Jeff and Sarah and Caroline BS About Comics "Nostalgia"

Jeff and Sarah and Caroline BS About Comics "Nostalgia"

Jan 19

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Alert Nerds Sarah and Jeff enjoy BS-ing about random stuff. Sometimes their friend Caroline from Fantastic Fangirls enjoys joining them for such things. Last week, a bunch of big-ass comics news came down the pike and the internet got its bitch on and the emails between this mighty trio flew fast and furious. Here’s what transpired.

Caroline: Let me tell you, I was happy last week when a couple pieces of what I’d call Very Good News dropped in a row. (1) Marvel announced that Kitty Pryde is returning to Uncanny X-Men and (2) DC announced that Gail Simone is returning to Birds of Prey.

I feel like the comics Internet has really been needing some good news — or at least, some news we weren’t going to be able to fight about — and the return of a popular character and a popular title seemed to fit the bill. For me, personally, they weren’t the very best pieces of news I could imagine. I was never a Birds of Prey reader — I just wasn’t into DC at the time Simone was writing the book. As far as Kitty goes, I like her fine, but if I had to pick an X-lady I’d like to see back in action, I’d prefer the return of Jean Grey — or Rachel Grey and Polaris coming back from space exile, or even just an active and interesting role for Storm. Still, new Kitty stories and new Birds of Prey are going to make a lot of fans I know very happy, and both returns look like positive developments for female characters (not to mention fans and, assuming this is the book Simone wants to be working on, at least one female creator).

At first the reaction I saw to both announcements was really positive. But then I started to notice a thread of criticism, first about the Kitty news, and then eventually tying the two announcements together. That was the idea that because both of these announcements involve returns, they are signs that the big companies aren’t moving forward, or that they’re basing their sales pitches and storytelling on nostalgia.

My first thought was that this criticism didn’t seem to fit the particular news. Kitty has only been “missing in action” for about a year and a half, and she was written out in a story that went to great lengths to avoid killing her. I always assumed this was because an imminent return was part of the plan! And Birds of Prey has only been cancelled for about a year. It’s been a bit longer since Simone wrote it, granted, but it’s not like we’re talking about a long-dead character or a long-cancelled series.

Although…there certainly has been a lot of big news about long-dead characters and long-cancelled series lately. So, I’m wondering — am I offbase in my thoughts about the reaction to the recent news? Are the reappearing Kitty and the resurgent Birds part of some big trend? Or are people responding to a trend that does exist, and just using ill-fitting examples in this particular case? And if “nostalgia” is the word of the moment, is this a bad thing?

Jeff: Nostalgia is a bit of a tightrope act. Too much of it and new readers complain. Too little and old readers complain. To people who like the incremental and glacial forward motion in the linewide storylines, nostalgia can be a slap in the face. To other readers — and I’ve covered enough “Marvel: Your Universe” panels (and the DC equivalent) to have heard this exhaustively from fans of all ages — it’s a comfort, a security blanket. “No matter how screwed up and chaotic real life is, I know that at the end of the day Bruce Wayne is Batman,” or something similar.

I know that I’ve joked about DC’s rapacious tendency to capitalize on nostalgia as though it were some kind of precious, avarice-invoking ore culled from the heart of the earth, but really, I don’t think that bringing BoP back is an example of that. It had a pretty healthy run (127 issues is huge these days) under some fan-favorite creators and it got shuffled off the schedule pretty unceremoniously. The characters are still popular and relevant and this is a relaunch more than a reboot or re-envisioning. It’s not even a long-overdue return (from my perspective as a Gail Simone mega-fan, it seems long-overdue but it’s been about two years, only, or five days in comic-book time) to most people.

You’re spot-on about Kitty, too, Caroline. Pains have been taken to make her not-dead. Good-as-dead? Maybe for awhile. The only bad thing about Kitty’s return is that it mucks up the Space X-Men pitch I’ve been meaning to harangue Axel Alonso about — the one that starts with the giant Breakworldian space-bullet hitting a Celestial.

I think that timing is an issue here — we’ve heard a lot of news in the past few weeks about reboots and relaunches and resurrections and these are the unfortunate stragglers that managed to get announced just after we’d hit our nerd news saturation point.

Of course, some of these news bits — like Paul Levitz’s Legion of Super Heroes book or the return of the JLI — are bald-faced nostalgia grabs. The example may be flawed, but the problem just might be real. If we want to characterize it as a problem.

Sarah: Yeah, I am so nostalgic! For 2007.

Seriously, I think “nostalgia” is one of those hot-button nerd words that gets thrown around when maybe it isn’t exactly…fitting. But beyond that, the fixation on comics companies needing to just forget about the past has always struck me as a little weird since these characters have endured for decades and there’s, you know, a reason for that. It’s not that I want everything to remain the same all the time, or that my brain is permanently stuck in 1985, but if you can capture that thing that made some of those older stories resonate in the first place, maybe you’ll snag younger readers who are just as passionate as us old fogeys.

Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned?

The bottom line: I just want, say, the return of Kitty Pryde to be a good story. You can bitch and moan all you want about dead meaning dead or whatever, but if the creative team pulls it off, no one cares. (I always think of last year’s Star Trek flick and why there are so many reasons it shouldn’t have worked, so many reasons the fankids could’ve bitched…and, well, most of them didn’t. Because it was good. So it didn’t fucking matter that, like, Scotty was balding. You know what I’m saying?)

I also always thought the return of Kitty was a given. Then again, I thought the return of Jean Grey was a big, fat given, and…that still hasn’t happened yet. And maybe this, once again, marks me as old-fashioned, but I don’t mind this sort of thing being a given. One of the reasons I like comics and sci-fi is that people can come back from the dead, usually in ways that are impossible to explain without some sort of complicated-looking graph or pie-chart.

On a purely fangirlish note, I’m thrilled about Birds of Prey. Gail Simone writing dialogue between Oracle and Black Canary is one of my most favoritest things in comics and if that’s nostalgia, well…I was “nostalgic” for it the minute the series ended. How the return of such a smart, fun, kickass lady-type book could be seen as a bad thing is way beyond my powers of comprehension.

Caroline: I think this is what I’m worried about: someday — not as soon as all three of us probably would like it to be, but someday — someone at Marvel will write a return of Jean Grey story. I’ll be absolutely over the moon about it, and then someone will talk about how people only want Jean Grey to be back because they hate for anything ever to change, and then I’ll have to use my psychic powers to stab them. I’ll be thrown in jail, and then I won’t have any access to comic books. They probably won’t even let me read Twitter in my cell, so Jean will finally be back and I will never get to find out what happens.

Okay, that is probably not the precise thing I should be worrying about. But. Is fear of change really the only reason that somebody might want to read a story about Jean? From my perspective, the reason I’m so desperate to read about this character again is that I don’t feel as though her story got a proper finish. I don’t want to read the same story over and over again; I want to find out what happens to my favorite character next.

“Continuity” has gotten to be a dirty word in comics, and not without reason. But taken literally, isn’t “continuity” what we want out of any kind of storytelling — the beginning leads to the middle leads to the end? That’s not geeky nitpicking, that’s Aristotle’s Poetics.

The tricky thing with comics is that every reader is coming into the story from a different entry point. The arcs aren’t intrinsic to any individual story; we have to construct them for ourselves. My version of the story is not exactly the same as Sarah’s, which is not exactly the same as Jeff’s — and we’re three people who have read a lot of the same comics and like a lot of the same characters. Cast your net a little wider, and there’s even more of a difference. I guess that’s why I get so frustrated when some fans start making assumptions about other fans’ motives. Where I might see the ending of an old story, someone else sees the beginning of a new one, and neither of us are wrong.

I’m starting to wonder if nostalgia can have any real meaning in a genre where the whole idea of beginnings and endings, of what’s old and what’s new, is constantly in flux. If we can all agree that a new Keith Giffen JLI series is a pure nostalgia-grab, and that a relaunched Birds of Prey is nothing of the kind, where does that leave an event like “Blackest Night”? On the one hand, it’s introducing new elements into DCU mythology; on the other, it seems to be doing it by digging up dead characters. And what about the X-Men Forever phenomenon of going back to old stories but taking them in a direction they’ve never gone before? Does that count as old or new?

Sarah: If you do end up psychically stabbing people, Caroline, I will bake you a jailhouse cake with Jean Grey comics hidden inside.

You know I’m with you on the Jean thing! I also feel like a lot of the stories that are being told currently could benefit from Jean’s presence; I don’t know if that’s because she’s my favorite or because I can’t let go or because…I feel like there could be some terribly fascinating and provocative interactions, given where some of the characters are in their lives (no, Cyclops, I don’t mean like “threesome.” Not that kind of provocative). And I’d like to think this isn’t because I fear change and just want to read the same old stories: I mean, if I want to experience the gentle, soothing feeling of a more retro Marvel U with Jean Grey in it, I can just dig through my back issue bins or read X-Men: First Class (which I guess is how I think of things like X-Men Forever: “Here is something to soothe you, old-ass comics fan. There, there.” I personally don’t see anything wrong with this, but probably the ideal situation is a book like First Class, which seemed to have a lot of potential appeal for new fans as well, or at least people who aren’t saddled with years of continuity).

Anyway. I suppose pre-judging something before you can actually read/watch it will always be part of fandom, as will the suppositions geeks make about their fellow fans’ motives. But it would be nice if, you know, we could occasionally take a few deep breaths and maybe look for the good. Like, one of the first things I thought when I heard about Kitty was, “Oh, Dan Faust will be so happy! I do believe I am quite happy for him!” You know?

Yeah, I don’t know when I turned into Mary Fucking Comicfan Sunshine. I’m basically making myself want to vomit at this point.

Jeff: The best comic book stories, at least in the current “age” of the medium, are the ones that take the old stuff and make something new out of it. That’s where “Blackest Night” succeeds. That’s where “Siege” succeeds (because the light at the end of the tunnel is a more ’60s-esque Avengers lineup, yes?). My gut reaction when I look at “Generation Lost” is that it doesn’t add anything new, doesn’t build on the old stuff. It just builds next to or around the old stuff. I’m going to make myself pretty unpopular by saying that I was done with JLI before it stopped being published back in the ’90s. The first few years of it were superlative, but the jokes got too omnipresent and too old and too uninspired. And every relaunch we’ve seen for that particular team harps on the silly shit to the point where it’s a major turn-off to me. In fact, maybe that’s how we ought to define nostalgia in comics — a forced attempt to recapture a moment whose zeitgeist has passed. Bring back Firebrand II? Not a bad idea inherently. Make everything like it was when Roy Thomas was Geoff Johns? Nostalgia.

Wanna hear something funny? X-Men #112 was one of my favorite Kitty Pryde issues ever. I like Kitty — not as much as I like Jean or Logan or Beast, mind you, but more than I like Colossus or Cyclops — and it’s the one where she takes Peter’s ashes to Russia and then quits the X-Men. Then she just goes off to college, and I was happy with Kitty just walking away there, maybe taking a lengthy absence from superheroing and maybe coming back eventually, but I rooted for Kitty to go off and have a normal life. I get where you’re both coming from in wanting to know “what’s next,” but I’m equally happy when we hit one of those endcap moments. Like, if you killed Hank McCoy right now but made it great — like they did in Ultimate X-Men — I wouldn’t beg for him back, because he made the story better. Now Jean…I’ve gotten up during a Marvel panel and been one of those guys who asks Joe Quesada when Jean is coming back — I offered him a bribe, too — because the way that Grant Morrison killed her off (and I am totes Team GMozz most of the time) was wasteful and thoughtless and cheap. On a certain level, I grok that that’s the point of “Planet X,” but she never should have stayed down this long. And I know that she’s not really dead, yadda yadda, but that’s even more frustrating because her story isn’t done yet and Marvel keeps reminding readers of that. I think I joked with Caroline the other day that the X-office’s marketing strategy for every single thing they promote is to try and trick readers into thinking that this is the book where Jean comes back.

Caroline: One of my favorite things about Watchmen is that Alan Moore has Dr. Manhattan say, “Nothing ever ends” — and then he ends it. Moore acknowledges the potential to keep the universe he created going on forever, in one direction or another, but is smart enough to realize that a text being finite can make a story more powerful.

Wow, do I sound pretentious today! Sorry, about that. But, yes, Jeff, I see where you’re coming from. There are plenty of moments I can point to — not just in comics, but in television shows or series books that have gone on too long — where I can say, “That character’s story ought to end there!” Your example about Kitty is a really good one. Kitty could have left there, or Cyclops could have gone to live on his shrimp boat after Jean died in the “Dark Phoenix Saga” (for the benefit of readers who may not be X-geeks, feel compelled to emphasize that this really happened; the shrimp boat is not a metaphor), and it would have been a good story. I can even understand that somebody who felt like Morrison’s resolution of Jean Grey’s story in New X-Men was satisfying — that sending her to the White Room represents some kind of spiritual transcendence and not a fridging wrapped up in mystical nonsense — doesn’t feel the need to see the character again.

On the other hand, Joss Whedon did bring Kitty back, and she had grown up and this was worked into what turned out to be a damn good story. If she had come back as the teenager Joss had a crush on when he was a teenager (and, dude, I bet the guy regretted telling that story in print years before he ever knew he’d be writing X-Men), I think it would be different. Astonishing X-Men ended up being anything but an exercise in rote nostalgia. The way I read the run, anyway, it’s a story about dealing with the past in order to move forward. The past is present as a measure of how much things have changed.

At the end of the day, it’s not how much of the past you use, but what you do with it. I’m with Sarah in seeing the First Class series as the best of both worlds. There was a while when X-Men: First Class and Wolverine: First Class literally kept me reading X-books, because they were the only places to get characters I cared about. This isn’t just me being picky about who I’ll read; it’s a reflection that, after Kitty disappeared at the end of Astonishing, there was literally no place to read about female X-Men characters who had any kind of established personalities and weren’t evil, in comas, being tortured, or Emma Frost. I’m not saying that as a slam against Emma, either; it’s just that for a while there, she was nearly the only game in town. First Class was giving me stories about Jean Grey and Wanda Maximoff and Kitty Pryde, so you bet I was looking there.

I’m hesitant to take my personal likes and dislikes and frame them as a female representation issue, but when established female characters are killed or written out, or the books featuring them are cancelled, there is a representation issue.

Sarah: Oh, yeah — I have some very strong dislikes that are most definitely wrapped up in female representation issues. And I realize that what I’m about to say is going to make me sound like even more of an old fogey. Maybe that’s what this conversation is ultimately revealing to me about myself. Maybe I am a shameless nostalgia buff, goddammit!

But listen: if you look at the X-Men landscape in particular, all the iconic male heroes from the olden days are pretty well-represented. Cyclops, Colossus, Wolverine, Beast, etc. Whereas a lot of the ladies who I think of as legacy characters, as icons with a lot of history, are either “sort of dead” (Jean) or missing (Kitty) or shunted off to the side (Storm). I enjoy the introduction of new awesome X-personas, but why does it have to be an either-or situation? One of the things I loved about the oldey-olden days is that, like, Storm developed a really lovely mentor-style relationship with Kitty. Maybe, you know, Kitty will mentor someone else upon her comeback — there are plenty of new stories you can tell with Ms. Pryde. And for now, I’ll try not to get into how my dream OLDEY THYMEY line-up would include Jean and Storm and Kitty and Rogue. With big ’80s hair. And fancy, Dynasty-style bejeweled outfits. And a Debbie Gibson-heavy soundtrack.

Uh, what was I saying again?

Oh, right: ultimately, I think Caroline’s point brings it home. “It’s not how much you of the past you use, but what you do with it.” I come back to my mention of the Star Trek reboot: if something’s good, it doesn’t really matter what past elements it includes or how much “nostalgia” it brings up or if the characters do, in fact, sport fancy, Dynasty-style bejeweled outfits (secret dream! You listening, X-pencillers?). That’s why the premature bitching and the snideness towards people who might be excited for a Kitty and/or BoP resurrection is so fucking annoying. Will there ever be an instance where comics fans don’t pile on with the pre-judging? Am I asking for too much here?

Jeff: I sure want to say that you aren’t, but I think we all know the real answer. The comics internet will find a way to complain about anything, and that’s just a super-condensed version of the way that cliques in comic shops act when they hang out all day and just talk about what they’re reading. I think it’s interesting that no matter what the news is, the response always trends negative, even if opinion changes later. Like the new Blue Beetle when it launched a few years ago. Remember all the moaning about Ted Kord being killed off/replaced with a more “multicultural” hero (same with Firestorm when that book rebooted with Jason Rusch in the starring role)? A few months after the Jaime Reyes version of the character debuted, a lot of that negativity had gone quiet and Jaime is generally regarded as one of the best new characters out of DC in the last decade. But that initial reaction always assumes the worst. Heck, the intimation that we’re going back to a more classic Avengers lineup after six years of loud fanboy negativity about New Avengers — even that is being complained about and you’d think that people would be wolfing that down like free pizza.

Sometimes I think that being a comic fan is a bit like being in an abusive relationship, the way you get trained to expect things to be terrible, but never to actually walk away; when things are as good as we should expect them to be, we act surprised. Part of that might lie in the fan entitlement mindset. I’m sure we all know at least one long-term fan who stopped being invested in the “what happens next” aspect of the shared universe and clings to “what I want to happen,” which is a surefire way to get bitter fast. And that’s why I think a lot of new developments in comics unfairly get labeled as nostalgia-mining — because the gripers need to label it as something.

There’s no old character that can’t get some new life breathed into him or her or it. Every once in awhile, as a writing exercise, I flip open to a OHotMU entry at random and try to jot down a list of new story seeds for that character, the lesson being twofold — that any character can be made to work (even if it’s some lame one-off villain like the Star Tsar) and that even old things can be made relevant.

Caroline: I feel like, by the time I get to the end of these conversations, I’m always saying some variation on, “Can’t we all get along?” But, well, “Can’t we all get along?” It’s not like Kitty coming back is going to push everybody else’s favorite characters to the sidelines. (That’s what we have three separate Deadpool titles for!) I like the idea of different generations of favorite characters teaming up to learn from each other. It seems to be a formula that Geoff Johns and his collaborators made work in the Justice Society books, or the way the current Batgirl title teams up Barbara Gordon with Stephanie Brown. I’d like to see Marvel accomplish something like that. Obviously, every writer can’t use every character; that just turns into a mess. But shunting a whole generation worth of characters off to the side reduces the options that are available. I’d like to see a more fluid Marvel Universe where team-builders have more options to choose from. And they can’t all be Wolverine.

No offense, bub.

Sarah: Coming in 2010 — Star Tsar: The Ongoing Series. Set in 1985. With a bunch of Wolverine clone sidekicks.

Someone make this happen, please.

10 comments

  1. As one of those who called both the return of Kitty and the return of Gail Simone nostalgia announcements, I don’t mean a nostalgia for 2007 but a nostalgia for the way things used to be in general, whether it was 2 years ago or 20 years ago like the Levitz or the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans announcement. Almost all of the news out of Marvel and DC over the past couple of weeks has been built on the past, even DC’s announcement today of its pulp line. Some way or another, these are all built on stuff that’s been done in the past and work on our fond memories of the past. Would it have been so special if Levitz was writing Birds of Prey and Simone was taking a crack at the Legion? I kind of doubt it.

  2. Simone has written the Legion, actually. Back in 2004. So, that’s ‘nostalgic’ too.

    One thing that I’m struggling to find the right way to ask is how, in a medium of serial, cyclical storytelling, do we find a way to make things NOTstalgic? I mean, Batman is still starring in Batman, just like he was 30 years ago. Still has a Batmobile and a Robin and dead parents. But if you told someone that Batman was nothing but nostalgia, you’d get shanked. Because he’s Batman, he’s an icon. Same with Superman. With Wonder Woman. Maybe even with Green Lantern as a concept. But outside that tier of icons (and Marvel has their own), *everything* that isn’t a new concept that won’t work and likely won’t hit 24 issues (because the same people who are complaining about how everything new is old again won’t give this stuff the time of day) is nostalgia.

  3. @Scott — So where do you draw the line between pointless nostalgia and finishing what you started? I’d assume Simone’s going back to BoP because she has something to say about BoP.

  4. Hehe. “NOTstalgic.” *adds nothing useful to conversation*

  5. I particularly like Jeff’s coinage because it brings up the problem that there’s no real opposite for ‘nostalgic.’ I guess technically it would be ‘forward looking’ but certainly there are ways of looking at the past without being nostalgic. Hmm.

  6. This made me crack up a lot. I love the bedazzled outfits idea — a great home ec project for the students. (Though seriously they should sew.)

    I do think that if Marvel, in particularly, wants to legitimize their newer characters, they need to push them into bigger roles, let them grow & the fans whine, and then they’ll have some characters to grow on. And I don’t think this means they can’t bring back Kitty or Jean while doing so.

  7. @Erica You’re totally right about that. I think Young Avengers have been pretty successful with this but the X-titles have a much bigger problem, with the kids never really being allowed to get out of the ‘kid-book’ ghetto. I wish the new-‘New Mutants’ series with Sam & Dani & Rahne as the mentors to the kids who eventually became ‘New X-Men’ had been able to get some traction. But it seems like every writer who comes on to X-Men wants to push their own young generation.

  8. Erica: Totally right. The reason why a Young Avengers or a New Mutants v2/New X-Men book worked was that they didn’t shove the existing characters aside but used them to make the story being told a bit richer and more impactful to the reader. To Marvel’s credit, they seem a bit better about letting characters ‘graduate’ than DC does. Cassie and Vision are even on the ‘real’ Avengers team right now. Husk and Chamber and Cannonball were X-Men out in the field. There should be more of it, yeah, but it happens.

  9. I’ve had this bookmarked for awhile because I wanted to leave a comment, but I really don’t think I have anything to add. So I just thought I’d let you guys know how much I enjoyed reading this! You’re all very intelligent and well-spoken people and this just makes me want to discuss things with all of you more often. 🙂

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