The Theory of Generations is a term coined in a 1928 essay of the same name by Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim. The theory, which like any theory in sociology, psychology or…pretty much any social -ology, is limited but in brief it basically describes a “generation” as being a cohort of people who develop relationships and cultural ties with those of similar ages. These relationships are often some of the most influential and defining historical trends of their respective eras. A large part of how each generation defines itself is the atmosphere in which this cohort of like-aged and like-minded individuals came of age. The idea of this “Theory of Generations” has become very popular, especially since the original 1928 essay was translated into English in 1952. Since the essay’s publication, we’ve named seven named generations emerge: The Lost Generation, The Greatest Generation, The Silent Generations, The Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and the Zoomers. Generation Alpha, the first cohort to be totally born in the 21st century are patiently waiting in the wings for their culturally relevant nickname. Since I was born between the years of 1982 and 1996, I’m part of the much maligned Millennial Cohort. Yes, Millennials, the generation that never met an industry we can’t destroy, or a participation trophy we wouldn’t claim. Aren’t we just great? What does any of this have to do with the award winning, ongoing Limited Series comic book The Nice House on the Lake from DC Comic’s Black Label by James Tynion IV and Álvaro Martinez Bueno? Well, read on and we’ll talk about it. You’ve made it this far, why not read some more. I’m a Millennial, I feel entitled to your attention…I think. That’s how that works right?
Every generational cohort is afraid of different things. Horror media is often made to capitalize and commentate on these fears. For example, Stephen King is one of the great horror writers of the Baby Boomer generation. His stories, especially books like It, and Carrie deal with evils that lurk just beneath the pastoral small towns and white-picket fenced suburbia that the Boomers came of age in. George Romero’s Living Dead movies, especially Dawn of the Dead often touch upon themes of capitalism and the gnawing fear that the once countercultural generation had been mollified by shopping malls and consumerism. For Gen X, we have things like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, iconic horror franchises born out of new stories about missing kids and school assemblies on the subject of stranger danger. Gen X were famously a generation of “latch key kids” and these things represented the darker side of that freedom. I’m not really sure what scared The Greatest Generation. Those folks endured the Great Depression and then they fought Hitler and beat up global fascism. So what about us? What scares Millennials?
Well to be a Millennial, I think, was to come of age amidst social upheaval and the collapse of the old way. We were just old enough to experience the economic prosperity of the 80s and 90s, but just young enough to not really reap any of the benefits from it on a personal, economic level. We were the ones who were mostly pre-college on September 11th, 2001, meaning we watched the towers come down in home room. Or else brave, steely-faced elementary school teachers distracted us and made sure we didn’t find out what had happened until we got home. Seven years later, just as we were starting to make our way in the world, we watched in stunned disbelief as the global economy collapsed and went into a massive recession, the shock of which is still affecting us today. Anecdotally, I was 16 in 2008. I was just old enough to recognize that things were bad in 2008 but I was mostly just concerned with my Junior year, the last year of high school that “mattered.” Though I do distinctly remember all the adults in my life suddenly encouraging me to major in “STEM” because it was good to get a degree that “guaranteed” a job after college. I was also just old enough to realize that being able to tune out current events and focus on school was a luxury a lot of young people didn’t have. In essence, I think the core theme of being a millennial is living with a tactically unmentioned background radiation of dread that the world could end at any moment. And for a certain subset of us, those of us who are still younger than 35 or 40 and from an upper or middle-class background, there was an additional feeling – that uneasy realization that even if the world ended, you might be just fine. Enter James Tynion IV and The Nice House on the Lake.
The Nice House on the Lake is about a group of 11 friends, all in their early 30s. They’re brought together by a mutual acquaintance named Walter to spend a week together at, well…at a nice house on a lake in rural Wisconsin. Walter is a bit of an odd duck. He’s a stocky guy in big, ole Coke-Bottle Glasses. He’s the sort of introvert who doesn’t make a lot of friends but becomes really close to the ones he does make. He seems to vacillate between being extremely closed off and emotionally withdrawn, and being almost embarrassingly candid with his feelings. It’s not just that he can’t control his emotions, it’s more like he has trouble parsing what emotions even are. He’s the kind of friend who will invite you to a luxurious weekend on a lake, while tacitly implying he’s intimately familiar with the schedules of everyone involved. He’s the kind of friend who only sends an invitation like that because he knows you can’t refuse. That said, he’s basically a decent guy and you can understand how he built up this little cadre of close friends. Walter is the one common denominator for the 11 people gathered at the house. Some know him from all the way back in high school. Some met him and college and a few met him through significant others. Luckily, that means everyone is basically already acquainted and everything goes smoothly that first day. Plus, the house is really amazing. Not only is it fully stocked with food, but there’s a pool, tons of recreation equipment and an entertainment room with a selection that seems to rival the Library of Congress. It seems like paradise. The only problem is that the wifi sucks. That night everyone gathers outside, around the pool for steaks and beer. One of their number, Erin, finally manages to get a cell signal and opens social media….just in time to watch the world end in real time.
In The Nice House on the Lake, we don’t see the end of the world through the lens of old media like a television or radio broadcast. Instead, we’re treated to a beautifully unnerving two-page spread that communicates the same gut-wrenching revelation that everything is coming apart at the seams and everyone’s dead through what my generation has colorfully referred as “doom-scrolling.” It’s the end of the world, and even while the flesh is melting off their bones, everyone’s got a hot take about it on Twitter. It’s the perfect lens to watch the world burn away for a generation who were called the first “digital natives.” Of course meanwhile, everyone at the nice house is perfectly fine. As they reel in shock, Erin makes an unnerving connection. She and Walter first met at a bar where he struck up a conversation with a weird question: How would you destroy the world? Apparently this was the backbone of their friendship, they continued the discussion by email and text message for a few years, always a niche hobby in the background. And now, as the group stares at their phones and watches a repeating Emergency Broadcast loop on the TV, Erin looks at Walter. He finally figured out how he’d do it. Walter reveals himself to be an extra-dimensional alien entity, a whirling mass of flesh and muscle loosely overlayed over a skeleton. He morosely tells the 11 gathered friends that they’re all that’s left and encourages them to enjoy this paradise he’s provided for them. He tells them that he loves them and that he’ll be back every now and then to check in on them, and maybe reminisce about the good old days. This all happens in the first issue. Subsequent issues deal with the cast of characters processing this information. Some of them try to keep morale up and enjoy themselves because they feel like there’s nothing else they can do. Others look for a way out, quickly realizing that this rural escape is a prison. Others reason that maybe there’s a second layer to this apocalypse and that they can still save everyone. They also have to cope with another dawning horror. Namely, after some really dark moments early on, they realize that they can’t even die. Any damage done to their bodies is instantly repaired. They might be turning into something just as alien and inhuman as Walter.
One of the most common critiques of Millennials is that we refuse to grow up. Millennials don’t buy houses at the same rate as our parents did. We’re waiting longer to have children and when we do we’re having less. Instead of having traditional families we call ourselves “pet parents” and lavish praise on our good dogs. We’d rather spend our money on over-priced coffee and avocado toast. We’re told that we’re entitled for wanting more money and better working conditions at our jobs. We act as though the traumas that shaped our generation, events with global significance like 9/11, the Invasion of Iraq, the 2008 Recession and the rest are all unique to us. Even our younger peers, the Zoomers of Gen Z think we’re weird. Oh, and most commonly of all, we refuse to take responsibility for everything. Instead we blame our problems on everyone else, especially our Boomer parents. In short, we’re probably the first generation to ever be infantilized well into our 30s. Is a lot of this generalization? Oh yes. Is a lot of it true? Probably some of it. Hell, I’m a Millennial and I have to admit we do come across as whiny and a bit self-entitled sometime, but that’s my cross to bear. Those stereotypes also don’t really take broad economic trends (like the aforementioned recession) into account. And again, speaking as a Millennial I think there’s another side to that “Millennial’s refuse to grow up” coin.
I’m going to turn 31 in a couple of months. So if you do the math, my 20s lasted from 2011 to 2021. And speaking personally, I spent a lot of my 20s waiting for these things to happen. I was told that your 20s are the best time of your life. That you’re financially independent for the first time, and you get to go out and make memories that will last a lifetime. Except that kinda didn’t happen for me. I spent a good chunk of my 20s unemployed and COVID-19 robbed me of a decent chunk from years 28 and 29. Of course my being an introvert didn’t really help matters for a decent swath of that either. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun and did a lot of the work to build who I am in the last decade. But when I turned 30 I was told by my peers that, hey, don’t worry about it. Your 20’s are sort of supposed to suck. But in your 30’s you’re financially stable (as opposed to just being independent) and you actually know what you want. Your 20’s are just a warm-up. Now the real fun starts. And fun is nice and all but I feel like we’re moving the goalposts. After a while it feels like maybe we’re all just staving off the inevitable. I mean, after your 30s you hit 40, and 40 is when you’re supposed to have a family, and a little crackerjack box you proudly call a house. Right? Whether or not you feel like Millennials refuse to grow up, or you think we’re “growing up on our own terms” speaking as one of us, it feels like we’re trapped in some kind of generational amber while the rest of the world speeds along. After all, let’s not forget the looming climate change disaster, and rising gas prices and Russia might just decide to nuke Ukraine because it made them look weak. We’re standing still and just outside the world continues to spin out of control. Some of us choose to fight, we’re a very socially conscious and activism oriented generation after all, but we’re not even the faces of the resistance. 19-year old Greta Thunberg is leading the charge on the young people’s fight against Climate Change. 25-year old Malala Yousafzai is just barely across the Millennial/Zoomer line and serves as the figurehead in the fight for women’s rights internationally. The kids from Stoneman Douglas took up the banner of gun control with grim determination. Growing up, our teachers and leaders implied that we’d be the heroes of the future but it feels like that label never stuck as well as it could.
I think Nice House on the Lake captures the innate fears and unease of being a Millennial perfectly. It captures that paralyzing sense of fear and inaction that has loomed over our heads for so long. Some of us are old enough to remember the tail end of the Cold War. But it’s also a story about Millennial friendships. Earlier, I mentioned that we are the first generation to be born as “digital natives.” Growing up, computers weren’t these arcane devices at the office that did the accountant’s job, they were just a part of our lives. We’re the generation that grew up in AOL chatrooms. We created MySpace pages and then friended each other on Facebook. We redefined the concept of long-distance friendships and we’ve become damned good at it. I have a pretty close-knit group of friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in going on eight years, but goddammit we talk every day and we stay in each other’s lives. Millennials love ourselves some stories about Found Families, and Nice House on the Lake is absolutely about that too. It’s a story about being in your early to mid-30’s, taking stock of those people close enough to you that you’d call them friends and being like “yep, that’s them alright” for better or for worse. Which is why it’s a bit funny that I identify so much with Walter.
Now it’s not a one to one comparison. I’m not an eldritch abomination from outside of reality like Walter is, obviously. But also, I’m not bisexual like he is either. Walter’s defining motive throughout the story, even after his true form is revealed to the group is his desire to hold the group together. He genuinely seems to want what’s best for them, and he’s trying to process these pesky human emotions that “the others” stuffed into him to make his human suit more believable. In recent years, some of my greatest fears have revolved around my friends. Usually, its my brain trying to trick me into thinking they don’t really like me and instead just barely tolerate me. That’s actually why Walter’s sexuality is important despite his not even being human. There’s a common LGBT narrative where people in the closet are afraid their family and friends won’t accept them after they come out as who they really are. Walter’s friends accept him whether he’s dating a man or a woman, after all several of his friends are gay and one of them is trans. But they’re uniformly horrified by what he is underneath. It’s a theme that Tynion IV touched on in his other ongoing horror series, Something is Killing the Children and it feels close to autobiographical in both stories. That fear of what will happen when others find out the truth about someone. But I’m sympathetic to that fear. I moved around a lot growing up and I deliberately sabotaged a lot of my own ability to make friends. I didn’t assemble a fully functional friend group until I was in my later years of college. Learning how to be a likable human being took work for me and sometimes I’m haunted by the idea that I’ve screwed it up. Frankly the fact that I became a school teacher is probably a marvel of modern science but I digress.
Nice House of the Lake feels like it was designed for my sensibilities. It’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story about a community of folks trying to make it through and understand their strange new reality. That describes a lot of books I’ve loved since I cracked open Alas, Babylon way back 2005. But it feels like it’s tapping into the zeitgeist in a way a lot of comic books don’t do. It’s not the only piece of media to capture a Millennial sense of fear but it’s one of the first I’ve read to give a voice to the sense of doom and gloom that feels so familiar. Maybe that’s why it swept the Eisner Awards this year, including winning the comic book equivalent of Best Picture in best New Limited Series. Nice House on the Lake isn’t done yet, and I’m really interested to see how it ends. But I think Tynion has included a message about the ending in every issue. Each issue of the series opens with one of the house guests, the star of that particular issue, telling the story of how they met Walter. They’re usually standing amidst some kind of ruin and they’re kitted for survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Right now we can assume these characters are going to escape into a new world outside of their prison. They are eventually going to be able to move forward, even if the world they go out into is blighted and terrifying. I think that’s an oddly optimistic notion for a generation that’s lived with the sword of Damocles looming over us for so long. But it’s also a definitive statement. No matter how much things suck we can’t sit still. Even if the rest of the world tries to trap you in amber you have to make that conscious effort to keep moving forward.