To see how Gotham City has evolved over time, we first need to consider its roots. In the early comics of the late 1940s, Gotham served merely as a backdrop. It was just a physical space for Batman and the Boy Wonder to combat villains. It really wasn’t until Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987) that Gotham was given a life of its own. In Batman: Year One, when Bruce witnesses the senseless murder of his parents in one of Gotham’s dark alleys, he realizes that corruption does not discriminate. Evil exists within the city, and Gotham City’s crime-ridden streets cannot be cleansed by the police alone. Batman is a byproduct of a corrupt environment that needs a hero to offset the criminals. But since Gotham always simultaneously houses both good and evil, Batman cannot be pure. He is a vigilante who operates by his own rules and his own moral code. While some tend to have issues with this, there is no other way to combat the city’s criminals, especially since the police force contains corruption. The police, who are supposed to be the forces of good, are inept; so Batman, despite being a vigilante, is the most good that Gotham can afford to have. Batman tries to purge the city of its criminals, but Gotham’s “circle of life” is a cycling of combat of good and evil. Evil will always exist in Gotham, but it will be offset by Batman, who can successfully maintain a balance and prevent Gotham from self-destruction. The chicken/egg relationship between Batman and Gotham is also raised in the “No Man’s Land” arc (1999): “Did Gotham City create him? Or did he create it?” (Grayson 113). Is Batman a product of Gotham City? A hero who only exists because he witnessed its horrors through the murder of his parents? Or is the city always under threat because the villains want to challenge Batman?
Miller’s graphic novels show us the corruption of America, suggesting that there are more problems than just the individual supervillains. Corruption exists in politics and within the city’s inhabitants. In The Dark Knight Triumphant issue of Dark Knight Returns, Gordon says, “I can’t look at that doorway over there without thinking of the seventy-two corpses I’ve found in spots like that…shot or stabbed or just beaten to death because they were too stupid to keep their distance. Too stupid, or too civilized. One’s the same as the other in Gotham City” (Miller 58). Gotham is not just identifiable by its heroes or villains but also by its people. The innate corruption of Gotham is visible. In saying that stupid and civilized are the same in the city, Gordon notes the ways in which opposites coexist and are often indistinguishable.
This is the case in Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight (2008), when the Joker presents two ferries of people the opportunity to save themselves by detonating explosives on the other boat. The boat of civilians fights over the issue, while an inmate on the boat of prisoners throws the detonator out the window. The Joker wants the people to push the button to show how corruptible they are. The inmate, despite being a “bad guy,” does the ethically “good” thing, whereas the regular “good” people try to justify murdering a boat of prisoners. It becomes difficult to determine the difference between good and evil in such an example. The Joker says about the people of Gotham, “Their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show ya. When the chips are down, these, uh, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” The Joker acknowledges the agency of the environment to influence its people. Gotham is corrupt and can corrupt, and the Joker wants to prove how easy it is to do so. The Joker tries to do the same thing to Harvey Dent, Gotham’s “white knight.” Turning him into Two-Face corrupts the purity of a figure who represents “good” in Gotham City. Batman realizes that the city needs good in contrast to evil in order to offer hope to its people, so Harvey must remain a symbol of good, even though he has turned into a murderer. This is when Batman says to Gordon, “I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be,” as he takes the blame for the people Harvey killed as Two-Face. Gotham needs the balance that a false image of good can offer.
The innate corruption of the city is also what Ra’s al Ghul uses as justification for trying to destroy Gotham in its entirety in Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), as he says, “Crime. Despair. This is not how man was supposed to live…Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.” Ra’s releases a toxin that puts the citizens into irrational panic so they will destroy themselves. While Batman also wants to rid the city from crime and despair, he realizes that complete destruction of life is not the means to go about that. Ra’s wants to reboot the city, while Batman wants to restore it. Though Ra’s claims good intentions, his methods are terroristic and fatalistic. Batman, instead, has hope for Gotham and its people. He thinks that he can save the city by combatting the crime rather than destroying everything for a fresh start. In Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Bane and Talia al Ghul continue this plan to “fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny.” Bane realizes that Gotham’s people have grown accustomed to having a hopeful outlook, because Batman is always there to fight evil. He says, “As I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope and poison their souls.” Bane finds hope to be a “poison” because he knows that it is futile. To maintain the good/evil balance, Batman must demonstrate that there is something to hope for and that all is not lost. When the police march down the street toward Bane’s army, their hesitant pace and defeated faces look as though they have already lost. Batman then flies overhead, which ignites the men to cheer and run full speed into battle. Batman is the city’s beacon of hope and inspiration.
Gotham City is often on the brink of destruction, making for an almost hopeless situation that we can always count on Batman to turn around. In “Aftershock,” which followed the earthquake that devastated the city in the “Cataclysm” arc, radio host Vesper Fairchild says, “Someday, this city will be rebuilt, no doubt about it, but will we call it recovery …or resurrection? Will Gotham have to die before it can live again? Or will we hang on, weather the storm…and save ourselves, save our souls, save our city?” (Moench 6). There are garbage, rubble, and rats all over. There are numerous fires that cannot be controlled, while other areas are flooded. Diseases are spreading, and the hospitals are limited in what they can do. Forget about crime control; gangs use the opportunity to claim territories, and looting becomes commonplace. Eventually, the government gives up on Gotham, declaring it a No Man’s Land and ordering evacuation. The supervillains remain, and the city’s neighborhoods become spaces up for control. But Batman shows us that even at its worst, even when completely abandoned, the city is not hopeless. It can be restored.
After the earthquake, DC editors decided a map of Gotham City was needed. They commissioned Eliot R. Brown for the task, who created a map that resembles Manhattan. For the “No Man’s Land” arc, this map is repeatedly used to indicate the claimed territories of the city that frequently shift as different criminals gain or lose power and as Gordon and Batman fight to reinstate good in the city. They are the only forces of hope since the U.S. government has completely given up on Gotham. Dividing the cities into territories intensifies the way Gotham’s geography is influenced by power. Claimed space suggests that the city can be owned, ruled, and manipulated. This sort of takeover is also visible in the video game, Arkham City, where the inmates of Arkham Asylum are now the inmates of Gotham City. Supervillains and their thugs have distributed themselves throughout the city, and Batman has to navigate all sectors to destroy villains or accomplish particular tasks. The open-world format of the game allows players to access any part of the city at any time. This gives the players the freedom to explore Gotham’s heights and depths much like they could in real space. So, even though Gotham has particular parameters, and the game has designated where the supervillains are positioned, the player and Batman are not bound by linearity.
Arkham City makes Gotham a literal madhouse, which actualizes the Joker’s comment in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989). When Batman and Joker part ways, leaving Arkham Asylum, the Joker says, “Enjoy yourself out there. In the asylum. Just don’t forget—if it ever gets too tough…there’s always a place for you here [at Arkham].” The Joker’s reflection that the real world is what houses madness suggests that Gotham is not a space of idealization. It is overridden with madness that cannot be controlled. But since Gotham is the balance of good and evil, it may also be viewed as a balanced space for madness and sanity. Like Gordon’s “stupid” and “civilized” comment, Gotham always is both.
While Brown’s map was inspired by Manhattan, creators have used several artistic methods in creating Gotham through various media. Tim Burton, a master of perspective, created contours and depth of a city alive. In Batman Returns (1992), Gotham becomes a spectacle. The buildings are endlessly tall; they have weird angles and shapes and faces on them. The camera can pan up, down, or across and always offer a new perspective. It is rather disorienting, especially on rooftops. Gotham is not just a backdrop like it was in the 1940s; here, it is a dark labyrinth that only the heroes and the villains can navigate while the audience enjoys the show. Burton’s Gotham is the epitome of Gothic—filled with darkness, depth, and uncertainty.
The creators and producers of Batman: The Animated Series innovatively created their own style, termed “dark deco.” This artistic method involved drawing over black backgrounds in order to intensify the darkness and the shadows of the city. Gotham becomes more obscure and unknowable when dark. This further highlights the city’s struggle with good and evil. Such a visual technique is a big contrast to Joel Schumaker’s Gotham City, which is bright, garish, and trippy. Though it may seem comic book inspired, the attempt to visually tap into its source material is unsuccessful, because Gotham most often is actually not bright and energized. Gotham is perpetually on the brink of destruction, not about to turn into a rave. Schumaker’s version disrupts the Gothic feel that Gotham has maintained since Miller’s graphic novels—a Gothic that successfully houses a balance between good and evil. Instead, Schumaker’s version suggests that Gotham is electrified and vibrant.
Nolan’s Gotham looks visually more real than any early versions, mostly because he filmed in major U.S. cities. This makes the city recognizably American. Nolan filmed in New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh at iconic landmarks that would be familiar to the audience. In doing so, he depicted a fictional city that requires the audience to negotiate the idea of the superhero in our America. This method offers hope to a country stricken with post-9/11 anxiety. Batman is not just protecting Gotham; he is protecting the American people. Since the landmarks in the films are recognizable, Gotham, for the first time, can be visibly declared as part of present-day America. While Burton’s films may have dealt with real-world anxieties of corruption in corporate powers, his set still reminds us that Gotham is a fictionalized, created space. Nolan’s city, on the other hand, demonstrates that Gotham City is America. In the final scenes of Dark Knight Rises, the shots fluctuate back and forth from chase scenes in Pittsburgh to the Queensboro Bridge in New York. Other iconic landmarks include Willis Tower, the JP Morgan building, Heinz Field, and Carnegie Mellon University. Compiled together, these locations allow Batman to be in our world.
For Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Zach Snyder filmed in Detroit. Detroit became both Gotham City and Metropolis, cities visible across a rather small body of water. Gotham is only recognizably different because the bat signal shines there. Otherwise, we have to rely on characters telling us where the present action is taking place. While in the movie, neither superhero thinks the other should be active, the interchangeability of Gotham and Metropolis demonstrates that these heroes are more similar than different. Both are needed to save innocent people, even though the cities are completely ravaged at the end. It’s okay, though, as we know they will be fine.
The TV show, Gotham, tries to make the city the focal point rather than the hero. Executive Producer Danny Cannon even said in an interview, “The city itself is a character” (TV Line); however, the show is a bit hung up on Ben McKenzie and would perhaps be better titled as Gordon. The city is not as alive as the films have made it, and, therefore, the show remains character-driven. The juxtaposition of old and new technology helps make the setting timeless and demonstrates to the audience that Gotham is anywhere, anytime America. But these details get lost behind the introduction of new characters each week. We also may remain distracted by the fact that these younger villains are still too old for the not-yet-existing Batman. So, while the initial premise appeared to be about the children of Gotham City, the show is simply Batman without Batman and, instead, Gordon.
The timelessness of the city in Gotham demonstrates that the city need not be bound by parameters. So long as there is good/evil tension that can be balanced and recycled, the city may exist in any time period. Brian Augustyn’s Elseworlds one-shot, Gotham by Gaslight (1989), illustrates a late nineteenth-century Gotham City that is just as corrupt as any other version. Gordon says to Bruce: “The criminal element, the evil in Gotham is getting stronger…and stranger” (11). The Jack the Ripper villain describes Gotham: “Gotham City is an overripe fruit…fat, fetid, and fit to burst. Like London, it is a teeming, sweating, gibbering monstrosity. A corrupt and decaying miasma fills the air. It is everything I could want” (12). In this sense, Gotham is corruption alive. It is a breeding ground for further criminality. Despite being deliberately set in Elseworlds, this graphic novel demonstrates that Gotham City is timeless. It can exist during any time and still require a Batman to maintain the good/evil balance.
I conclude by defining Gotham City as the permanent home of good and evil in Gothic America. It can visually change, but ever since it became a character of its own in the 1980s, it is still a recognizable staple of the Batman franchise that will continue to evolve with the current state of America.
Augustyn, Brian, writer. Gotham by Gaslight. Pencils by Mike Mignola. 1989. New York: DC Comics, 2013. Print.
Grayson, Devin K., writer. “Fear of Faith, Part One: Fanning the Flames.” Pencils by Dale Eaglesham. Colors by Pamela Rambo. Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #116 (Apr. 1999). Batman: No Man’s Land, Volume One. New York: DC Comics, 1999. 112–133. Print.
Miller, Frank, writer. The Dark Knight Returns. 1986. Illustrated by Klaus Janson. New York, DC Comics, 2002. Print.
Moench, Doug, writer. “Dying City.” Pencils by Jim Aparo. Ink by Sal Buscema. Batman #558 (Sept. 1998), DC Comics. Print.
Morrison, Grant, writer. Arkham Asylum. Illustrated by Dave McKean. New York: DC Comics, 1989. Print.
Nolan, Christopher, dir. Batman Begins. Warner Bros., 2005. Film.
Nolan, Christopher, dir. The Dark Knight. Warner Bros., 2008. Film.
Nolan, Christopher, dir. The Dark Knight Rises. Warner Bros., 2012. Film.
TV Line. “‘Gotham’ Interview at Comic Con 2014.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. 16 Jul. 2014. Web. 27 May 2015.