Writing a text page in the Airboy and Mr. Monster Special back in 1987, comics writer Gerard Jones used that quote from baseball player Satchell Paige to describe the challenge of retro: if you’re going to revive something from the past (both Airboy and Mr. Monster were Golden Age characters) you need to do so without lugging their cultural baggage (racism, sexism, whatever) along with them. Eclipse’s Airboy series, for example, gives hero Davey Nelson a Japanese mentor and a tough, competent girlfriend. As Jones notes, it also rejects the assumption that America is the right side in every conflict: one early arc involves an American-backed dictator in Central America (I’ll be writing more about the series soon).
Staring back — just embracing the stereotypes and racist/sexist/homophobic tropes of fictions past — is never a good thing. And I don’t think it’s any more acceptable because that’s just the way movies/comics/SF was back then. For example, if SFWA can’t put a scantily-clad woman on the cover of its magazine, that’s spitting on genre history because so many covers had scantily clad women back then. Likewise, sticking Jonni Future, a character from America’s Best Comics, in a space suit that bares her ginormous boobs down to the navel, is certainly faithful to a lot of pulp imagery, but that doesn’t make it any less sexist.
And it’s more likely to be sexism than anything else. As I’ve complained before, writers are much more likely to use sexist heroes or sexist stereotypes way easier than to bring on a shuffling black servant in the old Stepin Fetchit style, and it’s more acceptable to a lot of people when they do. Though we still get retro racism too, like Alan Moore’s use of old Victorian tropes about Arabs and Chinese in League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
Or consider Robert Bloch’s HP Lovecraft tribute novel, Strange Eons. The premise of the book (which I read a month or so back) is that Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t fiction, it was a warning: his antiquarian interest in history had uncovered evidence of the terrible reality underlying the mundane world. His stories were a coded guide to the future to prepare for what was coming, boosted by psychic flashes of events to come (which explains why several scenes and details in the book mirror exact details in HPL’s fiction). The story has various characters discover the truth and try to resist the return of the Old Ones. It doesn’t go well for them.
Overall it’s an excellent novel, though the FBI vs. the Mythos section bogs down a bit (I think it worked better the first time around, when the idea of the feds dealing with this sort of horror was novel). Unfortunately, Bloch faithfully incorporates Lovecraft’s racist tropes about sinister non-white races worshiping the Great Old Ones and those haven’t aged well at all. Worse, he attempts to work Lovecraft’s loathing of immigrants and miscegenation into the plot: what if Lovecraft wasn’t racist? What if his horror of racial mingling was just a metaphor for the mingling of human and nonhuman races? I actually find the idea interesting, but unfortunately it’s bullshit. I love Lovecraft’s work but the dude was a racist and his fiction reflects that. This does not justify doing it in modern-day mythos stories; it’s not an essential component of the whole (Molly Tanzer, for example, does a great job going in the opposite direction in Creatures of Want and Ruin).
Retro can be fun. But some things should be left in the past, dead and buried. Look back, but don’t stare.
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