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The New York City Origins of Your Favorite Superheroes

By Nicole Levy | October 7, 2015 11:45am | Updated on October 6, 2016 10:36am

New York Comic Con kicks off Thursday at the Javits Center in Hell's Kitchen, which means that masked crusaders in full-body costumes will be circulating the city through the weekend. 

The Supermans, Spider-Mans and other brightly clad comic book characters strolling down 34th Street might look out of place amid New Yorkers in their staid street clothes, but there's actually no place on earth more fitting for such stand-out superheroes. 

That's because, as an upcoming exhibition at the New York Historical Society underscores, comic books were born in New York in the 1930s. At the time, the city functioned as headquarters for the United States' book and newspaper industries. Publishers in Gotham, seizing on the popularity of newspaper comic strips, began collecting published strips and republishing them in book form. They soon realized hiring writers and artists to create original stories would be cheaper than paying newspapers for republishing rights.

Many of the artists and writers hired had grown up reading science fiction, adventure comics and pulp magazines. Hailing from immigrant Jewish families living in New York's working-class neighborhoods, they found that first-tier publishing and advertising firms wouldn't hire their kind, but emerging comic book publishers, the predecessors to DC and Marvel Comics, would. Several of the most prominent comic book creators changed their names: Robert Kahn became Bob Kane, Jacob Kurtzburg, Jack Kirby and Stanley Lieber, Stan Lee.

They took their inspiration for the settings of their superhero tales from New York's skyscrapers and streets. Where could villain vanquishers find a better home than a city bedeviled by rising crime rates and overcrowding? 

Here are the New York origin stories of those iconic superheroes featured in the Historical Society's show, opening Friday:



"Action Comics," No. 1, June 1938 [credit: New York Historical Society]

You know him as the Man of Steel born on the planet Krypton and imbued with the powers of super-strength, super-speed, flight, heat-vision and freezing breath on Earth; the lover of Lois Lane; the alter-ego of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent; and the enemy of villain Lex Luthor.  

You may not have known that the creators of Superman were two high school students from Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. The teenagers submitted their proposed comic strip to newspaper syndicate after newspaper syndicate, but the middle-aged men in charge failed to see the appeal of a hero every awkward adolescent would want to be. Then in 1938, the strip landed in the hands of Vincent Sullivan, editor at the New York-based comic publisher Detective Comics. Sullivan proposed DC use Superman as the lead feature of its new comic book title, "Action Comics." Siegel and Schuster's character was so popular that DC launched "Superman" the next year, its first title dedicated to a single character.

► Batman


"Batman," No. 1, Spring 1940

You know him as the protector of Gotham, a billionaire industrialist and playboy who dresses as a bat when he fights crime; the child of parents murdered at gunpoint; and the superhero with all the awesome gadgets.

You may not know the Dark Knight was born in The Bronx, after Vincent Sullivan asked the young cartoonist Bob Kane to create a costumed superhero worthy of rivalry with Superman. Kane, whose studio was his bedroom in his parents' Bronx apartment, called on writer Bill Finger to help him flesh out Batman's story and artist Jerry Robinson to help him illustrate it. Kane and Finger both went to DeWitt Clinton High School.

► Wonder Woman

Wonder womanDrawing of Wonder Woman in costume, by H.G. Peter

You know her as an Amazon warrior princess; the daughter of Hipolyta given power by the Gods; the wielder of the Lasso of Truth; and Diana Prince, a government agent for the Department of Metahuman affairs.

You may not know that her story begins with an educational consultant for Detective and All-Star Comics and a Harvard-trained psychologist who noted an absence of female heroes in the comic book universe. Dr. William Moulton Marston submitted a script about "Suprema, the Wonder Woman" in February 1941 and recruited illustrator H.G. Peter to draw the comic. Peter, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who'd come to New York in 1907 to illustrate daily and suffrage newspapers, was inclined to portray Wonder Woman as a sexy suffragette.

► Spider-Man


"Amazing Fantasy," No. 15, Sept. 1962

You know him as an orphan raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Forest Hills, Queens; a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider that gives him the powers of super-strength, super-agility, the ability to cling to surfaces, and a "spidey" sense for approaching danger; the admirer of Mary Jane; and the foe of the Green Goblin. 

You may not know that New York City native Stan Lee and his collaborator, the illustrator Steve Ditko, created Spider-Man in 1962. Spider-Man, a.k.a Peter Parker, is the quintessential New York hero, his childhood and crime fighting years unfolding in city locations and institutions very thinly veiled by fiction. Spider-Man made his debut in Marvel Comics' "Amazing Fantasy." The superhero was an immediate hit for the New York City-based comic book publisher, founded by Lee's cousin's husband Martin Goodman.

► Captain America

Captain America

You know him as Steve Rogers, a weak would-be army enlistee who agrees to an injection of an experimental serum and transforms into a super-soldier; the killer of many a Nazi.

You may not know that the creators of Captain America were both living in New York when Martin Goodman asked them to create a patriotic hero capable of crushing the German aggressors overseas. Jack Kirby, a largely self-taught artist, grew up on the Lower East Side during the great Depression, and his comic book illustrations were filled with tenement buildings and crowded streets that evoked his childhood neighborhood. Joe Simon had moved to New York from upstate, retouching still photographs of movie stars for Paramount Studios when he first arrived. The cover of Captain America's first comic book, which went on sale Dec. 1940, featured the protagonist socking Adolf Hitler on the jaw. 

► Iron Man

iron man

You know him as Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy and business magnate; an ingenious engineer who created a suit of armor to save his own life and escape from a war zone.  

You may not know that Stark is said to have grown up in Long Island, and the creation of his character is attributed to four men, all of whom grew up in New York: Stan Lee, who authored the first story; his younger brother Larry Lieber, who scripted the comic; artist Don Heck, who illustrated it; and Jack Kirby, who designed the hero's original suit of armor. Heck, raised in Queens, drew many superheroes for both DC and Marvel over the years.

Research for this story was compiled from the New York Historical Society archives, Stephen Krensky's "Comic Book Century: The History of American Comic Books," Shirrel Rhoades' "A Complete History of American Comic Books," and Bradford W. Wright's "Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America."