The Evolution of Gotham City

Will Brooker: ”The defining characteristic of Gotham City must be: there is always crime”

Batman is: the one who fights crime, so must Gotham city be a place constantly inhabited by it. In turn, one is always creating and perpetuating the other. As perceptions towards crime change in reality, effects can be seen in the ways artists, writers and directors choose to portray this on the cityscape known as Gotham.

In the beginning television serials of Batman and Robin (1949), Gotham City was just a backdrop. Indeed, it wasn’t even quite Gotham but instead an adaptation of Manhattan Island. During the 19th Century, New York City was known to be referred to as Gotham as a satirical commentary on the people who resided there. This following the folk tale of the town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, England and the ‘fools’ who made up its population. Co-creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger thus adopted the name to portray a city of hyper-realism and action, but capable of being recognised as any city across America rather than just one city so that readers might identify with the space.

Illustration: Eivind Mo Andreassen

Throughout its subsequent appearances in comics serials at this time, the city acted as a conduit for which Batman and his companion Robin would work to resolve the litany of crimes in the ever-growing urban territory. That was until Detective Comics No. 48 when its name was forever immortalised as Gotham City. The same was true in Batman’s depictions in television during the mid-20th century. Where in Adam West’s featured Batman series during the 1960s presented Gotham inside staged interiors, constantly shifting from set to set and never giving Gotham city a larger scope. During this initial period of Gotham city’s presentation, Batman and the crime he combatted were hyper-realised affairs. They presented the archetypes of Justice and Evil combating one-another in surreal depictions of society’s relationship towards crime.

However, just as the ‘Summer of Love’ was coming to an end entire across America, so too was the flamboyant representations of Batman in comics and television.

When actors like Adam West and the ‘camp’ style of 60s television began to diminish, Batman and by consequence Gotham city, became a far darker, grittier and sprawling space. The villains which inhabited Gotham like the Joker and the Riddler transformed from gaudy and theatrical characters into stark and critical representations of the human condition. Rather than being the cheeky, mischievous counterparts to Batman’s heroism; they instead became psychotic and homicidal figures who wholly reshaped the identity of the city they called home. Places like Crime Alley, Wayne Tower and Arkham Asylum emerged during this time of re-invention as places of profound importance to the identity of Batman’s world. With this newfound continuity, the city and its now iconic places become synonymous with Gotham city’s identity. This culminated in 1986 with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which delved into the psyche of an elderly Batman and counterpointed it within the disease-ridden streets of Gotham. Here, Gotham was no longer a space of idealistic adventure; a space for dynamism between good versus evil. Instead, it became a mirror of society, a space to reflect on the metropolitan world and everything it engendered towards societal hardships.

Three years later, this hell-scape of a city was immortalised in Tim Burton’s envisaging in the 1989 film Batman. From the sketches of Hugh Ferris and Anton Furst we can see how Gotham City became larger, more profound in its identity or as they put it: “as if hell burst through the pavement and grew”. This was all done at a time in the 80s when a fear of worsening crime was increasing in America during the tenure of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the ‘War on Drugs’. The identity of crime was one that was crafted in the minds of America citizens with connotations to drug abuse and gang violence, which was translated directly to the screen and denizens of Gotham. In subsequent sequels from Burton’s films, the aesthetic of Gotham becomes grander, brighter, and more grotesque.


Illustration: Eivind Mo Andreassen

This changed however in the 90s with the introduction of Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Crafted in the styles of Art Deco, what some commentators refer to as ‘dark-deco’ in this series, as if the architectural styles of the American 30s continued for another half-century. The series brought Gotham City back to a realistic representation of the city as that of any other across America. Rather than showing it to be an amalgamation of everything most corrupt in society, Gotham began to become increasingly synonymous with the realities of crime of punishment in its real-world counterpart. Batman and Bruce Wayne was portrayed with his own character flaws and his own dependency towards crime and violence.

The now termed ‘graphic novels’ however began to engender a deeper, stylised identity to Gotham, removing it further and further from reality. An ever-growing popularity of ‘alternative universes’ in graphic novels meant that places like Gotham could be portrayed limitlessly according to whatever form of presentation captivated its artists and writers at the time of writing or whatever the zeitgeist of the time might be. For example, in 1999’s No Man’s Land, Gotham is abandoned by the government after the city is almost destroyed in a natural disaster. The city becomes a breeding ground for gangs and villains, a hell on earth, where crime is allowed to run rampant and unchecked by law enforcement.

Christopher Nolan in his adaptations for cinema made a similar isolating move in both Batman Begins as well as The Dark Knight Rises where the bridges which connect Gotham to the outside world are either raised or destroyed altogether. Of course, Nolan’s Gotham is grounded more in reality than any of his predecessors. This can be seen quite clearly in the promotional material of Nolan’s second film in the series The Dark Knight where Batman can be found standing amidst burning buildings flanked by firefighters and policeman, harkening to the imagery and prevailing concerns of terrorism in the wake of 9/11. As a contemporary adaptation of a world more than seven decades in the making, Nolan’s vision for Gotham is capable of creating something even more terrifying in seeing Gotham City mirror our own cities more and more and the violence therein.

Beginning in 2014, the city now has its own titular show which follows the detective work of Jim Gordon and the Gotham City Police Department. It serves as a reflection of popular trends in detective-drama television in the 21st century, as well the popularity of growing cinematic universes (MARVEL) where fictional worlds become increasingly fleshed-out and dynamic.


«The series brought Gotham City back to a realistic representation of the city as that of any other across America»


Looking back at the evolution of Gotham city, we can learn a lot about how modern societies tend to view themselves; how they would create the Gotham city that defines their own beliefs towards crime and justice. Gotham has changed tremendously since its inception with Kane and Finger in the mid 20th century, and only has cause to grow with the success of Nolan’s transition of the comic and television material into the world’s cinema. Evidenced by all these creators, some things may always remain constant in Gotham city, but you can be sure it’ll always be evolving.