Nostalgia for a Style or an IP?

By | Monday, June 26, 2023 Leave a Comment
About five years ago, I caught sight of a booth for Guardian Knight Comics at a convention. Specifically, the art for something called "Gears & Bones" caught my attention. It had kind of a steampunk vibe with a large anthropomorphic rabbit. I'd never heard of the comic and/or the publisher before, so I stopped by.

The guy I talked to started by asking what types of comics I was into, noting that they had comics from several different genres. He then went into a reasonably solid, well-rehearsed sales pitch for Moon Streak and then Gears & Bones. I picked up the first two issues of the former and the TPB of the latter. What struck me as interesting, though, was that in pitching both titles, he made repeated reference to the Image comics of the 1990s, and that was such an awesome time that all the creators involved really wanted to invoke that feeling. Flipping through the books as he was talking, I could see some artistic stylings that did harken back to Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee from that period. Not outright mimicry or anything, but there was a similar visual sensibility.

I also picked up a series called Weird Weird West, which is kind of like the David Carradine Kung Fu TV series except the lead character is a robot ninja with a set of tentacles in place of one of his arms. Author William Haun noted that he was inspired by the Eastman/Laid version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While technically, that was a book that first came out in the 1980s, I found it more reminiscent of Eastman and Laird's later work on the title circa 1992/1993.

Having grown up more on comics from the '70s and '80s, it would be easy for me to snark on "crap" from the '90s. How the decades prior were much more furtive creatively speaking, and the '90s were all leather jackets, pouches, and being "extreme." But you know, there was actually material from that period that I enjoyed. Much of it is imperfect, but so is the material from the '80s. And '70s. And '60s. And so on. I've noted repeatedly that I don't care for nostalgia. So my complaint (for lack of a better word) is that it's strange to me to see people deliberately trying to go back and recreate old material because that's what they enjoyed when they were a kid.

All art is a product of its time, and we respond to it in the context of the time we experience it. Which is why some works grow or lessen in relevancy -- they might speak to issues that became insignificant or unnoticed shortly after the work's creation, only to see those same issues rise to the fore again years later. I heard a piece on NPR a while back about Neil Gaiman's surprise at how the American Gods TV show seemed to have a political edge to it when there was nothing of the sort when he first wrote it two decades ago -- the political climate has changed sufficiently that immigration is more of a significant topic now.

But because art is a product of its time means that what spoke to readers in the 1990s touched them, in part, because it was the 1990s. Some of that is because of who they were back then, but a good chun of it is because of who everyone else was. The world was a different place; there were different concerns and different issues to deal with. And while some elements of that era are still relevant today, certainly not all of them are. Which means trying to repeat the reactions and feelings that came from 1990s' art won't be successful. At least, not in the same way that something may have been in the '90s. Because the context is different.

Regardless of the level of quality of Gears & Bones -- or any other title doing any sort of nostalgic throwback, irrespective of when they're throwing back to -- it still strikes me as a challenging way to approach storytelling at best, and an inherently self-defeating approach at worst. You're trying to speak to an audience that A) was in the same place you were twenty years earlier, B) interested in revisiting that time period today, and C) is interested in revisiting the style of the period without the hook of a particular IP. (i.e. Were you a fan of the whole period or did you just really like WildC.A.T.s specifically?) I realize that it's trying to attract a niche audience in a manner that's not too different than, say, any given webcomic but that nostalgic approach seems somehow more self-limiting.

Doing a cursory search today, I see that Guardian Knight Comics had a successful Kickstarter in 2016, but their subsequent campaigns did not get funded and their website domain has since expired. Former editor-in-chief Wes Hartman has gone on to an evidently successful run of comics Kickstarted projects since then, but those don't seem to rely as heavily on '90s nostalgia. Whether or not Hartman's more recent success is related to apparently eschewing that overtly nostalgic approach I can't say for certain, but I suspect that did make it a little easier for him.
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