Thursday, September 29, 2005

Jon-o-thon - Justice and Godland as "retro"

There's something up with my image uploader. As soon as I can I'll add some visual stimuation to this post.

Has it actually been over a week since I posted last? Crap. I didn't mean for it to take so long. It's like work went from busy, to crisis mode, to flaming napalm attack in the last week. So instead of me writing about how much I enjoyed JLA, JLA Classified, Young Avengers and last weeks Wolverine I'm giving you all a meaty post. I figured since Jim Roeg at Double Articulation is taking a break I'll pick up a bit of the slack. And since Justice recently surprised a few of us on it's success I decided to look at Justice and Gødland to find out why they seem "retro" and what does "retro" even mean. And by the way, if any comic shop owners in Ottawa are reading what's up with not stocking Gødland #3? I'm not happy.

I know that for a while there has been this retro movement going on but I never thought about it much until now. At first the best description I could come up with is that it’s the recycling movement converting into cultural spaces. Once we all accept that recycling materials is a good thing, we start to think of other things we can recycle – including cultural creations. But that’s not really it, is it? Not completely anyway. People in the nineties started to dress in second hand clothing or looking to old school music like sixties rock, seventies punk or big band swing music. There was a general consensus that nothing new could be created. That, culturally speaking, we’ve hit critical mass. We stopped looking to the future and started looking to the “good” past. Then people realized that going back wasn’t really enough. Sure old stuff can be fun but it is made for a different time and addresses a different cultural milieu. It is addressing different concerns that just aren’t necessarily our concerns. Now, the idea of an idyllic past isn’t a new one, there’s an entire scholarly theory about the pastoral – looking at an idyllic past that never existed. Although that idea is mostly connected to space and land but I think it plays a huge part in our culture today – especially in the comics I’m looking at here.

Today “retro,” I think, is the invocation of a previous time through a contemporary lens. So buying a Jack Kirby reprint isn’t retro while buying Gødland is. Another example is my girlfriend has a CBC sweatshirt from the late seventies but it is just an old sweatshirt. That isn’t retro. CBC is currently selling retro t-shirts. The use older logos but present them in a contemporary manner on new shirts. They are new but created to look like they belong in the past as we think we remember it. Confused yet?

Retro isn’t homage. Homage can be found in almost anything in almost any time. Homage doesn't necessarily connect to the past.

So how does this affect comics? Well I’ll talk about Gødland and Justice because I think these two bring up what retro is in comic book form. I’m sure there are others out there but I haven’t read JSA so I don’t know if that fits in with what I’m saying. To me, simply updating classic characters into a contemporary setting doesn’t qualify as retro. I think there is more to it than that.

Both these comics (Gødland/Justice) do one particular thing in common. They both evoke the past through a contemporary lens for a contemporary audience. In Justice they are using “classic” characters in a “classic” story although this isn’t a remake of any one story in particular. This isn’t Gus van Sant’s shot for shot remake of Psycho. Justice is Alex Ross writing using the characters as he remembers them and as he likes to remember them being presented out of continuity to a contemporary audience. How is that retro you ask? Simple, it is a modern version made to look like it is something from the past. It isn’t a contemporary remake or update but more of an invocation of shared memory. It reminds us of the past without being directly from the past. This isn’t an homage to one specific story or character but an homage to the memory of what those characters meant to the creator. That statement isn’t meant to sound flippant. I don’t see this as yet another story that is trying to make us deal with these characters as if they are serious characters. Yes, these characters can be serious but I know I don’t personally like to only read silver age hi-jinx or dialogue. This is a story for a more mature audience. So there is an innocent past interpreted for a mature audience.

By more mature I mean not only older but more educated, more familiar with a continuity and history of these characters than when that continuity and history was being created the first time around. This isn’t the evolution of the characters into dark brooding heroes as seems to be happening in the DC universe. It is simply a mature, although perceived as a slightly darker, story created for an informed and mature audience. It deals with our current culture that has ironically absorbed these characters into itself. Our current pop culture recognizes the pop-cultural nature of super heroes. More than anything that is what I see happening in Justice. They are re-examining a time when these characters didn’t have 30 plus years of continuity weighing them down. We claim those older stories are better because the characters were still trying to fit in to their reality. Their reality was essentially being created for the characters and for the audience reading the books. The characters weren’t established but they are now and this is a story that tries to write the characters as they are remembered “back then” or “when they were good” as some say. Justice is for an audience that can’t help but be aware of the long, sometimes convoluted, history of these characters. Being aware of that history allows the creators to boil it down to their perception of what the “essence” of these characters is and tell a story from there. I think that being aware of this history and going to the heart of it is what helps make this story seem “retro.”

There is an innocence being presented because the heroes are acting heroic in the face of huge odds. The darker tone of the story is just how we now view these characters in our current culture. We are living in very depressing times and so see someone acting heroic and being uncompromising about it just doesn’t jive with how we relate to the world as a shared community. We’re too cynical because there is just so much to be cynical about and to think our heroes wouldn’t be affected by these cultural forces is a bit naive. The way our society is so connected to everything else there is basically no way an audience will accept a blindly heroic character. We think we will but that won’t last – at least for me but I have a feeling others would get bored with that too.

The Justice series seems to come from a memory of the innocence of the genre but with an awareness of the current state of affairs. Sure, it appears to be another retelling of the same old story but I got news for you – so is every other single story out there. Every story that has a hero is indebted to some extent to the first ever record of a heroic story. Being aware of this fact doesn’t take away from the story as far as I see it. I can come to it with a free mind and a fresh set of eyes precisely because this story isn’t weighed down by a past but is aware of what the cultural past of these heroic characters and their tropes are, as well as the generic tropes present in all heroic epics.

Now Gødland is slightly different. It seems that everywhere you turn it is either loved or dismissed as a Kirby clone. If you read anything by artist Tom Scioli you’ll see that it fits in with what I’m trying to say about retro. This book evokes a certain time but it does it for a contemporary audience. Okay, I won’t repeat that sentence again. I think you get it. Scioli claims that he is not ripping off Kirby that he is simply following in a tradition that has been somewhat abandoned. I completely agree. Not only is the art reminiscent of a time gone by Casey uses a lot of other “fallen out of grace” aspects to Gødland – he’s written about this over at his CBR discussion column The Basement Tapes. The unbelievably bright colours and thought balloons (not that this is the only comic out there with bright colours). I can’t wait for the omniscient narrator to come back if it is done right. Don’t ask me to define what I mean by “done right” – that’s quite subjective and I’m aware of it. This comic doesn’t reintroduce old characters or deal with anything necessarily old yet I think it is a great example of a retro comic. It tells a current story but it makes you feel like it belongs in another time. It’s a modern version of an older form/format.

One major difference is that Gødland is not quite as dark as Justice. And I don’t mean just in the colouring. There is cynicism and sarcasm in Gødland because this is still a story being presented to a modern audience and we appreciate cynicism and sarcasm. If you don’t then you probably won’t ever want to meet me because I exist off cynicism and sarcasm the way barnacles cling to boats and whales.

How many “classic villains” would kidnap an alien dog-monster just to get high? I think it’s cool that there is a very self-centered villain that typifies the self-centered undercurrents of modern pop-culture. Basil Cronus isn’t trying to take over the world, he’s just going to destroy it so he can get the ultimate buzz. I feel like I’m writing about Point Break. There are aspects of the classic villain and hero in Gødland but they are not quite the same. Cronus shares in the egotistical aspects and the self-centered portions of classic villains but he is completely self-absorbed. He isn’t trying to force his will on others because he is convinced he’s right or more knowledgeable than the average human, he’s crushing everyone so he can reach a higher consciousness. He is not hiding any self-interest it’s all out in the open and is his only reason for existing.

He’s a fun bad guy because he is the amplification of our more self-destructive side. Don’t think you’re driven by similar forces, then why did you buy a Swiffer? Basil Cronus is a consumer. A blatant consumer in a quest that isn’t outside of our experience as an audience. We consume products presented to us that are made to allow us to escape into imagination or free up time so we can seek that pleasure of escape. This sounds like a great subject for another long post. I’m filing it in my memory safe. Plus, he’s a frickin’ floating skull. Not since Doctor Doom and Mysterio do I remember such a cool visual. The characters are fun because they seem to arc back to connect to a history the creators are aware of and are presented as a part of that history through the art but also through the storytelling. The storytelling and the art are really connected here to present something that feels “retro.”

The art in Justice manages to do something slightly unique. The painting inside the covers instantly makes the story feel like it is somehow older than it actually is. The use of paint makes it feel like it is historic. Like it comes from a time gone by and is plugged into a larger art history than just comic book history. The muted and faded colours just feel old. Painting with water colours (I’m guessing here) is a very old art form that this series is tapping into. That visual yet subliminal connection to a history is what amplifies the retro feeling of this work.

These stories are told with the audience in mind. There is an intention to make these stories bring a reaction out of the audience that these stories are somehow connected to a shared past. Either character specific or medium specific (comics in general as opposed to JLA comics or Super-Friends). That to me is what retro is. We all share in certain cultural experiences and these stories examine that zeitgeist completely aware of the role comics play in creating this shared cultural experience. Yes, superhero comics are pulpy and follow specific genre rules but that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed. I don’t think the works I’m talking about here are trying to be considered more than what they are. I think they are celebrating what they are and doing it not just for the creators but for the audience. I think the creators are completely aware of the audience for these books and are just simply creating works that the creators want to read because they too are fans of superhero comics.

I think these are good comics so far. I can’t make any final pronouncements on them yet because they are both ongoing but so far so good I say. Whatever happens to the actual plot, I can’t pronounce judgment on that. You’ll either like it or hate it, that’s up to you. But I think I see what some of the intent in the presentation is. What do you think? What’s your history with these characters/past epochs and how do you feel about what’s being created here? Sit back and think about it. If you like it or hate it, why? I don’t want to know until you do.

No comments: