Everything old is new again, and graphic novels that recall the 1980s, the ’90s, and even the aughts are as fashionable today as cargo pants and JNCOs. And the comics industry, no stranger to nostalgia, is going all-in on retro media tie-ins.

“We’ve seen a big boost in sales lately,” confirms Eitan Manhoff, owner of Cape & Cowl Comics in Oakland, Calif. Manhoff attributes the upswing to Skybound’s surprise 2023 release of new series based on its recently acquired Transformers and G.I. Joe licenses, including the popular Void Rivals series crossover that published in trade this spring. “That was a big hit,” he adds, that “paved the way for other properties.”

But in a glutted nostalgia market, comics publishers are constantly trying out new angles. That can mean signing top talent, reviving obscure licenses, or going back to what made a classic concept take off in the first place.

Back to basics

One of the hottest properties of the moment is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s self-published first issue of TMNT. The Beat reports that TMNT’s stand-alone graphic novel The Last Ronin (2022) was one of the bestselling American comics aimed at adults in 2023, moving 148,000 copies, according to Circana Bookscan.

IDW says that more than 140,000 copies have been ordered for its new series The Last Ronin II—Re-evolution, the second issue of which is out in June, with a trade edition planned for 2025. The publisher also expects a bump from the recently announced R-rated movie adaptation of The Last Ronin by Paramount.

The flagship TMNT comic will also get a 40th-anniversary tribute issue in November—featuring contributors including Jim Lawson, Paul Harmon, and Tom Waltz—and a much-hyped relaunch, starting in July, written by Jason Aaron with art by Joelle Jones, Cliff Chiang, Chris Burnham, and Rafael Albuquerque. IDW editor-in-chief Jamie S. Rich promises the relaunch will get “back to basics, with the turtles back on the streets.”

Eastman and Laird also have an “open invitation,” per Rich, to write and draw new TMNT comics. Eastman, in the meantime, is returning to the 1980s indie comics milieu with an original graphic novel, Drawing Blood (Image, Oct.), about the vagaries of unexpected fame for a young cartoonist. The title will seem awfully familiar to TMNT fans, who, per PW’s review, “will appreciate the Easter eggs from Eastman’s notorious biography,” while casual readers “will be drawn in by a saga that’s equal parts aspirational and cautionary tale.”

Across the board, “Ninja Turtle numbers are going to have a big spike,” predicts Manhoff of Cape & Cowl. Fans, it seems, get hooked on certain eras, and “the readers drawn to stores by G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Thundercats are right there for the Turtles’ taking.”

A manga twist

Other publishers are pairing up for novel twists on familiar franchises. Marvel and parent company Disney are following the example of DC Manga by collaborating with Viz Media. The goal is to give American properties a “manga twist,” according to Fawn Lau, executive editor of Viz Originals. Viz’s omnibus release of Hiroshi Higuchi’s 1990s X-Men: The Manga (Nov.), for example, is well timed to ride the popularity of the retro X-Men ’97 animated series on Disney+.

Tokyopop is making the most of its own Disney licenses, publishing titles based on the films The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Lilo & Stitch (2002). “Nightmare Before Christmas has become a strong evergreen property for us,” says Marc Visnick, COO and publisher of Tokyopop. The company has printed 200,000 copies of its most recent tie-in title, The Battle for Pumpkin King by Dan Conner and Deborah Al, which will sell in crossover markets like Target and Walmart during the Halloween season. A new full-color edition of the original Nightmare Before Christmas tie-in comic will release in those stores for the first time in August.

While Tim Burton nostalgia has proven perennial, the Lilo & Stitch titles have more recently jumped in popularity—book buyers born in 2000 are now adult readers with buying power. Tokyopop first translated the Stitch! manga by Yumi Tsukurino in 2016. “For whatever reason,” Visnick says, it didn’t hit the ground running, but “in the past couple of years, it’s had a resurgence across the board.”

The upcoming live-action Lilo & Stitch movie from Disney is likely to raise the property’s profile even higher. To that end, Tokyopop is reissuing its catalog of Stitch manga in 2024 and working with Scholastic on an original Stitch graphic novel for release in 2025.

It’s all about talent

Employing exciting new talent or marquee names is another way publishers can put some shine on familiar story lines. In 2025, Ahoy will launch a Toxic Avenger comics series written by Matt Bors, editorial cartoonist and editor of the lauded political comics site The Nib. Bors grew up on both the original 1984 movie and the 1991 cartoon spin-off Toxic Crusaders, which he describes as “like a cool version of Captain Planet.”

“There’s something that appeals to me about the gross mutations and the environmental satire,” Bors says. In his reboot, the toxic spill that changes mild-mannered Melvin into the Toxic Avenger will echo the real-life 2023 derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio. Bors envisions “a very fun, gory, environmental satire of corporations and social media.”

Skybound is taking a similar creator-centric approach with another 1980s horror property, Creepshow. “We’re always looking for interesting voices, and an anthology gives us the chance to work with creators in a low-stakes way,” says editor Alex Antone. Recent contributors to the Eisner-winning Creepshow comics series include Becky Cloonan, Garth Ennis, Zoe Thorogood, and bestselling horror novelist Joe Hill, who acted as a comics-loving boy in the 1982 movie.

Antone believes Creepshow needs little updating for the 21st century. But creators have the freedom to come up with timely twists, as in Cloonan’s contribution, about a haunted anti-abortion character. “That story has something to say,” Antone notes, “but it’s said in a very Creepshow way.”

Skybound reports it’s sold more than 300,000 copies of series titles. Creepshow (Deluxe), an oversize hardcover edition of the first two volumes, will release in November.

Nostalgic but new

For some publishers, tapping into nostalgia isn’t about reboots; it’s about licensing properties that can deliver an unexpected nostalgia discovery. Mad Cave is developing YA graphic novel series based on two nearly forgotten 1990s animated series, Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders and King Arthur and the Knights of Justice.

Executive editor Lauren Hitzhusen spearheaded Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders (May) because of her personal childhood love of Jewel Riders.“I have a memory of standing in a Toys R Us, holding the VHS, and thinking that just from the cover, this had everything I wanted out of a TV show,” Hitzhusen recalls. “The fact that these are a little more obscure works to their advantage. They’re very nostalgic while still being new.”

Mad Cave is also progressing into aughts nostalgia with Dark Destiny (Fate: The Winx Saga #1), which launches a new middle grade series based on the 2004 animated series Winx Club, to be published under the Papercutz imprint in July.

Overseas, U.K.-based Rebellion Developments is working to reignite interest in overlooked titles from its flagship comics magazine, 2000 A.D., best known for Judge Dredd. Rebellion is producing a movie adaptation of cult-favorite Rogue Trooper, directed by Duncan Jones and slated for a 2025 release. Rogue Trooper: Blighty Valley, a new graphic novel by Garth Ennis and Patrick Goddard, will come out from Rebellion in July. And Essential Rogue Trooper, a series of color hardcover collections of the original 1980s comic by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons, published in March. Other creators attached to new Rogue Trooper stories include Alex de Campi and Torunn Grønbekk.

The titles will be marketed in the U.S. as well as the U.K., as Rebellion works to extend the reach of its classic properties. The U.K. and U.S. have “very different histories, but comics have been a through line in both of our countries,” says Steve Morris, marketing manager at Rebellion. “What we’re looking to do now is not just preserve the history we’ve got but move forward into the future.”

Shaenon K. Garrity is a PW comics reviewer and a writer, editor, and cartoonist. Her latest book is The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor.

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