Thursday, September 22, 2005


A recent series of posts (the Lethem and Leifield parts in the later link) over at Double Articulation got me thinking about some interesting things. If you read the two Lethem articles linked at the site back to back, there is an interesting overlapping undercurrent concerning the feeling in the 70’s that the Fortress of Solitude author (and thus all of alive at the time) were living in the shadow of “when the great things happened.” Letham seems concerned primarily (and to great benefit) with 60’s Marvel, but makes a few allusions to pop music of the time as well.

This is a subject area I have considered before. Everybody, from time to time, gets annoyed by the boomers who cut their music appreciation-al teeth in the 60’s and are more than happy to gleefully exclaim how it’s all been downhill from there. There is a perverse joy in letting you know that “your” stuff can’t hold a candle to “their” stuff. The interesting angle suggested by the articles is that the implicit tone of comics of the 70’s (both in the stories, the editorial citations, and the bullpen bulletins) seemed not just to clue you in on what you’d missed but also to point out that you’d missed it. This creation/promotion of the “legendary time” probably worked very well for Marvel for a while, but seemed to ultimately work against it (by making readers feel they were getting cold leftovers). This may be the beginning of the modern age of shortsighted comic marketing.

But this line of thinking also reminded me that the presence of a legendary past (that the new reader is invited to slowly become aware of) is one of the most exciting things about being an obsessive experiencer of any pop experience. I have often thought about one odd effect that occurs when someone really gets interested in an area of entertainment (pop music, Marvel comics, etc.) - the recent past looms disproportionately large in value like a Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover. Someone who got really into music thanks to Pet Benetar’s Love is a Battlefield playing at the roller rink would likely have, in the initial stages, tended to overinflate the significance of Quarterflash or Loverboy, and think of Journey, Foreigner, or Styx as bands with an illustrious history (close your eyes and imagine the unexpected wonder of hormones mixing with the thudding speaker system… Don’t Stop Beleivin’, Hot Blooded, and Babe seem transcendent). And there is always, as you look to the past to get “educated” on the history of your area of obsession, a tendency to devalue what is going on right now, because you are in the right now, the material is “common,” and there is no feeling of secret superiority in having access to the true great stuff.

This is the part of nostalgia that no one talks a lot about: faux nostalgia (or, more correctly, retro-pseudonostalgia - nostalgia for the illusion of a primary experience of something that was experienced after the fact). Lets face it… the comic that woke me up and got me first into the field that is my lifelong passion was Star Wars #39. You read that right, the first issue of the adaptation of the Empire Strikes Back. This, of course, is not entirely true (I owned many comics before – including the original Star Wars movie adaptation - and enjoyed reading them, and my fever really took hold slightly later when I bought Avengers 200) and the comic was not particularly bad (Al Williamson art, Tom Palmer inks, if I remember), but SW 39 is not exactly remembered as a trend setting stunner. But it was, ultimately, the comic that started it for me in many ways. All the stuff from just before had a glow of interest. Moon Knight seemed a mysterious and dim figure who’s early appearances were in magazines that were hard to find. You had but to peek back a few years to the Korvak saga, which just seemed so big. This effect of retrospective nostalgia may be more important in the comics industry than actual nostalgia.

Lethem specifically mentions this in “The Amazing…” article, stating:

“In fact, I'd sentimentally rewritten my personal history, according to the dicta of the Bullpen Bulletin, so that until my research into the movie disproved it, I could claim (in Bookforum, two years ago) that 'the first romantic loss for a lot of guys my age was Gwen Stacy's death.' This was a retrospective fiction, I now see. Gwen Stacy was dead before I met her, which imparts a Gnostic eeriness to our sundered love.”

The impulse to engineer access to a shared history of prior greatness is strong. I’m sure some sociology wonks out there could say something cromulent about tribal identity, and the dance between societal assimilation and shared acceptance of carefully constructed fictions, but I won’t. I just remember being slapped in the face by Thor 300 with its intimation of rich history of Celestials and Gods, like I had just peered through a crack in the door into a jungle of ideas that seemed, in their elusive majesty, to be better than anything I’d ever seen.

There are many offshoots of this discussion: the altercation between those with militant immersion in the now vs. classicists, the discussion of faulty memory as a means of creating selves that we are more proud of (see the Leifield part of this post), and the reason that these types of obsessive interest patterns tend to burn out over time (leading to lack of interest, and even “quitting” once you get to familiar with the mysterious past). But I’ll stop here, and simply remember those wonderful times when the first issue of Micronauts seemed intriguing, and my excitement at striking gold and finding Star Wars 38 (the strange and wonderful Michael Golden issue) at a local 7-11. If I hadn’t had these feelings then, I wouldn’t be reading comics now.


At 5:02 PM, Blogger Jim Roeg said...

Wonderful post, Todd. This:

But this line of thinking also reminded me that the presence of a legendary past (that the new reader is invited to slowly become aware of) is one of the most exciting things about being an obsessive experiencer of any pop experience

pretty much sums up what I most love about continuity-heavy comic book universes. (In fact, this retrospective nostalgia experience is itself nostalgic for me now--I'm seeking not just the feeling of a vast unknown history that you describe so well here, but the memory of having that feeling for the first time.) And as you point out, the vertigo of being baffled by a history we only glimpse is usually better than being pedantically walked through that history.

Another off-shoot of this discussion might be the habit some people (okay, I) have of buying just a single issue here and there of a single series over the years to artificially recreate that sense of historical wonder. Curiously, this seems to work best with cosmic series (like the Micronauts or Thor examples you cite). There's a great old issue of Thor that did it for me too--it came in one of those two-comic packs and featured Hela's hordes on the cover. Anyway, I digress.

Thanks for pointing me to your blog--excellent stuff!


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