Comic Effect

C omic books gravitate to big cities even when they’re being coy about it. Superman’s Metropolis is an optimist’s New York. Batman’s Gotham is a cynic’s. Iron Man and the rest of the Marvel crew just call it New York. Meanwhile, every now and then, small-city New Haven gets a nod.

Let’s start at the top, with Superman. During World War II, even the Man of Steel couldn’t withstand the Writers’ War Board and its call to put patriotism in print, which brought the superhero to New Haven in late 1943. In a story arc titled “I Sustain the Wings,” published in Superman #25, Supes heads to a training camp based at Yale, traveling as his alter-ego, Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. Kent, in turn, is disguised as a cadet for the purpose of an undercover report.

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But the purpose of the comic itself, which you can view in its entirety here, seems hardly disguised at all: to spur real-world enlistments for the Army Air Corps, specifically in non-flying support roles. “Warriors without wings,” they’re called pages before our hero rescues one Cadet Larry Thomas, an average Joe we’ve learned is depressed over his disqualification from flight training. “But why did you bother to save me—an air forces guy who can’t even fly a plane!” he says to Superman, who replies, “You’re more valuable to the Army than you seem to realize, Cadet Thomas!”

It took Superman five years from his 1938 debut to visit New Haven, but fellow intergalactic hero Flash Gordon, who has no superhuman qualities or powers, had already lived here at the time of his very first comic. Published as a strip in January 1934 (books would come later), it introduced him as “Flash Gordon, Yale graduate and world-renowned polo player.”

Oppositely, it took 35 years of comics for Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman, to be revealed as a Yalie in 1974’s Detective Comics #439. Even then, the revelation was so subtle—placed in the fine print of a half-visible diploma in the background of a single panel filled with much more significant content—that hardly anyone noticed for another 37 years, until a trio of writers for Yale Alumni Magazine investigated, confirmed and analyzed it.

Being voluminous, fractured and not institutionally collected or indexed the way other books traditionally are, comic books have for most of their existence been impossible to research in any deep or holistic way. Only recently, and only thanks to the crowd-sourcing power of an advanced internet, has anyone tried to collate and make searchable—though still very partially—the issue-by-issue creators, characters, storylines and settings that have captivated a cloistered contingent of readers for so long. It helps explain why it took 37 years for Yalies to realize Batman was one of their own and also why, a decade later, it only took me an afternoon to collect more obscure examples of New Haven in the comics.

According to the Comic Vine database, one of those appearances occurs in Amazing High Adventures #4 (November 1986), where a story dubbed “The Saurian Remains” tells a tale of “greed and rivalry in the early years of paleontology.” It makes sense the story would take place in New Haven, where real-world Yale was a crucible of paleontology as its modern practice emerged from the 19th to 20th centuries.

A more contemporary story unfolds in Spell on Wheels, a 2016-17 limited series about “three young witches… robbed of their magical items” who must “hit the road to track down the mysterious thief before he does any damage to—or with—their possessions.” In the third issue, the road trip stops in New Haven, as “witches meet WASPs!”

Starting in New Haven and traveling elsewhere is House of Penance #1 (April 2016), part of a limited horror series. Inspired by the later life of historic New Havener Sarah Winchester, who appears on the first cover with a hammer in hand and huge eyes dripping blood, the series follows the Winchester Arms heiress from New Haven to San Jose, where she uses her endless wealth to build an endless house as she did in real life. “But as the bereaved Sarah Winchester’s workers toil on stairways to nothing and doors to nowhere, a mysterious stranger arrives… and he could make Sarah’s demons all too real.”

New Haven’s most significant comic book role, mirroring the relationship between New York and Metropolis, might be that of Ivy Town, home of Ivy University as well as notable DC Comics hero the Atom and arch-nemesis Chronos. The “Ivy” naming is a rather glaring hint as to the source of inspiration, but there’s a lot more to go on. The major DC wiki, patching together a backstory told across untold comic books, locates Ivy Town in Connecticut, adding that the city grew in the 1800s into a scientific powerhouse and “one of the most flourishing industrial centers in all of New England,” just like New Haven did. The same wiki also describes Ivy Town’s colonial founders as intense religious dissidents who were unusually resistant to the British yoke, a description befitting New Haven’s own founders.

Still, in this case of creative borrowing, there are clear and often vast deviations from the nonfiction. For starters, Ivy Town was founded in 1705, 67 years after New Haven, and Ivy University was founded in 1885, 184 years after Yale. And also, to my knowledge, neither New Haven nor Yale can boast the presence of a hero able to shrink himself to the atomic level.

Written by Dan Mims. Image features a panel from The Atom comic book series published by DC Comics.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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