“Create new loves for the person suffering from love sickness; find new joys to ease the domination of the old.” ~ Dr. Hippolyte Petit
There was a time when nostalgia was an illness, not a pleasantly bittersweet feeling that arises when contemplating another time. Nostalgia was an illness complete with wasting, malaise and brain fevers. Johannes Heffer first identified nostalgia in 1688, though it seems he was systematizing something that already existed in popular European conception. With nostos meaning “homecoming” and algos meaning “pain” it referred to the sickness caused by being away from home and loved ones. It was a Greekified way of making medically precise concepts like: Heimweh (and perhaps Sehnsucht) in German-speaking countries, saudade in Portuguese-speaking ones and el mal de corazón in Spain. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries it afflicted soldiers, young men between 20 and 30 years of age; and, women who took domestic work away from home. The sufferer became “manic with longing” and nostalgia was “similar to melancholy, except specific to an object or place.” (Beck, 2013). During the Civil War, soldiers who would now be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder were considered “nostalgic.” Treatment varied from actually sending someone home to leeches, public shaming and sending afflicted soldiers into combat.
Of course, we use “nostalgia” much differently now. But in the realm of pop culture, nostalgia is celebrated on one hand and pathologized on the other. It is seen as a problem that infests the hearts of readers and audiences, a problem holding back innovation across media and genres as storytellers try to find that sweet spot between novel and comfortingly familiar. Nostalgia is blamed for reboots of franchises and entire superhero comic lines, even as individual fans cannot want more of our favorite things and celebrate the comics, movies, books and tv shows associated with our various childhoods and important moments in our lives. I’ve been thinking about nostalgia in various forms for a while now. And have had a niggling thought about how sometimes nostalgia isn’t what it seems to be. Years ago, a friend commented on the death of Monsieur Mallah that he wasn’t really down with nostalgia, but he wasn’t up for the grim ‘n’ gritty comics. And I started thinking about how some of those comics and some of the films they inspire are themselves the product of nostalgia. I think that we’re living in a time of dark nostalgia that we don’t necessarily recognize as such because of how we understand and compartmentalize art and how we conflate nostalgia with the past and innocence.
We tend to see nostalgia in terms of innocent and joyful art, a product of simpler times, when it’s not just a straight up assertion of the superiority of everything way back when. And the culture we tend to associate with nostalgia, the culture yearned for through nostalgia is almost always presented as more joyful, less complicated and more fun. The heroes are uncomplicatedly heroic—motivated by a desire to help others, rather than a trauma*. The villains are clearly evil villains. And the happenings are “unrealistic.”
In film, there is the Edenic Golden Age of Hollywood and then the fall whenever you’d like to mark it anywhere in the history of film—sound; color; the death of technicolor; the rise of blockbusters, Blockbuster, video and/or Adam Sandler. I am sure there were 1890s cinephiles thought Alice Guy made a terrible mistake with her weird narrative films. In superhero comics, we pass along a chronology of Ages: Golden, Silver, and Bronze. Some call our current era, the Dark Age. As with the Greeks before us, we imagine a gradual decline of both ease and innocence from simpler to more complicated times. Golden Age Superman fights for truth, justice and the American way, leaping buildings in a single bound and never leaves an impact crater on Metropolis’ streets or causes irreparable internal damage with his uppercuts. Silver Age Captain America has a heroic heart and a desire to help so strong that he takes an experimental super solder serum and is never tempted to be anything but a hero. This chronology of ages lends the history of comics an arc similar to our own lives. And we position what we think of as simpler, more innocent and naïve times in our collective past and “realistic,” grim and gritty stories like in our collective present. But thing is, the 1930s and 1940s were no simpler than now. If you thought I am about to say that old comics could be pretty grim, I’d understand. It is true. There are stories of when Superman trapped callous and corrupt tycoons in a mine and let it collapse on them**. There are the thousands who die in Fletcher Hanks’ comics or in the novels of my favorite pulp hero, The Spider. And that’s not even getting into the horror comics that so appalled Fredric Wertham.
Instead, I’m going to suggest that grim comics and superhero films are themselves driven by nostalgia. So much art grounded in nostalgia attempts to capture a feeling, a first-time feeling. But this nostalgia not for sunny days of past summers or making mixes for someone you like. It captures a different feeling. So this nostalgia is not necessarily recognizable as such. Grim ‘n’ gritty comics and movies can be born from nostalgia for earlier grim ‘n’ gritty comics and movies that made a huge impression on superhero comics creators and readers. It’s nostalgia for a time when comics blew minds and inspired creators with new ideas about what comics could be. It’s nostalgia for that first experience of books like, Watchmen (1986); V For Vendetta (1988); The Killing Joke (1988); The Dark Knight Returns (1986); The Dark Phoenix Saga (1980); Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985); The Death and Return of Superman (1992), and more. It’s Nostalgia for the superheroic what-the-fuckery of creators like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Because, “OMG, what the fuck?” I remember that feeling. And some people can’t get enough of it.
Filmmaker Zach Snyder has built some of his career on these books and nostalgia for them. But while these comics might feel fresh and while it might seem like it was just a few years ago that these books were published, they are responding to something that is not the status quo anymore. And might never have been. They are decades old. They are part of comics’ past now. They are people’s childhoods, the crucible that create creators. And they aren’t even everyone’s childhoods. A lot of current readers and creators never lived in the time of simpler heroes these books are reacting to, though you kids who came up with the Aughts had a pretty good time.
With dark nostalgia, the balance made between the novel and the comfortingly familiar becomes a grim one. For every fun Marvel film, there is an expensive event where characters die, don’t act like themselves and/or are revealed to be agents of Hydra all along. So criticizing Marvel’s Secret Empire, in which Steve Rogers, aka, Captain America, is a HYDRA agent; or Snyder’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) or Man of Steel (2013), for example, is not necessarily the result of nostalgia. It can also be a reaction to the dark nostalgia of these stories and their efforts to recreate a primal sense of shock. And to be honest, I’m getting a little fatigued by attempts to recreate that experience–and by the endless attempts of DC and Marvel Comics to replicate that time and that late Twentieth Century market success. I think there’s a bit of nostalgia–at at DC and Marvel, at least–for the time when comics were the primary source of stories about superheroes. Movies and tv are going their own way with much larger audiences. Instead of embracing the possibilities of those media to help their comics along DC and Marvel’s comics divisions have sometimes actively tried to interfere with it. (See DC killing off characters who were right then appearing on Batman: The Brave And The Bold or the Starfire redesign during DC’s New 52 line-wide reboot. A redesign that has been subsequently re-redesigned). Sometimes they try to compete with more pervasive media by giving readers a hit of something that they can’t see in the movies–that shocking moment you can’t believe. But stimulus extinction means that even shocking moments can become tedious.
Instead, I think the superhero books opening up new possibilities are the fun ones: G.Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel; Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl; Kate Leth and Brittney Williams’ Patsy Walker, aka, Hellcat; Dan Slott, Mike and Laura Allred’s Silver Surfer; and such. These comics are not necessarily hearkening back to the imaginary innocent days of the Golden Age. They are produced within and reacting to the current status quo. I mean, when was the last time superhero comics were predominantly all-ages? And the superhero comics that I see doing the most interesting things right now are not the “mature” ones, but the ones rated all ages–or Teen + at most. It’s not necessarily nostalgia when it’s joyful or heroes are heroic. It’s not necessarily realistic when heroes are brutal or brutalized. That’s adolescent nihilism***. I’m not saying that nostalgia is the only reason grim superhero movies and comics are made. I’m saying that nostalgia might comprise more than we think it does and that groundbreaking and grim ‘n’ gritty aren’t always the same thing.
*And, seriously, what does it mean when they only way you can conceive of someone behaving heroically is that they have experienced a trauma?
**Read it for yourself in, Superman: The Dailies, 1939-1940 (DC Comics, 1999).
***I’ve talked about this a lot before, and weirdly, Indiewire also has a recent piece using the same term. I thought I had gotten it from Grant Morrison in Flex Metallo, but now I think it was my response to what Morrison was writing about in Flex Metallo.
Julie Beck, “When nostalgia was a disease.” The Atlantic. Aug, 14, 2013.
Tony Horwitz, “Did Civil War soldiers have PTSD?” Smithsonian.com. Jan., 2015.
Carol Borden often falls into reveries of Dark Nostalgia. Her subsequent brain fevers are treated through such modern methods as leeching and phlogiston exposure.
This essay was originally published on May 18, 2017 by The Cultural Gutter.