Graphic Nostalgia: Today’s Cartoonists Draw the Past

Maisonneuve, 2005

Panel from "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" by Chris Ware

In the right hands, nostalgia, even unearned nostalgia, can be a powerful thing. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise is one of the most heartfelt laments about lost youth ever written. It was published when he was just twenty-three. More recently, in a song called “Happy Dayz,” seventeen-year-old British Grime artist Ears sang, “Do you remember that? Back in the days, when man was just bare happy? No worries, nothing to worry about? Those days were live, I miss them days, man.” When you’re seventeen, there is nothing sadder than the realization that the past can never be revisited. Time, at this very moment, is slipping away. You will never be sixteen again.

Of course, Fitzgerald and Ears aren’t alone in their affection for the past, but what separates them from the masses of university students crowding eighties nights across the continent is that they can take this pulsing nostalgia and turn it into something of artistic value.

The same can be said of graphic novelists. Today’s cartoonists are obsessed with the past. In the pages of the graphic novel, childhoods and adolescences are endlessly relived, past halcyon days constantly invoked. On the back cover of one of his comics, Guelph-born cartoonist Seth writes: “It is with a heavy heart that I face the grim fact that it is now the year 2000. Yes, with each passing day, that golden, imagined past I am so fond of grows further and further back in time.” Even the form of the comic, with its quaint ink-drawn pictures on paper, seems vaguely anachronistic in an increasingly digitalized world.

The past, nostalgia, and the history of comics were the main topics of conversation last Saturday afternoon at the Toronto International Festival of Authors when journalist and comics scholar Jeet Heer sat down with graphic designer Chip Kidd and cartoonists Chris Ware, Seth, and Charles Burns to discuss the influence of classic comics on their work. What emerged was not just a picture of which strips and comics most powerfully affected these artists, but of the way in that contemporary cartoonists seem to grow and thrive on a gloomy nostalgia and obsession with the past.

The most obvious way cartoonists relive the past, of course, is simply by drawing it. Much of Chris Ware’s masterpiece, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, is set in early 20th century Chicago, with beautifully-rendered and carefully researched architectural drawings, and in his comics and sketchbooks Seth lovingly reproduces mid-century small-town Ontario. Seth’s nostalgia also extends beyond his cartooning: he usually wears a classically-cut suit and round-framed glasses that look as if they were plucked from the nose of James Joyce.

Panel from "Black Hole" by Charles Burns

Even in the work Charles Burns, probably the artist least likely to be accused of sentimentalizing the past, shows a distinct historical obsession. His horror comic, Black Hole, is a meticulously researched recreation of suburban life in the seventies, full of throw-away glimpses of album covers, band posters. During his Toronto discussion, Burns talked about searching through old Sears catalogues for the ideal seventies-era bra and tolling the internet to find the perfect wall-hangings for a fifteen-year-old girl.

At times, this interest in historical reconstruction can seem like misty-eyed sentimentality or, worse, a kind of historical necrophilia. The pleasure that Seth and Ware take in recreating the feel and texture of the 1930s, or that Burns gets from accurately rendering the shape and label of a 1970s Olympia beer can, is not unlike the pleasure of the fourteen-year-old misfit who builds a to-scale model of the Battle of Midway in his basement. Despite the beauty and ingenuity of the recreation, it almost seems more fussy than creative, something that taps into our love of anthologizing and preserving rather than imagining.

But what makes the cartoonist different than, say, the civil war re-enactor or model-train enthusiast is the fact that graphic novels are not just attempts to collect the past but also meditations on the process of collection. There is a difference between simply being a nostalgic and taking nostalgia as the subject of your art.

Seth’s work in particular is all about memory, nostalgia, and the difficulty of living in the present with a mind so full of the past. In It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Seth tells the pseudo-autobiographical story of his own obsession with a fictional New Yorker cartoonist named Kalo. Over the course of the book, the protagonist obsessively attempts to discover more about the near-anonymous artist, following clue after clue, all the while delivering monologues about his own dissatisfaction with the modern-age. By the end, it becomes clear just how damaging an obsession with the past can be for relationships in the present.

Where Seth explicitly takes on nostalgia as one of the major themes of his art, Chris Ware does so in the form of his work. With an intimate knowledge of the history of car

tooning at his disposal, Ware constantly evokes a swelling of nostalgia in his reader with a familiar trope or “retro” look before, inevitably, deflating it. His character Quimby the Mouse looks like a pleasant 20s-era Mickey until you realize he suffers wild lust, incredible violence, and, of course, emotional devastation. Throughout his comic books, Ware simultaneously parodies and pays homage to the naïvely enthusiastic prose and familiar design of fifties comic-book ads with his bold-lettered advertisements for IRONY, FEUDALISM, NUCLEAR WEAPONS, and THE ODOR OF CHILDHOOD (“Great for parties, feeling horrible and sad”).

Panel from "It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken" by Seth

In one of his early comics, entitled “Thrilling Adventure Stories,” Ware pits his comic’s form against its content. The cartoon’s images are an impressive recreation of a mid-century superhero comic book, complete with all of the clichéd characters of the genre: the masked hero, the voluptuous woman, the evil scientist. The comic’s text, meanwhile, is an entirely unrelated personal story about a troubled childhood, small-town racism, and a difficult relationship with a stepfather. Read together, the text and images tell the story of a child who escapes his troubled life through the fantasy of comics. It’s a formally brilliant piece that nostalgically evokes the past in order to tell a distinctly modern story.

You don’t need to look any farther than the constant barrage of “Remember the Eighties?” programming to realize that unconsidered nostalgia can be dangerous. In the hands of contemporary cartoonists, though, the past isn’t mindlessly sentimentalized, but constantly evoked in order to tell stories about the present. In forty years time, it’s not hard to see future cartoonists looking back on the early 20th century as the golden era of the graphic novel. Their nostalgia won’t be misplaced.