A vote for retromodernism

I came across this fascinating article on salon.com about the corrupting influence of nostalgia on contemporary culture. The argument of so-called Generation Void is that retro-zeitgeist nostalgia has mutated to the point that there’s no longer any original work anymore.


On the one hand the Internet or broadband has sped up the cycle of retro fetishism from 20 years to zip. The base to superstructure has irrevocably been reversed, and Marx is permanently standing upside-down on his head.

But on the other hand this isn’t necessarily a negative: the 00s was the first decade to practice this. The constant swirling of the past with the present is escalating and a sign of the future: retro becomes so omnipresent that there’s no room left for normality, a dominant paradigm, and nothing gets marginalized. And in my book normality is the roadblock to creativity.

Normality has been the dominant paradigm for the last two centuries. Progress has been marching steadily. But once it broke down during the mid 20th century, from an explosion in the arts to a hyper-specialization in the sciences, the pace of improvement and development in most areas sped up and is now trending upwards in an ever expanding spiral. Naturally, we have the “guardians of culture” incapable of keeping up, and they decry this pace — as if originality is a linear evolution and a dominant paradigm of a single idea. Wrong. No such formula exist other than as the invention of culture critics.

Jack Kirby's Galactus, by Marvel Comics

A specific example of retromodernism: in comic books, Jack Kirby was the dominant style of the sixties. He drew almost every major title at Marvel Comics. However, by the seventies he was passé, even though the quality of his work actually hit their peak with Fourth World titles at DC comics. Editors and readers demanded more realism and less dynamic in comic art. Hence Neal Adams became popular. But now, Kirby has become a genre: certain artists such as Tom Scioli are drawing in his distinct style but with the advances of technology (printing, paper, and inking techniques).

Tom Scioli's Godland, by Image comics

Comics today are flourishing because no longer is there a dominant standard of style to obey. The explosions of retro has allowed various forms of style to flourish and appeal to different audiences: realism, Kirby, Image (Jim Lee), House of Marvel comics of the eighties (George Perez, John Byrne), minimalism (Mike Mignola), and the surrealism/hyperrealism of European graphic novels.

Alex Ross's World's Greatest Superheroes by DC comics

Alex Ross is actually an accomplished painter of the retro style that hearkens to a more classic era, yet his style doesn’t appear dated at all. It promises an older time – the Silver Age of comics – and further corroborates the story as something epic.

Also, Hollywood is currently mining comic books for stories and heroes for box office material and this has translated into a successful business model to date. This could be included in the retro-zeitgeist as well – recycling old ideas or stories of Americana lore, but recast in new mediums that reaches a larger audience.

Bottom line: the nostalgia of retromodernism isn’t a cancer of pop culture. It is actually a revitalizing force of consumption that reinvigorates pop culture and we should escalate this trend and celebrate diversity of styles.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

3 thoughts on “A vote for retromodernism”

  1. There got to be a distinction between “rebuilding” and “recycling.” I like to think of rebuilding as renewing, updating something, making it better, with traces of its previous incarnation, like your example of Alex Ross’ comics art. Recycling to me is like repeating, being unoriginal, something we all should decry against. I haven’t read Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, but if he’s alerting us here to cultural nostalgia as another guise of recycling, then kudos to him for pointing that out. Bringing comic books to the silver screen isn’t recycling; that’s reformulating, altering it to another medium. Which is no biggie, but if it happens more than once for the same basic story, then it becomes recycling. 

  2. For me, the basic distinction between recycling and rebuilding is the processing of used material in question and the extent of processing, regardless of the degree of originality. Plastic yogurt cups can be recycled to produce toothbrushes; the core material, plastic, has been retained for reuse, but bears a completely new architectural design. Houses can be rebuilt, but may or may not retain the core materials and usually retain some vestiges of the original architectural design. Reformulating is not necessarily interchangeable with rebuilding. Rather, reformulating seems to be more about changing a concept, which may be manifested in an array of physical forms and functions. Think about this. We can say {recycle, rebuild} {yogurt cups, houses} with the anticipation of the audience understanding our message, but we can’t say {reformulate} {yogurt cups, houses} because reformulating is about the concept, and concrete objects can be changed in any way – reformulated through recycling and/or rebuilding.

    That said, we should be cautious in describing the phenomenon of the emergent proliferation of comic styles because the process may vary from style to style, artist to artist. The process may exploit both recycling and rebuilding. The former need not be unoriginal as long as the concept has been reformulated.

  3. There are different uses of the term “recycle.” The most common use is to mean treating used materials to reuse them, like recycling paper. Another common meaning is adapting something for new use without changing its essence, like recycling plastic bottle to become toothbrush. Taking cue from Awet’s use of “recycle” in relation to “old ideas or stories,” I took him to mean using something again, like recycling speeches. Limiting our discussion to ideas instead of materials, recycling an old idea is poor taste because it’s unoriginal, but if one could reshape an old idea, injecting originality, then for that I suggest we call it “rebuilding.” For the application of an idea, whether recycled or rebuilt, I suggest we use “reformulate” to mean applying the same idea in different ways (in different media). 

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