In spring 2015, DC and Marvel are both banking on comic book fans putting their money where their nostalgia is.
Two major comic events in 2015 hinge on nostalgia — Convergence, DC's April-launching mega-event , and Secret Wars, Marvel's immense May-launching event , which both feature classic stories and continuities.
"This almost feels like we're on the Cosmic Treadmill, doesn't it?" laughed Joe Field, director of the ComicsPRO retailer organization and owner of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, Calif. "It has people talking. There are a few [comic book fans] who want to run away screaming, 'Been there, done that!' But then there are others that will wait to see if any of that nostalgic content resonates with them."
The fact that both major superhero publishers are doing very similar stories that tap into reader nostalgia is a rather strange coincidence — but then, is it a coincidence? With dozens of comic book creators concurrently crafting events that heavily lean on nostalgia, is there something deeper in play here?
Why So Nostalgic?
This bout of nostalgia in superhero comic books follows a lot of upheaval over the last few years, as multiple superhero concepts have rebooted and drastically changed. While the sudden turn toward nostalgia may just be a backlash from all the "new" characters and concepts that have been thrust into superhero comics, it could also be triggered by a collective emotional response.
According forensic psychiatrist Dr. Vasilis K. Pozios, people often turn toward nostalgia after a stressful transition.
"Life is full of transitions," Pozios said. "They can leave people feeling overwhelmed, confused, socially disconnected, and desiring to tap into some really great times in the past – especially from childhood. After all, who doesn’t miss being a kid with hardly any responsibilities? Some studies suggest nostalgia increases as we transition into adulthood and away from the relative simplicity of childhood."
Pozios is a comic book fan himself, having co-founded Broadcast Thought, a media consultancy focused on the depiction of mental health issues in entertainment. He and co-founder Dr. Praveen Kambam have taken spoken at comic book conventions about their diagnosis of the colorful characters in superhero comics.
Kambam said nostalgia isn't something that only comic book fans turn toward. "Actually, the majority of people experience nostalgia," he said. "One survey found that 80 percent of people feel nostalgic at least once a week. Just look to the popularity of the 'Throwback Thursday' hashtag on Twitter. Other research suggests that people engage in nostalgic thinking more frequently – around three times per week."
"Studies show that nostalgia also makes us feel good," Pozios added. "We like to remember happy times. These memories usually outweigh the reminders of loss and can contribute to higher self-esteem, counteract loneliness, and even increase our feelings of being loved. And as we grow older, nostalgia helps us to contextualize life events and give us a greater sense of meaning to our lives."
Yet there is a distinctive link between nostalgia and fandom — particularly a fandom like comic book superheroes, which encourages a monthly return to stories about beloved characters.
"Nostalgic thoughts often feature a past significant event," Pozios explained. "While sports fans might recall memories from a championship season, comic fans might fondly remember epic comic events from their youth, like Crisis on Infinite Earths or Secret Wars . And since fandom is a communal activity, we remember talking about these series with other fans, and the personal relationships that were built around these comics contributes to the feeling of nostalgia."
"A lot of what I do here as a retailer," Field said, "is to help facilitate the 'holding-on' to things that we loved when we were younger, whether that's buying a back-issue, or whether that's wallowing in a huge crossover event that takes in multiple realities from a shared universe, either Marvel or DC.
"Superhero comics tend to be comfort food," Field said. "Everybody wants that whiff of 'Mom's apple pie' that they miss so much, and Convergence and Secret Wars are the kind of thing that plays right into that."
Tanya R. Cochran, a professor at Union College who studies fan culture, said that although people are drawn into fandoms for a wide variety of reasons, fandoms involving story can be entwined with nostalgia because of the nature of narrative.
"Scholars who study narrative and narrative impact suggest that stories can transport us to another place and time," Cochran said. "They can allow us to experience events — whether historical or fantastical — that we cannot experience firsthand and to, in essence, be someone we are not.
"Some may call this ability to be transported a form of escapism, and by that they mean something silly or unhealthy, something deserving of ridicule or intervention," she said. "But imaginative journeys are more often than not therapeutic and transformative. This is one very good reason to return over and over to a particular object or text. In that sense, an element of nostalgia laces one's fandom."
Yet Pozios pointed out there's also evidence nostalgia makes people part with their money — meaning Marvel and DC's decision to utilize nostalgia could just be good business.
"Interestingly, a 2011 study in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that nostalgia may make people more charitable," he said. "And anyone who’s ever been to a comic book convention knows this to be anecdotally true – comic book collecting is fueled by nostalgia.
"New products are created to appeal to consumers’ sense of nostalgia; cases in point: Convergence and Secret Wars," Pozios said. "So, there’s more to the return of familiar material than just publishers 'playing it safe' and mining previously successful properties and concepts – nostalgia is probably also at play."
Field said there's also an age element to keep in mind when discussing the comic book industry's main audience. "What we have is a market where the average age of the buyer is getting a little bit older," the retailer said. "So they are nostalgic for the things that they remember from when they were 10 or 12 or 15 years old."
"While I’m not aware of the demographic profile of comic fans who read monthly, ongoing comics, there are some people who are more affected by nostalgia than others," psychiatrist Kambam said. "Nostalgia seems to peak in early adulthood, when most people experience significant life changes like going off to college, starting careers, and getting married.
"Loneliness is a characteristic that has been associated with triggering nostalgia," Pozios said. "Nostalgia helps people to feel reconnected to others. And reconnecting with family tends to conjure feelings of nostalgia. The fandom equivalent of a family reunion is a comic convention; perhaps nostalgia helps to fuel the cyclical success of large conventions like Comic-Con International: San Diego."
"Perhaps the demographics of comic book readers of monthly, ongoing series is fueling this recent trend toward nostalgia?" Kambam said. "I’m not aware of that information, but it certainly would be interesting to look at how age demographics and sales of 'nostalgic' titles correlate."
But Field said it's important to note that nostalgia is only one of many reasons people buy comics — and not all readers are just "fans;" many are simply readers of good story, whether nostalgic or not. "It's really hard to pigeonhole anybody, because I take a pretty good look at the way different people buy. And these days, there are very few people who are superhero-only buyers," he said.
Plus, Cochran pointed out, nostalgia isn't a bad thing — its relationship with fandom can actually be seen as a positive. "Though it can sometimes carry negative connotations, nostalgia serves quite a few important, positive purposes," she said. "When we remember the past fondly, we might be reclaiming a mental image that soothes the current self. Or we might use memories of our earlier days to bond with family and friends — and even strangers. We might relive the past in order to appreciate who we are now.
"If nostalgia is a kind of memory palace, for many people the objects of their fandom are the decor or furnishings," she said. "I was recently rewatching Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, because I wanted a friend who hadn't seen it yet to screen it with me.
"On a second viewing, I was struck by how nostalgic it was for me, born in the early 1970s in the U.S., to watch the segment about Wonder Woman coming to television screens by way of actor Linda Carter. Thirty-plus years later, I still get a thrill thinking about how Carter as both the Amazonian princess and her alter ego Diana Prince made me want to grow up to be a powerful woman and defender of justice.
"Nostalgia helps me overlook or see through many sexist elements of the series. What matters to me now is what the much younger I made of the story and character; the meaning I created then and the memory I have now of who I was and who I determined someday to be is what continues to have an impact on my life," she said. "In other words, the object of fandom represents a part of who I am, my identity."
Field also said superhero comic publishers are using nostalgia to point readers toward new material. "I think the way [old stories] are being contemporized for [Convergence and Secret Wars] is to bring in some of the elements that have happened since then. So that makes it a different thing than what it was, but still with the same trappings.
"The idea is there's always that next thing coming," he said. "The way these things work, both Marvel and DC editorial have these things planned out. There is something else coming after that whiff of nostalgia."