Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Comic Book Geography: The Watchmen Street Corner

So I finally did my pre-movie reading of Watchmen this past weekend. This is the first time I've read it since I moved to New York, so obviously the geography of the story was on my mind. Most of the action takes place in New York City, and one location in particular is very important. From Issue 3 through issue 11, a sort of Greek chorus of characters move in and out of the corner of Fortieth Street and Seventh Avenue. They include a young boy reading the Tales of the Black Freighter comic-within-the-comic, a pair of lesbian girlfriends on the outs, Rorschach's court-appointed psychiatrist, and others. The corner is only identified once, by Rorschach, in issue five; it takes its largest prominence in the opening of issue 12, which is also the only time the intersection is seen in its entirety. (The placement of the Empire State Building in that opening helped me determine which corner was which.)

Anyhow, I thought it would be fun to go down there and take pictures of each of the corners and compare what's there in the story with what's there in real life, 24 years and one dimension away.

We'll start with the NW corner. In the comic, it's the home of the Utopia Theater, which is showing The Day The Earth Stood Still on that fateful night of November 2, 1985. Here in this reality, it's the Parsons New School For Design. Midtown West below 40th or so is known as the "Fashion District" today, a callback to its former name of the "Garment District." The clothes were formerly made by European immigrants in sweatshops around the turn of the 20th Century; today they're designed by more affluent European immigrants in converted lofts, while the sweatshops have been moved to the Third World. Who says there's no such thing as progress?

This is one of my favorite juxtapositions. In Watchmen, on the NE corner of 40th and 7th is the Gunga Diner, an Indian place patronized by many of the series' regulars, including Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre. We learn in the epilogue that it eventually changes hands into a Burgers 'n' Borscht, apparently a popular franchise in the Ozymandias's stronger, loving world. Following Rudy Giuliani's revival of Midtown as a major tourist attraction in the '90s, its realspace counterpart is now a Burger King. Have it your way, right away, comrade.

Not much to say about the SE corner. In the comic, it's a dispatch station for the Promethean Cab company, of interest only because one of the lesbians works there, and because it's one of Adrian Veidt's numerous subsidiaries. Here it's an office building, probably occupied by advertising agencies and the like, with an H&R Block and a parking garage on the ground floor. The subway entrance (to the 1,2,3 trains, with connection to myriad others available) is not there in the comic, but I have no idea when it was installed.

The NW corner is where all the action is. In Watchmen, it's the site of the Institute for Extraspatial Studies, a rather important endeavor to the main plot, and also the location of the newsstand where the various characters congregate. The kid reads the pirate comic propped up against an electric recharger for the cabs, which obviously doesn't exist in this world, but there's a fire hydrant in the same spot. And, of course, there's a dimensional transfer site of a different kind: Midtown Comics West, one of the biggest comic stores in Manhattan, and, of course, a big promoter of comics events in general and the upcoming Watchmen movie in particular. And it's also where I've bought my weekly comics for the last four years and change.

Funny old world, isn't it?


Chris said...

Great post! I've been searching around for something like this and have to wonder if the owners of Midtown Comics purposely acquired that location because of it's comic significance, or if it was a happy accident.

However, let me humbly note a possible error: I think your locations may be a little turned around. I'm looking at the book now, specifically at page 27 in Chapter 11, at the bottom panel. It is the clearest shot I could find of the intersection with a very notable landmark: the Chrysler building. I think you may have thought this was the Empire State Building, which would place the newstand corner in the same spot as Midtown Comics, as you describe. I believe the actual corner of interest is the south corner, the one with the H&R Block and the tall building with vertical white lines. It would be soo cool if the comic store was not only at the intersection, but on the very spot where the monster appeared, but sadly I don't think it's the case.

Michael said...

Nope. If that were the Chrysler Building, it'd have to be on the other side of the street.

Chris said...

I'm pretty sure that it is the Chrysler building. Here is a link to a picture of the building, as well as a link to a picture of the Empire State Building.

Chrysler building (as seen on page 27 in issue 11): http://www.gothereguide.com/chrysler+building+new+york-place/

Empire State building: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_7tB79IR_qrQ/SCVh6hwIVBI/AAAAAAAADn0/l5plCrhYsAk/s400/empireStateBuilding.jpg

Assuming that the building in question is the Chrysler building-- located at 43rd and Lexington--then that would mean that this panel is looking east along 40th, with the building off to the east and slightly north. This means that the southeast corner of 40th and 7th is the location of the newsstand (the H&R Block), and not the southwest corner, where Midtown comics is located and you labeled as the northwest corner.