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Comic Riffs
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Posted at 01:00 PM ET, 09/02/2011

THE POWER & PITFALLS OF GEEK MEMORY: From DC to Star Wars, what a week it was for ‘Nostalgia Factories’

Remembrance of The Thing’s Past...

The first time I ever heard the term “nostalgia factory,” I felt — well, it was so long ago in the warm and gauzy past, I can’t recall quite how I felt. But I do know that the embraceable term rests in the most inviting recesses of my —

Hold on. Some inconsiderate clod is watching loud reruns of ‘80s-era ”Family Feud” nearby. What is with that?! (The survey says: “Turn it DOWN!”)

Anyway, where were we? Oh, yeah. The embraceable term “nostalgia factory” rests in the warmest —

Ex-cuse me! Sheeez. Thanks to full-blast passers-by, I’ve got old Kurtis Blow blaring near one eardrum and older “Bob Dylan’s Dream” bombarding the other.

ANYway, I was saying: One of the world’s most seductive rooms is the mental attic of our own nostalgia.

And in the warmest recesses of my memory banks rests the term “nostalgia factory,” perched between my childhood comics and baseball cards lost to the twin forces of Time and Mom’s Tidiness. It’s the factory that never closes, no matter how the economy’s doing, impervious to Rust Belts and Silver Ages and the price of golden anniversaries. It springs eternal and often, now, downloads immediate.

And looking back a distant five days, I can now say: What a stellar week it was for the Nostalgia Factory.

Well, stellar if you’re not a purist of a “Star Wars” fan. In which case by now, you're screaming toward George Lucas’s eardrum: “NOOOOO!!!”

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The entire Star Wars story and franchise — nay, empire — is, of course, one big Nostalgia Factory. The warm march of creative cloning. And much of maintaining lucrative nostalgia factories is not to reinvent them, but merely to polish them like gold or silver or D&D pieces.

Did Lucas mess with many of our childhoods when, as was reported this week, he added the long “NOOOOO!!!” in the Blu-Ray’d mouth of the once poetically silent Darth Vader. Well of course he did. But guess what: It’s his factory, and he’ll continue to polish his cinematic figurines until he goes to the great Tatooine in the Sky.

(And a quick aside: I wouldn’t as much mind Lucas’s putting new words in Darth Vader’s electronically ashmatic mouth if he would now, in turn, render Jar Jar Binks silent.)

The thing is, being a true geeky fan means enduring, and arguing over, the murky smoke that your favorite nostalgia factory sometimes emits. If you’re a DC Comics fan, you’ve probably had a strong reaction to this week’s quasi-”New” 52. Or to the big screen’s newly revealed look for the Man of Steel. And if you’re a true Jack Kirby fan, you likely raised a nostalgic glass over the weekend to what would have been his 94th birthday. (Bear with me — there’s a chord progression here.)

In his new, comics-history-laden book “Supergods” (Spiegel & Rau), the ever-verbally charismatic Grant Morrison says Neil Gaiman’s characterization of “King” Kirby renders it best:

“Even when he was given someone else’s idea, he would build it into something unbelievable and new, like a man who was asked to repair a vacuum cleaner but instead built it into a functioning jet pack.”

The catch is, Kirby wasn’t trying to build a creative jet pack to save the comics’ version of a space program. As partner and “Captain America” co-creator Joe Kirby recently told Comic Riffs, he and Kirby were forever just trying to secure that next job, that next opportunity, that next paycheck.

Many comics fans and digital deliverers and Hollywood producers all want the moon — this, under enormous commercial pressure. Geoff Johns and Jim Lee and Dan DiDio and the entire DC stable have their marching orders: to help SAVE COMICS.

But in wanting the moon, has it all gotten just too out-of-this-world?

Yes, the comics-publishing world is surely nostalgic for the World War II-era days when Captain America could move a million copies — with, according to Simon, a 97-percent “sell-through.” Such numbers now are wholly unrealistic. But even if the new Justice League No.-1 can’t sustain sellout novelty numbers of 200K-plus, it isn’t time to write the “Whatever Happened to the Caped Comic Book?” obit.

As Simon himself writes in his recent autobiography “Joe Simon: My Life in Comics” (Titan): “People have been telling me for years that comic books are dying. When they first said it, my response was, ‘Comics have been dying for the past 30 years.’ Now it should be 60 years ... or more.”

TO KEEP READING, CLICK THROUGH BELOW:

As with any print product, the means and maps of survival have changed radically. DC Entertainment, like Marvel, will likely have to win new generations of fans through films and gaming first.

But once new fans are in the door, they quickly realize that nostalgia is part of the industry’s magical allure. It’s like seeing a player at the ballpark who never misses a game — the passed-down storytelling traces back to Cal “Iron Man” Ripken, who harks back to Lou “Iron Horse” Gehrig (who was suiting up before Captain America was even a gleam in Simon&Kirby’s eyes). It’s the ultimate continuity story.

I have an 11-year-old relative who was first won over by “Peanuts” on the holiday TV screen. Which sparked readership of the “Classics” in the newspaper. Part of the appeal, she says, is the feature’s warm security blanket of built-in history. It feels like a past you want to climb into.

Charles Schulz’s widow Jeanne knows this — that amid new social-media and gaming efforts to reach young readers, the effort must honor the original genius that still powers an entire, billion-dollar Nostalgic Factory.

Nostalgia is the superpower that prompts Roger D. Evans — a "53-year-old man now going on six” — to post this week his own stop-motion ode to the classic TV cartoon “Jonny Quest”:

Jonny Quest Opening Titles from Roger D. Evans on Vimeo.

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Nostaglia is the warm friendship of a time past that leads more than 16,000 people to “like” an absolutely inspired and knowing News in Brief item this week from The Onion. The satiric headline plays off the elusive legend — and our funny-page memories — perfectly:

“Bill Watterson Writes, Illustrates, Shreds New ‘Calvin And Hobbes’ Strip Each Morning Out Of Spite”

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Speaking of Watterson: It’s the nostaglia for enjoying a comic I discovered as a kid, decades after the strip’s demise, that spurs me to luxuriate in Craig Yoe’s beautiful new book, “Krazy Kat & the Art of George Herriman: A Celebration.” In the book’s appreciation, Watterson writes: “Darn few comic strips challenge their readers any more. The comics have become big business, and they play it safe.”

Yes, there’s the rub. Once a Nostalgia Factory becomes too large, it can become a creative victim of its own success — if not, as a short-sighted result, a commercial victim, too..

Comics, Watterson continues, “shamelessly pander to the results of reader surveys, and are produced by virtual factories, ready-made for the inevitable T-shirts, dolls, greeting cards, and television specials. Licensing is where the money is...

“When the comic strip is not exploited, the medium can be a vehicle for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression.”

Yes, even the “Calvin and Hobbes” creator invokes the word: “factories.”

But then a galley copy of Craig Thompson’s stunning new book “Habibi” (Pantheon) arrives recently in the mail, and I’m not only reminded of the beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression of the one-man epic (and be assured, ”Habibi” will top many Best Graphic Novel of 2011 lists by year’s end). I also become nostalgic for his 2003 masterful memoir “Blankets,” which itself swaddles the early-’90s in a certain bittersweet glow.

(Thompson will be a special guest Sept. 10-11 at suburban Washington’s Small Press Expo, an indie publishing event that can make one nostalgic for the ‘80s and early-’90s San Diego Comic-Cons.)

It’s the time-shedding gift of nostalgia that compels Kipp Friedman to write his moving memory ode to “Comic Book Fever” this week in The Comics Journal.

And this week, Small Press Expo even announced a new partnership with the Library of Congress that will result in reams of SPX artworks (and pounds of paraphernalia) being housed in Washington, forever accessible to the true nostalgia seeker.

Next month, Joe Simon — one of the last of the living legends who dates back to the dawn of superhero comics — will turn 98, and few can match him for a wealth of things to be nostalgic about.

That same month, “Captain America: The First Avenger” will come out on DVD and Blu-Ray. “Captain America has always been one of my favorites,” Kirby tells Comic Riffs. “but Jack and I were turning out character after character, always hoping one would be a hit with the audience. You had to keep working at it all the time, just to earn a living.

“That was the immediate goal — earning a living.”

Perhaps that’s the trick, then. Fans are entitled to be nostalgic, to dwell in that mental attic. But comics’ commercial enterprises need to stay hungry — so hungry that they don’t fall prey to the paralyzing creative effects of nostalgia. Ultimately, it is inspiration — and not the narrative — that must be continually rebooted.

Even big Nostalgia Factories, after all, should be fueled by the fire of fresh creative spark.

“I wish, I wish, I wish in vain

That we could sit simply in that room again

Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat

I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that. ... “

By  |  01:00 PM ET, 09/02/2011

Tags:  dc comics, star wars, craig thompson, craig yoe, george herriman, bill watterson, joe simon, jack kirby, george lucas, grant morrison, jim lee, geoff johns, dan didio, new 52

 
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