Wednesday, 17 Jul 2024

Why Stan Lee’s Fictional Superheroes Lived in the Real New York

Stan Lee, the mastermind of comics who plotted countless splats, yeeows and kabooms, created a four-color universe of crime fighters in tights that looked like New York, because it was. Somehow, it seemed grittier than the landscapes on which other superheroes flew and fought. But above all, it was real.

His Fantastic Four knew their way around the Lower East Side — Mr. Lee, who died on Monday, once said the very name of the fictional Yancy Street gang, the neighborhood nuisances who tormented the character known as the Thing, was a play on the actual Delancey Street, which runs from the Bowery to the Williamsburg Bridge.

Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum had a real address in Greenwich Village: 177A Bleecker Street. A couple of Mr. Lee’s colleagues from Marvel Comics had lived there. (The “A” has long since disappeared.)

The Avengers Mansion was a Beaux-Arts palace because Mr. Lee had Henry Clay Frick’s Beaux-Arts palace on the Upper East Side in mind. Fans know it as 890 Fifth Avenue. The Frick Collection, the museum that now occupies the place, uses the address of the front door, 1 East 70th Street.

And Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, was a seminal character because he was a teenager from Ingram Street in Queens, a real place, with real problems — “a high-school student, kind of geeky, who has allergies,” said Debra Schmidt Bach, who was a co-curator of the 2015 exhibition “Superheroes in Gotham” at the New-York Historical Society.

That, and some self-doubt, made the Spider-Man stories “relatable,” recalled Gary Cergol, who grew up reading the Spider-Man comics in Corona and Flushing and is now a graphic artist for the television drama “Elementary.”

“You knew you couldn’t be Superman,” he said. “But you could be a kid from Queens who becomes a superhero.”

Ms. Bach said the Parker character “gave you a sense that the human alter ego could be you.”

So he wasn’t just a superhero, he was a local superhero. He might zoom between the skyscrapers of Manhattan, saving the day in action-packed faceoffs, but fans never forgot where he was from. “I read it and I said, ‘He’s Queens tough. Overcome anything you need to overcome,’” said Melinda R. Katz, who represented Forest Hills on the City Council and in the State Assembly before she was elected Queens borough president.

Tying Marvel’s stable of pulp-fiction heroes to a real place — New York — served a counterbalance to the sometimes gravity-challenged action and the improbability of the stories, and that was just what Mr. Lee wanted.

“So many other characters lived in cities like Gotham City and Metropolis,” he said in a 2004 television documentary, “but I suspect the readers knew those cities were just made up.” Gotham City and Metropolis were the fictional homes of Batman and Superman, who were marquee heroes of Marvel’s rival, DC Comics.

By contrast, Marvel presented a realistic cityscape, at least from a distance. Sorry, fans, there is no Baxter Building — fan sites place the Fantastic Four’s headquarters on 42nd Street near Madison Avenue. Even now, well into the 21st century, it seems safe to say there is no office building in Manhattan with a rooftop rocket-launching pad.

“When Stan Lee embarked on including New York as a character in our books, he said, ‘I want it to be real New York. I want it to be the local bridges, the local subways, the streets,’” John Romita Sr., a Marvel Comics artist, recalled in the 2004 documentary. “It was a natural for us since the people who worked at Marvel lived in New York.”

The artists drew what they were familiar with, which made the Marvel universe authentic-looking, down to the water towers atop many of the buildings. Gerry Gladston, an owner of Midtown Comics in Manhattan, said that people who do not live in New York come in regularly and ask what the water towers are, and Ms. Bach, at the historical society, keeps a list of Marvel locations handy.

There is Park Avenue. “Often when Spider-Man swings over the city, he’s swinging over Park Avenue,” she said.

Also on the list: The Museum of Natural History, the Statue of Liberty, Bloomingdale’s, Grand Central Terminal and the East River. As for the Fantastic Four’s foes in the Yancy Street gang — “The Thing fights alongside the Yancy Streeters in the most unlikely tale of all!” the cover of an early Fantastic Four issue promised — Mr. Lee explained the play on Delancey Street by saying, “It just to me had the right sound, the Yancy Street gang.”

The connection to the superheroes is useful for the Frick, whose spokeswoman says the Marvel Comics reach readers who might not hear about the museum any other way. “And also, I’m a huge fan, so I’m excited,” said the spokeswoman, Alexis Light. “It’s something I can tell my friends, ‘I work at the Avengers Mansion,’ though Usually it’s ‘I work at the Frick and did you know …’ because a lot of my friends are Avengers fans.” (She said the address the fans know, 890 Fifth Avenue, was never an actual address for the mansion or the museum.)

The New York universe hooked readers. “I was dazzled by the idea of New York City,” said Peter Sanderson, who grew up in Milton, Mass., and went on to write “The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City.”

“New York City was part of the appeal of Marvel Comics,” he said. “It’s the city Stan lived in. It’s the city that he knew. It’s the city the artists lived in, so they could draw it. It just made more sense to Stan. It gave him more of a sense of where his characters were operating.”

Mr. Lee, fresh out of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, had gone to work as an $8-a-week gofer at Timely Publications, a pulp-magazine publisher that was breaking into comic books. That was in 1939. In two years, he was the editor and chief writer.

Spider-Man did not weave his way into fans’ hearts and minds until 1962, the year after Marvel had introduced the Fantastic Four. Mr. Lee was moving comics into uncharted territory with characters who had depth.

They were not cool and confident visitors from another planet who changed the course of mighty rivers or bent steel in their bare hands. They could if called upon to do so, but what made them appealing was that they were accidental superheroes who were otherwise ordinary people. That made them seem that much more real, and that much more believable.

Fans of superheroes are superattentive, and they notice things like bridges. When Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, is kidnapped by the Green Goblin and thrown off a bridge, Mr. Romita, the Marvel Comics artist, drew the Brooklyn Bridge. At times Mr. Lee had so many stories going that he merely outlined the plots to Marvel’s artists. He left it to them to create the action-packed panels, leaving space for dialogue that was filled in later.

Mr. Romita said in the documentary that when the issue with Gwen’s death was published, “I noticed Stan had called it the George Washington Bridge.”

Mr. Lee was unfazed. “Hell,” he said. “You’ve seen one bridge, you’ve seen ’em all. A bridge is a bridge.”

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