Clark Kent at Work: Buildings and the World of Superheroes

An interesting article from Smithsonian Magazine about Superman’s – ahem – office space was very kindly forwarded along to me recently by one of my readers.  The Architecture of Superman: A Brief History of The Daily Planet, by writer and “recovering architect” Jimmy Stamp, looks at some of the buildings which may have inspired the look of where Clark Kent earns his daily bread, under news editor Perry White.  The comic book ancestor of Peter Parker’s unreasonable boss J. Jonah Jameson,  White is the demanding, unpleasant fellow who worked his way up from nothing in the company all the way to the top, and still has a huge chip on his shoulder about it.  Given how tall the building housing The Daily Planet is usually portrayed as being, White understandably had to do quite a bit of climbing to get up to the editor’s desk from the mailroom.

However Perry White himself is not the owner of The Daily Planet: he’s an employee, just as Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olson are, albeit a more senior one.  As such, although he may dictate the running of the newsroom, the look of the place really has very little to do with White’s oftentimes overbearing and negative personality.  Rather, that style choice is left up the owners of the paper, who are competing with other media owners to be viewed as up-to-date and successful.  Given the timeframe of the birth of the series, that means Metropolis resembles how New York, Cleveland, and other big North American cities looked just before World War II.

What’s interesting however, is that even as the Superman universe evolved over the passage of time, for the most part The Daily Planet remains forever ensconced in the architectural era of Art Deco.  “In the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco was optimistic,” writes Mr. Stamp, “it was progressive, it represented the best in mankind at the time – all qualities shared by Superman.”  Classic Art Deco structures like Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, Chrysler Building, and Empire State Building date from this time period, and were examples of American optimism seeking ways to triumph over the sorrows of the Great Depression.  Metropolis is portrayed as a big, bright city of big, padded shoulders, just like the suits worn by both men and women in that era.

This type of architecture stands in sharp contrast to the general look of the Batman universe, however.  Batman himself, taking his cues from a creature of darkness, lives in a world dominated by shadows.  Even though Gotham is a city whose appearance dates from roughly the same time period as Metropolis, here the architectural tone is one of congestion, blight, and darkness.  The Art Deco lines are made sharper and more menacing by a fusion with Neo-Gothic elements, lending a nightmarish quality.  Go take a look back at the Gotham City Cathedral, as imagined by Tim Burton in the 1989 Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson film Batman, and you’ll see a church that is undeniably impressive, yet dark and threatening, rather than light and welcoming.

As the comic book characters have deviated further from their origins in recent decades, the generally sunny, positive disposition of Superman and Metropolis have been clouded somewhat, even as Batman and Gotham have themselves grown even darker.  It’s debatable whether these are good or bad developments.  Is Superman more likeable today because he is less of an overgrown, optimistic Boy Scout?  Do we appreciate Batman more because he’s become more inwardly conflicted and twisted, as reflected in the buildings around him?

Whatever your take on these changes, the reader can see how dramatic an impact architectural design can have on the creation of works of popular culture.  Once you learn what the terms “Art Deco” and “Neo-Gothic” refer to, stylistically, then you can better understand the worlds which these very familiar characters inhabit.  The architecture gives a greater context to the story, in ways which may not be immediately apparent when you are simply reading a comic strip or watching a cartoon.  And the joy of educating yourself about architecture, even if you’re never going to build anything yourself, is that you’ll come to better-appreciate not just these fictional worlds, but the places where you, yourself work, live, and play.

Animation cell of Clark Kent by Max Fleischer Studios (1941)

Animation cell of Clark Kent by Max Fleischer Studios (1941)

 

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