nostalgia and the dearth of new ideas

This is less a disclaimer and more a mild warning: I wrote 90% of the following post in a notebook while taxiing on a runway, so it probably reads as such. Enjoy!

Have we seen the best that the world’s brightest creative minds have to offer? No, of course not; not by a longshot. Still, it’s hard not to think like this when you take a look at any popular, storied franchise across all media. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately while catching up on comics, especially when reading series like those from DC’s filled-to-bursting stable of Batman books. The stories change but the faces remain the same. After all, who wants to read a Batman story featuring some no-name villain? We want Joker, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Clayface; to a lesser extent we’ll go for The Ventriloquist or something. Whatever, just give us something we know.

And they do. Writers, artists, and publishers as a whole deliver on what the masses want because they, in turn, need you to buy what they’re sellin’. It’s not just comics either, it’s everything. If nostalgia stifles creativity, it’s not any one group’s fault. Consumers are just as much to blame as creators. Most people don’t want to cook a whole new dish from scratch and chance a spoiled meal when they can whip up that tried and true recipe and pat their bellies in satisfaction.  I get the same sandwiches from the local deli all the time. I’m sure there’s another revelation or two on the menu, but most of the time I just want what I know tastes good. It’s safe and easy, and it requires almost no thought.

When’s the last time Nintendo really nailed a new character, or busted out an overwhelmingly creative new IP? Pikmin? I’m not going to count anything that stars a custom-made Mii, and I’m also not saying creativity is dead. It’s just risky. We applaud new frontiers endlessly because they’re exceedingly rare. Hell, I still think one of the boldest moves Nintendo could make would involve not using Bowser as Mario’s antagonist. Give us Wart, or even Tatanga.

Think about that for a minute. I consider it bold to insert either a villain from a technically unrelated entry—I know this is common knowledge to most of my readers, but Super Mario Bros. 2 was a reworked version of a platformer called Doki Doki Panic, with Mario and co. inserted as the heroes—or a purple alien from Mario’s first Game Boy adventure. I want this because I’ve seen the alternative. As much as I love games like Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, the villains suck. I know it can’t just be me being stubborn; there’s something missing.

Let’s swing back to comics for a bit. I was reading the new Moon Knight by Brian Michael Bendis, and I couldn’t shake the fact that, other than Mark Spector being a dull lead, the villain is just the worst. Keep in mind that the villain in question, Count Nefaria, is an old throwback Marvel villain, but the issue remains. He’s unfamiliar to me. He seems inconsequential. His design is understandably dated and non-threatening. Who cares? Just come up with something new if the best you can do is dig in an old box and pull out a dude named Count Nefaria. They joke around in self-aware fashion about Moon Knight being a B- or C-level hero, but they make it so themselves on a page-by-page basis.

In the New 52 run of Detective Comics, Batman faces a foe called The Dollmaker. The premise behind him isn’t bad—he basically tears folks apart and stitches new ones together from the pieces—but he looks like a cast-off member of Slipknot and has zero personality. I actually just did a quick Internet search to make sure he’s a new character, and he is. Just throw him in Arkham and move on to the Riddler or something. It makes me wonder just how substantial our contribution to the problem is, though. If we keep turning our noses up at every spitwad that doesn’t stick, are creators just going to become increasingly hesitant to be, well, creative?

I know this is kind of an age-old sentiment, but it pops up in one of the issues of the New 52 Nightwing run, and kill me now, I’m going to quote it: “At the end of the day, my past isn’t my biggest weakness, it’s my biggest strength — It’s what makes me who I am.” We’re all a product of what we grew up on in one way or another, so we naturally gravitate toward that in our entertainment. But doesn’t its strength start to wane at least a little when we can’t help but revisit it over and over again? Sure, there are independent comics and games, and creativity flourishes all around us, but when the principal players are just cycling through old yearbooks, doesn’t it make you wonder how much longer we’ll want to keep up with them?

With that said, I’m going to go play Kid Icarus: Uprising.

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