BY MATT TUCK, BLOGGER SUPREME
FB@ The Comic Blog
Stranger Things is back, and it could renew interest in a classic 1980s horror icon’s early appearances.
It’s been a sci-fan’s dream. In the past couple of weeks, Disney+ dropped the first three episodes of Kenobi before Amazon surprised everyone with three episodes from The Boys: Season Three. Netflix’s pop culture sensation, Stranger Things, returned for its fourth (and perhaps final) season. If you’re wondering why your kids are singing “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God),” this would explain it. Seriously, when was the last time any of us thought about Kate Bush? Now Stan Bush, that’s a different story. Afterall, he’s got both the touch and the power.
To be honest, I have found it hard to get interested in Stranger Things after the first season. The original entry was a fun ‘80s horror throwback that went a bit heavy on the nostalgia and stereotypes at times, but it put a fresh spin on things. By the second season, the cringe factor was more amplified, and season three was so corny that I hardly made it through the finale.
Season four continues the kitschy trend that vomits ‘80s nostalgia at every turn. Of course, that is what Stranger Things does, so it goes with the territory. For me to enjoy ST and embrace the ‘80s cheese, I had to see it as a spoof. Because at its heart, that’s what Stranger Things is - a spoof of every ‘80s horror and sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen. The characters, the plots, and the overabundance of ruthless bullies are a wink and a nod to the Decade of Decadence. Of course, the Duffer Brothers don’t shy away from the comedy, so there’s no question it’s meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek.
One of the hallmarks of Stranger Things remains the numerous movie and television references that can smother the plot at times. This time around, the Duffers pulled from outside ‘80s sci-fi and horror with nods toward the fantasy realm. Vecna’s fortress inside the Upside Down is clearly meant to inspire memories of The Lord of the Rings films, and it’s even referred to as Mordor.
Whether or not it was intentional, there were Harry Potter vibes as well. Without spoiling the ST 4: Part One twist, Eleven’s trek into her past has the distinct feel of Halfblood Prince when Harry took a dip into the pensieve to discover Tom Riddle’s secrets. The end result is a faceoff that is only missing wands or else it would be Harry versus Voldemort.
BULLIES, BULLIES, AND MORE BULLIES
This year’s edition attempts to be equal parts ‘80s sitcom and horror. The opening episodes were grueling, and I found myself losing interest in the character subplots, particularly Eleven and Mike’s long distance relationship.
Eleven/Jane is living in California with the Byers family. Her odd pseudo-autistic behaviors and lack of interpersonal skills makes her a bit of a social outcast at her new school. Guess what that means? Bullies because what would Stranger Things be without its excessive portrayal of stereotypical bullies?
Each season has a new set of jerks whose only reasons for existing are to garner sympathy for the protagonists and to get their comeuppance. The first season introduced Troy and James, two middle school delinquents. Then there’s Billy from ST 3, the most physically abusive of them all, though ST 4 expects us to be sad that he died in last season’s finale. Maybe he did come around at the end and sacrifice himself, but that doesn’t atone for the years of abuse he inflicted on Max.
This year’s bullies, the narcissistic popular girl with her personal goon squad, is so cliché that the entire subplot is painfully boring. By the time she gets what’s coming to her, it’s hard to care. They’re not the only bullies in ST 4. The Duffer Brothers doubled down on their obsession with bullies and introduced the D&D hating jocks of the Hawkins High School basketball team.
The bullies are just one of many tropes that Stranger Things 4 leans on too heavily. The ‘80s pop culture references are constantly being shoved in the audiences’ faces as if the filmmakers are afraid we’ll somehow forget the setting.
ST was better in the first season when the story was rooted in 1980s small town life. The characters were more believable, and the individual story arcs were emotional and intriguing. With each new season, the plot and the characters become more ridiculous. Winona Rider’s working-class Joyce Byers was one of the most relatable characters when ST premiered in 2016. Now, she’s become a cartoony parody of the Joyce we loved, going on rescue missions to Mother Russia with the zaniest of the zany ST cast, Murray Bauman.
A LITTLE OLD FOR HIGH SCHOOL?
If ST is indeed intended to be a comedy spoof, the actors could be its piece de resistance. Since high school settings were first put on film, producers have struggled with finding quality actors who were actually teenagers. Of course, whenever you’re dealing with child actors, the problem is obvious: they age.
ST premiered six years ago. Naturally, those adorable children aren’t children anymore. Instead of the plot reflecting the age changes, ST 4 goes full throttle into the fantasy of it all. It reaches the point of being laughable with Steve and Nancy in particular. While they are portraying an 18 and 19 year old, in reality, Joe Keery is 30, and Natalia Dyer is 28. It’s spawned a wave of memes comparing ST to Wet, Hot American Summer. At this point, Millie Bobby Brown (“Eleven”), Noah Schnapp (“Will”), and Priah Ferguson (“Erica Sinclair”) are the only actors young enough to realistically be high schoolers. Intentional or not, this is comedy in itself.
Speaking of Ferguson, she is one of the highlights of the season. While Priah doesn’t have near enough screen time, she makes her scenes count. Her attitude has evolved from being annoying to a character who commands respect, and it’s impossible not to love her. In a show with so many cardboard stereotypes with uninteresting relationship sidequests, Erica has become ST’s best character.
A TOUCH OF REALITY
Another fan favorite character from ST 4 has been Eddie Munson. On the surface, he would appear to be another flat character based on every other ‘80s movie stereotype. For one, his name is awfully close to being Eddie Munster. Also he’s presented as the standard drug-addled metalhead, and he vaguely resembles deceased Metallica bassist Cliff Burton.
The intriguing part about Eddie is what he represents. This season echoes the moral panic that was sweeping the nation in the ‘80s, not that moral panic in the U.S. was anything new. Comic fans are all too aware of the dark ages during the time of the Comics Code Authority, which was spawned from the moral hysteria of the 1950s.
Between politicians, religious leaders, and parent groups, much of the public was on the witch hunt for anything to enable their fear mongering in the 1980s. That led many to the doorstep of Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal music. Senate hearings abounded with Twisted Sister front man Dee Snyder becoming metal’s counterculture spokesman and staunch defender.
The hysteria extended well past senate hearings. A famous case from the time, dubbed “the West Memphis Three,” continues to grab headlines and spark outrage. The short version is that three eight-year-old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. Locals immediately pointed fingers at three town outcasts. After the police department used questionable tactics to extract a faulty confession, the teens were convicted and given life sentences with one being sentenced to death.
They have since been released, but the legal battle still rages. It spotlights the problematic nature of witch hunts and mass hysteria, and I applaud ST 4’s nod to those events even if Eddie’s antics get to be a bit much.
IT’S GOT TO BE A SPOOF
Either Stranger Things is an outright spoof or the Duffer Brothers truly don’t understand how anything works, and I emphasize ANYTHING. Journalism, police procedures, school security, mental hospitals, pep rallies…you name it, and ST proudly knows absolutely nothing about it.
The most laughable has to be Nancy’s school reporting. Long ago just after college, my first job was as a police reporter for a couple of small town papers. I wasn’t breaking Watergate by any means, but I know enough about journalism to tell you how ridiculous Stranger Things portrayal of a reporter really is. It makes Karen Page’s journalistic portrayal in Daredevil seem like a documentary. You see, Nancy is the managing editor of the school newspaper with apparently zero adult supervision. Yet, here she is leaving campus as she pleases to cover a murder story for the high school paper. As someone who has covered multiple murder stories, that is ridiculous to the point of being hysterical.
One performance that could have wider implications came from horror icon Robert Englund. With so much of the season based around A Nightmare on Elm Street, it was only fitting that he was included in the show as Victor Creel. His time is short, but Englund is impactful. Now that a new generation is discovering Freddy Krueger, it could lead to a career resurgence for the actor.
On a final note, I want to applaud the visual effects and makeup used for the Freddy-esque Vecna. Actually, he is less Freddy and more a combination of Pinhead and the Crypt Keeper. Still, he looks the part of a horror movie monster, and he is spectacular.
STRANGER THINGS: THE OTHER SIDE #1 (2018)
With the buzz from the new season, it’s leading collectors on a chase for the first issue. In 2018, fans were so excited to see Stranger Things get a comic adaptation that it was an instant hit. There also were plenty of copies printed, so it’s not hard to find a higher grade. The 9.8 standard edition last sold for $112 in April. If you are willing to roll the dice on eBay, you can own a raw copy for closer to $10.
Being a 2018 comic based on a huge streaming franchise, you might have expected there would be many variants to choose from. In this case, you have at least nine by my count. The two at the top of the FMV heap are the Rafael Albuquerque variant and the Zbox edition. These both tend to earn around $150, at least for graded 9.8s.
There’s also an ashcan preview edition given out at San Diego Comic Con that year. These may be in smaller supply, but they’re not expensive additions, either. These typically sell for around $5 for raw copies. However, if you have your heart set on a slab, keep in mind that the last time a 9.8 traded hands online, it sold for $120 in 2019. Factor some inflation, and that could be a $200 comic.
STRANGER THINGS: SIX #1 (2019)
Interestingly enough, the first Stranger Things comic isn’t the most valuable. A year after Dark Horse published The Other Side, the second volume hit store shelves. Lately, that edition has been earning top dollar, at least for the glow-in-the-dark Kyle Lambert variant. Just last year, a graded 9.8 sold for a record $200. On May 21, another brought a respectable $143. Of course, that has been the only 9.8 sold in 2022, so we will wait and see where the FMV lands after the next sale.
Next month, the second half of ST 4 will drop on Netflix. After that, the clock is ticking. The Duffers have confirmed that ST 5 will be the end of the line, much to the chagrin of fans worldwide. We will have to wait for this season’s conclusion before making predictions for the series finale, but we do know that the setting will skip forward a few years. Most likely that was a move born out of the actors’ aforementioned ages, so hopefully ST 5 will have their characters more closely match the actors.
In the grand scheme, I can’t see Netflix walking away from Stranger Things altogether. Sure, the core show may wrap with season five, my prediction is that there will be at least a couple of spinoff series. Certainly, there will be more ST in some fashion for years to come.
Matt Tuck is the author of the novel, Lost Bones of the Dead. He is a professional writer, avid comic collector, former teacher, and the Blogger Supreme. You can follow him on his Facebook page, The Comic Blog, or on Instagram at matt.tuck.writer.