New York has always been an activity hub in the Marvel Universe. The company was run by a City kid, Stan Lee, and the bulk of its classic characters were drawn and fleshed out by Jack Kirby, who happened to be from Brooklyn. Naturally, the epicenter of the comics universe that the young company was creating would be its amazing hometown, New York City. Marvel’s fictionalized New York would serve as headquarters for a slew of its most notable superheroes and superhero squads, including Tony Stark, Spider-Man, Sorcerer Supreme Doctor Strange and the Avengers. But like most city types, the Marvel Comics had a fascination with moving upstate, as evidenced by the placement of one of its most famous franchises.
The X-Men, part time mutant-human peace advocates and most-of-the-time superheroes, make their home at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in Salem Center. Salem Center is a real-life hamlet of the real-life town of North Salem in Westchester. Two of the most prominent X-Men of all, professor Charles Xavier – team leader, hyperintellect, almost-peerless telepath – and Jean Grey – powerful telepath and occasional host of the Cosmos-rattling Phoenix Force – have roots in Red Hook, specifically in the town’s hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson.
According to Marvel, Professor X studied biology at Bard College before enrolling at Oxford University to do his graduate work, and Jean Grey spent her childhood in Annandale while her father worked as a professor at Bard. Kind of strange that two such major characters would be able to call a small upstate New York burg their home, right?
Chalk it up to Chris Claremont. A comics writer who took over the then-failing X-Men franchise in the 1970s and brought it back to fruition by penning several classic story arcs and focusing on character development, Claremont attended Bard as an undergraduate. “What’s the point of going to a great school if you can’t make it a slightly supporting character in a cool comic series?” he told Almanac Weekly. Claremont admits that making Annandale Jean Grey’s childhood home was his call, but says he wasn’t aware of Professor X’s relationship to Bard.
Claremont recognized the importance of tethering the fantasy world of comics to the real world. “The location of Xavier’s School in Westchester County is something originally established by Stan [Lee] in the opening issues of the series,” says the author. “My contribution to that rubric was to take his general placement and give it more specificity, creating a street address and a real sense of place. Its proximity to New York was a matter of convenience and publishing policy: Everyone at Marvel was located in or close to New York – unlike DC, where the JLA [Justice League of America] characters were placed in fictional analogues for the real world (Metropolis, Gotham, Star City and the like). This way, writers and pencilers could frame the story’s events within a common physical reality familiar to both creators and readers. Everyone’s writing and drawing and reading what they all know, which (for me, anyway) makes the adventures that much more plausible and a whole lot more fun.”
Rhinebeck is home to two Marvel superpeople of its own. The incredibly aptly named mutant superhero Strong Guy – a Chris Claremont creation – hails from the town, as well as spooky former carnival rubber-man and current murderous brigand Scarecrow. A little more Marvel-in-Upstate-New-York Trivia? The base of operations for the Fantastic Four villain, sorcerer Dr. Doom, was originally in the mountains in a nondescript place upstate, in the alternate-universe event Age of X; and the City of Albany was accidentally leveled by Jean Grey.
Marvel’s not the only major comics company in on upstate New York real estate; DC has a presence, too. The 145th and 146th issues of DC Comics’ Nightwing, written in 2008, follow the protagonist Nightwing’s pursuit of a villainous cadre of brainwashers and rogue geneticists, headed by villainess Talia al Ghul, who have made their base at Fishkill’s Pollepel Island – particularly inside the Hudson Valley landmark Bannerman’s Castle.
Ever thought about how Kingston lacks a four-year university? DC’s got you covered. The company situates Hudson University (a go-to fictional college, mentioned not only in comics but also in TV shows ranging from Law and Order to the Cosby Show) just a little outside of New York’s first capital in a small town called New Carthage. Alumni include Dick Grayson, Batman’s very first Robin, and Martin Stein, also known as Firestorm, the Nuclear Man. Pulitzer Prizewinner/Superman Clark Kent questioned whether or not to do his undergrad work at Hudson University; he ended up picking Metropolis University, the comic-book equivalent of picking NYU over Vassar.
On a lesser note on the DC front, superhero Brainwave, Jr., son of Golden Age villain Brainwave, is a Poughkeepsie native, and Golden Age hero Scarab has a house in Kingston that conceals a doorway to a dangerous alternate dimension.
The Hudson Valley is also in play in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. The series, owned previously by DC Comics and currently by Top Shelf Comics, uses fictional characters and locales as its heroes and settings, respectively, and mentions both Sleepy Hollow, from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Palenville, from Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. Hadleyburg, the small New York town from Mark Twain’s The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, also gets a nod.
The Hudson Valley might actually be rolling into a new era of comic book relevancy with the release of Mark Siegel’s Sailor Twain: Or, The Mermaid of the Hudson. Siegel, whose company First Second Books previously published the National Book Award-winning American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, tells a story of the occult and treachery in Sailor Twain, which takes place against the backdrop the Hudson Valley in 1887, following the crew of a steamboat up and down the Hudson. The story makes mention of Saugerties, Croton and many other Hudson Valley cities and townships. Siegel’s graphic novel has its own display at the New York Public Library in Manhattan.