Return of the 1990s: The 20-Year Nostalgia Cycle is About to Turn Over

There’s no question that the 1990s are back in comics. Many of DC’s New 52 redesigns have been likened to the early 90s Image Comics look, and creators like Scott Lobdell and Rob Liefeld, virtually absent from DC for years, are now on multiple books. The Extreme-verse is back. Valiant is relaunching.

And you know what?

There’s going to be more.

Remember When…?

Pop culture nostalgia runs in a 20-year cycle. The 1970s had Happy Days and Grease. When I was growing up in the 1980s, it seemed like everything was about how great the 1960s were. (Oh, the hoopla over the 20th anniversary of Woodstock…) By the 1990s, we had Dazed and Confused and That 70s Show, and of course the first wave of big-screen TV remakes of shows like The Brady Bunch. Over the past decade or so we’ve seen Transformers and GI Joe made into mega-blockbuster movies.

People in the prime of their careers can create new pop culture inspired by their childhood or teenage years and get it produced and distributed. People who want to revisit those years can finally afford to buy the new version of that Millennium Falcon playset they wanted when they were 9, or see that band in concert that they wanted to see when they were 15. People who have children want to share those things they remember fondly from their own childhood.

What we’re seeing in comics is merely the leading edge of the wave of 1990s nostalgia.

Now, I’ll bet a lot of you are dreading this. “But the 80s were good!” you’ll say. “The 90s sucked!

I’ll just smile and nod, because I remember back in 1990, before the 70s wave hit, talking about how all music from the 1970s was crap. A few years later, during that wave, I recall being slightly embarrassed about the music from the 80s that I liked. And now there are songs from the 70s and the 80s that I feel no shame in listening to.

A Longer Cycle

I think it just takes 30 years for society to figure out which elements of pop culture are worth keeping.

When something becomes popular, during that decade it’s huge. What’s popular gets admired, whether it’s any good or not.

A decade later, it’s out of fashion. Anything from that last decade is shunned, whether it’s good or not. It’s mainly the bad that people remember, and the good is forgotten, treated as an exception to the rule, or tarred with the same brush. Consider the incredibly bland Fantastic Four logo from the 1970s. The original logo looks just fine now, but at the time, it would have looked dated.

Two decades later, everything’s back. Good or bad, if it was popular then, it’s popular now.

After three decades, you can look back more or less objectively. The fact that it’s old no longer makes it automatically bad, like it did after 10 years, or automatically good, like it did after 20.

Moving On

Songs that were played constantly during the 90s, then disappeared from the radio, are getting airplay again. Meanwhile, those 80s songs that stood the test of time are getting covered by new bands. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood moves on from remaking 80s films and TV shows to remaking the 90s.

It’s inescapable: elements of the 1990s are going to be everywhere soon, not just in comics.

And if you think they sucked? Well, you can wait for the inevitable 2000s nostalgia, or you can take comfort in the fact that they didn’t, really — at least no more than the 1980s, 2000s, or any other decade.


29 thoughts on “Return of the 1990s: The 20-Year Nostalgia Cycle is About to Turn Over

  1. Jesse

    I think this is very astute, especially the part about the age of producers/creators being key to the cycle as they mine their childhoods.

    I wonder how this ties in with Grant Morrison’s theory in SuperGods about culture cycles? Of course, it’s Grant Morrison, so he also ties it into sunspots.

    And if your theory is true, shouldn’t we be seeing Wally return as the Flash? Somehow, some folks in DC bucked the pattern and got stuck in the ’60s permanently.

    1. Kelson Post author

      People keep saying that DC is stuck in the 60s, but Barry, Hal & co. were still around in the 1980s. More importantly, I suspect, they were the versions in Super-Friends, which is what the people in charge at DC today grew up watching, (Guess which one of the Rogues was featured most prominently in Super-Friends?) They came back as part of the 80s nostalgia cycle.

      1. Lee H

        Same with the Geoff Johns Teen Titans relaunch. It was essentially the 1980s line-up, with the addition of Superboy. Admittedly, it did help that the 1980s Titans is widely considered the title’s best run.

        1. Kelson Post author

          The Geoff Johns Titans relaunch also came out around the time Warner Bros. launched the Teen Titans cartoon, which was even more the Wolfman/Perez lineup (minus Kid Flash & Wonder Girl, but including the three characters they created for the 1980 launch).

          DC has tried, mostly unsuccessfully IMO, to recapture the magic of that run a number of times over the past decade, from the Devin Grayson book in 1999 through the Judd Winick run in 2008. But in most cases, they’re just trying to bring the characters back. There must be something else to the classic run that they’re either missing entirely or failing to replicate. No wonder they’ve gone in a different direction for the New 52.

    2. Realitätsprüfung

      I dunno. People said that DC was stuck in the Silver Age back in the 80s, afraid to let go and compete with Marvel. They’re still saying it, 30 years on.

      I suspect the overall thrust of this article is – “There’s hope for Wally West.”

      But I think that’s a pretty big stretch of the nostalgia argument. For example, in the 80s Ronnie Raymond was Firestorm, one of DC’s most popular characters. He also wasn’t a continuation of an already-popular character, either. He became a prominent JLAer and was a major cast memeber of 2 different iterations of the Super Friends.

      In the 2000s? 20 years later Ronnie was *nowhere*. Today he’s sharing page time with a revamp from 10 years ago. And it ain’t happenin’. Sure – Wally WILL be brought back onstage in some fashion, at some point. But it’ll probably never be as prominent or as “important” as the 90s. Put simply:

      Nostalgia doesn’t mean the past is coming back wholesale. Aspects of the past come back. Influences, mostly.

  2. Wayne Lippa

    I agree with everything you say, Kelson. And I like your link to a previous post about the great stuff that came out of the 90s; I found myself nodding vigorously to everything on that list that I had read. Hopefully today’s creators are up to the challenge of putting out comics that will stand the test of time as much as series like Kingdom Come, Golden Age, Waid’s Flash, and Starman have.

    1. Wayne Lippa

      Seeing that artwork by Liefeld at the top of this post reminded me of the Hawk and Dove miniseries from 1988 by the Kesels and him and the ongoing series by the Kesels and Greg Guler that ran from April 1989 until August 1991. I’m probably the only one who would do this, but I’d put the ongoing series on a list of pretty decent 1990s comics. I re-read it a few months ago and enjoyed it as much if not more than I did when it first came out.

      1. Kelson Post author

        Yeah, I have fond memories of that Hawk & Dove series too. Though it’s on my list of stuff that I’m probably going to sell as part of paring down my collection. Maybe I should make a point of re-reading it when I get to that box.

        1. Wayne Lippa

          I highly recommend re-reading it, especially the first year or so’s worth of stories. They were so much fun! Not so much the last several months of Hawk trying to bring his brother back, though. Those were downers.

  3. Kyer

    This seriously explains why the high schools and junior highs were constantly having 1950’s ‘sock hop’ dances. (Hint: it wasn’t the kids, it was the teachers who wanted them.) I suppose now they are doing Flashdance dances.

    Although I agree with you on your points, Kelson, I gotta wonder….if everything is in twenty-year cycles then it boggles the mind:

    Just when did these cycles originate? Why aren’t we stuck in Babylonia some-number-or other recycling the same set of twenties over and over again? 0.0

    Or did this phenomenon start in the 1950’s having never been done by the 1940’s and earlier crowd? Is it something about Twentieth-Century Man that there’s this emptiness of the soul or what?

    Oh heck, I’m waxing psychological when I should be waxing the floor or something productive.

    Or at least reading comics.


    1. Jesse

      You’re right that there’s something about twentieth (and twenty-first) century Man, but it’s not our emptiness, it’s our mass media. People of the 14th century didn’t recycle the cartoon shows they saw as a kid because there were no cartoon shows. There simply weren’t enough artists and writers until recently to create large trends like this; most people were too busy tilling the fields and dying.

      1. Kelson Post author

        I suspect you’re right about the change being mass media. Certainly earlier eras have become fascinated with even earlier times (the Renaissance was crazy about classical Greece and Rome, all the new Gothic architecture that people started building in the 1800s, etc.), but from what I’ve read, the generational cycle is relatively new. (Well, except for the fact that every generation seems to think the next generation’s culture signifies the end of civilization as we know it. Such scandalous newfangled dances like the waltz!)

        Interesting thing I discovered recently: Before the 1950s, the “nostalgia” was used to refer to a type of depression, sort of pathological-level homesickness. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century — the TV era — that it was applied to looking back fondly at the good old days.

  4. TheFlash1990

    Great article!!! And I agree, soon there will be people who grew up with the Batman: TAS and JL/JLU shows spearheading the comics industry. Wouldn’t surprise me if we see that version of the League as a mainstream book one day. They had great chemistry. To the mainstream tho, I don’t think it matters as much with Flash. They see him as a funny guy who runs fast, which is who he was in JLU. Whoever is under the mask would make little difference, IMO. They can call him Barry or Wally, no one will care.

    And as much as I love Hal Jordan, I don’t see him as interchangable with John Stewart. The show just would not have worked with him instead. Same goes for Aquaman over Hawkgirl. Flash was Wally but in Barry Allen’s story. I could have seen the comics doing that at one point.

    But when’s the forties coming back lol?? I hate the new Jay Garrick suit.

    1. Kyer

      See…there I disagree a bit. I loved Wally before I knew there was a Barry. Was all ready to love Barry with Wally, yet even in this new book, I’m not nearly as interested in his character as I was in Wally. With Wally I wanted to see all aspects of his life….with Barry I only care when he’s being Flash (yes, even in this new 52.) As for the JL show, we only saw Wally as a forensic scientist for something like a few seconds. It was only brought up in that one episode.

      1. Sam

        Perhaps because you are not reading the book which is why you’re not invested in Barry?
        I never cared much about Wally’s family except his interaction with the league members.
        Barry on the other hand has proven to be really interesting and the whole love triangle going on with Patty Spivot and Iris West is great. Perhaps only second to the greatest love triangle of Superman/Lois/Clark.

        1. Kyer

          I figure I am seeing roughly 1/3rd of the books through pubished scans. Not to mention reviews and synopsis put out on the web to fill in the gaps, so not unfamiliar with what’s going on…just a few days to a week later than a purchaser.

      2. TheFlash1990

        I hear ya, but the elements of Allen’s life were always present; Central City, the silver age Rogues, his place as a founding JLA member, they even had a flashback (heh) of him getting struck by lightning in the lab while moving to put chemicals on the shelf in a white lab coat a la Barry Allen in one episode if I remember correctly. Basically all the staples of the silver age “classic” Flash stuff was there. One element I have always been a fan of tho and I think should be applied to all Flashes is the eating copious amounts of food lol. Always liked that for some reason.

        And the biggest thing the current Flash book DOESN’T have that was present in the Wally Flash books was the legacy thing. That was never featured on the JL/JLU show. Unfortunately with how they rebooted the new 52, I’m not even sure if it’d be possible to have the same Wally West. :-/

        I wanted Barry Allen back for years as a kid then they brought him back and killed his parents…which sucked. And now we have Jay’s new suit. Who only knows what they’d do with Wally lol. I just have a feeling that whoever we got would not be anything we’re familiar with as “Wally West”.

  5. Eyz

    Argh…my god… Liefeld drawing Giffen’s Lobo (which actually was a parody of EXTREME comic book characters)……my eyes!! it burns!!

    You ARE right! Nostalgia work in 20-year cycles!!

    You are so right about this! Woooah!!

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