Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The Marvel Comics maestro gave his superheroes a city that’s colorful, dangerous, rude, quippy, and full of heart. It might be his greatest creation.
“New York is a large city… and, in such a vast, sprawling metropolis you’ll find all kinds of characters and kooks!”
Stan Lee wrote those words in 1964 to set the opening scene for Daredevil #4. When a man strolls into a Manhattan bank dressed head to toe in purple—from his suit to his hair to his skin—nobody bats an eye, Lee’s floating text balloon explains. It was a mood.
“What an odd-looking man!” offers one passerby, her sense of shock still intact, as the villainous Killgrave exits the bank with a bag full of cash. Her companion figures it out: “Hmmph… probably some new type of beatnik!”
Lee embodied that sardonic everyman New Yorker. Over the past decade, the impresario delighted audiences in that wisecracking role, through cameo appearances in all umpteen Hollywood blockbusters that make up the Marvel cinematic universe. These were always homages to the New York he brought to life in his pages. Marvel’s maestro died on Monday at 95, leaving behind a behemoth engine for pop culture and a conflicted legacy as a creator. Whatever else he was or wasn’t, Lee was an essential New York storyteller, up there with Lou Reed, Funkmaster Flex, Keith Haring, and Jane Jacobs.
Lee was a creator behind some of the most dynamic figures in the superhero genre. Like Lee himself, a native son of the Bronx, his heroes are all New Yorkers. There’s Daredevil, the defense attorney–turned–crimefighter whose charge is Hell’s Kitchen. His appearance in the Marvel universe followed closely behind that of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who calls Forest Hills in Queens home. The Fantastic Four are more frequently found in the Negative Zone than New York, but they hold the fort in a 35-story tower in Midtown. All of these and many more were Lee’s modern fairy tales of New York.
Lee and his collaborators made characters out of places. When he and artist Bill Everett launched Daredevil in the 1960s, Hell’s Kitchen—which readers may know better today as Clinton—was still a predominantly Irish American neighborhood. Matthew Murdock (that’s Daredevil) was its avatar and protector, the son of a boxer, Jack, who was killed after he refused to throw a fight. Hell’s Kitchen changed, of course, and so did Daredevil, from the pulp crime procedural book of the 1970s to the darker Catholic anti-hero storylines of the 1980s. With the High Line and Hudson Yards encroaching just to the south, Hell’s Kitchen today is so bougie that Daredevil’s Netflix series goes to elaborate ends to explain why the area is still awash in ninjas from The Hand. (Because the trickster god Loki destroyed the city with an army from space, naturally.)
While Lee stopped writing the books in the early 1970s, the storylines that he and other creators set in motion still swing like a pendulum. More often than not, for a certain set of Marvel publications, it was New York itself driving the plot. Karen Page—one of Daredevil’s best friends, introduced during his bright early adventures—returns in a 1986 storyline as a strung-out porn star. Back then, who didn’t?
Colorful, dangerous, rude, quippy, and full of heart, Stan Lee’s New York might be his smartest creation. Hot-dog vendors, buskers, patrol cops, and transit operators are Marvel’s supporting cast. While Lee can hardly take credit for every plot, or even for the characters who circulated through them, his vision of a real, lived-in city setting distinguished Marvel from its competitor, DC Comics. Superman’s Metropolis never aged, never suffered through stagflation, never languished under the heavy hand of a political machine (save Lex Luthor’s). Metropolis never had to grapple with its history of redlining, because Metropolis has no history.
Even Batman’s Gotham City, a rich pastiche grounded primarily in Chicago—don’t @ me—can’t compete with Marvel’s New York for its grim, gritty, and granular tales. The Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) reps a single street on the Bowery (Delancey Street, lightly fictionalized as “Yancy Street”). While some authors relish the challenge of DC’s open universe—Batgirl’s Hope Larson has fleshed out a gentrifying Gotham nabe called Burnside, for example—Marvel holds up a mirror to New York.
Tracing how Marvel reflects the city would involve explaining some characters’ whole histories. But there are highlights. Harlem was the site of Marvel’s 1970s blaxploitation feature, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, whose title star enjoyed a two-season run on Netflix. Marvel once ran an imprint called “Noir” that told New York stories before their heroes’ time (for example, a Luke Cage story set in Harlem during Prohibition). Peter Parker’s Spider-Man has made way for Miles Morales’s Spider-Man, a black teenager of Latino descent, more in keeping with the demographic reality of Queens today. Ryker’s Island has its own entry on a Marvel wiki site. The list stretches on and on, from the lovingly drawn Pakistani community in Ms. Marvel’s Jersey City, to Clint Barton’s rooftop-barbecue adventures in Hawkeye’s Bed-Stuy, to the fully realized New York City currently wowing gamers on the new Spider-Man video game for Playstation.
Marvel books also reflected the politics of New York. Ed Koch—the popular three-time mayor who rode the subway and whose slogan was “How’m I doin’?”—was a topical reference and frequent guest star in the Marvel universe. A lot of Marvel comics, and maybe superheroes in general, reflected Koch’s politics: socially liberal and adamantly pro-cop. Superheroes enjoyed full employment during a high-crime era, but they were often more reactionary. Lee and Kirby’s broodier figures, like the Punisher, led the way during the broken-windows administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But other properties co-created by Lee balanced out the conservative inclination of Marvel’s vigilantes, from the racially progressive utopianism of the X-Men to the militant liberation ideology of Magneto to the technocratic pan-Africanism of Black Panther.
Fans and critics will argue endlessly over who’s responsible for this multibillion-dollar juggernaut today. Jack Kirby, the legendary artist behind countless creations at both major comic-book houses, never got the credit he deserved before his death in 1994. Steve Ditko, who died earlier this year, deserves far greater fanfare as the person who gave Spider-Man his relatable character. Assigning credit for all the glory is the company’s most heated battle. But if there is one facet of the Marvel mythos that might belong to Lee alone, it’s that familiar, heyyy-I’m-walkin’-here character of the city that Lee brought to life through his dialog. Spider-Man works as a talkative hero because New York talks back.
My favorite story about Marvel’s New York might be 1994’s Marvels. It’s a loving look at the the origins of the Marvel universe, told from the perspective of an on-the-ground news photographer, featuring richly painted illustration by Alex Ross. His realist urban landscapes bring the Avengers to life; the effect is all the more pronounced because it captures magic among the mundane. That was Lee’s vision all along.
Lee will be remembered for his part in creating the pantheon of the modern era, including titans like Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and the Incredible Hulk. But he had no use for Mount Olympus. New York has always been Marvel’s secret weapon, its ultimate amplifier. If superhero stories could happen all around us, in regular places, then maybe regular people could be heroes. And if heroes would fight to protect their neighborhoods, maybe the rest of us could, too. Stan Lee raised the stakes with his excelsior stories of gods and monsters—by telling them on the block.