Behind all the sin and the struggle for good is the all-important backdrop, Gotham City, perhaps Robert Kane and Bill Finger’s second greatest creation after the Batman himself. If Batman represents the action hero and ultimate humanist, Gotham is the ultimate surrealist, expressionist, nihilistic noir city and stage. Gotham is a nightmare city, once glorious—at least by appearances—but now decayed into a perpetual moral twilight of faded art deco glory.
Yet, Gotham had its moments of glory as well. Inspired by the 1939 World’s Fair, Carmine Infantino, one of the most important Batman artists of the Silver Age, created the gleaming megapolis of Marvel and DC comics. “Yes, and I went nuts for the General Motors section. Of course they had ‘Cities of the Future’ there, with flying cars and strange roadways. I went there four or five times, I believe. I kept going back there all the time.” Though only a child when first visiting the fair, its vision of the future stayed with him throughout his life, inspiring the glorious backdrops he would create in the 1950s and 1960s. “It was Carmine who made the mega-city—whether it was called New York or Central City or later Gotham City or Metropolis—into an eternally looming yet quietly beneficent presence,” Roy Thomas, a long-time comic stalwart argued. “Somehow, it just didn’t seem likely that some dark, primitive force like evil was going to triumph while those sleek architectural marvels stretched across the horizon from border left to border right, subtly reminding the reader that the story he was reading was taking place in a world that was, ultimately, civilized.
Yet, returning to its darker roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gotham has served as more than a backdrop. In some inexplicable way, it is a character as well. It becomes the very personification of Bruce Wayne’s wishes and fears, a reflection of his very soul. David Goyer, the author of the first two Christopher Nolan Batman films states, perceptively:
The other thing that struck me in watching The Dark Knight Rises—I don’t even remember how much of this was conscious or not at the time—I know with Batman Begins, we talked about how Gotham was a sort of proxy for his father’s legacy—not just Wayne Manor but Gotham itself. That’s why when Rā’s al Ghūl goes after it, it’s such a stake through the heart. It’s interesting to watch how much Gotham plays as a character in the three films, how the stakes to Gotham escalate from movie to movie into the incredibly horrific stakes that you guys did so beautifully in the realization of The Dark Knight Rises. It’s interesting to me how much Gotham is a part of Bruce and vice versa.
In some way—perhaps available only in fiction and myth—Bruce Wayne is Gotham, and Gotham is Bruce Wayne. Dr. Nolan, however, believes Gotham is more related to the entire Wayne family as a whole and not just to Bruce.
For me, one of the most important bits in The Dark Knight Rises is when Alfred says, ‘I never wanted you to come back to Gotham.’ Talking about when he left. It’s surprising and it’s shocking, but there’s a real logic to it. And I think it ties in with what you’re saying: Gotham is his parents. Gotham is his tragedy. He cares very deeply about it and he doesn’t want to leave it behind but, at the same time, it’s a prison. It’s the prison of his past, and Alfred starts to realize that. But I think Gotham’s a fantastic hyper-real arena in which to discuss contemporary ideas without being pretentious about it, without being overly political or anything. I enjoy having that parallel universe.
When Kane and Finger created it, they wanted Gotham to represent every major city in the United States, but they used New York City for its outlines. For the first several issues of Detective Comics and Batman, Finger even referred to Wayne’s city as New York. By January 1941, however, he had begun to refer to it only as Gotham, and Gotham it has since remained.
Originally I was going to call Gotham City, Civic City. Then, I flipped through the phone book and spotted the name Gotham Jewelers and said ‘that’s it,’ Gotham City. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anything in any city to identify with it. Of course, Gotham is another name for New York.
Throughout its history, writers and artists have placed it in New Jersey, New York, and Illinois. Dr. Nolan, in an interview after the release of the third of his Batman trilogy, believes it to be a mix of every major city in America.
And that’s why Gotham has always been multiple cities to us in the way that we shot it. You don’t want it to be Chicago or New York. You want it to be its own place. The look of it has evolved in the three films; it’s changed, depending on what we wanted to emphasize. But we’ve always tried to make it eclectic, so whenever there’s a shot that’s too recognizable of a particular city, we tended to change it slightly—at least flop it, or something like that. I think it’s a powerful way of exploring the dynamics of a contemporary American city, particularly in The Dark Knight. I think that was a huge part of the crime epic—the idea that the great playground for these characters was this city. I think it’s used for different effect in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s more about isolation—the isolation of a community in jeopardy.
When thinking of the history of Gotham City over its nearly eighty-year fictional history, though, it’s best, however, to think of it as a decayed Manhattan, sitting on the Atlantic and in line of a number of urban areas ranging from the south, Washington, D.C., through the northeast, Boston. The Bruce Timm’s 1992 Batman: The Animated Series writer’s bible describes Gotham:
Gotham is a sprawling, industrial, crime-ridden city, rife with political corruption and served by an understaffed police department. Modeled loosely after New York, it has a large central park, museums, universities, opera house and countless skyscrapers. When in doubt, writers are advised to keep New York in mind . . . and then exaggerate it.
Mr. Timm, a visionary artist if there ever was one, wanted Gotham to be as Art Deco as possible. That is, he wanted it sleek and dark, but not brutal. Art Deco is an architectural and design style that has aged beautifully. Unlike the blocky, Stalinist, modernist architecture of 1950’s banks and skyscrapers, the Art Deco of the 1910s-30s is sleek, humane, and attractive in its lines. While the lines are not natural (as in Gothic architecture), they are natural enough for the eye to see them as an exaggeration and molding of nature rather than as a dominance over nature. Art Deco is rooted in romantic theory, while 1950’s modernist architecture is rooted in political ideology.
To create a unique atmosphere for his Gotham City, Timm’s team drew all of Gotham on black paper. Traditionally, animators use white, allowing for light to flourish somewhat naturally. That Mr. Timm and company tried, for the first time, black paper was revolutionary in terms of technology and art, but also quite successful. Even the cleanest corners of Gotham possess a brooding darkness, perfect for the entrance of a Dark Knight.“There was an architectural visionary named Hugh Ferris, who did these elaborate, futuristic cityscape architectural renderings,” Mr. Timm explains. “They were just gorgeous—these massive deco buildings rendered very moodily. That was one of our prime influences on the look of Batman: The Animated Series.“ One of the most innovative things the Batman: The Animated Series did, in its first feature animated movie, The Mask of the Phantasm, was an opening, computer generated at the very beginning of the use of CGI in any film, of a camera slowly making its way in reverse through the Gotham skyline as the magisterial music of the tragically unsung but brilliant composer Shirley Walker plays. Walker’s soundtrack employs music from the late classical to early romantic period while incorporating faux medieval chant. As bizarre as this combination sounds, it works beautifully, especially as the camera crosses the Gotham City skyline. Nothing in the comics or the movies made, before or after, has done so much to demonstrate the sheer and inhumane scope and scale of Gotham.
Named after a village in England, the word, Gotham, means a place of goats, or a place in which goats find safety. The word itself derives from medieval Anglo-Saxon, that is, Old English. It’s also an early nickname for New York City dating back, at least, to Washington Irving. Though various artists and writers have placed Gotham City in a number of different locations, it is generally assumed that it sits on the southernmost point of New Jersey, facing Metropolis to the southwest, in Delaware. The main part of Gotham takes up two large islands, surrounded by several smaller ones. To think of it as a shadow of New York City, however, is by no means wrong or unintelligent. It has, after all, its own Madison Square Garden (Gotham Square Garden), a Central Park (Robinson Park), and its own Statue of Liberty (given different names in the Batman mythos).
In American mythology and the popular mind, Gotham has become, at best, a tenebrous purgatory, and, at worst, a living hellhole. When Finger first created it, though, it was meant to be a typical metropolis, full of life, opportunity, and immigrants. He even enthused about it in an early issue of Detective Comics:
Glittering, irresistible—that vast magnet which is Gotham City draws to itself an army of millions yearly from every town and village in America. There is no withstanding its lure. For here is a city where you may touch the clouds atop some towering skyscraper—or go down deep in the earth to ride aboard its roaring subway trains! To Gotham City they come—to carve their names in foot-high letters on the famous sidewalks. Some succeed, some fail! Some leave, some stay! Some curse the city, others love it! But every one of them has something to say about Gotham City—for no one may ignore this gigantic human ant heap! This story is what we have to say about the city. Perhaps you will agree with us!
Despite the purple prose, Finger wrote a surprisingly nuanced story about the human condition. Reminiscent of Frank Capra’s 1939 film It’s a Wonderful Life, this untitled story sees Batman rescue a young woman, straight from the country, who has come to the big city to make it big in show business. Her efforts, though, have only led her to believe herself a nothing. Not so subtly, her name is Viola Vane. In the opening scene, she jumps off a bridge, attempting to drown herself. Batman rescues her, and through Bruce Wayne, introduces her to a number of investors and artists. At the end of the story, she is pronounced a “star.” When Wayne is congratulated on helping out this young one, he responds bitter sweetly: “yes only one must tear away the false pretense and sham to find” the heart of Gotham. “But it’s there. It’s there for us to find if we care to look deep enough!”
Editor’s Note: This essay is the fourth in a series about Batman.
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1 Carmine Infantino, quoted in Jim Amash, Carmine Infantino: Penciler, Publisher, Provocateur (Raleigh, NC: Twomorrows, 2010), 8.
2 Roy Thomas, “Introduction,” to Jim Amash, Carmine Infantino: Penciler, Publisher, Provocateur (Raleigh, NC: Twomorrows, 2010), 5.
3 “A Sense of Ending: A Conversation between Christopher Nolan, Jonathan (Jonah) Nolan, and David S. Goyer, chaired by co-producer Jordan Goldberg,” in The Complete Screenplays with Selected Storyboards: The Dark Knight Trilogy (New York: Opus, 2013).
4 “A Sense of Ending,” in The Complete Screenplays.
5 Bill Finger and Bob Kane, “The Case of the Joker’s Crime Circus,” Batman 4 (January 1941); and Bill Finger and Bob Kane, “The Secret Cavern,” Detective Comics 48 (February 1941). For the most recent DC examination of Gotham City, see Batman: Gotham City, Secret Files and Origins 1 (DC, April 2000).
6 Bill Finger, quoted in The Steranko History of Comics (Supergraphics: Reading, PA, 1970), 45.
7 “A Sense of Ending,” in The Complete Screenplays.
8 Bruce W. Timm, Paul Dini, and Mitch Brian, Batman: Series Writer’s Bible (N.P., 1992), 18.
9 Eric Nolan-Weathington, ed., Bruce Timm (Raleigh, North Carolina: Twomorrows, 2012) 39.
10 Eric Radomski, director, The Mask of the Phantasm (Warner Brothers, 1993).
11 Shirley Walker, Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm Soundtrack (Warner Brothers, 1993).
12 Bill Finger and Bob Kane, [Viola Vane], Detective Comics 53 (July 1941).
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from a photo of Bob Kane holding an illustration of Batman and Robin in the Batmobile (1966), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.