Look up! Among the skyscrapers! On superheroes and the American City

Gotham City. Image: DC Comics.

Superman, as everyone knows, lives in Metropolis; Batman lives in Gotham. Elsewhere in the DC Comics universe, Green Arrow is usually based either in the real Seattle or fictional Star City, while different versions of the Flash have worked out of both Keystone City or Central City, which are either in separate universes within the multiverse or just over the bridge from each other depending on the current state of continuity. Green Lantern comes from Coast City while other fictional cities like Fawcett City, Hub City and Bludhaven dot the DC map of the USA.

Over at Marvel Comics things are a bit simpler: the heroes mostly live in New York, and while there are fictional small towns, and whole fictional countries outside the USA, the Marvel heroes are generally grounded by their existence in contemporary American cities.

Regardless of publisher, American superheroes live in American cities, and while those cities have different moods and characters they’re all modern American cities with everything you would expect: skyscrapers in the middle, suburbs around the edge, industrial areas in between.

So why is this? For a start, like a lot of American publishing the major US comic book publishers were based in New York. The relationship between that city and the genre is a whole different article, but for now let’s just say that the editors, writers and artists in the early days of comics were telling stories about the skyline outside the window of their offices and studios. Most of the creators of the most famous superheroes were born or partially raised in New York, although Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were residents of Cleveland, with the latter citing the Toronto of his childhood as an influence on Metropolis.

The American city, especially in the period between the late 1930s (when the core DC superheroes were created) and the early 1960s (the dawn of the Marvel Universe of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and so forth), was also a fertile source of stories – the most plausible place for violent, pulpy stories to happen, a landscape of naive gamour and potential danger. Reading the early Superman stories by Siegel and Schuster, or the first Batman strips by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and their associates, you can feel the trickle down of 1920s and 1930s movies and pulp storytelling, of the city as a place where fedora wearing gangsters lurk in every alleyway.

As well as being a place where there was plenty of crime to face off against, the mean streets where heroes could prove their mettle against mean men, the city was also a place of glamour: a place where lazy rich guys like Bruce Wayne and mild mannered reporters like Clark Kent could spend their time between encountering gangsters, jewel thieves and mad scientists. The comic book city is a place of adult thrills and adult dangers, as understood by young readers, including those who live out in small towns or rural areas. It’s telling that the most well known small town in comics is Smallville, the idyllic hometown of Clark Kent where he was raised by his loving adoptive parents. Familiar prejudices and presumptions about the safe rural heartland and the exciting but sinful city are reflected on the page.


Comic books are of course a visual medium, and aside from the story possibilities the city gave the writers of these stories, it cannot be underestimated what a gift a cityscape is to the comic book artist. Superhero comics were cheap, ruthlessly commercial publications churned out quickly by working artists paid by the page; and the stereotypical US cityscape allows for a quickly sketched in, dramatic landscape of silhouetted rectangles for skyscrapers and blocks for warehouses. To look again at those early Superman or Batman comics, many of the stories take place in a delightfully naive idea of a cityscape sketched in with a few lines and four colours.

Later artists – especially Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, visual architects of the Marvel universe – would bring a greater sophistication of visual grammar and dynamism to comic book art. But it remained the case for many decades that a skyscraper could be rendered in the background as a rectangle with squares for windows – more precisely rendered than in the 1940s, but the same dynamic, angular simplicity. This simplicity has served superhero comics well as they’ve been adapted into animation, another medium which favours an economical use of inked lines.

In recent decades the American superhero comic has declined as a cheap form of entertainment for children and become mostly an expensive hobby for adults, and the visual language and the part the cityscape plays in it has changed. While supehero comics have always used the city to provide a – sometimes wonky – sense of scale to the storytelling. With Superman flying up among the rooftops or Galactus stomping between the towers of Manhattan, the more detailed artwork in modern superhero comics uses the city as a special effect on the page. When Batman jumps off a gargoyle now, many artists will provide an eye-popping panel where highly rendered, digitally sharp skyscrapers in the background point down to the distant ground, the more complex pallete available to digital colourists increasing the reader’s vertiginous sense of perspective. While some artists still produce brilliant work with simple lines and stark, sharp backgrounds, in many cases the city skyline is rendered in dense, work-intensive detail, each window precisely drawn.

The urban storytelling of superhero comics has also changed over time, to reflect changing concerns. Gotham City will forever be a place where some aspects of the 1930s never ended, striped suits and fedoras never quite going out of fashion; but Batman and other heroes turned more to fighting street punks and urban decay in the 1970s and 1980s, while the 21st century has seen concerns about terrorism and mass societal breakdown creep into the stories. 

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks the New York based superhero industry reacted with respect and a moratorium on mass destruction in the American cityscape, with at least one major superhero comic cancelled. But as with the rest of pop culture the comics industry steadily regained its capacity for creative destruction, working through real life nightmares within its stories.

Combined with the greater detail and realism in comic book artwork, this can create uncomfortable parallels between fantasy and real life – superpowered characters knocking each other through skyscrapers in a simple cartoonish art style is just men smashing through big boxes, while the same scene illustrated with a detailed level of rubble and carnage creates difficult associations. As with so many aspects of a subgenre created for children but now predominantly aimed at adults, scenes of urban destruction populated by brightly coloured heroes and villains walk a fine line between catharsis and poor taste.

The intertwining of simple heroic storytelling and deep underlying concerns about urban life has been a part of the genre for eight decades now. And with superheroes more prominent in pop culture than ever it doesn’t look like this strange ongoing relationship is going to stop any time soon.   

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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