As a Londoner born and bred, and a San Franciscan for the last 14 years, at times I’m acutely aware of the differences between the two cities. Of particular interest are the cultural and environmental differences between America and Britain. After a long absence, a few days ago I arrived back on British soil. Immediately I was struck by the preponderance of Victorian architecture, something I’d forgotten about in the intervening years. London is a city deeply shaped by the industrial era Victorians, their desire for permanence, and their long view of city planning. While this is certainly apparent in the various stone and brick buildings, (both noble and humble) which provide a cornerstone for a lot of London streets, it is even more obvious in the mundane street architecture which is scattered everywhere.
While an American mailbox is a relatively flimsy steel box on spindly legs, designed to be easily replaced or moved, a traditional British mailbox is a cast-iron, red columnar edifice, with a foundation that reaches deeply into the ground. These mailboxes are practically immovable, created to stand the test of time. Long after civilization is gone, and the world is the domain of the cockroaches and plants, British mailboxes will probably still be here, standing tall over the wasteland. To my mind, this desire for permanence is endemic of the national psychology, built around the expectation of permanence and taking the stability of the physical infrastructure entirely for granted.
When I move around San Francisco and see buildings going up at light speed, with their timber supports and plywood walls, they are created to be flexible and transient. It is a city filled with buildings that have only existed for a few decades, with street furniture that frequently moves (I lost a mailbox last month, then found it had been relocated to a street a block away.) There is a youth and vitality which is represented by this form of architecture, and it is certainly a dramatic change from London, which has existed for hundreds of years.
My hypothesis is that the uncompromising strength and solidity inherent in the physical landscape of London allows for more flux in the design of simple, everyday items. The logos and packaging seems to change frequently, without warning, allowing for a contemporary take on everything from toothpaste to slippers. Meanwhile back in new, ever-changing San Francisco, the sign for Walgreen’s or the logo for Coca-Cola have hardly changed in generations. All of this youth and verve in America seems to create a desire for permanence and stability in the most unexpected areas, and with this in mind, it seems eminently predictable that America would be the birth place of the superhero.
Since the British have the brutish predominance of history in the very fabric of everyday physical environment, it’s no surprise that British fiction has never spawned anyone larger than life, at least not on the scale of an American superhero. Why bother, when the landscape is already so very rigid and unchanging? What need is there for a hero who can withstand bullets when the epic stone buildings are all already able to do that? Somehow, the closest any British writers ever came to great superhero fiction was either a comment on the great American superheroes (e.g. Judge Dredd, Watchmen, Marshall Law, etc) or used the genre of the superhero as a vehicle for a political statement about Britain itself (e.g. V for Vendetta, Marvelman, etc.) This could be down to the fact that there just isn’t any incentive to create larger-than-life heroes, when the physical environment itself is already larger than life. The closest the British could be said to have to the American superheroes would be characters like Sherlock Holmes, Dan Dare, and James Bond – all of whom are men tasked with preserving the great British values of decency, honor, and generally being a good chap – a far cry from the leaping of tall buildings and the flying of invisible planes that American superheroic types engage in.
Taking this idea to it’s logical conclusion then, the over-the-top nature of the American superhero is the embodiment of everything that a new, young, fresh country might otherwise miss out on. Rather than being a modern take on religion or mythology, superheroes are the manifestation of a nations desire for a certain kind of strength, stability and permanence. This fictitious device manages to fills a void left by a physical environment which is inherently temporary and mutable, and outside of that landscape the superhero might never have been born.