Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Look back, but don’t stare

On the text page in 1987s Airboy and Mr. Monster Special, comics writer Gerard Jones quoted baseball player Satchell Paige (“”It’s okay to look back. Just don’t stare.”) to describe the challenge of writing retro. If you’re going to revive something from the past, like a Golden Age comics characters or pulp-style SF adventures, don’t bring their cultural baggage — racism, sexism, whatever — along with them.

Eclipse’s 1980s Airboy series, for example, gave Davey Nelson a Japanese mentor and a tough, capable girlfriend in Valkyrie. It doesn’t buy into the Reagan Administration’s assumption the Cold War was as neat and clean a story of good vs. evil as WW II. One early arc involves Airboy and his allies going up against a dictator in Central America who’s backed by the American government as an anti-communist ally.

Looking back is fine. Staring — embracing the stereotypes and racist/sexist/homophobic tropes of fictions past — is never a good thing. Yes, there was a lot of real world sexism and racism in those eras and writing about the past may reflect that; embracing goes beyond that. For example, America’s Best Comics had a space adventurer, Jonni Future, who winds up dressing just like the women on many old SF pulp covers: in a space suit that bears her ginormous boobs down to her navel. Resembling the old illustrations and lampshading how absurd the outfit is doesn’t make it any less sexist. Nor do I think it’s spitting on SF genre history that the Science Fiction Writers of America got criticized for putting an old-school, pulp cover-style scantily-clad woman on the cover of its magazine. We’re not in the good old days and they weren’t that good.

“Staring” is 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 when we do get retro racism or homophobia, like Alan Moore’s use of old Victorian tropes about Arabs and Chinese (or the Golleywog) in League of Extraordinary Gentleman, that’s not any better than the retro-sexism. In the worst cases “staring” conjures up a past that didn’t even exist, one where all the women in pulps or 1950s SF films were housewives or bimbos. On the contrary, a lot of fictional women were fully competent, such as the women scientists in multiple SF films of the 1950s.

Or consider Robert Bloch’s HP Lovecraft tribute novel, Strange Eons. The premise of the book 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 (this 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, which doesn’t go well for the humans.

Overall it’s an excellent novel, though the FBI vs. the Mythos section bogged down a bit when I reread it (when I first read it, the idea of the feds dealing with Lovecraftian horror was more novel). Unfortunately, Bloch faithfully incorporates Lovecraft’s racist tropes about sinister non-white races worshiping the Great Old Ones (he is not the only modern writer to do this) 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 find that idea interesting, except for the fact it’s utter bullshit. I love Lovecraft’s work but the dude was a racist and his fiction reflects that. This does not excuse mimicking him in modern-day Cthulhu Mythos stories. Racism isn’t an essential component of Lovecraftian fiction; 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.

(This was a repost from my own blog)

#SFWApro. Cover by Michael Gilbert

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