The history of Gotham city is not unlike many American cities’ during British colonial rule. It was founded in 1635 by a Norwegian mercenary and was later taken over by the British, changing hands various times over the years. According to Alan Moore, the famous cartoonist and creator of such titles as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Gotham city was the place of many mysterious occult rites during the American Revolutionary War (Swamp Thing #53).
A separate history was provided for by Bill Willingham (Shadowpact #5): an evil warlock has slept for 40,000 years under the place where Gotham city is built, with his servant Strega claiming the “dark and often cursed character” of the city was inherited from the warlock’s nature. Going by either story, the city assumes a post-Apocalyptic mood that is also Gothic at the same time, and accords it an ambivalence that invites literary exploitation.
This mood has since been open for modification by writers, more so after the chain of events set off by the villain Ra’as Al Ghul. He introduced a virus called the Clench, impacting the city greatly. Just as it was recuperating from its impact, it was hit by an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, prompting the federal government of the United States to cut off Gotham from the mainland because it had no hopes of rehabilitating it. However, respite arrived in the form of assistance from the brilliant billionaire Alexander “Lex” Luthor, Superman’s archenemy.
In this regard, there are many comparisons to be made to Mumbai, which is itself a set of seven islands, is constantly assaulted by terrorists, and often finds support not from the government but from unexpected quarters (but, it must be said, not as unexpected as Luthor). By extension, the residents of Gotham city are also likely to be more resilient and resourceful than the residents of other cities, and possibly quite cynical, too.
Everything about Gotham city is rooted in its mysticism-ridden history, and the fights fought between the region’s native tribes and evil powers. The first signs of modern civilization arise in the 19th century when, after the tribes’ abandonment due to infestation by what they claimed were evil powers, Gotham Town was born as a reputable port.
Around the same period, in 1799, Darius Wayne profited from his labours on the port and started the construction of Wayne Manor, one of the precursors of the city’s cocktail of Gothic, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architectures. The manor itself is what one would call “stately”. It is located toward the northeast of the city, removed from the clamour of urbanism and allowing Batman, or Bruce Wayne – Darius Wayne’s descendent – to plan his adventures in peace.
Exclusivity v. Justice
The isolation of the manor parallels the isolation of Wayne’s personality from that of Batman’s: the former is portrayed as a dilettante indulging in the wealth of his forefathers whereas the latter is portrayed as a vigilante that the city seems to subconsciously need. At the same time, however, it is hard to say what the difference might have been had Wayne Manor been situated inside the city. In this regard, there is a notion of social exclusivity in terms of spaces occupied within the city.
A good case in point for this would be the older part of Gotham, which is situated to the north of the city and generally considered a part of the city itself. Old Gotham is where Crime Alley (which includes the Bowery, the worst neighbourhood in all of Gotham), Arkham Asylum (albeit as an island – visible to the east of a forked New Trigate Bridge), and Amusement Mile (the stalking grounds of the Joker) are located. Therefore, the new city, developing on the principles of reformation and citizen-vigilantism, grew southward and away from its traditional centres of trade, finance, and commerce.
Disregarding the depiction of Gotham’s architecture in the Burton and Nolan movies and the TV series: another of Wayne’s ancestors, Judge Solomon Wayne, was, according to Moore, the inspiration for the city’s unique architecture. Solomon’s intention to reform the city and rebrand it, so to speak, resulting in his commissioning of the young architect Cyrus Pinkney to design and construct the city’s financial centre. Moore’s choice of this explanation coincides perfectly with the period of Gothic Revivalism (around the early 1990s).
Growth v. Justice
Justice within a city is not administered in a court of law nor does it arise out of the adherence to rules and ethics. It is a product of many of the city’s provisions, their accessibility, and how well they work together to give rise to a sense of social security and provide a livelihood. For instance, Gotham’s common man could be working a nine-to-five day-job at some company in One Gotham Centre, just down the road from Wayne Tower, living in the suburbs around the Knights Dome Sporting Complex, within swimming distance of Cape Carmine off Old Gotham, and supporting a family of three.
However, this is not social justice. The need for social justice arises when aspirations, income and social liberty don’t coincide: if the nearest amusement park is haunted by a psychopathic serial killer, if a trip to the airport requires a drive through Arkham Asylum, if affordable housing comes at the price of personal security, and, most importantly, if there is the persistent knowledge of the need for a masked vigilante to rely on for a measurable sense of appeal against all the odds – in simple terms. It is as if the city was carefully misplanned: the Gotham city everyman is someone forced to live in a dangerous neighbourhood because of lack of other options for sheltering.
In other words, social justice is a perfect city and, therefore, by definition, can be neither omnipresent nor omnipotent, especially since Gotham city falls under the umbra of laissez faire economics. As a corollary, to understand social justice within a city, we must understand where the city’s priorities lie. How has the city been developing in the last few years? Is economic equality rising or falling? Who within the city has a sense of ease of access when it comes to valuable resources and who doesn’t?
The problem with studying Gotham city is that it is a city conceived as a negative space to serve as the battleground where the forces of good and evil meet. It has deliberately been envisioned as a child of the industrial revolution entombed within walls of steel and stone, overwhelming those living within it with by the enforcement of a systematic way of life that allows for the exercise of few liberties. This is what effectively paints the picture of Gotham city being a failed one. In fact, this very way of thinking is paralleled in the image of the Metropolis in Blade Runner (1982), whose Modern-expressionism production design was borrowed inefficiently by Barbara Ling for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) to imply a wildly whimsical side to the city. Anyway, this is how we understand the need for Batman, and how that need has been and is created.
It begins with the blighting of the police force: the superhero can become a societal fixture only if there is something fundamentally wrong with the one other body that is responsible for keeping crime in check. The Gotham City Police Department (GCPD) was corrupt for a long time, especially under the leadership of Commissioner Gillian Loeb, who had his hands in the pockets of the Falcone, Galante and Maroni crime families amongst others. The social scene inspired by such a network could be compared to the conspiratorial mood in the movie L. A. Confidential (1997).
By the time Commissioner James Gordon took over after Loeb’s successor Jack Grogan, the GCPD was overridden with lawlessness. Because of such a poor tradition, public authorities who should have been present to assuage the suffering of the historically discriminated were instead present to exacerbate, and profit from, the discrimination. Seeing that the GCPD couldn’t be cleaned from the inside, Gordon enlisted the skills of Batman, a veritable outsider, a deus ex machina.
Once the cleansing was complete, the city could formally begin on its path of reformation. Here is where the question of economic equality arises: when weeding out criminals, did the police department assume a rehabilitative approach or a retributive one? If the movies and TV series based on the comic may be trusted, then retribution was the order of the day, perhaps born out of an urgent need to do away with everything that has plagued the city and start anew.
At the same time, retribution also implies that enforcers of the law – and Batman – were willing to show no patience toward how the city itself was creating many criminals. This lack of patience is also reflected in many of the urban development projects undertaken by the city’s planning commission, especially such ill-conceived ones as the Underground Highway, as if the officials decided that desperate measures were necessary. (The ultimately-abandoned Underground Highway later went on to become the hideout of Killer Croc, apart from becoming the home for many of the city’s homeless – an indication that the forces of corruption at work were creating poverty.)
It can be deduced from all these threads that Gotham city is not simply a product of its history, which continues to influence the way outsiders think of it, but also its inability to cope with what it is fast becoming: a kennel for superheroes to flourish in. There are many decisions at work in the city that collude to create injustice in many forms, and the most significant ones are geographic exclusivity, a retributive mindset in the ranks of the executive, restriction on the exercising of social liberties based on past mistakes, and the presence of Batman himself.