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Committed: Architectural Permanence Vs. Superheroic Preponderance

021710_pillarboxAs 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.

021710_mailboxWhile 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.

021710_mcvitiesWhen 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.

021710_cokelogoMy 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.

021710_DanDareSince 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.

021710_allstar_supermanTaking 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.

22 Comments

Eh? You do realize that SF architecture is a bit more than just “plywood and timber”, what with all those pesky earthquakes and all.

This reminds me of a line from Field of Dreams: “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.” This is especially true of San Francisco, which was essentially destroyed in 1906 and rebuilt from the ashes. It was also a gold rush town, with the attendant slipshod building practices. I much prefer the British method of building things to last, for many reasons. For one thing, it seems like if you’re going to go to the effort to build something, you should plan on it serving its purpose for a long time. Otherwise, what’s the point? The waste of materials and history and architecture that goes along with reinventing yourself on a regular basis strikes me as tragic. Something about the American psyche says that what we will do in the future is inherently better than what we’ve done in the past. I foresee America looking like New Krypton – all glass and steel, and no soul.

very interesting point – and not just london but all of Euro-culture never produced a superman (the superhero, not the nitzchean concept : ). You can see some of the heroes Alan Moore puts into League and none of them are really “super” (supernatural maybe, but not anything like classic superheroes).

It’s interesting the convergence of things that went into Jerry Siegel’s head: father killed in a shooting, being jewish, early sf fandom, early comic strip heroes, pulp heroes, muscle-man cults — but even more interesting the IMMEDIATE and MASSIVE hit he and joe had with Superman: it takes more than creating something, it needs to hit the nerve of an audience, and I think what you posit about young, fresh country is exactly right, except it’s a new country looking out at an “old world” about to tear itself apart (and pull the newbie in).

For people who dislike permanence, we certainly like our heroes unchanging.

I think it’s a bit fallacious to judge the character of America by San Fransisco alone. You see a lot of Victorian architecture/planning on the East Coast of the U.S. and they certainly have stood the test of time. Sure the skyscrapers are 1930’s vintage but they too seem to have been built for permanence.
Like their contemporaries, The Superheroes, skyscrapers were a direct response to one thing, The Great Depression. Which left us with two lasting legacies a can do/it’ll never happen again mentality; embodied by “science hero” characters like Doc Savage who’s line would eventually lead to Superman and a new ferocity and organization to crime; which vigilante characters like the Shadow were a response to. This line, of course, led to Batman.

I think the superhero being a uniquely American phenomenon is due more to our history and our state of mind at the time (1930’s-40’s) in between the depression and WWII, than being that different in spirit from Britain. I DO find it interesting that the U.K.s comic boom happened in the early ’80s, which as far as I’ve been told was a pretty bleak time for Britain financially and politically.

Oh great piece BTW. Very thought provoking. A nice change from why Watchmen Heroclix are a sign of the endtimes etc.

Daniel,

The “UK’s Comic Boom” was only a boom as far as American Comics were concerned…

… and Marvel UK and a handful of comics that tried to follow suit…

Dan Dare and the Eagle were a staple of the 50s post-war depression, while 2000AD came in the 70s.

When you said that there are no British superheroes, my first thought was of James Bond. But you are right that the heroes are different. (And to be fair I only know Bond from the American-made films, not the British novels. For all I know the books may very well have more brainwork and realistic espionage and fewer impossible stunts.)
I suppose Doctor Who could also count as a superhero, but he does very little physical action-type stunts. (But from time to time he does employ his Gallifreyan physiology to do something impossible for humans.)
I wonder if any other countries have much of a superhero genre. I guess Japan would qualify, but are there any others?

Groovy and thought provoking as mentioned in other comments.

I do wonder if height has something to do with it as well… As a UK ite myself when I imagine London I think of it form the bottom down viewing the architecture from a worms eye view, so the buildings gain more significance and power. When I think of American cities I think of them from the top down looking at distant city streets from the top of a skyscraper (massive generalisation I know but it’s the thought process of a scattershot brain).

…So a US hero is going to imagine flying and optimism whereas a UK based one is going to be fighting the oppressive nature of his surroudings? From Hell vs Invincible… Watchmen seems to often see the heroes looking upwards rather than down which makes sense….

Anyhow, blathering. Keep it up Beany always like seeing what comes out of your keyboard via your brain.

I’ll have to agree with the poster that states San Francisco may not be the best city to judge American attitudes towards permanence. As others stated, fires and earthquakes have led to a lot of changes in the city. Also, since WWII California has seen a large number of people relocate there.

East coast cities, naturally had more direct British and European influence on their establishment have buildings that go back a much longer time.

Things like mailboxes and phone booths are more a function of cost more than anything else. The USPS needs something that is recognizable and can be placed cheaply and easily all over the country. There actually used to be smaller, more permanent iron mailboxes in the U.S. They simply went out of style, probably due to cost.

The British mailbox reminds me of where Danger Mouse lives….

The super-hero is a power fantasy. Going into World War II, America needed to feel powerful. And the super-heroes blossomed. We overdosed on power. Since winning WW2, America’s self-image is that we’re the most powerful and that we’re the good guy. Our national identity is that we’re the smartest and the strongest and that we know what’s right. We believe that America is the super-hero of the world.

But America is less like a super-hero and more like a gaudy whore with too much makeup — and mammoth gazongas made of silicone.

The super hero can be tied to many many facets of America, cannot be boiled down to just this or that motivation. Albeit this article had some good point. But I woudl also add that while NOt all of Europe is the same, as we are really divided aongst ourselves, in ways that Americans do not truly get quite right, we too had our heroes, that reflect our nature and also the way we re-elaborate contacts with other people. And what’s wrong with power fantasy, sometime sis refreshing and more healthy of the brooding about ones own misery that some eurepean comics indulge into(thankfully they are few and boring)

Interesting post. I agree with the others on not using San Francisco as a basis for judging American cities. In many parts of the country there is much more of a focus on stability and having things be made to last. That said, I would take some issue with the way you characterize things like our mailboxes. Form follows function, all we need for the mail is a rather flimsy metal box, the English one you pictured looks nice and all, but in the end it seems rather like overkill.

You have a unique perspective on how our culture differs from Europe’s, but as an American, I’ve never felt our heroes reflected any real insecurity about our relative lack of strength, stability and permanence. To me it still seems much more in the vein of religion and mythology.

However, I do appreciate your viewpoint, it’s one I’ve never really thought that much about.
Now I’m all in the mood to go put on “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society”

“We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate
God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards”

@ Lazurus Long
“But America is less like a super-hero and more like a gaudy whore with too much makeup — and mammoth gazongas made of silicone.” Indulge in self-loathing much?

We’re like any other country we have our good points and our bad points. No more, no less.

We are the Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium
God save the George Cross, and all those who were awarded ‘em

Village Green Preservation Society is one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

I dunno, considering the huge and lasting influence HG Welles, Sherlock Holmes, and Bulldog Drummond (Not to mention Jules Verne and Fantômas) have had on the past 100+ years of science fantasy and adventure in all popular media, I think there’s a lot to quibble with here, with the fundamental differences in UK and US expressions of national identity via pop culture being very slim. After all, what is ‘decency, honor, and generally being a good chap’ but ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way’ in a bowler? Although their cultural relevance has waned, the resilience and near-preternatural abilities of the UK’s serial heroes comfortably puts them in the larger than life category of ‘superhero’, even if they preferred nice suits to longjohns.

(Also, slightly barely interesting fact, France used pillar boxes before Britain adopted them. Anthony Trollope is credited with their introduction.)

Don’t forget King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Robin Hood.

Here are some lists of British heroes:

http://www.internationalhero.co.uk/l/lit.htm

http://www.internationalhero.co.uk/t/tele.htm

Having said that, I don’t disagree with your main point. I think the need for superheroes is especially American. We think of ourselves as the lone superpower, and superheroes validate this presumption.

Any intelligent insight I might have is swept away by my fascination at the picture of the extremely rare Edward VIII postbox.

As the Americans pile on to point out that there are more solid US cities than San Francisco, let me point out that The God of All Comics must have been onto something when he set Vimanarama in ever-crumbling, torn down and poorly rebuilt Bradford.

100% agreement Mary!

I take issue with the statement that America is about impermanence, I feel that’s a short way of looking at it. America prizes efficience. I take issue with the idea raised somewhere that American superheroes are a compensation fantasy. Superheroes, to me, represent ideal people. What the ideal American is differs greatly from what the ideal brit is, obviously. I also take issue with the statement (made by one of the commenters) that Doctor Who isn’t a superhero.

Consider.

1) Superpowers (Able to take lethal amounts of radiation, for one, as well as superhuman knowledge, the ability to instinctively detect problems in the space-time continuum, and of course regeneration)
2) Sidekicks (Companions)
3) Distinctive appearance (Changes by incarnation, but if you saw someone in a long brown coat, a floppy hat, and a scarf, you’d know IMMEDIATELY it was The Doctor. Especially if he stood in front of a blue police box)
4) Gadgets (Sonic Screwdriver, particularly in the reboot, also psychic paper, and obviously the TARDIS)
5) Themed, peculiar, and distinctive enemies (Daleks, Cybermen, etc.)

Lots of those are associated with superheroes (but by no means define them) and those are Dr. Who characteristics as well. He may be one of the Not-In-Tights superheroes, but he’s still one.

The Doctor is clearly a superhero as far as I’m concerned. Not being constantly engaged in combat doesn’t stop him from being one.

Rob makes a good point about King Arthur and Robin Hood.

I think the superhero has it’s roots in Greek Mythology, super strength, flight, even flawed heroes, thousands of years before Marvel ;-) So if anything, the superhero has it’s roots in the Mediterranean.

“I wonder if any other countries have much of a superhero genre.”

Not much of a superhero genre here in Brazil, though American superheroes are hugely popular. Actually, not much heroic literature in Brazil, period. I think we have four strikes against us: 1) low self-steem as a country, 2) valuing cunning and charm over strength and efficiency, 3) skepticism and moral relativism, 4) the idea that progress comes from concerted action and not from great men.

Still, we had our first non-satirical superhero movie last year. It was called “Besouro” (Beetle) and was about a black martial artist in the 1930s using powers and abilities given him by the Orixas (sort of pagan gods/saints in the afro-Brazilian religion of Umbanda) in a fight against a corrupt and tyrannical plantation boss that pratically owned the town the movie was set. It was actually a pretty well-done movie, I thought.

Does Besouro have superpowers in it? I thought it was the true story of the capoeirista of the same name.

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