Note: One of my favorite parts of Urban Empathy is the introduction where I discuss super heroes, NYC and nonviolence. In honor of the book now being out more than 10 years, I’ve decided to blog some excerpts from the book. Today is Part One.
In creating Urban Empathy—a cartoon book set in New York City, the legacy of superhero comics and the association with the mythos of New York was never far from my mind. All the iconic American superheroes have a connection with Gotham. Spiderman, from a humble, working class home in Queens, is a born and bred New Yorker. Superman, like many who end up in the Big Apple, starts out somewhere ubiquitous in the mid-West and makes it big in New York. Batman and Robin live in a kind of generic Gotham (complete with an underground parking garage like my grandparents used in the Bronx). Batman dresses in urban black, travels with a male cohort, Robin (do they live somewhere in Chelsea?), and the whole landscape is that of film noir, with smoky dark streets and a quality of impending danger. And then there’s that risqué Cat Woman, an urban femme fatale if there ever was one.
Almost like a character in its own right, New York City is so much a part of superhero stories that it’s hard to imagine superheroes anywhere else. No other U.S. city can claim as many epic heroes (or home town baseball teams) as New York City. In part, it could be argued, it’s simply because superheroes are larger than life and need a metropolis like New York with towering skyscrapers and crowded streets to show off their strength. Soaring over cornfields or leaping Walmarts with a single bound would not be the same.
Based on the Gotham inhabited by and associated with these super-heroes, much could be written about suburban fears and perceptions of New York City. Even today, in the post-Gentrification of New York and with Times Square “cleaned up” there is still a quality of exoticness, danger and excess to the Big Apple, at least in the American imagination. Wall Street is a symbol of Wealth and power; starting historically, as seen in such films as The Gangs of New York, and up to the modern day, as seen in countless films and TV cop shows, such as Law and Order, there is a sense of intensity, roughness, and grit. For me, as a teen growing up and reading books like Catcher in the Rye and Bright Lights, Big City, there was a risqué freedom that I associated with “the City.” Clearly, given the terrain, it takes someone with above human strength to address the depth of darkness, danger and uncertainty that lurks in New York City.
Urban Empathy, in perhaps every way, turns popular notions on their head: ideas about good and evil, what New Yorkers are capable of, what our culture considers admirable, and the ways that peace, harmony and human life can be nurtured and maintained. It offers, I believe, a new kind of story for New York—the actual city of bridges, tunnels and bustling human life and the mythic Gotham of American imagination.
Rather than physical force (or punishment or blame) to resolve imbalances and conflict, in Urban Empathy the transformative power we see at play is compassion. By compassion, I mean having deep connection and feeling for another human being—a desire to understand what others and/or ourselves are experiencing and, by doing so, to ease pain and suffering. The underlying principle is to see the “best” in each person: trusting, regardless of their words and actions (which we may not like or understand), their full humanity and that they are attempting to meet some valuable human needs. Rather than seeing others as evil, wrong of crazy (or some other assessment), there is an attempt to maintain human trust and to find a way forward via understanding and connection. By assuming the best in others, Urban Empathy challenges what the domination culture would have us believe: that as human beings we are selfish, malicious, self-centered, and, even evil.
In these stories, I act on a radical notion: that if I can share my experience—what is happening as I see it, how it’s impacting my life, and what l’d like to see happen (without blame, punishment or coercion) and listen to what’s going on for the other person, that we can find a solution that works for both of us.