Zubby Newsletter #33: Now and Then

Last week the music world was abuzz with the release of the “last” Beatles song, a cassette-recorded demo called Now and Then by John Lennon completed by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr with contributions by George Harrison (from a late 90’s recording session where the trio tried to make it work.)

The song itself is simple but carries a wistful, almost haunting quality, especially in the context of how it was finished and its place as probably the last time these four will make music together…even though that collaboration happened decades after half the band are already gone.

Which got me thinking about the power of nostalgia, good and ill.

(I like the track, by the way. It feels like something unearthed from the 1970’s rather than an over polished modernization of the Beatles sound.)

I’m in an unexpected nostalgia vertex right now because my latest and largest ongoing project is built on the distinct foundation of what’s come before – the legacy of Robert E. Howard’s seminal sword & sorcery hero and formative barbaric work by comic legends Roy Thomas and John Buscema

Wait a sec – You mean Conan wasn’t bare-chested in the original stories?

When people tell me I’m doing ‘right’ by Conan on the new comic series, they mean that these new issues deeply remind them of the look and feel of comics from 40 years ago – the poetic caption work of Roy Thomas and dynamic action of John Buscema.

Rob De La Torre’s linework has been compared to Big John’s so much that I worry readers won’t recognize or appreciate the masterful page layouts and subtle interplay of light and shadow that’s also at the heart of Rob’s top notch work, qualities above and beyond the nostalgic way he draws the Cimmerian’s body or stoic expressions.

Make no mistake – Being compared to absolute legends is an honor now and always will be. Being mentioned favorably in the same breath as people who helped ignite my imagination is a thrill.

When we first started working on the new series, I worried that it might come across as just a shrewd business move – trying to milk nostalgia bucks from the Conan fandom because we didn’t have anything new to bring to the table.

Do I want the series to sell? Of course, but the aesthetic choices we’ve made are not just a sales tactic. It’s about reestablishing a baseline of trust. Proving we could deliver old school storytelling with modern fidelity; Big picture mythmaking that acknowledges the past and then marches forward without losing the intrinsic elements that made it so special in the first place.

Our inaugural story arc had to remind readers that Conan was must-read comic entertainment and can be again.

Splash pages – Conan the Barbarian (1970) #75 and Conan the Barbarian (2023) #3.

Summoning the same visceral excitement I had when I first read Conan.

Celebrating key qualities of a seminal era of comics.

I’m learning a lot from Robert E. Howard and Roy Thomas, but I’m still me. I still break stories in my own way and work to please myself in terms of character, voice, plot, and payoff.

I put together story beats that feel right for our big picture plan for the series, whether REH or Roy would have done the same thing as I try to bridge the narrative gap between the 1930’s, the 1970’s, and the 2020’s. It’s a challenge and an honor, one I’m thrilled that people are responding to with high praise and solid sales so far.

Conan vs undead Cimmerians.

So yeah, that new-old Beatles song is interesting. It conjures a lot of feelings from the past and reminds us why the band was so good. For some fans it’ll be exactly what they need in this moment, and for other people it might be too twee, trying to recapture things that have already slipped away.

The song itself is solid but, honestly, the new music video almost breaks the spell for me. The use of poorly composited video cutouts from the past, old Beatles footage awkwardly dancing and interacting with the present comes across as ghoulish instead of glorious. It’s the remix calling too much attention to itself. Desperation instead of delight.

There’s a fine line that can be crossed, when nostalgia moves from engaging and fun to treacle fawning over the past. We shouldn’t pretend the media of our youth was flawless or that the present has nothing worthy to offer. We shouldn’t lionize or exorcise the past…and saying that is infinitely easier than actually doing it.

Where is the line between loving homage and vapid facsimile?

When does remixing lose the magic of the original?

How can we measure quality when it’s so tightly wound up in our warm feelings of the past?

All good questions. Your answer will vary wildly depending on personal taste.

My instincts and helpful feedback from our publishing team seems to be keeping the new Conan series respectful but not trapped in a retread of what’s been done before. So far, so good. Wish me luck as we get even more ambitious next year.

(You may be thinking “Holy crap, this dude is comparing himself to one of the greatest prose authors in genre fiction, one of the finest writers in comics, and the most popular band of all time. What an asshole!” I don’t have a swelled head about this, I swear. I just saw a throughline of nostalgia in the current pop culture conversation – something I could talk about in the constant tug of war between past and present, creative and commercial.)

Links and Other Things

That should cover it this time. Have a great week!

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