On what it’s like to discover superhero fiction in your thirties, as a Brit

by Charles Stross

So, here’s a thing: not only is the past another country, but the past – in another country – is doubly-alien: and yet, weird equivalences abound.

I was born in the UK in the mid-1960s and grew up during the 1970s and 1980s, in the dark ages before VHS and Betamax, never mind the internet. So, although I grew up speaking the language you’re reading this blog in (give or take some spelling and usage quirks), the cultural language was rather different: and in particular, the comics I grew up reading were just not the same.

In those days, data was massive: it had mass. A hardback novel was about 600 grams, a paperback maybe 250 grams. (I have no feel for those arcane ounce/pound things: the UK was going metric even in the ‘70s.) Shipping them across the Atlantic was expensive enough that publishers on opposite sides of the ocean licensed each others’ books and issued local editions. They existed in largely separate worlds until the mid-1980s: a few imports found their way across as ballast in the holds of ships, or imported when mail ordered by fans who knew how to get them, but the larger world of US trade fiction was terra incognita to a young Brit who didn’t live in a city with a (rare) specialist import bookshop.

(It wasn’t all bad, of course. The separation of the US and UK markets meant that there was room for a distinctively unique local school of SF to emerge: the British New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s gave us Michael Moorcock instead of Harlan Ellison, J. G. Ballard in place of Philip K. Dick. Different ecosystems, different priorities.)

But this separation went double for comics. Always a precariously disposable art form, comics in the 1960s through early 1980s lacked the credibility they’ve acquired today. The term “graphic novel” didn’t exist back then; comics in the UK were weekly pulp publications aimed at kids, with garish color covers and little complexity. Stories were short and episodic, two to four pages recurring weekly over longer story arcs of 10-20 issues. The weeklies were mostly anthologies, that tried to bracket a wide enough range of sub-genres to keep the public parting with their pocket money. So you might get a boarding school story, a detective arc, a footballer’s story, a spy thriller, and an SF yarn bound between the same covers. As for superheroes, they …

… Didn’t really exist.

Here’s the thing: Superman, the ur-Superhero, was a peculiarly American innovation. He had his origins in the Great Depression as an oddly proletarian champion of truth, justice, and the American way, fighting corrupt politicians and rapacious industrialists and strikebreakers, before being coopted to a wartime anti-Nazi role and acquiring similarly superpowered enemies. There wasn’t, as I understand it, an emergent British equivalent with magical or exotic powers until after British comics authors were exposed to the work of their trans-Atlantic counterparts. And comics, as a precious disposable art form in their own right, weren’t widely imported.

I didn’t encounter Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, or Superman until I was ten years old, in the mid-1970s: and even then it only by accident. I first ran across them by way of a small trove of early 1970s Marvel and DC imports. I was at a summer camp where somebody had donated their collection: out of sequence, semi-random, yet weirdly different from anything local, and speaking to a strangely alien culture with its own set of shorthand conventions. Supervillains and superheroes in garish suits and masks, pursuing their varied agendas of chaos and crime-fighting, with a self-consciously moral subtext (the Comics Code was still a thing) that was clearly and obviously different from the two-fisted Nazi punching of Commando Comics, or the cheerful anarchism of the Bash Street Kids in the Beano. (Not having a sister of the right age I missed out on Misty and the whole shelf of girls’ comics that flourished around that time.)

It wasn’t really until 2000AD launched in 1977 that we got something new and exciting: another weekly anthology comic, but this one was different. It brought us Judge Dredd (who probably needs no explanation here), Flesh (time-travelling cowboys hunting dinosaurs for meat!), Harlem Heroes (think basketball with jet-packs), and a reboot of the already-venerable Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future – a 50’s vintage British creation approximately equivalent to Buck Rogers. No actual superheroes need apply in 2000AD, but Judge Dredd, if you squinted at him in the right light (and he didn’t shoot you for it) could possibly have qualified as a super-anti-hero: a few years down the line, with the arrival of Judge Death and Judge Anderson, the super-herofication of British newsstand comics was clearly underway.

It’s also worth noting that while this was going on, the Superman movie franchise got a reboot with Christopher Reeve in the title role: these films made it into British cinemas, so from 1978 onwards there was no excuse for not knowing the basics. Another viral vector for superheroes to follow into British culture was video games: but again, that’s not my thing. (I have spectacularly crap hand-eye coordination.)

By 1980 I wasn’t really reading comics any more. The local anthologies were marketed at pre-teens and by the time 2000AD came along I was already ageing out of the target demographic. I took an extended hiatus from comics, veering wildly into role-playing games for a few years, then switching entirely to written fiction. This coincided with perhaps the most exciting period in the history of British comics, as Pat Mills, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot, and a bunch of others, reinvented British comics entirely behind my back, the bastards. The superhero thing was gaining traction in the broader environment, and American SF was getting easier to find in the UK: some time around 1989-92 I found and binge-read the first nine or so Wild Cards anthologies. But I didn’t really catch up with the revolution in British comics until the early 90s, when I stumbled over an early issue of Warren Ellis’s masterpiece, Transmetropolitan, then (via a drunkard’s walk through the racks at the rapidly-growing Forbidden Planet chain) discovered Grant Morrison and then the possibility that superheroes weren’t automatically doomed to cliched irrelevance. (Which realization came at a point when I was old enough to be able to shamelessly read comic books in public, because embarrassment tracks the age profile of puberty.)

Anyway: this brings me to what happens when you first really get into superhero fiction in your thirties: you start asking awkward questions. And not just about the cultural disconnects, like why Brits celebrate Thanksgiving on July 4th, what a “rain check” is, and why high schools have proms. (The latter phenomenon has been assimilated, supplanting the tired school discos of my own teens.)

Fiction set in a recognizable version of our own world usually reflects the social conventions of that world. And the culture of law enforcement in the UK developed along radically different lines from the USA – so different, in fact, that it’s a no-brainer for Brits writing in the superhero/supervillain field to set their stories somewhere else, like the US, where the conventions of the genre developed. (We grew up with a steady flow of American TV shows, so much so that it’s apparently not uncommon for people being arrested to ask about their “Miranda rights” – a peculiarity of the American legal system that simply doesn’t exist in the UK.)

British policing in its modern form supposedly follows a set of principles laid down by Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary (the government minister in charge of justice, prisons, and policing) in the 1830s. The people are the police, and the police are the people was one of the guiding rules: everyone is supposed to uphold and obey the law, and the uniform worn by officers merely indicates that they’re employed to do so full-time. British policing was supposed to focus on public protection rather than law enforcement – this was a deliberately planned reaction to the Victorian British public’s aversion to continental-style gendarmeries, or American-style militias.

Over time, British police culture lost that initial focus: as is the case everywhere these days, cops are all about Protecting the Money (and anyone who thinks British cops are unarmed is going to get an eye-opening experience the first time they pass through a British airport). Furthermore, there’s very little tradition of vigilantism – and even less tolerance of it by the police. Forget militias, forget US Marshals, forget the Wild West: there hasn’t been an unsettled lawless frontier in the British Isles for many centuries. Stories in which the likes of Spiderman could wrap up Doc Ock and drop him on the front steps of the local police station seemed curiously lawless: realistically, from a British law enforcement perspective, superheroes wreck the evidence at crime scenes, beat up the suspects, unlawfully detain or even kidnap them, and refuse to unmask in court (making them useless as witnesses). Everything they do seems deliberately engineered to derail a prosecution!

It gets even worse if you consider organized vigilante gangs like the Avengers. Not only do they develop and use illegal weapons (UK law defines an “offensive weapon” in terms of the intent of its user, a pencil can be an offensive weapon in law if you try to stab somebody with it) but they seek out enemies and escalate indiscriminately in public spaces. In UK law there’s no “stand your ground” doctrine; you’re allowed to defend yourself if attacked, but you’re committing a crime if you pursue an attacker once they retreat. Actively hunting down criminals is … well, if you want to do that, you should have joined the police. Right?

Operating like an American superhero in anything resembling the modern British Isles makes you a supervillain by default. This doesn’t mean that superhero fic is impossible: it just requires some lateral thinking. You can make a story work if you make your supe a spy, or make them an actual police officer: for the former, think in terms of the movie version of James Bond, and for the latter, look no further than Judge Dredd. Or, in the Wild Cards universe, look at Captain Flint of the Silver Helix, or indeed Detective Constable Jenny Scott of the London Metropolitan Police (both of whom show up in Knaves over Queens). (I’ve also written an entire Police superhero novel – of a kind – in my own Laundry Files setting: The Annihilation Score focusses on a British civil service bureaucracy grappling with the thorny question of how to derail super-powered vigilantism before it gets a toe-hold.) And of course things were different in the olden days: go back to the 18th century and there were no police, but rather freelance thief-takers employed to retrieve stolen property and haul ne’er-do-wells off to the Old Bailey (or, wearing a different hat, to extort protection money from villains who didn’t want to get their neck stretched: there’s a kernel of truth to the fantasy trope of the Thieves’ Guild).

Supervillains are a whole lot easier to write in British fiction, of course. Lawbreaking works much the same pretty much everywhere that has a legal code, police, courts, and prisons. And if you push the boat out further, allowing an intrusion of magic and the supernatural alongside your regular Wild Card powers, all bets are off. But if you do that, the story universe is going to rapidly and inevitably diverge from what we think of as British today.

This is an ancient land and the magic has mostly faded away: it’s also a small, cramped, unbelievably densely populated island, with little wilderness to hide in. There’s a reason why superhero/supervillain fiction is a quintessentially American form – and why, although there are plenty of British authors working in the field, they usually set their stories in the USA rather than at home.