These Kids Today...

By | Wednesday, December 15, 2021 3 comments
I've happened across more than a few instances recently of comics fans who are out there talking about their favorite hobby online. They've got their own channel/outlet and they're doing their own takes on Jimmy Olsen and Jack Kirby and the Eternals and Wally Wood and any/everything to do with comics. There's nothing new with this, of course; fans have been talking about comics LOOONG before the internet was even a thing, so it makes sense that it would translate online. In fact, many -- if not most -- of my interactions online back in the late '90s centered around talking about comics. I began my own Fantastic Four themed site in 1996, and I spent time discussing characters and creators and issues both past and present on a variety of message boards. Several of the people I talked with back then are still in my circle, and I still talk with them about comics.

But these folks I've come across more recently are a bit different. Beyond the obvious things like their using social media, which wasn't even a thing back in the day, but rather... well, basically that they weren't even there back in the day. I don't mean that as a slight or anything; they're simply too young (probably not even born in some cases) to have been part of the conversations I was having back in 1996. For them, Jack Kirby has always been a legend that already passed away, Chris Claremont has always been a former X-Men writer, Image Comics has always held a significant piece of the comics market, mega-crossover events have always been the norm, comics have always only been available through Diamond, etc. The people who I've been discussing comics with have obviously aged with me and, while there may be as much 10-15 years between us in age, there was still enough overlap that we saw many of the same comics experiences in real time. We read Watchmen as a monthly serial, we watched as Judge Dredd get juggled from Eagle Comics to Quality Comics to Fleetway Comics, we saw DC run a 1-900 kill-your-partner hotline to vote on Robin's life, we debated whether Marvel Comics would sell off some of their characters to help get them out of bankruptcy, we saw comics drawn on a computer for the very first time... Even there were several years between us, we had those touchstones that were part of our comics background and makeup.

By contrast, I just caught a video providing an overview of the original Secret Wars series. It wasn't a review exactly, it didn't reveal any previously hidden background details, it didn't have any new interviews with the original creators; it was just an overview of what happened and some of the context around it. That's a piece that would never have occured to me to write because... well, why? Everyone I know read it as it came out back in the '80s. More poignently, I would never think to write a piece like that because there's little for me to learn in the process. I read the comics back then, I read articles about the comics back then. From a strictly fact/content basis, I could've dashed off the same info of the video I watched without even doing research.

But then, there's the real key difference. These people I'm talking about? They've got the perspective of someone in their late 20s/early 30s. Meaning a) they're reading these stories in a notably different (post-Y2K, post-9/11, post-comiXology) context, and b) they have a different form and style of communication than we older folks do. The most obvious differences are a much heavier dose of snark and the regular use of (borderline reliance on) cutaway gags. I'm not opposed to these ideas, mind you; I'm conversant enough in their language that I get it, even though it's not engrained nearly enough for me to sound natural or casual with it. Those are both styles that really didn't show up on my radar until I was an adult and had a writing/communicating style already pretty firmly established; they're just not an inherent part of my media background.

That combination of things is what I find striking. That they're talking about comics that are just part of my background growing up, as well as having a better set of language components to speak to a younger crowd. I haven't noticed much of a difference between myself (firmly planted in Gen X) and Millennials, but I do see a much more pronounced break between Millennials and Gen Z. (Well, as pronounced as these type of broad generational classifications allow; I expect several of these people I'm seeing are technically Millennials, albeit ones from the tail end of that period.) There's a markedly different approach they're taking, one that's more media-literate, where digital editing has always been the norm and remixing content is something they've been doing they're whole lives.

To a degree, this has always been how aging works, right? Folks get older and start seeing how younger people are doing things differently? "These kids today..." and so on. I think it's much more noticeable now, though, because younger folks have access to a much wider platform than literally any generation before them. My initial thought when I saw some of these videos were out there was to question why they were doing them; the topics they're spelling out in the titles have been covered to death already. Which they have, but by older people like myself who don't speak Gen Z fluently. These younger folks use a different media language, and it takes someone speaking in that vernacular to connect in a way that an old fart like myself wouldn't.

Ultimately, my point is that, while it's easy to dismiss "these kids today" as being wholly unoriginal and simply re-hashing the discussions we had decades ago, they're actually having different talks. Ones that come from a different media landscape. Ones that come with an entirely different way to unpack its baggage. Ones that still rely on and reference those discussions we had on USENET, but with emojis and memes and Snapchat filters instead of just, you know, Courier.

Maybe it's easier for me since I was never "with it" in any capacity, and no one listened to me even when I was a marketable demographic. But don't dismiss "these kids today" as just covering the same ground you covered decades ago. There's some new and interesting approaches out there, and I'm eager to hear more of what these folks have to say.
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Matt K said...

What gets me, more and more as years go by, is the significance of the when-I-started-reading event horizon.

For me that's 1990, 91. (Which was 30 years ago. I have 1992 comics from Spider-Man's 30th anniversary and next year is the 60th anniversary. GFG.)

In my mind, that somehow remains a divider between "the past" and "modernity" even as this becomes absurd. By the time I started reading, Secret Wars belonged to the past. It was still obviously important, and I found the issues and read them, but it was definitely "the past" in a way that e.g. The Infinity Gauntlet was not.

Yet Secret Wars was like five years old then—the present equivalent is something published in 2016—and at this distance SW and IG obviously belong to the same period.

It will never feel that way to me, though, I'm pretty sure.

There's definitely a before/after cutoff for when any individual starts reading, but I think there's still a contemporaneousness in those in-the-recent-past books. So, for you, you read Secret Wars a few years after the fact and the current books you were reading already had some measure of repercussions from it. BUT you were still reading Secret Wars in close to the same context that it was presented. The storytelling styles and cultural context and all that weren't that different by the time you read it. Whereas if you read it for the first time today, you're going to be looking at with a context that includes, for example, all of these characters being well-known and popular enough to have already done this schtick on the big screen to the tune of $850 million.

That impressiveness and coolness of that opening double-page spread in Secret Wars #1 with all the heroes is diminished somewhat by seeing the equivalent in 1991's Infinity Gauntlet but it doesn't hold a candle to the "Avengers Assemble" moment in Avengers: Endgame. Hell, in the theater I was in, you could barely hear Cap say that because everyone was still cheering from Falcon's "On your left" line. By comparison, Mike Zeck's splash is kind of "meh."

I'm not disagreeing with the the significance of your when-I-started-reading premise; I'm just saying that the broad cultural distinction I'm talking about is why a 20-something's overview of a 40-year-old story is still relevant even though those of us who read and talked about that story seemingly eons ago covered the same ground.

Matt K said...

Yes this is difficult for me even to grasp, but it's a valid point.

When I got in, "big-budget Marvel superhero feature film" was still the equivalent of notorious vaporware. (It was also, for practical purposes, probably still impossible until 21st-century CGI entered the picture.) Every 6-12 months, Stan Lee would gush about how the big breakthrough was in development, it was going to be amazing lol.

I got in, then largely drifted out, at a time when superhero adventures were still a relatively niche, nerd interest. (For that matter so was most of what we still call "nerd culture" in general, the early works of Kevin Smith testifying on both points.)

At this point that has obviously been much different for most of an adolescent's or young adult's life. I can recognize that in an abstract sense, but that's about it. I saw the first X-Men movie. I'm not sure I have seen any 21c superhero movies between then and watching Captain Marvel on DVD this summer.