More Thoughts on Nostalgia

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SINCE WRITING MY REVIEW OF JUSTICE, the topic of nostalgia has stayed in my mind, despite the fact that my invocation of nostalgia led to my committing the common Internet sin of speculating uncharitably on the authors’ intentions rather than sticking to what’s on the page. Nonetheless, it’s a topic deserving of further investigation.

I acknowledged in my intro to the Justice review that distinguishing between those superhero comics that are about nostalgia and those that aren’t might simply be academic. Any that involve decades-old characters––which is to say, most of them––indulge in nostalgia to some degree. Steven Grant notes in a recent Permanent Damage (and I’m sure he’s far from the first to point this out) that original superhero characters outside of DC and Marvel don’t really sell better than non-superhero comics, and even DC and Marvel superhero comics have trouble if they aren’t “core” books. So it’s safe to say that familiarity, if not necessarily nostalgia, is the driving force of the superhero comics market. But I still believe that just as there’s no intrinsic reason why comics have to be defined by superheroes, there’s no reason why superheroes have to be defined by nostalgia.

I suppose the distinction I would draw is a thematic one. Jim Krueger argues in his introduction that the central question of Justice is really one of how individuals with the power to change the world should use it. However, ignoring the fact that this premise gets more play in the intro than it does in the actual story, it’s ground already well trod post-Authority, and addressing this question with people who can single-handedly green a desert is pretty facile. Justice strikes me as being a superhero comic that is about superhero comics.

By contrast, something like “The Tornado’s Path,” the first story arc of Brad Meltzer’s Justice League of America, doesn’t hide its love for older, more obscure characters, but it clearly shows Meltzer’s interest in using them to explore a more universal theme. That theme, ironically, is change and transition, turning points in people’s lives. The Red Tornado becomes human. Roy Harper transitions into manhood. Hal Jordon deals with rebirth and the realization that he is now physically younger than those who came up after him. The Justice League itself is reborn. Even the villains are motivated by a desire for transformation rather than a plot to rob a bank or take over the world. If it’s a flawed story and not as forward-looking as I make it sound, it’s at least about human experience rather than an abstract notion of superhuman experience.

Likewise, Joe Casey and Tom Scioli’s GØDLAND might look retro in its exploration of “Kirby as genre,” but the conflict is about Commander Archer’s responsibility in ushering human growth and evolution more than the need to fight villains. What villains there are actually have similar motivations. Basil Cronus’ goals could be said to mirror Archer’s; his chosen medium is just growth through mind-expanding drugs. Friedrich Nicklehead’s is social upward mobility. GØDLAND may blatantly use nostalgia as a come-on, but its contents are very fresh.

So nostalgia doesn’t have to be the main ingredient of superhero comics, even if it still seems like it has to be mixed in somewhere to grab an audience. Which leaves me scratching my head as the market for them remains so backwards-looking. Dan DiDio, DC’s Executive Editor, once remarked that he could tell when someone started reading comics by which versions of characters were their favorites. This he measured by fan complaint at changes and reversals to changes made to those characters. I call it “DiDio’s Law.”

By his estimation then, I should have started reading Batman in the Greg Rucka/Ed Brubaker era, because of my annoyance when many of the changes made during their tenure (most notably Commissioner Gordon’s retirement and Harvey Bullock’s dismissal from the GCPD) were expunged in Infinite Crisis/One Year Later. In fact, I started reading them in 1995 at age eleven and, according to DiDio’s Law, should have been delighted when the status quo circa ‘95 was restored.

The problem with that theory is that I valued the progression of the story more than I did the preservation of the moment I jumped on. Rucka and Brubaker’s approach challenged some old notions about what made Batman’s world work. Turned out there didn’t have to be a Commissioner Gordon; Batman dealing with a new guy had story potential, as did Gordon’s new roles as an adjunct professor of criminology and Batman’s outside confidante. Just like the situation when I started reading, these didn’t need to be locked in amber, but they were reversed before their potential was really explored, and the reversion to the old status quo after all that had transpired strained credulity.

The clamor for the return of Green Lantern Hal Jordan similarly confused me. It doesn’t particularly matter that I have personally never read a story in which I’ve found him very interesting (I’ll give the first Showcase Presents volume a try eventually), since I’ve remained indifferent both to his replacement, Kyle Rayner, and to any version of John Stewart other than the one on TV’s Justice League Unlimited. No, what gets me is that there were decades’ worth of Jordan stories, which is surely enough, and then there was something different. Isn’t that just what happens anywhere else? To my eyes, the demand for Jordan seems similar to insisting that Sean Connery be reinstated as James Bond. Perhaps I lack an essential comic book gene, but I simply can’t imagine pining for a character’s return for so many years. Things like that make me wonder if DiDio’s Law is correct and I’m just unusual.

If so, the culprit seems more likely to be endless serialization than the genre itself. Sean Connery is too old to play James Bond again, so his fans have no choice but to give up on his return. Hal Jordan is only as old as he is drawn and so can be dug up time and again to please his. If nothing forces readers to give up their favorites, they apparently see no reason to do so voluntarily. There’s also a limit to how much the stories can progress, since they aren’t allowed to end, so the editorial inclination is to pull back when “too much” progression has taken place, and suddenly we’re back on familiar ground.

But that will still be new territory to someone. Maybe my problem was just that ten years was too long to have been reading Batman and once I got back to where I started it was time to get off. Actually, that’s more or less what I did––I stopped reading the Batman books when the Rucka/Brubaker era ended and have only recently come back for Grant Morrison (More on his Batman run soon). It definitely felt good to come back to it, though, so I’m probably as guilty as anyone. Back to the drawing board…

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One Response to “More Thoughts on Nostalgia”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Oct. 1, 2007: The fairer and more balanced god Says:

    […] Paul Gravett looks at superhero decadence and its discontents. Somewhat related: Brendan Wright contemplates its parasitic flipside, funnybook […]

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