3/13/15

Fort Mentality (Part 1)

I recently read Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude,” a novel that combines autobiographical elements of his life with an exploration of the gentrification of the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Of course, the title refers to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the only place where the hero could truly be himself.  Lethem explores the time and place, 1970s Brooklyn, with such autistic intensity that I feel I know it as well as Superman’s Fortress, but it also reminded me of my own childhood goal to “build a fort.”


Perhaps kids have always built forts. Maybe for boys it was a way to play house without acknowledging it’s playing house.  During World War II the fort was a bunker, a place to fight the Nazis and Japs.  In the 50s, with a glut of Westerns on TV, the fort became a cavalry outpost or a cowboy hideout.  As the US space program took off, kids imagined space stations and interstellar vessels.  Any hidey-hole could become the conn of the Enterprise. The only requirement for a fort was a place that kids could call their own, protected from intruders.

The silver age comics of the 60s had many templates for kids to use in play.  Aside from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the other most famous secret hideout is the Batcave.  I can’t count how many times I pored over four-color schematics of the Batman’s headquarters rendered in Ben-Day newsprint.

The Batcave was a natural formation under Wayne Manor, but Batman collected all the essential ingredients to success: a crime lab, computers, an underground garage with Bat-vehicles, and a trophy room with memorabilia from past cases, including a giant penny and a T-Rex.  But more importantly, the Batcave had secret passageways for entering, and security that included booby traps and alarms. No villains could enter without suffering harm and alerting the Batman.

The first mention of the Batcave in comics was in a daily strip as early as 1943, so it’s no surprise that when the Fortress of Solitude was introduced in a 1958 story in Action Comics by Jerry Coleman and Wayne Boring it closely followed the Bat-template for a super sanctum. Carved into the polar ice, only Superman’s strength can heft the key used to gain entry.  Primarily a place to retreat from the world and think, the Fortress of Solitude also eventually housed a lab for researching an antidote to Kryptonite, a place for recuperating after battles, and a collection of artifacts honoring Krypton, including the shrunken city of Kandor.  Superman also keeps a manly diary, a book with steel plated pages which he writes on using his super-strength finger.

At DC, aside from Superman and Batman, super-hero teams had the monopoly on secret headquarters. Before the Justice League of America moved to their geosynchronous satellite (orbiting at 22,300 miles above the Earth) their headquarters were in a secret cave near Happy Harbor, Rhode Island.  The Challengers of the Unknown occupied Challenger Mountain, hidden deep in the Colorado Rockies.  In the 30th century, the Legion of Super-Heroes had a clubhouse paid for by eccentric millionaire R.J. Brande.

Similarly, the super-hero teams at Marvel comics staked out their own territory.  The cut-away view of the Baxter Building from Fantastic Four Annual #3 shows “New York’s most famous skyscraper tower…headquarters of the most colorful super-hero combo the civilized world has ever known.” One-upping the Batcave, it has multiple labs, several hangars for vehicles including one for the Pogo Plane, and even a home theater labeled as a “projection room.”

Less exciting, but no less plush is the Avengers Mansion, originally Tony Stark’s personal mansion but donated to the team as a place to crash, sometimes literally.  Even the junior heroes get in on the action. Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is the public name for the X-Men’s home base.  Although it has been shown in the movies, the most alluring part of their school was the Danger Room.  Before it became sentient, it was described as "a huge unfurnished chamber which houses countless hidden perils!" This allowed for the artist of the month to draw pretty much whatever he wanted in terms of danger.

Of all the heroes who had secret hideouts, it’s perhaps ironic that the youngest hero of the 60’s, Spider-Man, the one who most needed a place of his own, didn’t have one. This link, from the 70’s, emphasizes this need.

But there was one for fort me that was the best... (continued on next page following)

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