The man who designed Gotham City

Eliot R. Brown’s hand drawn map of Gotham City. (Eliot R. Brown)

Gotham City is the perpetually dark comic book metropolis of alleys, asylums, caves, mansions, and of course, Batman. The Dark Knight of DC Comics celebrates his 75th anniversary this year but Gotham didn’t become the hometown of the Caped Crusader until 1940, when Batman co-creator Bill Finger named the city for the first time inBatman No.4. In the early days of comics, cities weren’t much more than rooftop set pieces and vaguely defined skylines, and Batman was ostensibly fighting crime in a generic city with a vague resemblance to New York, but, as Finger has said, “We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it.” However, since its inception Gotham has gained an identity as complex and unique as any real American metropolis and is now more closely associated with a single character than any other city in comics. Capital-M Metropolis comes close perhaps, but Superman’s city is nowhere near as interesting as Gotham, in part because Gotham has something that makes it more fully realized and more consistent in its representation than any other fictional city in comics or film: a map.

Gotham City limits were defined in 1998 in preparation for the “No Man’s Land Story” story arc, during which the city was cut off from the United States after nearly being destroyed by a cataclysmic earthquake. It was the comic book version of Escape from New York. However, before DC Comics  could destroy Gotham City, there had to be a Gotham City to destroy. Enter artist and illustrator Eliot R. Brown, the cartographer of Gotham.

gotham city map
An early sketch of Gotham City, courtesy Eliot R. Brown

Brown has no formal training in cartography, but he did study architecture and had previously worked as a technical artist for Marvel Comics, where, as he told me, he was the closest thing they had to an “in-house architect and architectural renderer (and weapons designer and aerospace engineer).” He dreamt up and drew tech specs for Punisher’s weaponsCaptain America’s experimental jet, and Iron Man’s armor, and the occasional superhero headquarters. But in 1998 when Brown was contacted by Denny O’Neil, a legendary comics writer and long-time Batman editor, he was faced with an even bigger request: design one of the most iconic cities in comics history. O’Neil wanted a map of Gotham as part of an in-house “bible” to help coordinate the various comics that would be affected by the earthquake. The first step for Brown was to meet with the writers and artists who shared their wish-lists for Gotham locales. As he recalls:

“The DC Comics editors made it clear that Gotham City was an idealized version of Manhattan. Like most comic book constructs, it had to do a lot of things. It needed sophistication and a seamy side. A business district and fine residences. Entertainment, meat packing, garment district, docks and their dockside business. In short all of Manhattan and Brooklyn stuffed into a … well, a nice page layout.”

gotham city map sketches
Early development drawings for the map of Gotham, courtesy Eliot R. Brown

With research materials in hand and a mandate that Gotham had to be an island, Brown began, like Bill Finger, with the idea of a fictionalized Manhattan. Having grown up New York, he knew it well and used his knowledge of the city to plan its fictional counterpart, sprinkling in familiar neighborhoods, parks, civic buildings, monuments, landmarks and transit infrastructure.

gotham city map
The final, hand-drawn map of Gotham City by Eliot R. Brown

The city took shape in a week and, after some testy exchanges with editors and few back-and-forth faxes, Gotham’s rough coastline was finalized less than two months later. Brown’s final hand-annotated map of Gotham City included numerous bridges and tunnels ready to be dynamited by the U.S. government, as well as a few forgotten steam tunnels that might be useful to a crimefighter and his allies. Brown didn’t just design the city; he designed an implicit history that writers are still exploring.

gotham city map no man's land
Left two images: Eliot R. Brown’s map of Gotham City, as it appeared in comics circa 1999; right image: Brown’s map appearing in a recent issue of Batman

A few issues of the “No Man’s Land” story arc opened with a map of Gotham, illustrating the shifting boundaries of a turf war that was slowly won by Batman and the Gotham City Police Department. When “No Man’s Land” ended in 1999 and Gotham returned to the status quo, rebuilt with money from Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor and buildings designed by Gotham planner and cartographer Eliot Brown, the map of Gotham City was officially made canon.

gotham city dark knight rises
Gotham City as it appeared in promotional materials for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Since “No Man’s Land,” writers and artists have worked within the confines of Gotham’s borders and many versions of the map have been published. And some have even expanded them, including the current Batman team of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. A simplified version is used in video games and, most visibly, Brown’s map of Gotham was used in the recent Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, as can be seen above in Bane’s strike map. Brown had no idea his map had been used in the new film trilogy but told me he was “delighted that they helped further the ‘reality’ of the books.”

While a map may seem like a small thing, especially for a fictional city, it really does make Gotham feel like more of a real place. So why don’t more comics map out their cities? Why isn’t there a definitive Metropolis or a definitive Star City? Besides the amount of work it takes, Brown thinks the imposition of an official map might just be too limiting for some writers and artists. “If a writer wants Batman to face Croc on a glacier-bound treehouse for mutants—then that’s what he writes and gets drawn. If, the next month, Batman is now chasing Harley Quinn at a 24-Hour Endurance Sports Car Race Track—poof, there it is. All right in Gotham City. Put in a better way, it is about allowing the writers to have their freedom.”

gotham city map color

Ideally, a city would offer unlimited possibilities. But then again, restrictions can sometimes create the best art. Current Batman writer Scott Snyder has made extensive use of Gotham’s architecture and urban design as a reflection of Batman’s (and Bruce Wayne’s) consciousness and, in so doing, has told fascinating, layered stories rich with metaphor, history, and symbolism, including a mini-series, The Gates of Gotham, about the engineers who designed and built the many bridges that Eliot Brown created for Gotham. Brown no longer works in comics but since he created his map, writers and artists have continued to tell their stories within the confines of Gotham’s borders, and in so doing, have added to the city’s history, creating and exploring the nooks, crannies, alleys, and fire escapes of unique neighborhoods that were once nothing more than a name on paper.

Oh, and if you zoomed out a little on that map, where in the United States would you find Gotham City? New Jersey.

This article was original published at

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Batman Demolishes Penn Station in Chip Kidd’s Death by Design

Batman: Death by Design

[The cover to Batman: Death by Design

What if Bruce Wayne wanted to demolish Penn Station in order to surreptitiously construct an auxiliary Batcave beneath the new building? That, in essence, is the plot of Chip Kidd’s new graphic novel Batman: Death by Design. Though a few familiar faces –and grins– make an appearance, Death by Design is, for better and worse, a comic book about architectural preservation and the construction industry.

Wayne Central Station - exterior
[left: Boston Avenue Methodist Church; center & right: sketches of Wayne Central]

Of course, there is no Penn Station in Gotham City. Instead, a thinly-veiled proxy is presented in the form of Wayne Central Station. Every action, every conflict, and every single character in this story is motivated by the desire to either preserve or demolish this building, which is part high rise, part train station, and part Tower of Babel. Because it plays such a central role in Death by Design, artist Dave Taylor did a lot of research before finalizing its design. His choices are inspired. The exterior of Wayne Central is drawn from the Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tusla, Oklahoma, designed by Adah Robinson and Bruce Goff. With a little chiaroscuro, the Art Deco building fits perfectly into the Gothic-deco skyline of Gotham. The interior, however, is pure Penn Station. Designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1910, New York’s Pennsylvania Station was one of the greatest examples of Beaux-Arts Architecture in the United States. Its destruction in 1963, and the subsequent construction of Madison Square Garden, sparked an re-evaluation of New York’s self-proclaimed “master builder” Robert Moses and acted as the catalyst for preservation movements across the United States, most notably New York’s own Landmarks Preservation Committee.

Wayne Central and Penn Stations
[left: Wayne Central Station, Gotham; right: Pennsylvania Station, New York]

In a recent interview, Kidd described his experience with Penn Stations current subterranean incarnation:

“…as somebody who takes Amtrak a lot, I’m always in and out of Penn Station and it’s an absolute travesty. Basically — for one of the most active travel hubs on the east coast of the United States – it’s more or less a fluorescent-lit airless basement below Madison Square Garden, and it’s just horrible. And almost as a cruel joke, when you’re down there, they have these pictures up on the grimy tiled walls of the old Penn Station – this big, glorious space. They’re hanging around on the walls practically mocking you with how beautiful it used to be, as opposed to how shitty it is now”

Kidd’s observation, shared by every single person who has ever been forced to set foot in that rhizomatic dungeon, brings to mind a remark by architecture historian Vincent Scully. In describing the transformation of Penn Station, Scully wrote something to the effect of, “we used to enter the city like gods, now we scurry in like rats.” In Death by Design, Bruce Wayne hopes to replace his proxy Penn Station with a radical new design by noted European architect Ken Roomhaus –a proxy even even more thinly veiled than Penn Station– so he can flutter in like a bat, or as the architect says, be “spat out onto the sidewalk.”

Koolhaas Wayne Station
[Ken Roomhaus and his design for the new Wayne Central Station]

In lieu of his usual bevy of supervillains, Death by Design presents Batman –and Bruce Wayne– with an unusual rogues gallery made up of a beautiful preservationist and an investigative architecture critic (of all the fantasies in Death by Design, “investigative architecture critic” is perhaps the most unbelievable). The cast is rounded out by devious contractors, reclusive architects, and a mysterious new costumed vigilante named Exacto – as in knife. Kidd has described Exacto as “Batman villain as architecture critic,” though that’s not quite right. He’s more of a proactive agent of the building department. Exacto makes his debut with a warning to dancers on a glass-floored nightclub high above the streets of Gotham: “The stresses on this structure were improperly calculated!” Along with incorporeality and teleportation, Exacto’s superpowers seem to include unlimited access to classified construction documents and forged union contracts. As more and more construction accidents befall Gotham, its citizens are left to wonder: who is the mysterious Exacto? Is he causing these accidents or are his intentions purely to combat faulty construction? Those questions are only two of the many mysteries that drive the plot of Death by Death.

Unfortunately, there are too many mysteries: collapsing cranes, demolished buildings, the disappearance of a famous architect, and, for good measure, an old-fashioned kidnapping. The story’s ambitions are too great, and it fails to fulfill the promises it makes. Chip Kidd is famed as a graphic designer but this is his first foray into writing comics. Though he’s crafted a heroic, convoluted narrative that could have come out of The Fountainhead or Robert Moses era New York, at times his inexperience with the medium shows. The story is beautiful but flawed with a rushed ending and plot threads that get snipped too short. And while his enthusiasm for architecture is appreciated, Kidd creates an apocryphal architectural jargon that is completely awkward and unnecessary. Roomhaus’s work is alternately described as “Maxi-minimalism” and “Mini-maximalism,” while the clearly Art Deco Wayne Central Station is described as “the single best example of Patri-monumental Modernism in America.” These terms not only takes the story out of a fictional golden age and into a full-on alternate dimension but also undermine the extensive research done by the book’s writer and artist, whose stunning drawings make up for any shortcomings. Taylor took his stylistic cues from Kidd, who as the story’s “art director” gave his artist a mandate that can be summed up on one very specific question: “What if Fritz Lang had a huge budget to make a Batman feature film in the 1930?” Indeed, many set pieces and entire scenes seem in Death by Design seem to be drawn straight from Lang’s Metropolis.

Chip Kidd's Death by Design and Fritz Lang's Metropolis
[left: Batman fights through a crowd in Death by Design; right: a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis]

A massive debt is also owed to the work of 1920s-1930s architectural renderer Hugh Ferriss. Ferriss’s renderings were the inspiration for Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City and subsequently shaped the image of the city in the comics as well. Taylor’s pencils evoke Ferriss’s renderings without being derivative. The black and white monolithic Art Deco buildings of Gotham place the story firmly in the era of Ferriss’s iconic and much sought-after renderings. It also reveals, in surprisingly detail, the difficulties of getting such massive skyscraper built in a city like Gotham or New York. To make sure this process was described realistically –as realistically as possible in a story involving teleporting masked vigilantes– Kidd consulted with friend and architect Bart Voorsanger. Artist Dave Taylor notes:

“The book contains some of the truth behind how a city is built, literally. The corruption, and misplacement of power rings true to the point of making this book a timely record. But what this book does above all is show how easy it can be to bring that corruption and power down, all you need is one hero!”

Death by Design Gotham Skyline
[Batman soars above Gotham City in Batman: Death by Design]

Even with its overwrought plot, Death by Design is an entertaining paean to Batman and to architecture that wears its heart firmly on its cape. It really is exciting to see architecture presented as the driving force of a comic book plot instead of just background scenery. The Architecture of Gotham has always been integral to the Batman myth (As I’ve previously noted), and Kidd and Taylor articulate that connection in an exciting and innovative way. Buildings are represented heroically and heroes are revealed to be mere men, struggling against the very city they created.

Death by Design also alludes to larger questions about architecture, important questions. What makes a monument? How can we preserve tradition while still embracing innovation? What is the value of an architect’s legacy? To some, it may seem silly to look toward comics for these answers, but Batman has been around since 1939 and his history has been not only preserved, but enriched and updated for a modern audience – even when it takes the form of a retro-pulp story. If Batman has taught us anything, it’s that the past invariably shapes who we are. It cannot and should not be forgotten or ignored, for by looking to the past we can certainly find timeless lessons that shape the people we are and the cities in which we live. But we cannot dwell on the past completely; we cannot let it consume us. In order to truly resonate with a contemporary audience, an expression of tradition must reflect current social and technological realities. It’s like I’ve always said: as goes Batman, so goes architecture.

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Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives

Looking west from across the Gotham River, by Anton Furst

New York, Dubai, Tokyo, Moscow, Gotham. Every city in every atlas—real and fictional— has a unique character shaped by history and geography. More than a mere sense of place derived from architecture and planning, cities have a feeling that pervades the consciousness of those who live there until they themselves become a piece of the urban fabric, a fractional embodiment of the city itself. Perhaps more than any other person—real or fictional—Batman is integrally linked to his city, the city he has sworn to protect. In every sense of the word, he is a true avatar of Gotham. And Gotham City itself is an avatar, not only of the dreams of its fictional architects, but of our collective urban paranoia.