“The Golden Age of Comic Books is 12.” That’s a proverb I first heard from Captain Comics, though he credits it to Maggie Thompson, who may have picked it up in turn from someone else. There’s truth to that proverb. All of us carry with us nostalgia for the comics of our youth, for the comics that we read first, for the comics that came out when we were 12. That’s true of fans, which I doubt surprises any of us. Yet it’s also true of those who eventually become professionals. While fans may indulge their nostalgia to whatever level they desire, professionals are necessarily held to a different standard.
But should they be? Should professionals be held to a different standard than the fans? Should professionals be prevented from indulging their own nostalgia? Some observers seem to insist that the answer to both of those questions should be “yes.” Yes, professionals should be held to a different standard. Yes, professionals should be prevented from indulging in nostalgia.
I've noticed this attitude applied most specifically to writers of the Avengers. When Kurt Busiek was the writer of The Avengers in the late ‘90s, his work included a lot of references to the Avengers of the late ‘70s, the comic books that would have been published when Kurt was a teenager. He brought villains of that era back to prominence, such as Count Nefaria, the Taskmaster and the Scarlet Centurion. His Avengers line-up was very similar to the line-up of those years, including key roles for heroes like Hawkeye and the former Ms. Marvel. Anyone familiar with the Avengers of the late ‘70s could see Busiek’s high regard for those comics.
When Brian Michael Bendis took over as writer of the
Avengers, we saw a similar phenomenon. However,
Bendis is 7 years younger than Busiek so his Avengers paid tribute to a later
era- the Avengers of the mid-80s. Bendis
has been very open about that, admitting that the line-up for New Avengers was
based in part on the cover of Avengers 221 from 1982 and Scarlet Witch’s
madness was based in part on the cover of Marvel Fanfare 6 from 1983.
Now, some fans complained about Busiek’s Avengers nostalgia during his run. And some fans complained about Bendis’ Avengers nostalgia during his run. Maybe it was the same set of fans in each instance. Maybe certain fans don’t want any hint of nostalgia in new comics and resent any of it. But it seemed to me that it wasn’t the same fans complaining in each instance. Rather, it seemed to be some of the younger fans who disliked Busiek’s work as it contained homages to comics from before their time. And it seemed to be some of the older fans who disliked Bendis’ work as it contained homages to comics after their time. Yet each group in its turn seemed to be insisting that comics professionals shouldn’t be allowed to express their own nostalgia.
I would disagree with that. I would agree that comic book professionals should be held to a
different standard than fans. After all,
fans only have to worry about pleasing themselves. If they want to indulge their nostalgia, or
if they don’t, that’s up to them. However, professionals have a much greater responsibility. They do have a duty to please more than
themselves. They have a duty to please
others, to please a wider audience. Not
that any professional will be able to please every fan every time out. There is the other proverb that says “you
can’t please all of the people all of time.” Though it’s impossible to please everyone, the professional still has to
try and please a larger audience. Therefore, a professional must be held to a higher standard. A professional can’t simply indulge every
nostalgic whim that comes his way. The
professional must tell stories that engage a wider audience. And that wider audience will include people
who weren’t born at the same time, who don’t have the same experiences and who
don’t have nostalgia for the same
But does that mean that a professional can never engage their own sense of nostalgia? I don’t think that the answer to that question is as clearly a “Yes.” I would agree that a comic book creator shouldn’t indulge their nostalgia, in the self-indulgent understanding of the word. But a comic book creator should be able to engage their own sense of nostalgia. They should be allowed to refer to the stories of their youth as long as the new stories aren’t dependent upon knowledge of the old. They should be allowed to be inspired by the stories of their youth as that has the tremendous possibility for making the new stories better. The love for the old stories can truly have a positive impact on the new ones. However, the comic book creator must engage his own sense of nostalgia in such a way that readers of different ages and experiences are brought along for the ride.
In order to illustrate the difference between “engaging” and
“indulging,” I’d like to turn to two recently completed stories: Alex Ross’
limited series Justice and Brad Meltzer’s crossover The Lightning Saga.
Alex Ross is actually younger than Brian Michael Bendis
(which means he’s quite a bit younger than Kurt Busiek) yet his tastes seem to
skew older. It’s obvious from a number
of Ross’ works that he harbors a soft spot for the comics of the Silver Age and
a little bit into the early ‘70s. On
some projects, Ross isn’t allowed to engage his nostalgia all that much. However, on his recent series Justice, he was
allowed to let his nostalgic preferences shine through. Ross created a Justice League of
that clearly belongs to the late Silver Age and the early ‘70s. The line-up includes the original members plus those who joined throughout the ‘60s like Hawkman, Atom, Elongated Man and Metamorpho. The last inductees in Ross’ Justice are Red Tornado and Zatanna. Red Tornado began hanging around with the team in 1968 and finally joined officially in 1973. Zatanna also worked with the team on earlier occasions before officially joining in 1978. Ross also includes other heroes of the DC Universe as allies for the Justice League. Yet again, these other heroes and allies are characters who all debuted in 1970 or earlier. There are the Teen Titans and the Doom Patrol, but the most recent hero to appear in the series is John Stewart, who first appeared in real life in 1970. And as with his first appearance in real life, John Stewart is not yet a full-fledged Green Lantern but only a potential and a reserve. Ross leaves out heroes who came along later than that. The Titans don’t have Cyborg or Raven. The Justice League doesn’t include Firestorm. The list of other heroes doesn’t include Black Lightning. That doesn’t mean that the Justice universe is entirely identical to DC’s Silver Age. Ross goes ahead and incorporates both Plastic Man and the Captain Marvel family into the story, older characters from other companies who weren’t a part of DC’s continuity at the time. Yet even with those slight alterations, it’s obvious that as far as the limited series Justice goes, the DC universe stopped around 1970.
I don’t share Ross’ high estimation for that time
period. I came of age a little later and
I don’t hearken back to comics that
were made before I was born as Ross seems
to do. Yet that difference in tastes
didn’t prevent me from enjoying Ross’ series. Rather, I found it to be warmly engaging, rewarding of multiple readings
and well worth my time. I suspect that
if I shared Ross’ fondness for that era, I’d have enjoyed the story even more
than I did.
What made it work is that Ross’ story didn’t require the
reader to love that era the same way that he did. We didn’t have to love all of the old
stories. Rather, he did his best to make
us love the new story he was telling right now. He introduced many of the characters as if they were new to us. His co-writer Jim Krueger artfully used
different narrators for each issue as a way to help the reader understand
different characters throughout the story. Ross created profile pages for the back of the book that would give us
background and pertinent information for the prominent heroes and villains
featured in that issue. The world that
Ross and Krueger created included enough differences from the actual Silver Age
to include fans of other eras. I already
mentioned the incorporation of both Plastic Man and the Marvel Family into the
Justice League, a nod to the one continuity world that DC introduced after
Crisis on Infinite Earths. Also, the
villains, although all dating from the Silver Age or earlier, banded together
in a group that clearly referenced the Legion of Doom from the television
series Challenge of the Super-Friends. Older
fans should have been engaged by the older characters. Younger fans could have been engaged by the
newer developments. Ross’ story had
appeal for everyone, not just those that shared his sense of nostalgia. I don’t share the same nostalgia as Ross, yet
I was still able to enjoy the story in its own right.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t as true of Brad Meltzer’s The
Lightning Saga in Justice League of
. Meltzer is actually the same age as Ross; they were both born in 1970. Yet while Ross appears to yearn for the comics that were made before he was born, Meltzer takes the more common route. His stories have clearly been influenced by the comics of the early to mid-‘80s, the comics that would have come out when he was an adolescent and a teenager. His earlier story, Identity Crisis, had clear references to Justice League stories that were published between 1979 and 1981 when Meltzer would have been a pre-teen. That story did a great job of referencing those earlier works without relying on a comprehensive knowledge of them. That story engaged nostalgia without indulging it.
That isn’t the case with The Lightning Saga. The inspiration for this more recent story
can be traced to a similar time period. In the Lightning Saga, Meltzer has a team from the Legion of
Super-Heroes come back in time to our current era. The Legion team is clearly based on the
line-up that was featured around 1980, including prominent characters of that
time like Dawnstar and Wildfire while other characters like Dream Girl are
wearing the costumes of that era. That
isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I’ve
stated earlier, it should be okay for a comic book creator to engage their own
sense of nostalgia. However, in this
case, Meltzer forgot to include the audience. The Legion characters weren’t introduced well; some weren’t named at
all. That forced the audience to rely on
their own knowledge of the characters in order to understand who they were- a
knowledge that isn’t universal. I
suspect that Meltzer intended for this to be intriguing and mysterious. After all, the Legionnaires were acting a
little oddly. But it didn’t come off as
intriguing and mysterious. Readers
unfamiliar with this version of the Legion wouldn’t know that these characters
were acting oddly. They would simply
find them odd. Many readers were left
confused. Unlike Ross and Krueger in
Justice, Meltzer didn’t do the work necessary to make us know who these
characters are or why we should care about him.
Also, while Ross’ Justice story was clearly influenced by
one time period, it had enough facets of other time periods to appeal to a
wider audience. Meltzer’s Justice League
story featuring the Legion did not. I,
at least, got the feeling that this was the one, true
version of the Legion and
all others that came before or after were somehow not as good. And that’s a problem.
I actually come pretty close to sharing Meltzer’s
nostalgia. I’m only a couple of years
younger than he is and the stories that serve as inspiration fit into my own
personal Golden Age. I like this line-up
of the Legion. But even as someone who
has a similar sense of nostalgia, I felt left out of this story. I like more than just this line-up of the
Legion. I want to feel engaged by the
characters based on what they’re doing in this story, not based on how I might
have felt about them 20 years ago. I can
only imagine how somebody significantly older or younger must have felt. In this case, I think Meltzer went too far in
engaging his nostalgia crossing over into self-indulgence.
Professionals should be held to a different standard than
fans. After all, they have to get the
fans to engage in their stories as well. This doesn’t mean that comic book creators can’t be influenced by the
comics of their youth. But they must try
to do so in a way that includes the wider audience. Busiek’s Avengers, Bendis’ Avengers, Ross’
Justice and even Meltzer’s Identity Crisis are all examples of how this can be
done well. Unfortunately, Meltzer’s
Lightning Saga is an example of how this can be done poorly.
Discuss the Art of Nostalgia at the Captain Comics Message Board: Fluit Notes
Originally Published on July 20, 2007