New York: A City of Superheroes

New York is a city of superheroes.

Of course, here follows my usual disclaimer that superheroes are metaphorical archetypes, and so by “superhero,” I don’t mean people with supernatural powers in tights and capes.  I mean regular people demonstrating heroic attributes:  bravery, generosity, compassion, selflessness or often some combination of these.

Recently, while scanning news headlines in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in the NY-NJ area, it struck me how, in this region, this story was every bit as big as it was three weeks ago when the storm first struck (and understandably so).

The next thing that struck me was that it seemed like almost a third of these articles were about how some person or people were going out of their way to help others in need.  There are, of course, many inspiring stories of rescues during the incident itself such as this one in which a Staten Island man saw saving others as an opportunity to redeem his past deeds.

“Local Hero Saved as Many as 200…”


Staten Island hero Pete Vadola (image: CRAIG WARGA/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)


And continuously since the aftermath of the storm, people from all walks of life – individuals, organizations, companies, celebrities – have tirelessly been doing what they can to help:

image:  NY Red Cross
image: NY Red Cross

“How New Yorkers Are Helping Relief Efforts”

“Weeks After Sandy Churches Continue to Help…”

“Sikhs Organise Help for Sandy Victims”

Even animals have not been left out of this equation:

image: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

“Pets Are the Focus of Some Hurricane Sandy Rescue…”

 “Heroism at the New York Aquarium”

“Mother and Kittens Rescued in New York During Sandy…”

I could just keep posting link after link of dozens of stories more amazing, frankly, than anything I’ve ever read in my beloved comic books because this is exactly the kind of real heroism and goodness that comics mythologize symbolically.

Even for optimistic individuals it’s normal to become periodically frustrated and even despondent about humanity.  But in skimming and scanning through these headlines, you’ll find cynicism and misanthropy over mankind’s capacity for wretchedness dissolve away, at least temporarily.

I got to thinking how New York is a city that always seems to rise to the occasion, how ordinary citizens go above and beyond when they are called by duty or compassion to do so.  They did so with 9/11 and they are doing so again now.

Obviously, natural or man-made calamities occur regularly throughout the globe.  And aside from such extraordinary happenings, there is the realm of ongoing, everyday tragedies.  In both cases, no matter where it is, there have always been and always will be individuals and groups who demonstrate heroism whether they are well-publicized or not.

Japanese rescue workers (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

New York is therefore certainly not unique in that respect.  But perhaps because it is such a prominent international city, and because of its strong media presence, it just stands out more. It becomes a kind of iconic representative of all cities – indeed of all human communities.  It is itself, like the fictional superheroes who live there, a symbol.  And being such a mythologized city to begin with, all this becomes self-reinforcing.


I almost want to believe that it’s no accident that many of the best-known superhero characters, particularly from the Marvel franchise, are based in New York City.

No less than the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man all call this city home.  And while not as many DC heroes live there (due to the DC universe’s own fictitious cities like Gotham and Metropolis), still there are a few notable ones such as the Green Lantern and the Justice Society of America.

Probably, in the case of Marvel Comics, this mostly just has to do with the fact that the man who either created or nurtured many of these characters, Stan Lee, was himself born and raised in New York City and still lives there.  Needing a setting, he simply situated his characters in the place that he knew best.  Still, I want to be believe that this is some kind of divinely ordained coincidence symbolizing the city’s greatness, especially in times of crisis.

In New York, there’s even a “superhero tour” called, appropriately enough, The Superhero Tour of New York.  On it you can see and visit notable places where the city’s homegrown superheroes have lived, loved and fought.   While this may seem like just a novelty on the surface, there’s a deeper current running under it that goes all the way back to ancient times.

This juxtapositioning of modern myth with actual location is spiritually akin to the relationship that many old civilizations had with their mythologies such as the Greeks, Egyptians, and Indians.

In Athens, for example, to bring the gods and heroes closer into the hearts of the people, the myths were woven into the city’s very location, architecture and infrastructure itself.  The very name Athens, of course, comes from its patron goddess, Athena.  And for travellers to Greece who are mythology buffs, there are mythology-themed tours.

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece

And so it is with a superhero tour.  On the surface you’re seeing where Spider-Man battled the Lizard or whatever and simply having a nerdy ol’ good time.  At the level of the collective unconscious, you are on a spiritual pilgrimage paying homage to the inherent goodness and heroism of this magnificent city.

Speaking of tours, now would be an excellent time to visit New York for anyone who has been wanting to do so.  The expensive, post-Sandy recovery has left the city in particular need of tourism dollars.  So visit the City of Superheroes and, in so doing, easily become a hero yourself just by having fun.  And, for a city of heroes, the Superhero Tour  of New York just might be a fine place to start.[subscribe2]

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.

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