Excelsior: Reaching Toward Utopia in Marvel’s New York

Fantastic Four Annual no. 6 (Nov. 1968)
[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.]

Erica’s notion of x-raying the city makes me think of Le Corbusier’s famous concept of Ville Radieuse, that “Radiant City” plan meant to approximate the shape of the human body, which emphasized high-rise housing blocks and free circulation. This abstract linking of the human form to a rationalized urban space represents his desire to link urban citizen and urban environment in a utopian synthesis and speaks tellingly to the implicit promise of the superhero city defined by an aspirational reaching for the sky (often quite literally but, as I have argued regarding Luke Cage, also figuratively). Le Corbusier’s utopian city design is a manifestation of the utopian potential of the human body (as embodiment of individual subjectivity) and, of course, the superhero manifests that potential.

So the linking of the superhero with the modern city is certainly no accident, but while the subjectivity of the Marvel superhero in particular is always in some kind of flux (just as the boundaries and meaning of the city always are), the values they represent remain relatively fixed, per genre conventions. In this way, Le Corbusier’s Radiant City as the superhero city can serve as a metaphor for an ever-upward straining toward a utopian ideal. As a metaphor for genre, the city has cognitively mapped boundaries that also always allow for development within the context of what’s already been built. Thus, when we consider New York City as the definitive superhero city and Marvel as the definitive comic book publisher, a more nuanced and balanced study of both should account for the ways in which diegetic fantasy and real-life come together in the Marvel Universe. That is to say, this universe encapsulates the real and the fantastic, cohering them with the affective energy of fandom – and perhaps best represented by those famous Kirby Krackles that seem to be the constitutive energy of the Marvel Universe.

Erica’s provocation for us to consider those Marvel superheroes not located in New York City has compelled me to reflect on how important New York is to the Marvel brand even if a narrative takes place in the New Mexico desert, outer space, or Asgard. It’s important to remember that these non-New York locations are exceptional in part because they are not New York, so that the city is the ever-present standard, even in its material absence in a narrative. This presence is made manifest in the comic books by the readers’ knowledge of the city as the company’s headquarters, conflating producers with most of their characters. The value of this awareness on the part of Marvel’s audience is that it confirms the rhetorical value of New York City as the entryway into other realms where a utopian self can be actualized. Thus, for example, Reed Richards can take a trip to “sub-space” in The Fantastic Four no. 51 (July 1966), “a world of limitless dimensions … the crossroads of infinity – the junction to everywhere!” from the confines of the Baxter Building, the superhero team’s skyscraper headquarters as the ultimate affirmation of utopian aspirations, not only of the superhero but of the company as well, so that Marvel’s headquarters on Madison Avenue could be regarded by readers in comparable terms.

Stan Lee spoofs himself in “Stan Lee’s Cameo School,” a Kevin Smith-directed promotional tie-in for Audi and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

Stan Lee’s famous catchphrase, “Excelsior!” (Latin for “ever upward”) is the state motto of New York and neatly conflates spatialized, corporate, superhero, and reader identities. Lee used it as his signature sign-off in his “Soapbox” column addressed to fans in every issue of Marvel comic books for several years. This column, defined by its familiar, direct address, was part of the “Bullpen Bulletins,” a kind of in-house newspaper, bringing readers into the Marvel fold, “True Believers” willing to be a part of the imagined community of the Marvel nation. This coherence of producer and consumer subjectivities is furthered by the collapse of fantasy and reality that frequently occurred in the pages of Marvel comic books, in which the company’s creators (whom Lee collectively dubbed the Marvel Bullpen) would appear in the diegetic Marvel Universe. Consider, for example, Marvel Team-Up no. 74 (Oct. 1978), in which Spider-Man teams up with the cast of Saturday Night Live, during an episode in which the host is Stan Lee and the musical guest Rick Jones (at various times the sidekick of the Hulk and Captain America).  In a sense, this story confirms that most Marvel comic books are perennially “live from New York” for their readers.

Live from New York, it’s the Marvel Universe

The explicit use of New York City in Marvel comic books as a marketing strategy could also productively be applied to the company’s development of its identity as a group of New York City-based creators, the Bullpen. Thus our imagining of the Bullpen as a real collective existing in a real New York is reinforced and complicated by this self-reflexive aspect of the comics. In this way, for those readers for whom New York City is no more real than Gotham or Metropolis, it becomes a more authentic space by way of these affect-inducing strategies. I grew up in rural Indiana and Oregon, and New York City was primarily “authentic” to me as a space defined within the pages of Marvel comic books, so much so that when I first visited New York as an adult, my immediate point of reference upon seeing a wooden water tower, for example, was Spider-Man comics (an experience that echoes Lorrie’s consideration of the value of nostalgia to render the city whole).

The personalized association of company and city continues today, even as Marvel increases its media reach. This is most obviously recognizable in the form of Stan Lee’s cameos in the Marvel films, those knowing winks to the audience that work to further expand the population of the Marvel nation, even as the company has acquired an increasingly “ganglion industrial structure,” as Erica so cogently puts it. In fact, the more transmedial the Marvel Universe becomes, the more valuable the confirmation of New York City as its nerve center becomes. So no matter how far this universe extends, it ultimately sends its signals back to a center affectively manifested as New York, the heart of it all.

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