1985: nostalgia and spandex

March 3rd, 2009

1985 was obviously some kind of cultural watershed for wee Mark Millar. Or at least that’s what can be surmised from his recent Marvel mini series.

The high concept is pretty lightweight, and was probably pitched to Joey Da Q (unnnggh…) whilst he was on the crapper: What if the Marvel universe came to our world? Nothing wrong with that – dumber comics are published all the time. And I’m not here to indulge in a piece of lazy Millar-bashing (well, maybe a bit). No, I quite liked 1985. It was one of his recent works that I was looking forward to reading in collected form, and for about 60% of the time it manages to be fairly charming and refreshingly free of the increasingly tired set of writerly tics that bedevil most of the man’s work.

The way it succeeds most is in it’s attempt to create a Marvel comics version of a Spielbergian mid-80’s kiddie blockbuster a la ET or The Goonies. Because as much as the title is a nod to the *groundbreaking* comics event of Secret Wars, it’s about BMX’s, small town America, and a rose-tinted vision of childhood as defined by Spielberg, Zemeckis et al. And that’s something I can get with; I was as much of an eager consumer of that particular cultural outpouring. Part of me will always love those movies, and that idea of a childhood that was in reality a world away from my English village upbringing. The dreary Thatcher-infected 1980’s of my youth was a million miles from the pine trees, suburban sprawl and magical possibilities of the Spielberg-verse.

Millar and Edwards do a fair approximation of recreating this filmic atmosphere in 1985, and the comic is littered with pop cultural nods and winks – a Gremlins T-shirt here, a Spiderman Spider-copter there – to hammer home the period atmosphere. It’s a nice idea, and distances the comic from the majority of Millar’s ultra-cynical, bombastic output. The series has a fair amount of heart, in particular the relationship between Toby, our hero, and his dear ol’ Dad, and it’s nice to have a protagonist to root for instead of the usual bitchy assholes that populate the Millar-verse.

The other thing that 1985 does well is in using the Marvel villains rota as movie villains. Their entry point to our world is through the Wyncham house, a ramshackle edifice straight out of Salem’s Lot or Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a neat spin, and Millar makes good use of the Lizard, Electro, Dr Doom and the rest of the gang (The Red Skull’s entrance is particularly eerie). He also emphasises that you absolutely would not want these fuckers in your world, as they proceed to kick the shit out of Toby’s hometown. Trouble is, as the comic switches from good-natured nostalgiafest to comic book guignol, the problems begin as though Millar can’t decide quite how to pitch things.

Mention here should go to Tommy Lee Jones…sorry Edwards here as well. His art is perfect throughout, ably conveying both the mundane and fantastic in a seamless fashion. His renderings of the Hulk, Doom and Fin Fang Foom are ace, and his smudgy but confident brushwork is consistently great. (Also, is it me or are he and John Paul Leon the same artist?) Anyway he’s a brilliant collaborator on this project, with a nice eye for period detail and a style that evokes classic Marvel and the ‘real’ world simultaneously.

Somewhat inevitably though the comic does derail quite badly as things progress. It’s got to be Millar’s biggest flaw as a writer: he always writes a fantastic build, and then without fail shoots his load all over the curtains. Wanted, The Ultimates, Kick Ass, Red Son, his Wolverine run… they all start out with fun, attention grabbing, ballsy first issues but inevitably stumble badly before the finish line, usually into a jumble of exaggeration and nonsense. It’s like he’s bored of the story, and when the writer’s bored of the story then…well the audience is hardly going to be doing the happy swinging dick dance are they?*

*I don’t know what this means.

1985 is sadly no different, although to a less reprehensible degree than some of his comics. By the time little Toby has bust his way into the Marvel Universe (which admittedly makes for some neat moments – the reception of the Baxter building in particular) you can already feel the story tumbling towards an inevitable splurge of familiarity. Perhaps it’s the relentless need to have every fucking hero and villain crow barred into the story that ultimately drains it of any sense of drama and pace. I’ve reached saturation point in my life for double page spreads of the spandex crew, and I certainly don’t see it as an adequate replacement for storytelling. At this point 1985 becomes less a story about a 12 year old, and more a story by a 12 year old. Plus the conceit of the story doesn’t quite work at this point. It’s hard to create a sense of the sheer difference of  finding yourself in a comic-book universe when you’re already in one. Edwards, despite his best efforts, comes a cropper because essentially what we have is not two different worlds, but two different drawing styles.

The story also ends with a mawkish ending worthy of schmaltz-meister Spielberg himself. I won’t spoil it, but it’s hokey, illogical and dumb all at the same time. Much as I appreciate the attempt to give a sweet-natured resolution to the story, I just didn’t buy this one. Too neat, too pat, too….blegh.

But like I said, I’m not slagging 1985 off. It’s not without merit, and the early issues have a good deal of nostalgic charm and fun about them. The covers are great too, bringing to mind that era when Sienkewicz painted covers graced turd-buster titles like Dazzler and New Mutants, topped with a superb retro logo. Whatever criticisms you can level at Millar, he does know how to make entertaining comics when he puts his mind to it. It’s just that he doesn’t put enough of  his mind to it, and this comic ends up another slightly squandered gee-whizz, high concept mini-series, that entertained but left nothing of substance in it’s wake.

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