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The real '90s comic "revival" is a harsh to our collective mellows

Comic Books

The real ’90s comic “revival” is a harsh to our collective mellows

And by mellows, I mean any sense of progress and representation made by the industry.

If you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with ’90s comics.

This era — marked by foot-high pectoral muscles and utility belts with 100 pockets — marked my emergence into comics, and thus all of my tastes and sensibilities inevitably coincide (for better and worse). Not to mention, it was the industry’s volatile ebb and flow that helped prepare and bolster everything, and that’s seemingly helped it remain in generally good shape over the years (even amid recent tribulations).

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However, I’m also not blinded by endless nostalgia to the point that I can’t recognize some real downsides of ’90s-era comics, chief among them a level of excess that destroyed all self-awareness or nuance crucial to generally decent comics. Comics had their “disco” era, and looking back it all seems equally as awkward and caked in far too many sequins.

So, given this dichotomy, I generally have to accept the idea that, for whatever reason, the ’90s resurgence we’ve all experienced in recent years is likely here to stay. Fans seem to love the visuals and motifs of the time, and as our culture struggles with understanding its self amid an ongoing cultural reset, clinging to the old as new ideas and benchmarks take hold, it’s easy to forgive, say, overly muscled heroes of yesteryear.

Still, there’s one thing we can’t do, and that’s lose any sight of progress we might be making collectively. And as this week demonstrated, that prospect is more real than 1,000 different iterations of Bloodstrike.

The real '90s comic "revival" is a harsh to our collective mellows

Courtesy of Marvel.

Over at DC, Marie Javins was named editor-in-chief (having served as co-interim editor since August). Though Javins’ appointment isn’t the first female leadership at DC — Jenette Kahn was formerly both president and EiC throughout the ’80s/’90s — it’s an essential decision in promoting further equality and diversity, especially given comics’ overall poor history in employing and representing women. (DC’s also had other female higher-ups over the years: Karen Berger, who acted as Vertigo’s executive editor from 1993 to 2013, and Diane Nelson, who was president of DC Entertainment from 2009 to 2018.)

Around the same time as the Javins announcement, Marvel made one of their own: artist Brett Booth, a ’90s favorite whose been at DC for some time, has been tapped for X-Men Legends, due out in February. (Booth was previously announced for January’s X-Men #17 back in late October.) The news of Booth’s return to Marvel was met with sizable backlash, stemming from ongoing allegations of harassment, misogyny, and anti-Semitism. Not to mention a story of Booth harassing a female comics reporter until she received several threats of rape/sexual assault.

I get that, on the surface, neither story has much to do with one another. However, it’s all about the optics: both stories broke in relatively quick succession, painting a truly disturbing picture for an industry so in love with its own ’90s nostalgia. (Again, to reiterate: the initial Booth outcry occurred some time ago, though it remains a hot enough topic of discussion.)

As much as Javins’ move was reminiscent of the essential strides that women writers and editors made in the ’90s, Booth’s participation in key X-Men titles reminds us all how very little progress has been made. Or, perhaps more accurately, how quickly this progress can feel stymied as the comics industry falls prey to its own internal sexism and boys club mentality. (So we’re on the same page: there’s plenty of talented female comics editors — even if those numbers are low. I’m mostly interested in EiC-level.)

What we tell fans and people who work in this industry is that what matters the most isn’t the future but to instead maintain the final embers of nostalgia above almost anything else. On the same day of the recent Booth news,  Twitter user Charles XCX sent out the (genuinely funny) tweet, “Does Marvel’s hand ever get cramped from jerking the ’90s off so hard?” To which famed X-Men artist Fabian Nicieza, replied, “No, but imagine their hands might cramp up from counting the money they still make from that era.”

The real '90s comic "revival" is a harsh to our collective mellows

I don’t want to associate anyone, Nicieza included, with condoning the actions of Booth or even his subsequent “rehiring.” Still, that exchange speaks volumes about where the industry is at right now. Be accountable for the mistakes of yesteryear, and try and forge some kind of new path forward? No way; there’s still money to be made from stripping the corpse of ’90s comics. It’s that very attitude that makes it seem like it’s OK to bring back a Booth type, and that only further devalues having Javins or any other woman at the head of the table.

I’ve used this quote in a few different pieces, but it’s especially pertinent here. In his book Autumn, author Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote, “And maybe that is why the nostalgia I feel is so powerful, because the utopia has vanished from our time, so that longing can no longer be directed forward, but only backwards, where all its force accumulates.” Which is to say, nostalgia becomes this wickedly powerful energy that pulls us back because we believe the way ahead has nothing of value. This whole Booth-Javins kerfuffle only reinforces this idea: we’re so enthralled by our “glory” days that we can’t recognize we’re the ones stifling out our own future. To paraphrase Knausgaard, all of our collective “force” is focused away from the promise of tomorrow, and with it any sense that we can fight to make certain ideals, like continued in-roads for women (not to mention trans and POC), a reality across the entire comics industry.

There’s only so much blood and brain-power for representing the past or future, and we seem to have become caught in the amber of trying to have it both ways. It’s clear that the values and aesthetics of any era (’90s or otherwise) are inherently tied together. As we struggle to make up our minds about where to be, it’s inevitable that progress becomes an unintended casualty of this fight to hold onto something of yesteryear that’s not as applicable to the here and now. Nostalgia itself isn’t inherently bad, but this somehow goes beyond some keen appreciation. It’s become about digging up values and morals that don’t align with who we are now, about drudging up old ghosts who don’t recognize the world as it has become.

Complicating this issue is that Marvel has never had a female EiC. (As part of an editorial “experiment,” Bobbie Chase was named among a group of EiCs from 1994 to 1995.) Is it fair to compare DC to Marvel in this way? Maybe; they’re two companies with different approaches and corporate structures. Does that mean Marvel is more sexist or less progressive because they’ve never had a women EiC? I wouldn’t want to fling such charges because that’s damning for the women at that company making strides.

90s

Courtesy of DC.

Instead, what I will say is that this fact does highlight two rather important points. One, having women in leadership roles is great, but EiC isn’t just a fancy title or reward; it’s all about, again, the sheer optics, and presenting a specific picture about how a company values the insights and idea of women and other under-represented groups. (Not to mention actual leadership element. Duh.) Two, it once again shows that for all the changes made in the ’90s, some areas (like executive-level leadership) remain mostly closed off for women. That means either nothing has changed or there’s a backslide of sorts; both are dangerous, and it’s clear not enough is being done industry-wide to have conversations about our progress (or the lack thereof) when it comes to more meaningful representation.

So, what do we do? Is it a matter of firing Booth and then having Marvel hire a woman as EiC? I mean, that seems like a great idea to a certain extent, but it just might feel overly forced or mostly performative. Instead, I think we need to learn something valuable from the ’90s. The industry almost died-off entirely thanks to the speculator’s market, as people bought up comics in the hopes of securing their retirements or grow their investment futures. (The same thing happened with Beanie Babies.)

While the greasy claws of speculators are never completely removed, there’s solid hope that the comics industry as a whole could survive another such bubble. That’s because the industry isn’t what it was 30-ish years ago. The market itself is different, fans have evolved as new groups take to the medium with gusto, the quality is arguably better overall, there’s far more publishers (including countless indies), and an endless stream of TV/movie deals has facilitated an influx of cash and attention (again, for better and worse). All of this happened because, in the face of its own ruin, the industry decided to get smart, plan for a future of sustainable growth, and innovate in several novel ways to save off total annihilation.

So if comics can do that, then there’s no way we can’t make an industry where shitheads are held accountable and representation is a thing and not a mere badge of honor. We do that by fans and creators speaking up for change, voting with our money and our attention, and never letting those in charge forget what was, what is, and what we want to be. It’s not easy, and for as many stories like that of Javins, there will be a handful of Booth-like developments. But if the industry means as much to us as we say it does, that means putting in the hard work, making the tough choices, and remaining vigilant in what we deem to be true progress. Nostalgia might feel warm and safe, but it’s nothing compared to the glow of actual change.

Suck on that, the 1990s.

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