The (re)Collection Agency #4: A Conversation with Brian Cremins

Welcome to the third installment of The (re)Collection Agency, a recent addition to The Middle Spaces, where we bring you informal talks with comics scholars about their comics reading and collecting practices and how that intersects with their work. The idea is to open up the discourse a bit to integrate the personal experience of comics reading and material culture with the scholarly side of comics, historicizing, interpreting, and archiving.

(photo by Brian Cremins)

As was the case with a lot of the comics scholars I have gotten to know in the last year or so, I met Brian Cremins at ICAF 2016, though we had interacted through social media a few times before that. At the conference, he was on a panel with Christopher Pizzino and Carol Tilley, and he gave a great presentation on Talky Tawny, Otto Binder, and Fawcett’s Captain Marvel that made the whole room eager for his book on the subject to arrive, and I was no exception. Soon after his book came out I reached out to Brian to see if he’d be as generous with his time as he has been with his work and in our email correspondence, and be the subject of an installment of The (re)Collection Agency. He graciously agreed.

Dr. Brian Cremins

Dr. Brian Cremins is an Associate Professor of English at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, he completed his BA in English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College in 1995 and his Ph.D. in English at the University of Connecticut in 2004. His essays on comics have appeared in publications including the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in American Humor, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Alter Ego, and in the edited collections Comics and the U. S. South (2012), Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby (2015), The Routledge Companion to Comics (2016), and Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism (2017). He has served on the Executive Board of the Comics Studies Society and as a Programming Coordinator for CAKE, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo. He currently serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society. In 2016, the University Press of Mississippi published his first book, Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia.

Osvaldo Oyola (OO): So, let’s start with Power Book and Record sets! I noticed you mentioned them in your interview with Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter and wrote that very touching and personal piece about one of them for The Los Angeles Review of Books. I have my own story about them, so it stuck out to me.

Brian Cremins (BC): Oh, sure. As best as I can remember, the book and record sets would have been my first exposure to comics in the late 1970s/early 1980s when I was a kid. This would have been before I could read, since my reading skills weren’t very good until 1st grade. But my parents and my grandmother would buy those sets for me, and I would listen to them over and over again and follow along with the panels. My favorites were the ones with Captain America and the Falcon, the Werewolf, and Frankenstein.

Captain America and the Falcon (Power Records Book and Record Set #12, 1974)

In fact, looking back at the Captain America and the Falcon one, it is based on “. . . And a Phoenix Shall Arise!” from Captain America #168 (December 1973) and I’m not surprised to discover that it’s about Cap’s haunted memories of Baron Zemo and World War II. On the second page of the story, he’s talking with the Falcon and admits that he’s struggling with the anxiety of finding his place in the world: “I can’t shake it tonight,” he says. “The feeling that I’m a walking anachronism—a guy who looks like he’s twenty . . . even though he was fighting Hitler’s hordes some thirty years ago!” In most of my essays on comics, and in the comics I admire the most—Moore’s Miracleman, James Sturm’s The Revival, Edie Fake’s Gaylord Phoenix, to name a few—I’m always attracted by and returning to questions of history and personal narrative, especially the ones that unsettle us. I’m glad you asked this question, because I haven’t looked at this book and record set in years, and that phrase walking anachronism might be a good one to sum up the kind of work I like to do.

Speaking of the Power Records sets, which ones did you have?

OO: It was something like 1975 or ’76, and I begged my mom to get me one at Woolworth’s or Kresge’s. It was a Spider-Man one, “The Mark of the Man-Wolf.” But when we got it home and listened to it, the wolfman howling scared the shit out of me and I forced my mom to return it. I was also disturbed by the idea of “the action comes alive!” My brother intervened and had her exchange it for an Escape from the Planet of the Apes one, which I still have.

BC: Another great one! Good choice. Not as creepy as Beneath the Planet of the Apes. I think a lot of mine also came from Kresge’s at the old Naugatuck Valley Mall in Waterbury. I was really terrified by the one with Batman and Gorilla Grodd!

The Earth as a fiery ball from Escape from the Planet of the Apes Power Book and Record Set (1974)

OO: The funny thing is that when I was a little older and suffering from some Reagan Era nuclear annihilation anxiety and resulting sleeplessness, the panel depicting the Earth as a ball of fire in the Planet of the Apes book was an image I returned to obsessively in my mind.

BC: I used to listen to these on a portable blue record turntable. It had a checkerboard design like a tablecloth at a family picnic. While my mom was enjoying her Donna Summer and Cat Stevens records on our living room stereo, I would listen to the Power Records sets. I realize now that, for me, it was an ideal medium—words, pictures, and sound/music. Later, when I read comics like Tim Truman’s Scout—especially issue #19 with the flexidisc—I wondered why other comics didn’t come with soundtracks.

OO: I’m not familiar with Scout.

Scout #19 (May 1987)

BC: One of the first articles I published in John Lent’s International Journal of Comic Art in 2003 was about that series. It touches on a lot of those 1980s anxieties you just mentioned. Truman has said that cat yronwode, his editor at Eclipse Comics, called the character a “left-wing Rambo.” It speaks to that apocalyptic strain in U. S. popular culture at the close of the Cold War. The twist in Scout is that, rather than imagining a nuclear holocaust, Truman depicts a U. S. in slow, gradual decline because of its racism, cruelty, and isolationism. I think in many ways it resonates now even more than it did 30 years ago. And, as a bonus, Truman is a musician, so it’s filled with allusions to Hendrix and Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.

OO: That notion of an increasingly isolationist and cruel U.S. appears in some other comics, like Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons’s Martha Washington, or much more recently (and subtly) in The Private Eye, by Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin.

BC: When did Martha Washington first appear? Was it ’89 or ’90? [Editor’s Note: It was 1990.] They’re both coming from that ‘80s era of independent comics. It would be interesting to read those series again in the context of the Cold War fears expressed in better known books like The Dark Knight and Watchmen.

OO: So, I brought up the Power Records because I was wondering about what you think of the role of merchandising in influencing comics criticism and scholarship. The role of that stuff in shaping narratives, engaging with characters, reading developments in the field, etc…

BC: At the end of Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia, I try to grapple with the question of what role that merchandise has played in the development of the field itself. An edited collection like Richard Lupoff and Don Thompson’s All in Color for a Dime, for example, which had its origin in the fanzine Xero from the early 1960s, is a foundational text for comics scholarship in the U. S. Those fanzine writers, as Bart Beaty has pointed out in Comics Versus Art, were nostalgic for their childhoods, and the markers of that nostalgia were the comics themselves and all of the toys and games and puzzles featuring beloved characters like Superman or Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel. I think the material process of locating, collecting, and then interpreting these childhood relics has had a significant impact on the field, especially given the role that fanzine writers played in documenting the history of the form starting in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

(cover art by Keiler Roberts)

In addition to studying comics as works of art—close-reading them and doing the vital archival work on writers, artists, and series that have been neglected—we also need to pay close attention to the role that collectors and the act of collecting have played in the growth of the field. A lot of that work has already been done—Jeffrey A. Brown’s book on Milestone Comics, for example; Chapters 6 and 7 of Comics Versus Art; Jonathan Alexandratos’s new collection Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on the Toys and Their Messages; the conversation you had with Leah Misemer about letter columns in the last installment of “The (re)Collection Agency”—and I look forward to more research, especially from young scholars coming from outside the field and from comic book fan communities.

In writing the book, I think I was trying to escape my feelings of nostalgia—not for C. C. Beck and Otto Binder’s work, which I didn’t discover until I was in my late 20s, but for my youthful fascination with and affection for comics as an art form and as a commercial medium. Captain Marvel was one of the most popular characters in the U.S. in the 1940s, especially during the war. I wanted to understand why the character, created by Beck and Bill Parker and then written by Binder, was so appealing and beloved. I started with that question, but I soon found myself trying to understand what had attracted me to things like the Power Records sets and the Mego figures in the first place. What role did those objects and properties play in larger narratives of family and of U. S. history?

OO: Interesting that you say you were trying to escape your nostalgia… Do you think you succeeded?

BC: I’m not sure. Once the book was real—copies in a box in the foyer of our building, then here on my desk—I thought, yes, I’m going to close this line of inquiry. I knew I’d keep writing about comics, but I hoped that, by working on this project, I might excavate these memories—not just mine, but those of the writers, artists, fans, and scholars I researched—and come out the other end with a clear, empty horizon in front of me.

OO: I got the impression from your writing about nostalgia and some of the sources you use in your book, that you didn’t see nostalgia as a necessarily bad thing that only warps a sense of history.

BC: I know I sound more ambivalent than I probably do in the book. I worry sometimes that the past is like an event horizon. Once you get too close, you’re trapped. While some of the personal memories I was working through were joyful and comforting, others, especially the ones that shaped Chapter 3, the World War II section of the book, are more traumatic and conflicted. In the introduction to her book The Future of Nostalgia, which informed so much of my work on Beck, Binder, and Captain Marvel, Svetlana Boym sums up these feelings this way: “Nostalgia tantalizes us with its fundamental ambivalence; it is about the repetition of the unrepeatable, materialization of the immaterial” (xvii).

OO: I understand that ambivalence. I have felt it, too, especially since generally it feels like nostalgia is something our culture wallows in uncritically… Not just comics, but everything! But then I keep finding myself diving head first into it as a way to explore and challenge it. That nostalgia is also an indicator of obscured narratives to excavate.

BC: Yes, definitely! Boym’s definition at the beginning of the book is also telling: nostalgia, she writes—based in part on her reading of Johannes Hofer’s 1688 dissertation—is “…a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed” (xiii). Later in the book, she discusses some of that “wallowing” you just mentioned (see Chapter 3, for example)—and she published it in 2001, so it appeared before the wave of movies based on superheroes and children’s toys that now have such value in the marketplace. But nostalgia, as you said, can also lead us to important discoveries as we tell forgotten or deliberately neglected stories.

OO: Yes, your piece in LARB seemed like a good example of that: connecting your return to this childhood object to a more profound family history. And it seems like that family history also connects to broader social attitudes, values and anxieties. So, we can move from the individual to the familial to the social.

BC: Yes, that’s what I was after in that essay and, maybe to a lesser extent, in the book itself. That interest in the intersections between family narratives, cultural histories, and pop culture comes in part from Marianne Hirsch’s work, especially Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (1997) and The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (2012). I admire her work tremendously. In her scholarship, she blends autobiography with history and critical analysis. The research for my Captain Marvel book started in the same way: I wanted to understand the close relationship I had with my grandmother when I was a kid. I grew up in a multi-generational household pretty typical of the Naugatuck River Valley of Connecticut, which was an industrial hub until the early 1980s. My grandmother was a Lithuanian immigrant, born in 1913. She and her sister and her brother and my great grandmother all spoke Lithuanian. My dad’s side was Irish. They were also immigrants, but they arrived here from rural Ireland as adults in the 1920s.

As a kid, I would listen to my grandmother’s stories, many of which I now realize were folk tales about demons and ghosts that no doubt had some basis in the Catholic Lithuanian culture in which she was raised. Since she arrived here as a baby—her mom went back to Lithuania to visit family while pregnant, so she was the only one of her siblings born there—she very much assimilated to U. S. culture of the 1920s and ‘30s. So, while I was fascinated by the stories she told about what her father remembered of Lithuania, she also recalled with great fondness the music of the Depression, the movies, the radio shows. My grandfather, a factory worker and World War II vet (and himself the child of Italian immigrants), died when he was only 46, so, given how close I was to her—our rooms adjoined each other in the house where I grew up—I wanted to know more about him, too.

All-Star Squadron Annual #3 (DC Comics, 1984)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that I became interested in comics—especially ones about or based on World War II—in part because, at least unconsciously, I hoped that they would bring me closer to her, to unlock the stories she wasn’t telling me, the ones that were too raw and too sad.  I have a vivid memory of sitting on our front porch in the summer of 1984 and reading Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron Annual #3. There’s a lot of Golden Age comics history in it, a lot about the war, but also a clever alternate history plot twist at the end. I was riveted by it. And I remember thinking, I should ask grammy about those days. I’m reading about it, but she lived it! I eventually developed an interest in pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, too. That was her world, and I wanted to know its secrets. It still kind of blows my mind that I’m a regular contributor to the Fawcett Collectorsf of America section of Roy Thomas’s magazine, Alter Ego. I can’t thank him and FCA editor Paul Hamerlinck enough for giving me the opportunity and encouragement to work on many of the ideas for the book in articles I wrote for them. As a young reader, Roy’s comics, especially his fascination with the links between American history and Golden Age heroes, sparked my imagination.

When I was a kid, of course, none of this was conscious. When I started reading Hirsch and Susan Sontag and W. G. Sebald, I felt inspired to examine these family narratives while also, as you said, addressing the social and historical context that shaped my grandmother, my grandfather, my extended family, and my parents.

OO: Yes! Amazing. In line with my own approach in a lot of ways.

BC: Do you feel in your writing you’re also trying to chase those ghosts from the past, whatever form they take?

OO: To some degree, definitely. For me though, it has a lot more to do with the experience of ethnic and racial identity (and to some degree gender identity) than specific people—working with and being worked by culture when you feel simultaneously in it, but not of it… And also, the reverse: of it, but not in it.

Speaking of using the personal in scholarship, when I listened to the Comics Alternative podcast I was so happy to hear you cite Black writers and thinkers when asked about that element of your work. I was listening thinking, “But what about. . .” and then you said it and I was like YES! That is a big influence for me. It was an A-HA moment in grad school to read In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens and Nellie McKay on Black women writers and realize how white heteropartriarchy legitimizes some ways of knowing above others. It is a loss for everyone.

BC: My dissertation work was on novelist and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, so that’s also where part of my training lies. African American literary theory, along with the material I mentioned from Hirsch, is foundational, especially a text like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, which—and I’m thinking again of something you said earlier—enables us to re-read existing, so-called “canonical” texts with a new set of strategies. I hesitate to say new, actually, since she’s revealing what’s already there but has been ignored and obscured.

OO: Yes, exactly.

BC: In writing about nostalgia, Boym and historian Susan J. Matt were important to me, but I also took a lot of inspiration from Ralph Ellison’s writing on jazz, his memories in pieces like “Living with Music.” His work also plays a big role in Chapter 4, where I focus on Steamboat, the minstrel-like character who appeared as Billy’s friend and “valet” in the comics until the New York City school kids from the Youthbuilders program spoke with Fawcett editor Will Lieberson in the spring of 1945. They succeeded in convincing Fawcett to remove the character. The archival work I did on Micheaux was good training for the research I did on the Youthbuilders and their founder, Sabra Holbrook. At the same time, the theoretical matrix of that chapter comes from the work of Morrison, George Yancy, Qiana Whitted, and Ralph Ellison.

OO: I wrote a little about “Living with Music” in a piece called “Living With Noise” for Sounding Out! about moving back to NYC after grad school rural life.

BC: I need to read it!

OO: But anyway, I think critical nostalgia can help imagine other possibilities, is constitutive of world-making. I don’t mention nostalgia in the piece, but thinking back on it now, I realize the empathy I suggest living with noise asks us to practice has as its opposite the nostalgia that obscures the memory of the messiness of living.

So, in my notes for this talk I have a reference to “The World of If” and I am trying to remember what led me to that – maybe something you said in the podcast interview? (I really should be better prepared).

BC: “Captain Marvel in the World of If” is a story in Captain Marvel Adventures #42 (January 1945) about an alternate history where Captain Marvel joins the Nazis—by mistake! At the end of the story, of course, Billy and Captain Marvel save the day from a bunch of Nazi saboteurs who’ve been trying to trick them, but there’s a larger ideology at work in that conclusion, one that Paul Fussell examines in his book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989).

Binder ends the story with one of Billy’s typical pep talks: “Yes, folks! There are many possible branches of if worlds! But in all of them, no matter which one fate chooses to follow, there is always Captain Marvel! And as long as there is Captain Marvel around, things just can’t go wrong!” This story hit the newsstands in late 1944. I noticed an affinity with something Fussell pointed out in his book. The comic appeared shortly before Arlen and Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” was big hit for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (I can’t tell you how many afternoons I spent listening to their harmonies on my grandmother’s clock radio).

“By that time,” Fussell writes, “almost everyone had had a relative killed or wounded or knew someone who had, and one would have to be pretty unobservant not to perceive by that time that the war had something very gruesome about it. In the absence of a credible positive ideology, motivation was always a problem” (143). In this book and in his other accounts of the war, Fussell considered the impact of the “positive ideology” that circulated in mass media in the 1940s. That ideology, he argues, had devastating consequences after the war: “The postwar power of ‘the media’ to determine what shall be embraced as reality is in large part due to the success of the morale culture in wartime. It represents, indeed, its continuation” (164).

These are the kinds of myths that Chris Murray tackles in his book Champions of the Oppressed (2011), that Trischa Goodnow and James J. Kimble address in the edited collection The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II (2017), and that Mark Fertig studies in his new book Take That, Adolf!. What can these comic books, and the lives and experiences of the men and women who created and enjoyed them, tell us about the historical era that produced them? In the case of “Captain Marvel in the World of If,” we’re seeing the limits of this ideology of innocence. This is the sort of dogma—“things just can’t go wrong!”—that obscures or attempts to negate memories of historical and family trauma, especially as connected to issues of gender, race, and class. I suspect that my ambivalence concerning these wartime memories comes in part from Fussell, who concluded that “America has not yet understood what the Second World War was like and has thus been unable to use such understanding to re-interpret and redefine the national reality and to arrive at something like public maturity” (268). I’m not sure we’ve made any more progress in that understanding in the almost thirty years since Fussell wrote that book.

from “Captain Marvel in the World of If” (Captain Marvel Adventures no. 42). The Grand Comics Database attributes the story to Otto Binder. The issue names C. C. Beck as “Chief Artist.” The artwork itself was probably completed by Beck and Pete Costanza’s studio.

OO: Okay, that explains why I wrote The Man in the High Castle next to it (which I am planning to re-read as part of research to write about Hydra-Cap in the current Marvel).

BC: Another alternate history book that fascinated me when I was a kid! I should go back and read it again. Have you ever seen Kevin Willmott’s film C. S. A.: The Confederate States of America? I always thought it would make for an interesting comparison to the alternate history in Dick’s novel.

OO: I have not. Is it based on a book?

BC: I don’t think it was. It’s been years since I saw it at an Oscar Micheaux film festival. There’s a recent New Yorker article about it.

OO: Cool. I will check it out.  Looks fascinating! [Note: You can watch the whole film on YouTube here.]

Let’s switch gears: Tell me, how (if at all) do you see your interest in music intersecting with your work in comics?

BC: Great question. Can I tell my “Ballad of Dorothy Parker” story here?

OO: The Prince song?

BC: Yep.

OO: Dude. I am the target audience for such a story

BC: So, as I said, I was really, really into comics as a kid, starting with those book and record sets, then whatever I could find at the spinner rack at the 7-11, and later on trips to Jim’s Comic Book Shop in Waterbury with my dad. I read the Comics Buyer’s Guide every week from 1984 until the early ’90s or so. There came a point in eighth grade, though, where I started to lose interest. It was slow at first. I blamed it on all of the black and white, adolescent atomic gerbil books. I had a pull-list at the comic book shop, but we started visiting less and less frequently. What’s wrong? I wondered. I even found the end of Watchmen a little disappointing, so I was feeling bummed out. That’s when it happened: I became obsessed with the middle of U2’s “With or Without You,” where Larry Mullen’s drums come crashing in. I’d listen to that part of the song over and over again on my Walkman. Then, a few weeks later—so I guess this must have been the spring of ’87—I got a copy of Sign o’ the Times.

OO: I just recently revised something I had published on “If I Was Your Girlfriend” for the blog. Sign o’ the Times is the best Prince album.

BC: Definitely! My mom is a huge Prince fan, so she probably bought it for me. I got to “Dorothy Parker” and, to this day, I don’t hesitate to use the cliché: it probably saved my life. I was a shy kid, so I think if I’d stayed obsessed with comics, I’d never have started playing guitar, which means I’d have had a miserable time in college. My anxiety and OCD would have gotten the better of me. I needed something that would give me a way of communicating and sharing experiences with other people. That album, and that song in particular, has it all: a great melody, an incredible vocal, and a real story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Then he fades out with the wah-wah line on guitar. That groove could go on forever.

The words in “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” tell you everything you need to know—not too much, and not too little, either. And it’s so plainspoken. “I ordered—‘Yeah, let me get a fruit cocktail, I ain’t 2 hungry’/Dorothy laughed.” That little spoken aside floored me. I don’t know how much of this got into my 13-year-old brain, but I hear it now and it’s so intimate, so true. This wasn’t about the past anymore, about other people’s stories. This was about the present, and maybe the future.  Up to that point, no comic book, as much as I loved them, had spoken to me with such eloquence and simplicity.

Comics made me a reader, but songs like “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” made me want to write—not music at that point, but short stories, essays, whatever!

OO: Yes. I love that song, too. Those little asides are all over Prince’s music. I think of them as signs of his sense of humor, which is overlooked because he is so weird and seemingly self-serious

BC: He also sings a LOT about food. “Breakfast Can Wait,” “Starfish and Coffee”…and, to get back to Sign o’ the Times as an album, there’s the gender-bending when he sings in Camille’s voice. Her songs are another narrative thread on that record. I have a cassette copy of the album on my shelf of favorite books.

OO: I think Jonathan Lethem does a great job of writing about the overlap of music and comics in The Fortress of Solitude. It was writing about that book in grad school (and it ended up a chapter in my diss) that convinced me I could write about both. Plus, his descriptions of listening to Prince in Motherless Brooklyn are amazing.

BC: I’ll have to read him! I think listening to, playing, and studying music has been essential for my writing because it’s given me a sense of structure that balances the research training I received as an undergrad and in grad school. In fact, music got me through my graduate program. I was lucky to have a support system in my two bandmates, Andy and Tris. And the jazz techniques I’m learning now with guitarist John Moulder have expanded my playing and my my approach to writing and research. Music has always been a means of getting out of my head—of escaping from nostalgia and anxiety and indecision. That’s what I think I learned from that Prince song, and from the punk rock I listened to in high school.

(from Edie Fake’s Gaylord Phoenix #4)

OO: So, before we run out of time, tell me—what is your relationship to comics now? How do you go about deciding what to read? What to buy? Is it all driven by scholarship or. . .?

BC: I still enjoy walking into a shop and picking up a comic because of its cover. I’ve found a lot of my favorites this way, like Marnie Galloway’s In the Sounds and Seas and Gaylord Phoenix, which I mentioned earlier (if you haven’t read Gaylord Phoenix #7 yet, track it down ASAP). I like stumbling across things. Sometimes it takes me years to figure out why the image or the book spoke to me in the first place. The scholarship usually comes later—sort of like with the book, where I read those Beck and Binder comics for fun, then became fascinated with them and their history. The last couple of essays I’ve written—one about Grass Green, which came out in an edited collection earlier this year, and the other about Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing and Unstable Molecules, which will be out next year—I’d thought about for a long time. Like the book, I had rough ideas for both of those articles almost 15 years ago. I work slowly!

Right now, I’m a big fan of cartoonists Keiler Roberts, Ben Passmore (working on a paper about his comics for the American Studies Association conference coming up here in Chicago in November), Isabella Rotman, John Porcellino, Mickey Zachilli, Eric Kostiuk Williams, and Amara Leipzig. Their work inspires me to be a better writer and a sharper critical thinker.

OO: Sounds a lot like me, except I end up finding stuff to write about by just following back references I come across either in other comics or in people (often fans) writing about comics. And, of course, my taste remains fairly mainstream…

BC: Are you reading the original Black Lightning series right now? I saw that on your Twitter, I think. I just picked up some copies of that.

OO: Oh, I have them all. And most of the 90s version too, and lots of appearances in other places. It’s got me thinking about how confidence (and lack thereof) plays out with Black superheroes. I wrote about Black Lightning for the blog in 2013, but am working on a follow up.

The Falcon #4 (February 1984)

BC: What do you think of Jim Owsley’s (aka Christopher Priest) Falcon series from the 80s? Do you remember that one? I think the revelation that he might be a mutant might touch on your reading of Black Lightning.

OO: Oh shit. See? This is how it happens to me. Now I have to get that…

BC: It’s always been a fave of mine.

OO: Are there no current mainstream serial comics you still follow?

BC: I’ve been reading Alan Moore’s Providence, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. I haven’t followed a lot of other mainstream series in the last few years. That was partly, I think, because of writing Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia. I was immersed in research for the last five years and mostly reading Fawcett comics and old fanzines. Or searching through archives. Or grading student papers!

OO: Ok, so last question. . . guilty pleasure comic book or music? Something you still love or re-discovered that you can’t (or perhaps MUST) defend? (or both)

BC: So, musically, I don’t have any guilt over this, but I know some people might disagree with what I’m about to say. I was just telling a good friend this past weekend that, as far as I’m concerned, the first Bruce Hornsby and the Range album, The Way It Is (1986), is the ‘80s equivalent of The Band’s Music from Big Pink. I might be alone in thinking this, but, come on—great songs, great chops, smart lyrics! Now, sure, you only get Huey Lewis doing backing vocals on Hornsby’s record, but you can’t have everything. I love both of those records. In grad school I was a guest DJ on my friend’s radio show, and we got a lot of Radiohead fans upset when we said that everything on Kid A was just a pale imitation of Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” A lot of people called in. This was in the early 2000s. I still stand by that, too!

OO: People think I am crazy when I say that Amnesiac is the best Radiohead record, and that Kid A is my least favorite (after Pablo Honey). I wrote about “I Can’t Go For that” for the blog, but I will have to re-listen to both with Kid A in mind. Maybe I can convince you to write a “Songs in Conversation” guest post about it.

BC: That would be a lot of fun. I’d like to research what kind of drum machine Hall and Oates used on that track. Is it a LinnDrum?

OO:  Roland CompuRhythm 78.

The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor #25 (Western Publishing, 1973; 1982 Whitman reprint)

BC: Awesome! I think I have a setting for that on my iPad’s drum machine app. As for my comics guilty pleasure, I sold most of my childhood collection over a decade ago, but you know what I kept in mylar sleeves? All my cheap Whitman value pack comics. The ones I’d get at the Yankee Trader in Waterbury. I love those old comics: Doctor Spektor, Shroud of Mystery, Space Family Robinson. Remember those? They’d come in three-packs. I’ve hung onto them for over three decades now.

OO: Nice! I DO remember those. I had a couple, but they were long gone before my collecting days.

BC: They’re still a lot of fun. I sold just about everything except (speaking of nostalgia) ones that my parents and my grandmother bought for me at the drug store or at yard sales.

OO: Yeah, I sold most of my collection in the late 90s, and now am in the process of trying to rebuild a lot of it. I think since we’re close in age a lot of our experiences with comics and comics engagement have parallels.  I basically stopped getting any comics from about 1988 to 2002

BC: Yeah, I had the same experience. I started reading artists like Sturm in the mid-90s after I met Charles Hatfield and Gene Kannenberg, Jr., at UConn. They got me interested in comics again in ’96 or ’97, but I didn’t start reading regularly until the early 2000s or so.

OO: Do you think that gap influenced your engagement with comics even after you returned to them?

BC: I think so. As I mentioned earlier, I think it was good to get away from them for a few years. Meeting Charles and Gene, as I mention in the Acknowledgements of my book, was a key turning point, and I can’t thank them enough for their kindness and generosity in sharing their love of the medium and their scholarly example with me. By the time I started working on my first academic article about comics, a piece on Captain America and the Falcon for IJOCA in 2001, I think I was able to approach my analysis with more objectivity. I was no longer writing just as a fan, as I’d done when sending letters to the Comics Buyer’s Guide in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, but as someone with the training necessary to examine these texts more critically. In the late ‘90s, thanks to Gene and Charles, I found myself reading comics again—The Revival, Jason Lutes’s Jar of Fools, Jessica Abel’s nonfiction, Grass Green’s superhero parodies—with the same joy I’d felt as a child standing at that spinner rack at the 7-11. If I hadn’t taken the break, maybe I would never have written the book. Now that I think of it, I should have thanked Prince in my acknowledgements, too!

OO: I am thankful for Prince every day. And thank you so much for participating.  It’s been great discussing comics and nostalgia, and the pitfalls and potential productivity of the latter in our scholarship and worldviews. I look forward to reading your forthcoming articles, and hope to get a chance to run into once again at a conference. Be well!

You can read more of Brian Cremins’s work and keep abreast of his appearances and other interviews at his blog, and follow him on Twitter where he tweets as @bwcremins. You can order his book Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia at the University Press of Mississippi website or on—a paperback edition is due out in 2018.




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