sci-fi, like Star Treks, BattleStar, Terminators, and so on. Another grand recycling of mythic archetypes (like superman, utopia, modernism) is our current transformation of angles and demons into aliens. There are several books on how ancient accounts of angel visitations read like encounters of the third kind.

  6. I am sneaking up on an epic post about the Matrix. This post was a discarded portion of a much longer piece about the Matrix - Portrait of the Artist as Superman - and maybe even my idea for a sequel (its really cool).
    I wonder since I know the singularity is something your interested in, if you might have meant to write 'our current transformation into angles and demons and aliens...' That is something I think a great deal about.

  7. Dang dude... Epic piece... And it looks a-ok on Chrome.