Batman is back in the news, and today I am giving a lecture on Gotham. I love when I’m accidentally topical. If you’re unable to join us in Long Beach for the Queen Mary Art Deco Festival, here is an excerpt from my lecture, Streamline Superman and the Deco Dark Knight: Art Deco & Superheroes.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Batman truly became the Dark Knight. Up to this point, the Batman comics, though growing darker in tone, had languished under the candy-colored shadow of the 1966 TV series. However, in the mid-1980s Frank Miller completely revolutionized Batman with two comics: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 and Batman: Year One in 1987. These, along with Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke in 1988 changed Batman from a slightly-macabre-but-cartoonish children’s tale to a gritty noir. Gotham was reborn as the ultimate city of sin, and Batman was its sole citizen striving for justice.
Though dark in theme and content, one element was missing: the sinister physical presence of Gotham City. Like most fictional comic book cities, Gotham was mostly depicted as shaded blocks of color representing distant skyline, or quickly-sketched signs and skyscrapers. But when Tim Burton stepped in to direct the Batman movie in 1989, he brought with him a man who would give Gotham its face: Anton Furst. Furst was a production designer hot off Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and his sense of the macabre blended perfectly with Burton’s. Furst decided to redesign Gotham from the ground up, using as inspiration a strange book published 60 years before.
In 1929, America was the highest it had ever been, figuratively and physically. A post World War I boom in the economy meant that American industrial output had doubled in a decade, and a 1920 census showed that 1 in 4 Americans lived in cities of 100,000 or more. The symbol of American progress was the skyscraper, built by new technologies and designed by men obsessed a new idea called “modernity,” representing urbanity, speed, and a dismissal of the past. When these men looked forward, they envisioned megalopolises dominated by ever-taller skyscrapers, skylines so incredible and scientific discoveries so huge that humanity itself would be changed for the better. Hugh Ferriss, an architecture student and artist, was one such visionary.
Hugh Ferriss made his living in the 1920s drawing buildings, skyscrapers especially. He traveled around the country, crayon in hand, drawing skyscrapers begun, skyscrapers finished, skyscrapers explained, and skyscrapers unexplainable. In 1929, Ferriss collected a series of his sketches together with his thoughts and published it as The Metropolis Of Tomorrow. In this book, Ferriss praised the modern skyscraper, saying,
“Admire or condemn as you may, yonder skyscrapers faithfully express both the characteristic structural skill and the characteristic urge — for money; yonder tiers of apartments represent the last word in scientific ingenuity and the last word but one in desire for physical comfort.”
He also put forth his vision of the future: a well-ordered metropolis where efficiency and fulfillment were increased by the orderly and well-managed design of space and beauty of architecture. Together with Ferriss’s haunting drawings, this future looks utopian, if eerie. However, Ferriss also had some warnings for the architects of tomorrow. He warned that a lack of zoning laws and urban planning could lead to overcrowding and congestion, and by implication whatever modern moral evils those conditions breed.
Anton Furst took this warning to heart. When Furst designed Gotham, he built Ferriss’s nightmare city; a city devoid of planning or order, where buildings grew like brick and steel weeds and choked out the sun. These buildings were a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Beaux Arts buildings were crowded out by Deco skyscrapers, which in turn were skewered by Industrial beams. In Furst’s words, “It’s like Hell had burst through the pavement and kept on growing.”
Some of Furst’s inspirations were literal. Take, for instance, this design by Ferriss of a well-ordered street overpass in the City of the Future:
Then, there is Furst’s concept drawing of a crumbling overpass in Gotham:
And finally, the matte painting used in the film:
Chaos and darkness rule Gotham City. No sliver of sky is visible above, and almost no foot of concrete is unoccupied below. Whereas Ferriss’s drawing was peopled with figures in orderly lines, Gotham in Batman is unruly and chaotic. Both are fantasy, but which more closely resembles New York City today? Furst’s Gotham is an exaggeration and critique of Ferriss’s Metropolis. 60 years after Ferriss and his contemporaries declared that America was creating a newer, better world through city-building, Furst created a New York analogue so hellish that a man in a latex bat suit seems reasonable.
Furst laid the foundations of Gotham for the next 20 years, as both the Batman comics and the film’s many sequels would adapt on his physical creations and his themes. Even Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which planted Gotham squarely in 21st century Chicago, would continue to play on these ideas of urban corruption and the failed promise of the American city. Gotham has come to represent the worst of Modern America, the failure of the hopes for the future planted so many years ago.