A Quick Guide To Drawing/ Writing About Two Stylised Versions Of The 1990s

As regular readers of this site know, I’m a massive fan of the 1990s. Not only do I love making 1990s-style art and playing computer/video games from that decade, but I’m also doing something of an informal research project into films from that decade at the moment (hence the film reviews appearing every other day or so at the moment).

Yet, one of the interesting things about fictional depictions of the 1990s (and the 1990s itself) is that there are lots of different “versions” of it out there.

So, I thought that I’d provide a guide to how to draw and/or write about stylised versions of 1990s Britain and/or America (since these are the two countries I’ve researched the most. Plus, I actually just about remember 1990s Britain too).

But, for time reasons, I’ll only be taking a look at the two versions that I’ve researched the most (so, apologies if I repeat myself, since I’m sure I’ve mentioned this stuff before). So, let’s get started:

1) Early-Mid 1990s Los Angeles/Florida: This is one of my favourite versions of the 1990s.

The key visual features when depicting it in art are lots of dramatic sunsets, palm trees, garish/strange fashions, floral patterns, sunglasses, skateboarders, high-contrast lighting (eg: 30-50% of the total surface area of your painting should be covered with black paint), people wearing baseball caps backwards, ominous alleyways, pastel-shaded interior design, vaguely gothic-looking interior design, angular buildings, dramatic cityscapes etc… This is probably one of the more well-known “versions” of the 1990s out there, so visual research materials aren’t that hard to find.

When writing about it, it you might want to emphasise things like punk music, “valley girl” characters, rap music, extroverted/brash characters, hot weather, sarcasm, optimism, shameless consumerism/commercialism, technology, crime, skateboarding etc…

Stories in the thriller genre tend to work well here, especially when they use slightly silly “larger than life” storylines. The thing to remember here is that 1990s thriller stories either focused on “realistic” topics (like crime) or – since this was the time period between the end of the cold war and 9/11 – “unrealistic” and outlandish evil plots by villains. Bonus points if you also depict Los Angeles as the centre of the universe too.

Good research materials for this stylised version of the 1990s include:Smash” by The Offspring, “Bad Boys“, the first and third episodes of “Duke Nukem 3D“, the early episodes of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer“, “Pulp Fiction“, “Stranger Than Fiction” by Bad Religion, “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air“, the original series of “The Power Rangers” etc…

2) Mid-Late 1990s Britain: Since I actually vaguely remember this, I thought that I’d include it on the list.

The thing to remember about mid-late 1990s Britain is that it doesn’t actually look that different to modern Britain. Most of the visual differences are fairly subtle and/or general things. These include the obvious things like VHS tapes, CRT monitors, ashtrays in pubs, fewer mobile phones etc.. But they also include some subtle differences in fashion, such as crop tops, long floral dresses, sportswear, plain T-shirts & jeans and very slightly formal fashions.

However, the differences are a lot more important when writing about it (like I did here). The thing to remember about mid-late 1990s Britain is that it was simultaneously “cool” and “crap” at the same time.

On the one hand, it was at the height of the “cool Britannia” thing and there was a general atmosphere of optimism in the air – the Spice Girls were popular, Britpop was popular, there was more of a fun hedonistic attitude (eg: it was the heyday of celebrities like Tracey Emin etc..), computers were both cool and nerdy, “traditional” British things (eg: double-decker buses etc..) were over-emphasised for ironic stylishness, popular culture had a bit more of an “edgy” and “rebellious” attitude etc…

On the other hand, mid-late 1990s Britain was also a bit more stuffy, dull and “traditional” too. It wasn’t really as “cool” as the fictional depictions of America that appaeared regularly on the TV and in the cinema. But this was also part of the charm of the time too. After all, it was kind of a national running joke that Britain was “kind of crap” – but, on the plus side, this also served as a very useful bulwark against any kind of aggressive nationalism too.

Good research materials for this stylised version of the 1990s include:Bugs“, “The Thin Blue Line“, “Ultraviolet“, anything to do with the Spice Girls, the early series of “Bits” (there are clips on Youtube), “Shooting Fish“, “Goodness Gracious Me!“, “Tomorrow Never Dies“, “Human Traffic“, the early parts of “Kevin & Perry Go Large” etc…

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Sorry for the short list, but I hope it was useful 🙂

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Today’s Art (19th June 2018)

Well, although today’s painting was somewhat rushed, I was thankfully able to salvage it (and give it even more of a “1990s cyberpunk” look) with some fairly extensive digital editing.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Runner” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (2nd June 2018)

Well, I’m still experimenting with some new image editing techniques I learnt recently (eg: things like the “pattern fill” and lighting effects in GIMP 2.6). So, today’s artwork is a very heavily digitally-edited line drawing which kind of ended up having a “1990s gothic hippie” theme (mostly because I wanted to include a lava lamp as a light source).

As usual, this picture is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“By Lava Light” By C. A. Brown

Five Things That Two Old TV Shows Can Teach Us About 1990s-Style Storytelling

Although I’ve covered the topic of 1990s-style storytelling in other articles, I felt like taking a more in-depth look at two tonally-similar American TV shows from this decade, to see what makes them so quintessentially “90s” and what this can show us about how to achieve this in our own comics, fiction etc..

The two shows are, of course, “Sliders” and “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman“. Both of these shows are somewhat overlooked (when compared to more famous shows from the 1990s like The Simpsons, The X-Files, Friends, The Fresh Prince etc..) but they are both about as “90s” as you can get. A good example of this type of show from the UK is one called “Bugs” although, annoyingly, I didn’t have time to include it in this article.

So, what can these two shows teach us about 1990s-style storytelling? Here are five things:

Yes, these two TV shows are about as “90s” as you can get. But, why?

1) Familiarity and change: One of the reasons why these shows are so quintessentially “90s” is because they focus on one specific location, but with some really interesting variations on this location in every episode.

Almost every episode of “Lois & Clark” takes place in a few parts of a New York-like city called Metropolis (such as the offices of a newspaper) and every episode of “Sliders” takes place in San Francisco (with the characters often staying in the same hotel).

Yet, in each episode, something new or different happens in these locations. In “Lois & Clark”, the city is often threatened by a new villain of some kind or another. In “Sliders”, the characters literally travel between alternate timelines in each episode (so, there are many different “versions” of San Francisco).

This is a screenshot from season 2 of “Lois & Clark” (1994-5) showing the historical outlaws Bonnie and Clyde holding up a bank in 1990s Metropolis.

This is a screenshot from season 1 of “Sliders” (1995-6) showing one of the main characters getting a visit from the Grim Reaper during a stay in a version of San Francisco where magic and sorcery are considered to be real.

Normally, the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar is meant to be disturbing (eg: the psychological concept of “The Uncanny). But, in these shows, the familiar locations often serve to create a reassuring atmosphere. Because these locations are repeated, but with enough variations to keep them interesting, they almost become a character in the show. Almost like a member of the team.

Of course, the focus on a single location is also an example of how the people who made these shows were able to be creative despite the limited budgets that they had. After all, television wasn’t as prestigious during the 1990s as it is today. So, this is also a good example of how limitations force creative people to innovate and do interesting things.

2) Team-based stories: If there’s one thing to be said for media from the 1990s in general, it is that there was a much greater focus on team-based stories. Shows like “Star Trek: Voyager“, comics like Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” and games like “Resident Evil” often focused on a group of characters, rather than the much more individualistic focus that many modern films, games etc.. have.

This emphasis on team-based stories is an essential part of both “Sliders” and “Lois & Clark”. Both shows feature a central group of four characters, all of whom are important to the story in some way or another. Yes, even in a superhero-themed show like “Lois & Clark”, the superhero is nothing without his colleagues at the newspaper he works at. I mean, there’s a reason why the show is called “Lois & Clark” rather than just “Clark”.

The four main characters from “Lois & Clark” – (from left to right) Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

The four main characters from “Sliders” – (from left to right) Professor Arturo, Rembrandt Brown, Quinn Mallory and Wade Welles.

So, why is team-based storytelling so important to things from the 1990s? It allows for a lot more humour, it allows the writers to add suspense by temporarily separating the team, it creates a more “community”-like atmosphere that draws the audience in, it allows for more depth (eg: by showing different characters reacting to the same thing in different ways) and it also places more emphasis on the story than on any one particular character.

3) Feel-good stories: Another thing that makes these two shows such great examples of 1990s-style storytelling is the fact that they weren’t afraid to be optimistic, fun, feel-good television. Although each show contains a lot of drama (such as a chilling episode of “Sliders” where the characters find themselves in a city-sized prison), there is an overriding sense of reassurance. There’s a sense that things will turn out ok in the end.

Yes, this is a little bit predictable. But it is also part of the charm of these shows. The emphasis changes from “will the main characters win?” to “how will the main characters win?“. And this is designed to evoke a sense of relaxed curiosity in the audience, rather than nail-biting suspense. These shows make up for the predictability of “the good guys always win” by making the audience intrigued about how they will win.

Likewise, both shows include a lot of humour too. This often includes things like sarcastic dialogue, character-based humour, hilariously surreal background details and even some good old-fashioned slapstick comedy too. This is because these shows recognise that one of the roles of storytelling is to make people feel better about the world, to lighten the mood of the audience etc…

4) Subtle politics (sometimes): Even the politics in these shows is handled in an interesting way. Although both shows can occasionally make political points in a hilariously heavy-handed way, they are often a lot more subtle about it than some modern media. Most of the time….

But, yes, these shows can be hilariously heavy-handed sometimes. For example, the episode ”The Weaker Sex” from season 1 of “Sliders” includes a reversed example of 1950s-style gender politics. But, for the most part, the politics in these shows are handled in a more intelligent way than this.

In other words, they often quietly make points about various topics through setting an example.

For example, by the standards of the time, both shows can probably be described as “feminist”. Whilst this is occasionally presented in a hilariously heavy-handed way (such as the example above), it is often presented in a much more subtle way by just making sure that the female characters in both shows are intelligent, witty and resourceful people. They are shown to be important characters in their own right, rather than just members of the supporting cast.

Plus, each show also takes a fairly equal attitude towards the topic of fashion, style etc… But, each show does this in a slightly different way.

A scene from season 1 of “Sliders” showing both Quinn and Wade wearing fairly understated, practical, realistic and “unfashionable” outfits.

A scene from season 2 of “Lois & Clark” showing both Lois and Clark looking rather stylish (by 1990s standards).

In “Lois & Clark”, both Lois and Clark are shown to be incredibly stylish people. By contrast, in “Sliders”, there’s relatively little emphasis on style, fashion etc.. amongst all of the main characters – with the emphasis being firmly on the actual practical events of the story. Both of these shows handle this topic in a slightly “non-mainstream” (by the standards of the time) way, but they do it subtly.

So, yes, keeping any political points subtle and making them through example is a good way to add some 90s-style sophistication to your story or comic.

5) Quirkiness and personality: Simply put, both of these shows have their own unique “quirks” that make them what they are.

For example, in “Lois & Clark”, the newspaper’s editor is obsessed with Elvis (and also uses the phrase “Judas Priest” as an expletive). In “Sliders”, many parallel universes feature political/military conflicts with Australia (of all places!) and there are also a few amusingly dated references to moral panics about toy guns during the 1990s.

These are all fairly subtle things, but they show that an actual person has created the show. They aren’t hip, self-conscious modern “nerd culture” references. They’re just some totally random plot elements that help to give these shows a bit more personality. You can tell that whoever wrote these shows was relying on their own thoughts, memories and opinions rather than just trying to appear “hip” or “cool”.

So, don’t be afraid to give your stories and comics a bit of “personality”. Don’t be afraid to be slightly random or silly. But try to make sure that any quirkiness comes from your own sense of humour, thoughts, memories etc… rather than just whatever happens to be “cool” at the moment.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Tips For Adding Some 1990s-Style Silliness To Your Story Or Comic

One of the endearingly nostalgic things about the media during the 1990s (TV shows and computer games especially) is that it wasn’t afraid to be completely and utterly silly at times.

This is one of the distinctive qualities of media from the decade and it was probably caused by a number of factors, such as the fact that the 1990s fell between the end of the Cold War and our current post-9/11 world, so the general mood was a bit more optimistic.

But, regardless of what caused it, media from the 1990s often has a certain joyous silliness to it that modern media often lacks. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to add some 90s-style silliness to your prose fiction and/or comic projects.

1) Focus on some other element and work backwards: Technical limitations aside, one of the reasons why computer games from the early-mid 1990s were often so gleefully nonsensical was because the story was often something of an afterthought.

Usually, the designers would focus on coming up with a fun game and then add the story at a later point. This, of course, led to some hilariously random – but extremely fun – games.

This is a screenshot of a 2D platform game from 1993 called “Bio Menace”. This scene involves climbing a giant tree and fighting slime monsters, sentient balls of fur etc…. Yes, games were a bit more random in the 90s, since fun gameplay took priority over storytelling.

Even more “serious” games from the time, like “Doom II” (1994) [pictured], would often be considered somewhat “random” or “silly” by today’s standards. Again, this is because the designers primarily focused on fun gameplay, rather than storytelling.

So, one way to replicate this silly randomness in your story or comic is to come up with an interesting idea, find a totally random subject and/or come up with a silly gimmick. Then, once you’ve done this, try to see if you can work backwards and add a story to it. The main thing here is not to come up with the story idea first, but to find some other thing and then try to shoehorn a story into it.

2) Take a concept to the max: One trend that lent the 1990s some of it’s distinctive silliness was the fact that there were relatively fewer “serious” issues in the news. As such, if someone wanted to create a thrilling, scary and/or dramatic story, then what they would sometimes do would be to take some idea or concept (the more random and/or “ordinary”, the better) and then just take it to a ludicrous extreme in order to extract some melodrama from it.

A good example of this can be seen in a gloriously cheesy mid-late 1990s TV show called “Sliders“. This is a sci-fi show which revolves around the characters visiting a different parallel universe every episode. Often, these universes would be based on some idea or another being taken to a hilariously silly extreme.

For example, in this episode from season 1 of “Sliders” (1995), the main characters end up in a timeline where the American Revolution never happened. Even though it’s the mid-1990s (when the Spice Girls etc.. were popular in Britain) – everyone dresses like they’re from the 1950s, speaks in received pronunciation and drives old cars. There’s also a hilariously silly band of rebels and a few references to “Robin Hood” too.

So, one way to add some 90s-style silliness to your story or comic is just to find an ordinary idea (eg: try looking for some slightly “silly” stories in the newspaper. Yes, in an actual newspaper) and then just take it to some kind of silly extreme.

3) Assume your audience know less: Although people were no more or less intelligent during the 1990s than they are now, there was one crucial difference. The internet was a lot slower, a lot more expensive and a lot less widely-used than it is now. As such, the writers of mainstream things like TV shows couldn’t just assume that their audiences had instant access to all of humanity’s knowledge.

As such, things from the 1990s often tended to rely on much more “timeless” commonly-known references and source material. Likewise, sometimes, TV shows would occasionally spell things out to the audience that modern shows rightly assume that contemporary audiences already understand. This slightly patronising “stating the obvious” element often drains all seriousness from what the show is trying to say and turns it into unintentionally hilarious melodrama.

As great as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is, this screenshot from the season 7 episode “Masks” (1994) provides an example of what I’m talking about. The characters state the obvious sometimes and the episode uses a lot of fairly generic Aztec-style settings.

So, one way to add some 90s-style silliness to your story or comic is simply to state the obvious a few times and to rely more on “timeless” cultural references – however hilariously incongruous they might be with something made in the present day.

4) Chaos and anarchy: One of the easiest ways to add some 1990s-style silliness to your story or comic is just to contrast some “ordinary” characters with some silly and/or chaotic characters.

There are at least two hilariously silly movies from the first two years of the 1990s that do precisely this. So, this type of comedy was obviously a bit of a trend back in the day.

This is a screenshot from “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990). In this film, a state-of-the-art office block is taken over by anarchic, hedonistic Gremlin creatures, after the main characters’ pet creature Gizmo is accidentally fed after midnight. Hilarity ensues.

This is a screenshot from “Drop Dead Fred” (1991), a film where the main character’s childhood imaginary friend (Played by Rik Mayall) suddenly appears in her life again and causes all sorts of hilarious chaos.

This is something that isn’t really seen as often in the modern comedy genre, and it is kind of a follow-on from the comedy horror traditions of the 1980s (eg: movies like “Beetlejuice”, the original “Gremlins” and “Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark” also include elements of this). So, adding some anarchic slapstick humour (involving slightly weird characters) can be a good way to inject some 1990s-style silliness to your story or comic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (18th May 2018)

Today’s 1990s-themed picture is actually a digitally-edited drawing, rather than a digitally-edited painting. This was mostly because I wanted to experiment with slightly more “realistic” art and with digital editing tools, but also had less time/inspiration/enthusiasm to do this. So, making a digitally-edited drawing (with the line art drawn by hand, but everything else added digitally) seemed like a good compromise.

Although I probably messed up the shading in this picture slightly, I still quite like how it turned out.

As usual, this picture is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Retro Moment” By C. A. Brown

Three More Tips For 1990s-Style Storytelling

Well, it’s been a while since I last wrote about the 1990s. So, I thought that I’d take another look at 1990s-style storytelling today. This is partly because I read a novel set in the 1990s recently and partly because I’ve been thinking about this topic slightly more than usual.

Although I wrote some short stories set in mid-late 1990s Britain and made a “time travel” comic set in early-mid 1990s California last year (and wrote two short stories set in mid-1990s America earlier this year – which can be read here and here), the 1990s is a notoriously difficult decade to tell any kind of stories about. This is, in part, because it’s still a relatively recent decade – so, there’s marginally less popular history and nostalgia about it out there for writers and comic makers to draw on.

So, how can you tell stories set in the 1990s?

1) Early or late 90s?: Generally speaking, the “type” of 1990s setting you want to use depends a lot on which part of the decade your story is set in.

This also varies somewhat from country to country too, but I don’t have time to go into the subtleties of this too much here (and I’ll just be focusing on Britain and America – since I’m British [and grew up in the 1990s/early-mid 2000s] and because I’ve watched a fair number of movies and TV shows from 1990s America).

But, for the early-mid 1990s (especially in America), try to make everything a little bit more “retro”. After all, the 1980s had finished a few years earlier and a lot of trends from that time were still lingering around during the early-mid 1990s.

However, since the decade was starting to come into it’s own, these trends were a bit more subtle, gloomy and understated than in the 80s. So, if you’re including an early-mid 1990s setting, go for a somewhat more “understated”/”gloomy” version of the 1980s.

For the mid-late 1990s (especially in Britain), make everything a bit more “modern”, but in an understated way. For example, compared to the late 1980s/early 1990s, mid-late 1990s fashions were even gloomier and more understated/generic – but also very recognisable as “modern” too.

The main difference between mid-late 1990s settings and the present day is probably the technology. So, just include a few VHS tapes, CD-ROMs, CRT televisions/computer monitors and maybe some very basic “small” mobile phones and your setting will instantly be more “late 90s”.

But, regardless of which part of the 90s your story or comic is set in, try to make your 1990s location designs fairly “ordinary”. After all, buildings don’t change that much over the years. However, if you want to include some more stylised 1990s-style interior design in your comic or novel, go for things like geometric patterns, gloomy lighting, more bookshelves etc… Kind of like in this stylised mid-late 1990s-style painting of mine from last year:

“1990s Office Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

2) Tell an “ordinary” story: The 1990s is in that weird twilight zone between “retro” and “recent”. As such, it can sometimes be a good idea to make your story fairly “ordinary” (with relatively little “90s nostalgia”) if you’re trying to tell a more dramatic or serious story.

A good example of this can be found in a modern thriller novel (published in 2016, but set in 1996) that I read recently called “Night School” by Lee Child. If it wasn’t for a few references to the Millennium Bug and the fall of the Berlin Wall, then the story could almost be set in the present day. In fact, I got about halfway through the novel before I even noticed that none of the characters were using mobile phones. So, yes, just telling an “ordinary” story (with a few subtle differences) can be a good way to tell a story set in the 90s.

The thing to remember when telling a “serious” story set in the 1990s is that, to the characters, the setting is just ‘ordinary’. It’s just the ordinary, mundane, everyday world. And, aside from a few technological, social and political changes, it isn’t that different from the modern world. So, just try to tell an ordinary modern story with a few subtle changes to the technology, politics, trends etc…

3) Culture and politics: I’ve talked about this before but, in general (more so in Britain than America), the 1990s was also a little bit more of a laid-back and cheerful decade than the present day.

In America, this often manifested itself as a sense of optimism about the future. After all, the Cold War was over and 9/11 hadn’t happened yet – so, the future actually looked fairly bright. Seriously, even the cynical punk music and stand-up comedy of the time often sounds joyously innocent compared to the present day. So, try to reflect this in any stories, comics etc.. set in 1990s America.

In Britain, this often manifested itself in a much more hedonistic way. So, if you’re setting your story or comic in 1990s Britain, don’t do the typical “1990s American TV show” thing of making all of your main characters teetotal, celibate, non-smoking, salad-eating gym members! If you don’t believe me on this point, just watch a few classic ’90s sitcoms like “Absolutely Fabulous“, “Spaced“, “Men Behaving Badly” or “Bottom“.

Likewise, politics in the 1990s were a bit less polarised than modern politics. So, if you’re including politics in your 90s-style story or comic, then try to be a bit more subtle and nuanced about it.

Remember, you are writing about a world where things like Twitter thankfully didn’t exist. You are writing about a world where strong political opinions – of all kinds – were more likely to be laughed at than taken seriously. You are writing about a world where politicians, on both the left and the right, at least tried to appear more moderate. You are writing about a world where it was more ok to be “liberal about this, but conservative about that” etc… In short, you are writing about a very different age to our current one.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂