Quite a while ago, I read a fascinating article on TV Tropes which talks about how and why most films and TV shows are basically set in the 1990s, even though they might look modern on the surface.
Although that article explains why this happens in film and television, I’ve noticed it happening to a lesser extent in my own art, comics and fiction. For example, most of my webcomics tend to be more like something from the late 1990s-early/mid ’00s (or possibly the late ’00s at most) even though they were made in the mid-late 2010s and include some modern things like smartphones.
So, I thought that I’d give a few reasons why this sort of thing happens in art, fiction and/or webcomics.
1) Inspirations: Simply put, everything is inspired by things that were made in the past. This is either because writers, artists etc.. discovered their main inspirations during an earlier time in their life, because they happened to discover some amazingly cool old stuff in the present day or because they were eager to find things that are similar to their earlier inspirations.
For example, the main influence on how I depict “futuristic” settings in my art is probably the classic movie “Blade Runner“. Although I watched it on VHS for the first time when I was about fourteen, I only truly began to appreciate this film when I was about 17. When I seriously got into making art during my early-mid 20s, this film had more and more of an influence on any sci-fi art that I made.
Of course, having just one influence is never a good thing so, during the past couple of years, I looked for as many film/TV/shows/games in the cyberpunk genre as I could in order to help me refine my style (and because I loved the genre and wanted to find more of it). These new influences include things like “Ghost In The Shell (1995)”, “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex“, “Akira“, “Deus Ex“, Trancers“, “System Shock“, “Technobablyon“, this set of ‘Doom II’ levels, “Robocop 2”, “Total Recall 2070: Machine Dreams” etc…
Many of these things were, of course, either made during the heyday of the cyberpunk genre or were influenced by the classics of the genre. So, even the more modern examples (like “Technobablyon”) are heavily influenced by things from the 1980s and 90s.
When it comes to actually writing science fiction, my main influence was probably William Gibson’s cyberpunk “Sprawl Trilogy” from the 1980s, which I read during my late teens/early twenties. Although I’ve read other types of science fiction, the writing style in this one had a huge influence on me and although I don’t really use too much of a Gibson-like writing style in my more recent cyberpunk fiction, these stories from the 80s certainly played a role in how I write sci-fi.
So, yes, the inspirations and influences that a writer or artist has can be one reason why a lot of stories and art seem to be set in some vaguely modern version of the past.
2) It looks cool: Visually speaking, the past also often seems to have a more distinctive “look” to it than the present day does.
Maybe this is because the present day just seems “ordinary” because we see it every day (and, by comparison, the past looks more unusual)? Maybe this is because mass culture and popular trends used to be a more prominent thing in the pre-internet days? Maybe the benefit of hindsight makes it easier to depict the past in a stylised way? Who knows?
But, regardless, the past can sometimes look cooler than the present day does. Old technology (eg: intriguingly bulky phones, giant CRT monitors etc..) can ironically look more “futuristic” than modern-looking technology does, the fashions of the past can seem more unusual and creative (albeit slightly sillier sometimes), plus things like art deco architecture were more common in the past etc…
3) Scheduling: This probably varies from person to person, but most creative works tend to be prepared and finished some time in advance of publication. For example, I actually wrote this article in late February (and I was also preparing this year’s Christmas comics at the same time). Because of this, it can be hard to include “up to the minute” topical content.
So, if you’re preparing something far in advance and you don’t want it to appear too obviously out of date when it gets published, then it can often be best to make slightly “timeless” things. And, “timeless” can often translate to “basically set in the past in all but name” or “subtly old-fashioned”.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂