Branding New York: Marvel Comics and Industry Tradition

[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “Marvel Entertainment and the Urban Spaces of Superhero Authenticity.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

New York City has been at the center of the American comic book industry since the early 1930s, when the first newspaper comic strip funnies were collected, bound together, and sold at newsstands. For over eighty years, the city has been home to the corporate headquarters of Marvel Comics while also serving as the most common urban backdrop against which superhero melodrama has played out in the company’s products. In contrast to the imagined, archetypal urban spaces of the DC Comics universe and the recent re-location of DC Comics to Burbank, California, Marvel’s ties with New York City have lent both the company and their product a certain degree of what I could call “marketable perceived authenticity.” This situates Marvel Comics more fully as a legacy company, mindful of its rich history and appreciative of its intimate relationship with its home city. Marvel Comics’ loyalty to New York City both in its business practices and in its produced content enables the company to brand itself and its superheroes as more in keeping with comic book tradition. In short, if New York City is the comic book city, then Marvel positions itself as the comic book company.

Although New York City was the setting for many of Marvel’s Golden Age comics, it was not until Stan Lee took the writing in a new direction in the 1960s and artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko helped re-energize the company’s output that the City became a pronounced marker of realism, grounding extraordinary superpowers in an ordinary urban localeDC thinly veils its re-imaginings of archetypal American urban spaces in general and New York City in particular (as Metropolis, Gotham, Star City and Central City); as locations these are ultimately divorced from the reader’s reality. Not so with Marvel Comics, which, beginning in the Silver Age, paired relatable, flawed superheroes facing everyday problems – anger, insecurity, familial squabbling, financial straits – with New York City’s recognizable landscape. From Peter Parker in Queens to the Avengers Mansion on Fifth Avenue, from Daredevil in Hell’s Kitchen to Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village, Marvel’s superheroes fight both villains and their own demons while traversing New York City’s streets, waters, and skies. As Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief Axel Alonso states, “These are characters that live and breathe in the five boroughs.”

Unlike film and television, whose location shooting can be complicated and cost-prohibitive, in comics, no New York City location is out of bounds. A more “real” or “authentic” New York City can result not only from depictions of iconic architecture and the use of well-known cultural references, but also through diverse representations of identities and experiences often associated with the “melting pot” of NYC. This is evident in recent titles such as Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011-2013), Ms. Marvel (2013-), Spider-Gwen (2015-), The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (2015-), and The All-New, All-Different Avengers (2015-).

Marvel’s allegiance to New York does, however, make it more difficult to attract and maintain readership for superhero properties that are set outside the City and its surrounding environs, as non-NYC superheroes diverge from Marvel’s brand. The top-tier superheroes – The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, The Avengers – are specifically tied to New York City. Although the popular X-Men are headquartered in Westchester, New York, Westchester’s status as home to New York City’s wealthy commuters links this location firmly to the city itself and the X-Men’s exploits often take place in New York City. However, a character like Ms. Marvel, operating in the geographically closer and more diverse, but not as economically successful, Jersey City is often restricted to her hometown. The comic itself comments upon the distinction between NYC-based heroes and others, as in the cover art depicting Kamala Khan staring at the lights of New York from across the Hudson River.

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Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 # 5 Artists: Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson

It is no accident that the well-known “Avengers Assemble” hero shot from Marvel’s The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) takes place in front of the landmark Grand Central Terminal (above which Stark Tower rises in the film, rather than the real-life MetLife Building). New York City is as much a part of the team as Captain America or Iron Man. Thus, when characters step outside the five boroughs, they are often perceived as less-than. The West Coast Avengers, The Great Lakes Avengers, Alpha Flight (a.ka. Canadian Avengers) – the original Avengers team needs no additional language marking them as New York City Avengers, as the city is part and parcel of the original Marvel superhero identity.

Of course there are exceptions. Most notably, Marvel Comics publishes a plethora of characters that live or travel to outer space or other worlds, such as Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy, or Thor. There are also characters such as the L.A.-centric Kate Bishop or the aforementioned Ms. Marvel that are doing well with critics and sales despite their non-New York settings. Kate Bishop, who first moved to L.A. in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye series (2012-2015), has now returned there in her own series, also entitled Hawkeye (2016-), and series press coverage demonstrates that the West Coast setting is still enough of an oddity to be frequently commented upon. A Marvel superhero far from New York City remains a distinct outlier – Marvel means New York.

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Hawkeye #1 Artist: Leonardo Romero

Marvel utilizes its strategic association with New York City to distinguish itself from DC Comics not only in its narrative content but also in its business practices. Despite Marvel Studio’s booming film business in California, Marvel has maintained its strong foothold in New York City. That DC Comics has not allows Marvel to further reinforce its connections with the history of the comic book industry, keeping with tradition even as media convergence seemingly demands geographic proximity to its film branch and its corporate parent, Disney. When DC Comics relocated to Burbank in order to be closer their corporate parent, Warner Bros., Marvel seized the opportunity to capitalize on their competition’s abandonment of tradition in favor of corporate convergence. Branding themselves oppositionally against DC, Marvel released a series of themed variant covers celebrating New York City, such as Iron Man flying above the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows, Ms. Marvel enjoying the breeze on the West Side’s High Line, Hulk chilling in Central Park, or Groot and Rocket Raccoon causing a ruckus down in the Lexington Avenue & 53rd Street subway station.

Marvel doubled down on its NYC roots by filming its quintet of Netflix shows – Daredevil (2015-), Jessica Jones (2015-), Luke Cage (2016-), Iron Fist (2017), and The Defenders (2017) – on location in the city, while also setting season one of Agent Carter (ABC 2015-2016) in 1940s New York (that show, however, was filmed in Los Angeles). While the geographical blandness of Jessica Jones, the anachronistic portrayal of Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil, and the largely set-bound nature of Luke Cage masks much of New York City’s potential specificity and perceived authenticity, these television programs trade on and reify Marvel’s brand associations with New York, while also replicating the textual union of “realistic” superheroes with the “authentic” neighborhoods of the City.

Marvel’s rhetorical use of NYC as a marker of authenticity to distinguish itself does have its limits. In Marvel’s cinematic fare, New York City plays a less central role, as the films have grown increasingly global in scale in order to attract the ever-more important international audience, with recent films like Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) and Captain America: Civil War (Russo Bros., 2016) either shooting on location in places like Seoul, South Korea or dressing locations in Atlanta as stand-ins for foreign locales.  However, the City remains a key setting (even in non-location shoots) for films like X-Men (Singer, 2000), Fantastic Four and its sequel (Story, 2005; 2007), Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy (2002; 2004; 2007), The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel (Webb, 2012; 2014), and Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entries such as The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008), Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011), and Dr. Strange (Derrickson, 2016). Thus, New York City is a branding mechanism not only for Marvel’s comics, but also across their range of media. Whether it be Squirrel Girl stopping a sinkhole from destroying Central Park in the comics, Luke Cage defending the streets of Harlem on Netflix, or Spider-Man saving the Staten Island Ferry on the big screen, Marvel’s brand remains New York.

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