From Metropolis to Gotham, New York City’s avatars have always dominated the panels and spreads of graphic fiction. As readers, we envision the struggle for power between “good” and “evil,” animated in spectacular scenes — costumed characters at war against the backdrop of the city. We come to expect the likes of Superman or Batman to emerge during a crisis, to defend urban denizens and their habitat, scaling the Empire State Building’s fictional twin in the meantime.
Historically, comics have taken place inside the city, real or imagined, framing their protagonists in a gritty or futuristic aesthetic of urban life. Whether the city’s buildings and transportation systems, or the mise en scene of bustling streetscapes, urban iconography frames the narrative.
Yet, as the graphic novel has evolved out of the traditional superhero comic,the city has taken center stage, becoming more than just the site for a showdown. It emerges as the physical product of power dynamics — the tangible realization of “good” or “evil” visions for the city. These graphic novels join a conversation dominated by architecture and planning, visualizing the built urban environment as a tool both shaping and being shaped by human narratives. The graphic novel presents the corpus of our conflicting ideas about what cities are, and how they should run — and gives these ideas material form.
The recent Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker by Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering, and the reissued War in the Neighborhood by Seth Tobocman and Soft City by Hariton Pushwagner all chime into this conversation, each graphic novel attempting to understand the city as the site and artifact of “good” and “evil” forces. By forefronting nuanced issues like neighborhood violence and inequity, gentrification and “overbuilding,” these stories draw the city as the living result of distinct power struggles, posing their readers a series of questions:
Who, or what, has power over the urban built environment? How does this power move through racial, economic and physical structures in the city? How does it actively shape the city, and the role of city-dwellers? –A.T.
Ghetto Brother explores the role of gang truces in unifying the neighborhoods of the Bronx against crumbling infrastructure, flawed local governments, and lack of social services in the 1970s. Primarily visual artists, Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering’s work highlights heritage and identity, but as authors of the graphic novel, they trace the power dynamics of a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood contoured by gang violence, illustrating how local youth bridged their racial and ethnic differences to form a collaborative community narrative. The Hip Hop era, home-grown advocacy groups, and a newly peaceful Bronx arise from the urban landscape in Voloj and Ahlering’s panels.
War in the Neighborhood chronicles the struggles for urban power in a tale of neighborhood versus gentrification. Seth Tobocman’s monograph, originally published in 1999, maps the encroachment of realtors and “yuppie” neighbors into the historically poor and radical Lower East Side during the late 1980s, teasing apart the economic forces bringing the city’s social classes into confrontation and refacing New York’s built environment. Tobocman glorifies the squatters as they garrison buildings from bulldozers and reclaim a privatized Tompkins Square with fiery protests. War in the Neighborhood juxtaposes the narrative of gentrification — depicting the rise of upscale condominiums and drastic demographic shifts — and police violence as the twin forces rapidly shape the neighborhood.
In Soft City, Hariton Pushwagner tackled the city conceptually, as the artist wrestled with new urban realities between 1969 and 1975. Here, the city is a physical structure that exerts “soft power” over urbanites, socially engineering human behavior and using modernist architecture as its conduit. The source of power in the city is not a “who” but a “what‚” built into the city’s anatomy to dehumanizing ends. Pushwagner ultimately suggests to his readers, and to graphic novelists, that the city as a protagonist possesses narrative power beyond the control of those who planned and built it.