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Super City: New York and the History of Comic Books

PODCAST  A history of the comic book industry in New York City, how the energy and diversity of the city influenced the burgeoning medium in the 1930s and 40s and how New York’s history reflects out from the origins of its most popular characters.

 In the 1890s a newspaper rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer helped bring about the birth of the comic strip and, a few decades later, the comic book.  Today, comic book superheroes are bigger than ever — in blockbuster summer movies and television shows — and most of them still have an inseparable bond with New York City.

What’s Spider-Man without a tall building from which to swing? But not only are the comics often set here; the creators were often born here too. Many of the greatest writers and artists actually came from Jewish communities in the Lower East Side, Brooklyn or the Bronx.

For many decades, nearly all of America’s comic books were produced here.  Unfortunately that meant they were in certain danger of being eliminated entirely during a 1950s witch hunt by a crusading psychiatrist from Bellevue Hospital.

WITH a special chat with comics historian Peter Sanderson about the unique New York City connections of Marvel Comics’ most famous characters. Sanderson is the author of The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City and The Marvel Encyclopedia.

FEATURING: The Yellow Kid, Little Orphan Annie, Batman, Doctor Strange and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #187: Super City: New York and the History of Comic Books

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COMING THIS FALL:  Superheroes’ ties to New York City history will be further explored this fall in the New-York Historical Society’s Superheroes in Gotham exhibition, which opens October 9, 2015.
(Friday, October 9 is the start of ComicCon weekend).

 

A young New York boy enjoys his comic book on the Bowery. Photo taken in 1940 by Andrew Herman.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

And here’s the comic book he’s reading from March 1940, illustrated by George Papp.

Courtesy Comic Vine
Courtesy Comic Vine

 

In this 1947 photograph taken by Stanley Kubrick, a boy watches his baby sister and enjoys a Superman comic book while his mother shops inside.

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

An issue of DC Comics’ Superman from March 1947, with a cover by George Roussos and Jack Burnley

Courtesy DC Comics / Comic Vine
Courtesy DC Comics / Comic Vine

 

A girl takes a peek at some of the comic book offerings at Woolworth’s. Photograph by Stanley Kubrick taken in 1947.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

An issue of More Fun Comics from June 1947, produced by DC Comics:

more fun

 

The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, published in 1842, is considered by many to be the wellspring from which the comic medium derives. You can read the entire issue over at the Darmouth College Library website.

Courtesy Dartmouth College Library
Courtesy Dartmouth College Library

 

A Yellow Kid adventure which would have sprung out from the newspaper due to its vivid colors.

Image courtesy Comix  Takoma; art by Richard Outcault
Image courtesy Comix Takoma; art by Richard Outcault

 

Both Hearst and Pulitzer ran versions of the Yellow Kid comic strip during the years that they were drumming up propaganda which lead to the Spanish-American War. The unscrupulous nature of their efforts earned them the phrase ‘yellow journalism’, inspired by their war of the popular comic strip by Richard Outcault,

Courtesy the Library of Congress
Courtesy the Library of Congress

 

A section of the colorful comics section of the New York Journal, 1898.

“Familiar Sights of a Great City—No. 1 The Cop is Coming!” by Walt McDougall, New York Journal, Sunday, January 9, 1898  via New York Review of Books
“Familiar Sights of a Great City—No. 1 The Cop is Coming!” by Walt McDougall, New York Journal, Sunday, January 9, 1898 via New York Review of Books

 

Little Orphan Annie became the biggest crossover star of the early comic strip era.  Long before there was a musical, Annie starred in this 1932 melodrama, one of the earliest comic-to-movie crossovers.

annie

 

New Fun Comics #1, the very first comic book to contain all new material, and not merely reprints of newspaper comic strips.

1

 

The Batman debuted in Detective Comics in 1939, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. The city features in these adventures was Gotham City, startlingly similar to the city outside the creators’ windows.

Courtesy DC Comics
Courtesy DC Comics

 

Gotham City, aka New York City, in 1939

Courtesy U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation
Courtesy U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation

 

Vault of Horror, one of an assortment of shocking comic books produced by EC Comics in the early 1950s. The cover art is by Johnny Craig.

Courtesy EC Comics
Courtesy EC Comics

 

Bill Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, at his offices at 225 Lafayette Street.

Courtesy Tebeosfera
Courtesy Tebeosfera

 

Dr. Fredrick Wertham, the writer of Seduction of the Innocent, who lead a charge against the comic book industry.

fred

 

seduction

 

A young Stan Lee during the war as a member of the US Army’s Signal Corps. He even managed to do a bit of illustration for the cause!

stan lee

 

The Thing from the Fantastic Four with the  Yancy Street Gang, a variation on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side.

Courtesy Marvel Comics via Comic Viine
Courtesy Marvel Comics via Comic Viine

 

Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum is located on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village

Courtesy Marvel Comics
Courtesy Marvel Comics

 

What would Spider-Man be without New York City? The image of the Brooklyn Bridge (called the George Washington Bridge in the story) is featured in a classic tale involving the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacey, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gil Kane, John Romita and Tony Mortellaro,

Courtesy Marvel Comics
Courtesy Marvel Comics

 

A page from Maus by Art Spiegelman, the graphic novel that brought the medium to a new level of respectability in literary circles.

Courtesy Art Spiegelman
Courtesy Art Spiegelman

 

The comic book/graphic novel continues to evolve and reach new heights of success and respectability.  Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, published last year, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for best autobiography.

 

Courtesy Roz Chast/Bloomsbury
Courtesy Roz Chast/Bloomsbury

The Avengers defended New York during an alien attack in their blockbuster film in 2012

Courtesy Film Frame/Marvel
Courtesy Film Frame/Marvel

 

All images on this website are owned by the original comic book companies which produced them.  Please see individual companies for more information.

 

RECOMMENDED READING:

If you’re into digging more into this subject, here are a few sources that I used for this podcast:

Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of An American Art Form, with written contributions by Paul Buhle

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hadju

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangster and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones

Comic Book Century:  The History of American Comic Books by Stephen Krensky

 

Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution by Ronin Ro

 

The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City by Peter Sanderson

 

The top image is from Godzilla #24, released by Marvel Comics in July 1979. Herb Trimpe penciler, Dan Green inker, im Novak letterer, from a story by Doug Moench, edited by Allen Milgrom and Mary Jo Duffy

 

African Burial Ground: History from underneath the city, and the secret tale of New Yorkers once forgotten


A small cemetery for African slaves and free black New Yorkers developed along the southern edge of Collect Pond. But when that filthy body of water was drained and filled, the burial ground disappeared underground with it. (Image courtesy Preserve America)

PODCAST During the construction of a downtown federal administration building, an extraordinary find was discovered — the remnants of a burial ground used by African slaves during the 18th Century.

In the earliest days of New Amsterdam, the first Africans were brought against their will to build the new Dutch port, slaves for a city that would be built upon their backs. Later, forced to repress the cultural expressions of their forefathers, the early black population of British New York did preserve their heritage in the form of burial rites, in a small ‘Negro Burial Ground’ to the south of Collect Pond (and just a couple short blocks to today’s City Hall).

How did this small plot of land — and its astounding contents — become preserved in the middle of the most bustling area of the most bustling city in the world? And why is it considered one of the most spectacular archaeological finds in New York City history?

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: African Burial Ground

The African Burial Ground monument, at street level. Designed by Rodney Leon, the monument in contained on a quiet patch of land that seems to escape the bustle of the city around it.

Within the ‘Circle of Diaspora’ are various spiritual and religious symbols, many quite exotic.


There’s no shortage of information about the history of slavery in New York. I would definite start with the materials related to the New York Historical Society’s extraordinary show from a few years ago. The GSA’s site on the African Burial Ground is a treasure trove of information as well.

For hours and directions, check out the National Park Service, not only for the Burial Ground, but New York’s many other national monuments.

Turkeys (and Wolves and Turtles) in lower Manhattan

While walking around the Civic Center district this weekend, I stumbled upon this dedication to the original residents of Manhattan island, the Lenape, using some rather stiff, traditional images of a turkey, a turtle and a wolf.

The circumference of the dedication features the inscription, “Hay-la-py-ee-chen-quay-hee-las, The Place Where the Sun is Born, Menesenek, on the Island, Munsee, People of the Stony Country”

Why these particular creatures? The Lenape were actually divided into the three tribal groups, corresponding to these three creatures, whom they believed they were descended from according to ancient tradition. The Minsi (or, as indicated on the inscription, Munsee) meaning Wolf, “people of the stony country,” were the Lenape clan who lived in the areas of New York City today. The Unami (or Turtle) and Unalachtigo bands of Lenape inhabited the areas of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.

The dedication, located just east of Jacob Javits Federal Plaza with its wild swirly green benches, sits on an area once covered by Collect Pond and its surrounding marshes over 200 years ago.

Click here to see a cool little map indicating the Lenape regions of New York and New Jersey.

Speaking of turkeys, has anybody recently seen Battery Park’s resident fowl Zelda?