When Words Collide: Going Retro

Mon, August 1st, 2011 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: August 1st, 2011 at 4:11pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

I certainly don't have my finger on the pulse of the direct market retail beast (and I'll leave any deep thinking about that to others), but from my limited perspective, up here in the back woods of New England, I'm seeing very few "Flashpoint" tie-ins left on the shelves after New Comic Book Day each week, and the "DC Retroactive: 1970s" titles just sitting here, unloved.

I spoke to my local retailer, and he said he only ordered a few copies of each Retroactive book, but they haven't sold at all. I suspect most readers -- even long time DC Comics fans who may have been interested in a bit of faux-nostalgia -- took a similar approach to me: give the Retroactive comics a flip through, see what's worth buying on the day of release.

But here's what has doomed these comics to failure from the start: the coloring.

Even someone (okay, me) vaguely interested in seeing what a few classic creators do when they get a chance to return to a character for one last hurrah still has to get past three problems with these 1970s retro titles: (1) the actual comics from that era can still easily be found in discount bins, and it wouldn't cost you more than a few bucks total to bring home a stack of Bronze Age Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Superman or Justice League issues from any decent comic shop stocked with longboxes, (2) these new comics cost five dollars, and (3) five dollars. Five.

And those are the stumbling blocks before the reader (okay, me again) even gets to the creative teams, which, besides Denny O'Neil and Mike Grell on "Green Lantern," don't even scan as Retro teams. They're just writers who had some affiliation with the characters at one point, paired with artists who might be able to draw in a style that reminds people of old-timey comics, sort of.

Because I'm pretty sure none of us have fond memories of that Cary Bates/Andy Smith "Justice League of America" run from never, or that seminal "Flash" work by (again) Cary Bates and Benito Gallego.

Yet, even with all those potential problems, I get what DC was going for here. Something to fill out the comics line as the regular DCU winds down before restarting in September. Something to fill the holes on the retailer wall -- to maintain a DC presence -- and yet also give fans one last victory lap with some of their favorite characters, with some stories written and drawn to look like some old comics someone may have read when they were kids. That's fine. And I can get past the price, and I can get past the less-than-nostaligia-inspiring creative teams, and I can still appreciate a comic attempting to capture a bygone era.

But, yeah, the coloring dooms the project, right from the beginning. It destroys its entire purpose for existing.

Because even if the writers -- who once-upon-a-time actually wrote Bronze Age comics -- and the artists -- who may not all have drawn Bronze Age comics, but pencil and ink their hearts out -- give us the most authentic replica of 1970s comic books ever, there is no chance of it working if the coloring looks like something out of a Wildstorm comic from 2007.

And it does. Across the board.

Doing a line of Retro comics, and then using coloring that looks like it comes from today's comics is akin to producing a period film -- say something that takes place in the 1940s, and giving the actors hairstyles and clothes from today. Doing a line of Retro comics, and then using today's coloring is like editing "Jaws" for rerelease and looping in Shia LaBouf's voice to cover all the Richard Dreyfuss lines.

It goes beyond wrong-headed and goes right past misguided and ends up firmly in the region of insulting. Particularly when these five dollar comics go to the trouble of actually pointing out what the 1970s version of the stories looked like by reprinting something "classic" as the second half of each issue. "Hey, kids, comics!" those back-up reprints seems to say, rubbing our noses into how dissimilar they are from the main features. The very main features purposely written and drawn to somewhat resemble to feel of the comics in the back. Except for the coloring. Which resembles those stories not at all. And the voice of Shia LaBouf blares out from the pages.

Are these "Retroactive: 1970s" comics any good? No. They were sabotaged from the beginning.

THE LEAGUE RETURNS

Everyone who joined the San Diego party a couple of weeks back already picked up "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century" #2 (which I'll call "1969" from now on, because that's the biggest font on the cover, and that's what the issue is all about), but I just landed my copy on Saturday.

A quick digression: I can imagine the thousands of readers who did pick up "1969" at the San Diego Comic-Con, and then spent the rest of the day at the convention before going out with some friends at night before coming back to the hotel at 2:00 a.m. and realizing that they should probably read this new Alan Moore comic, because it's a new Alan Moore comic, and these things don't come out very often any more and making it maybe to page six before throwing it down either in frustration or passing out entirely out of exhaustion or some combination of the two.

"1969" didn't mix well with the addle-headed late nights of Comic-Con, I suspect.

I'm sure everyone reading this column is familiar with Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's work on "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" ("LoEG"), and you'll recall that I named it the EIGHTH BEST COMIC OF THE ENTIRE DECADE last year.

Readers have tended to have, to varying degrees, the same basic response to "LoEG": "Oh, it's just Alan Moore making a bunch of literary jokes, and not much of a story." The difference in the response depends on the reader, but usually it's a matter of when and not if. As in: some readers have that response now, though they have fond memories of the original series. Other readers started saying it when "Black Dossier" landed. Others have been saying it from the very beginning. Everyone's correct.

"LoEG" hasn't been much of a story, if you're looking for a traditional story structure with active protagonists working to save the day and defeat the bad guys. That wasn't what was going on in any of the first two "LoEG" miniseries, even if the comics seemed to nod in that direction at times. No, those first two series were about establishing a cast of characters derived from literature, giving them something to do to bounce off one another, and then populating the pages with literary references.

The only thing that's different about "1969" (or "1910" which came before it, or "Black Dossier") is that the density of the allusions has increased and most America readers don't know what the allusions are supposed to allude to.

It's easy to get the references to the Invisible Man and Mr. Hyde and Sherlock Holmes. It's less easy to get the references to a British comic book shop named after a Ray Bradbury story or a film co-directed by Donald Cammell in 1970.

But I think it's a mistake to claim that "1969" (or any of the previous two volumes) somehow have less story than the original "LoEG" comics. There is a narrative at play in "1969," with Mina Murray pursuing the newest incarnation of black magician Oliver Haddo as Haddo tries to pour his soul into another suitable body. That's the core of the story, with subplots whirring around it, including the escapades of Orlando and Allan Quatermain in London, the violence of Jack Carter, and the climactic performance of the Purple Orchestra.

I consider myself well-read (to quote my friend Steven R. Stahl, "I've read thousands of books"), but I didn't "get" most of the allusions in "1969," and yet the main narrative read clearly for me. It always annoys me when readers talk about, say, Grant Morrison comics and claim something along the lines of: "the stories don't even make any sense unless you have read blank, blank and every blank ever published." But my annoyance was always tempered by the fact that, when it comes to Morrison, I had read all those blanks, and so I couldn't really address the text of the comic without bringing my own knowledge of the allusions to it. I could think, "come on, those Batman issues make sense without knowing any of the references -- those are just extra layers if you want to find them," but that was based more on guesswork on my part than actual experience.

After reading "1969," I now know what it's like to be one of those Morrison readers who doesn't get the references. Only with Alan Moore.

Now I'm more annoyed. Because I had no trouble following "1969." And then when I did bother to research the references, I found additional layers of meaning that made the story even deeper. So, yes, I will accept no more whining about any comic ever being too confusing just because you don't get some allusion to something. That stops now.

Also, that "research the references" line above was a bit of a joke, because you know as well as I do that we all research the references in a "LoEG" comic in a singular way: by waiting for Jess Nevins, and friends, to tell us what Alan Moore is talking about.

Is "1969" any good? Yes, it is one of the best comics of the year. It's literary gamesmanship. It's dense. It has a clear through line with plenty of tangents. It begins with the death of Brian Jones in the house built by Winnie-the-Pooh, and ends with Mick Jagger giving a performance that will save his soul. For the price of all the crappy "DC Retroactive" comics, you could buy half a dozen copies of "1969" and give it to friends and neighbors. The ones who talk to you after that -- those are the friends and neighbors worth keeping.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, dc retroactive, dc comics, alan moore, kevin o'neill, league of extraordinary gentlemen

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