The first series of posts in this Roundtable have produced definitions of authenticity remarkable in their breadth of subject and applicability: from Laura’s discussion of brand identity, to Lorrie’s vision of a democratic, unified social space, to Matt and James’s explorations of raced and vulnerable bodies in specific neighborhoods. At the same time, these posts have collectively raised an image of the urban that is remarkably singular – no matter if we’re discussing Ms. Marvel or Agent Carter, The Avengers or Defenders like Luke Cage and Daredevil, we are always talking about New York. As Laura said, “if New York City is the comic book city, then Marvel positions itself as the comic book company.” As we enter the second round, I want to examine some issues arising from our various discussions of authenticity and push a bit at the limitation or orientation that New York as a default or singular urban setting offers.
As I mentioned to Laura, one of the most striking aspects of her post for me was her discussion of a Ms. Marvel cover that shows Kamala Khan looking longingly at the western Manhattan skyline from Jersey City.
The idea that Kamala’s hometown is defined entirely by its view of, and distance from, New York is echoed in Kevin Lynch’s discussion of how Jersey City residents feel a sense of dislocation, anonymity, and lack of collective identity because their sense of their city remains inchoate – the only way residents even experience a sense of direction is when they view Manhattan across the Hudson. 1Kevin Lynch, Image of the City (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1960):26, 29 Lynch’s analysis was central to his canonic 1960 book Image of the City, which contended that urban inhabitants are most able to function as fully realized individuals and members of communities when they can form a clear image of the city in which they live. Lynch found that features like edges, paths, and nodes help them achieve this. Throughout the book, New York, particularly Manhattan, emerges as a city with an especially sharp image because of its clear edges and paths. This suggests why New York makes such an ideal setting for Marvel: how can one forcefully assert that heroes are protecting a city, as James asks, if it is difficult to visualize that city as a unified whole being protected? New York’s imagability reinforces its iconic quality, as Laura suggests, and enables the feeling of urban wholeness and centripetal mass culture that Lorrie describes. It also picks out recognizable nodes like Harlem, so that characters like Luke Cage may mutually constitute their identity with a particular neighborhood and its raced embodiment, as Matt claims.
But what happens to, and how do we talk about, those Marvel properties that are not set in New York? If the bodies of the Defenders that Matt and James talk about are given history, made authentic, and marked – made legible – by their race, gender, and/or disability, then do we understand the unmoored Malibu home of Tony Stark, the outer-space rootlessness of Star Lord, and the globetrotting nature of Captain America as helping to unmark them, or naturalize them, as the heroic default of straight white men? What kind of authenticity do these characters of different cities, or no cities, access? What about the imagined cities in Thor and Black Panther? To what extent are they imagined and imaged through a more or less visible New York template? And if we do want to talk more about New York’s authenticity, what do we make of the fact that not only Agent Carter, but also Daredevil and Luke Cage seem to derive a lot of their “authentic” discussion of urbanism and urban history from being set in the past: how else do we understand the specter of out of control crime in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem but as projections of these neighborhoods’ pasts onto their presents? Of course, we could also argue that these series’ consistent connection of violent, raced- and classed- crime to the disembodied threat of (white collar) real estate speculation and (white) gentrification – to which their location shooting contributes – makes them very current.
To move away from a question of aesthetics and culture to one of industry, I was also struck by James’s evocation of De Certeau’s famous binary of viewers and walkers. But I want to consider it in more metaphoric terms. De Certeau discusses his sky-based viewers (the flight-capable, big-picture, global-threat ready Avengers) as readers and his walkers (the Defenders) as writers. 2Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984): 98-102 If we try to think about Marvel’s relation to the urban in terms of industrial networks and structures, we get something that totally forbids the first kind of view and looks a lot more – whether for creative personnel, top managers, critics, or audiences – like the second.
By this I mean that if we think about the kind of global distribution network that Marvel has for many of its platforms – the corporate organization of companies like ABC, the structure of a streaming series, or the labyrinthine connections that direct the MCU – then we have something that is incredibly difficult to image. Moreover, if we were to compare it to a city, these networks look a lot less like New York and a lot more like the global megacities whose de-centralized, polynucleotide skeletons dominate the current era (and if we were to x-ray New York today, we’d find its borders untraceable within the global flows of capital that define it). So my question is – and given the length of that sentence I’d better have one – do we think that the way Marvel figures and markets authenticity is going to change given its ganglion industrial structure? Is it going to start using other cities, or other spatial configurations, to embody, authenticate, and code its characters? What’s superhero life look like after the Automat?
Erica Stein is an Associate Professor of Film at Vassar College. She is the author of Seeing Symphonically: Avant-Garde Film, Urban Planning, and the Utopian Image of New York (SUNY 2021) and the co-editor of The Companion to Media and the City (Routledge, 2022). Her work can also be found in Camera Obscura, Journal of Film and Video, and New Review of Film and Television Studies. In 2015 she co-founded Mediapolis with Brendan Kredell and served as managing editor until 2020.