Our greatest invention, aside from love, is nostalgia. It’s a bittersweet and powerful emotion capable of crippling us or inspiring us. We can become homesick, wallowing in the past for those things that once made us happy. Or as is the case with Sina Grace and Daniel Freedman’s Burn the Orphanage, it can help us to create an exciting tribute to the things we look back on fondly.
The nostalgia of Burn the Orphanage: Born to Lose #1, the first book of a planned trilogy, is that for side scrolling beat ‘em up video games that were the hallmark of arcades and home video game systems in the 1980s and 1990s. Games like Streets of Rage, Double Dragon and others where the stories were simple and at the end of each level there was a boss to beat before you reached the final boss who was nearly impossible to beat.
Like any side scroller, Burn the Orphanage features three distinctively different yet one note characters: Rock, Bear and Lex. They form a powerful alliance so that Rock can avenge the burning down of the orphanage he called home. Along the way, they’ll have to face plenty of bad guys, some even nastier guys (or stripper ninjas in this case) and then finally the crime syndicate boss in the high-rise.
Operating as both a satire and homage to these games, Burn the Orphanage expands upon the usually limited set-up story, but doesn’t try to make too much of the set-up and back story of the characters, allowing for the simple revenge story to be carried by the narrative action. It’s a translation of punches, kicks, throws and special combo moves – the kind that longs for a joystick and three pushbuttons.
At a time when comics are tearing down the sentimentality of older prosperities or remixing them with modern attributes, Burn the Orphanage #1 hits at that place where our wistfulness for the past meets our desires to recapture what seemed so simple and unadulterated. It’s an explosion of fists and revenge, reminding us the power nostalgia has over us. We cannot escape the fun of this comic.
“Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent…It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone…it takes us to a place where we ache to go again…to a place where we know are loved.”
- Mad Men
Don’t underestimate the power of nostalgia in books like this one. It’s about hope, a hope that engenders us to forget about our diminished present. Advertisers and marketers have for decades used our longing for positive memories from the past to make deep connections with our present. The music, movies, books and video games we identified with and enjoyed two decades ago stay with us. It only takes sensory stimulation – sights, sounds or smells – to unlock the deeply held and guarded joy we will always hold. Just think about that Sega Genesis controller you held for so many hours. The crescent shape of its handle, the wobbliness of the track pad, the worn lettering the alphabetical trigger buttons – the memories evoked are far larger than that controller ever was.
In this case, it’s the visual stimulation that opens up the nostalgia vault that sends us on trip to that memory of hours spent trying to beat the video games Burn the Orphanage pays tribute to. Like his work in The Li’l Depressed Boy and Not My Bag, artist and co-writer Grace imbues his panels with the excitement and cultural trademarks of his subject. By that I mean he takes the standard pop culture attributes of ‘90s vintage video games and translates them into a homage that is serious in its send-up but fun in its effect. The story isn’t taken seriously, but the execution of the book is. It’s polished, dynamic and paced with maximum effort to hone in on exactly what made games like Streets of Rage so fun.
Grace and co-writer Freedman say they wanted this comic to include “music, video games, inside jokes, fashion, and fun”. That spirit is evident from the opening fight sequence to the closing happy ending when the three characters walk off into the sunrise – complete with cameos by Grace and his frequent muse Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s a story moved from pixels and tubes to dazzling and colorful glossy paper. Burn the Orphanage perfectly captures the video game culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It captures the flights of youth. It captures the positive spirit of nostalgia, reminding us how fun things used to be when we were innocent and the future held so much promise…of unlocking game achievements.