Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Time Tunnel

So, a buddy of mine mocks my silver-bronze sensibility: he is a comics fan from a later generation than mine, and he says that my sense of adventure and storytelling (to include my DMing) has been shaped by my earlier reading of sixties and seventies comics, with their frequent innocent goofiness and often clear visions of morality and ethics (which I think he considers somehow equivalent). He's right, of course. I like to think I can be a little more nuanced than that pigeonhole might suggest, but I will not deny that my affection for those comics in many ways did indeed shape my worldview.

The next two magazines in the Spring Break Bargain Box Bonanza are clearly aimed at an audience of folks like me. These are both One Shot comics again, but from 2011. Jimmy Olsen collects and adds to a series that originally appeared in the back of Action comics under the Big Week arc. The Superman magazine is part of the DC: Retroactive Series, a series of specials that each focus on a particular decade of the heroes adventures - in this case, the 1970s.

It should have been a slam-dunk for DC to make me happy with these, but unfortunately, that was not the case.

The Olsen series has all the elements that were supposed to make it appealing and nostalgic: genies, the signal watch, aliens, blue-dress Supergirl, the bow tie, the Flying Newsroom - and a couple of cameo appearances from the Big Guy. Still, it didn't add up, at least not for me. Maybe the creators were trying too hard, but the antics seemed a little forced. Maybe the conceit works better when Jimmy isn't so self-aware of the unlikeliness and absurdity of his life, when every adventure is wonderful and fantastic, even though that's hard for us jaded and sophisticated readers to swallow. Maybe modern references (like the one in the clip below) were just too incongruous and jarring. Maybe shoehorning in Chloe Sullivan from Smallville was the problem, or the art, which made everyone look the 21-years olds who play high-schoolers on TV. Whatever it was, it didn't give me that ol' zee-zee-zee.

The DC Retroactive series seems to have the evocation of pas eras as an even more intentional and deliberate goal. My understanding is that each issue tries to convey the mood and tone of its target decade; in this case, the seventies. Again, this story tries to touch all the bases: we have Kandor (and an appearance by Van-Zee); villains from the day, including the Atomic Skull and the Master Jailer; hot-pants Supergirl; Steve Lombard; and Superman flying Lois to the Fortress of Solitude.

What we don't have is a compelling story, just the usual magical shenanigans of Mxyzptlk, instigated by that hoariest of comic-book cliches: a bet between two trans-dimensional creatures. So, while the story did evoke some sense of the seventies - and much if that decade's output was good in many ways - it didn't capture the best of that era.

There was a bonus feature in the issue: a reprint of a story from 1978. The original publication of  "Superman Takes a Wife" marked the 40th anniversary of Action Comics, but the reproduction here so muddied Curt Swan's beautiful art than I couldn't even read it.

So does this mean that all attempts to capture the lightning, to recreate the joys of the past are doomed to failure? I don't think so. I think these two comics fit that bill (even though they are edging their way toward becoming antiques themselves), and I can think of a more recent example from DC Comics video.

The DC Showcase Original Shorts Collection released in 2010 contained episodes of Captain Marvel, Green Arrow, Jonah Hex -- and the Spectre. While all were of high quality, the Spectre episode was exceptional. It captured perfectly the creeptacular moodiness of Mike Fleishcer's mid-1970s run on the strip, during the period he and Jim Aparo turned the Spectre into a macabre and ruthless agent of retribution. At the same time, it evoked the aesthetic of that era's TV crime shows, for which Quinn Martin Productions set the standard. There were no missteps or false notes - it all worked perfectly, both on its own and as a trip down Nostalgia Alley.

So, it can be done. It just wasn't done in these comics.

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