There’s a Starman, waiting in the sky, and he blew my mind


The 1990s were a grim time for superhero comics. Most DC and Marvel comics descended into an almost-unreadable rabble of overworked poses and chaotic storytelling. But there was a bright star shining amid the dross.

James Robinson’s Starman is my pick for quite possibly the best superhero comic of the 1990s. Only Grant Morrison’s adrenaline-fuelled JLA and Neil Gaiman’s more fantasy-based Sandman are contenders. 

From 1994 to 2001, Robinson told a single story about superheroism as a legacy, and when he was finished, that was it. It’s an approach that feels lacking in superhero tales when you have never-ending adventures of someone like Spider-Man, who’s fighting Doc Ock, again, who’s been replaced by his clone, again. 

The hook for Starman was that he was a legacy character — originally one of DC Comics’ less prominent superheroes from the 1940s, a cool-looking dude who flew around with a “gravity rod” but one that never really had much personality.

Robinson changed all that, by reintroducing the now-senior citizen original Starman Ted Knight and his sons, dutiful David and prickly Jack Knight

In the first issue, son David takes up the Starman mantle, his lifelong dream. He’s shot and killed almost instantly. 

A revenge plot by one of Starman’s old foes leads the reluctant Jack to take up the Starman name himself, but he’s not going to be your average superhero. Hell, he doesn’t even wear a proper costume, but an oh-so-‘90s combo of leather jacket, goggles, occasional goatee and lots of tattoos. 

Robinson’s Jack Knight is a fantastic, multi-faceted creation – an antique-dealing ex-punk rocker who’s spent most of his life fighting with his famous father, who never set out to be Starman. Jack is smart, clever and irreverent, sometimes cruel and sometimes funny. Was he the first true Gen-X superhero? If I were fighting supervillains, would I be thinking of obscure Viewmaster slides and Hawaiian shirts too? At the time, surrounded by gritting Spawns and Wolverines as his peers, he seemed like the most human character in comics to me. 

Robinson paired Jack’s unique character with series artist Tony Harris’ depiction of Starman’s home of Opal City, a baroque, art deco-ish time capsule that’s one of the most gorgeous fictional cities in comics. Starman is as much about Jack’s love for Opal City as it is about his taking up the family name. 

Over 80 issues, Jack Knight battled villains and travelled into outer space, teamed up with Batman and learned more about the Starman legacy, including clever reintroductions of several other obscure DC heroes once called Starmen.

Robinson assembled an all-time great supporting cast, from the reformed villain The Shade to Jack’s homicidal nemesis, The Mist. Every few issues Robinson would detour into “Times Past” tales that dove into Opal City’s history, or the cast’s pasts, dating back into the 1880s. This gave Starman a rich, complex tapestry that made it feel so much more real than its superhero competitors of the era. 

Starman wasn’t perfect, which kind of adds to its charms. Robinson sometimes lacked the machine-tooled storytelling of someone like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, who put every bit just right. Starman sprawled, heading off into curious little rabbit holes. Robinson’s writing could be overly verbose, especially in early issues (and I’m not a fan of the hard-to-read cursive lettering fonts used a bit too often for narration). The big action-packed series finale storyline “Grand Guignol” tried to bring the many, many story threads and characters together but is a classic case of having a few too many moving parts undermining the simple focus of the story. I still love it. 

For me Starman is about the details – Jack Knight’s compulsive pop-culture trivia monologues as he faces death, the way forgotten characters like The Red Bee and The Jester from DC Comics’ long legacy are given fresh life and personalities, the complicated bond between fathers and sons. 

This works because above all with Starman you feel Robinson’s contagious love for his characters, for the imaginary city he created, for the decades of history in DC Comics, for the act of creation itself. Starman feels personal in a way that by-the-numbers superhero comics rarely do. 

And when Robinson drew his Starman story to a close in 2001 and Jack Knight rode off into the sunset, DC Comics did something that still seems beautifully rare to me – they let Jack rest. Stories rarely ever truly end in superhero comics, but this one did. There have been other Starmen (and of course a great young Stargirl) in the years since, but Jack Knight’s story was done. He might have popped up in a cameo appearance here or there, but there’s been no “Starman Reborn!” storyline. 

I’d hate to see anyone other than James Robinson do one, frankly. His work since Starman has had its ups and downs, but I still feel only he can really tell Jack Knight’s story.

For a while there in the dark comics clutter of the 1990s, his Starman flew high, shining a light on the glorious possibilities of superhero storytelling. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #13: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

What is it: The mother of all Satanic panic possession stories, and widely considered one of the best psychological horror tales of all time. Mia Farrow is Rosemary, who seems to live a perfect life with her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes). But when they move into a new apartment, they become close to their mysterious neighbours, and when Rosemary becomes pregnant, she discovers she’s caught in an evil web she can’t escape. The “Satanic horror boom” that ran through the 1970s from The Exorcist to The Omen starts here. 

Why I never saw it: I’ve been rather tardy to a lot of the truly iconic horror films of the 1970s, as this occasional series has shown on several occasions. I think the horror movies you hear rumours about as a kid can haunt you even more if you haven’t gotten around to seeing them as an adult. I mean, I checked out Cronenberg’s The Fly when I was like 16 and became a fan of its goopy glory for life, but I didn’t see The Exorcist until I was in deep into my 40s because it sounded a wee bit too scary. I’m funny that way.

Does it measure up to its rep? Some movies are so famous you know the broad strokes of their plot without even seeing them. It’s a sign of a classic when you finally watch it and still be sucked right into the story. Roman Polanski may be a deeply problematic human, but his skill as a director is hard to cancel entirely. In movies like Chinatown, Repulsion and The Pianist, he’s always in control no matter how chaotic the situation he puts his characters in. He sets a foreboding tone for Rosemary from the start, where everything appears normal, but has an oddly menacing vibe. Nothing much truly scary happens in this movie, but it leaves you feeling unmoored and shaken, just like Rosemary herself is. Brief surreal glimpses of Rosemary’s dreams or a horrifying seduction sequence stand out sharply from the carefully ordered world. It’s that juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrifying that makes Rosemary’s Baby work more than 50 years on.

Farrow, who I mostly know from her days making Woody Allen movies, is terrific, going from wide-eyed ingenue to a truly haunted figure over the course of the movie. And it’s a real trip to see Ruth Gordon, whom I will forever associate with the classic Harold and Maude, hamming it up as the gossipy sinister neighbour (she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as a result). There’s also a firm subtext about Rosemary’s marginalisation as a pregnant woman – her agency is usurped constantly by her husband, friends and authority figures, and it’s hard not to see the picture itself as a bigger metaphor for the claustrophobic traps too many women were – and are – put in by society. Rosemary’s Baby implies far more than it shows, which in my mind at least almost always makes for a better horror movie. Polanski’s general restraint makes the shocking final 10 minutes of the movie hit that much harder. You’ll never think of “Hail Satan!” in the same way again. 

Worth seeing? The idea of Satan sneaking his way into your life has been done to death in movies and horror, but the devil is in the details here. Polanski’s keen eye for how the ordinary moments in life can be hiding something else make Rosemary’s Baby a vision of hell far scarier than some guy in red with horns.  

I’m already a little sick of the multiverse

I’m a comics geek, a mild obsessive who can tell you in detail about the difference between all the Robins or who the best and worst Avengers of all time were. And I love me a good game of “What If” more often than not. But I’ve got to say that I’m already getting pretty sick of the flood of multiverses getting rolled out in both comics and movie adaptations.

“Multiverses” – or alternate versions of existing characters – have a long, strong history in comics, of course, going all the way back to those Superman “imaginary stories” of the ‘50s and ‘60s, on to thinly-veiled spoofs like the Squadron Supreme of the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were so many infinite earths and alternate possibilities that DC had a big ol’ Crisis on them back in the mid-1980s meant to simplify everything. There’s been at least a dozen other crises since then.

I absolutely loved learning about Earth-3 and Earth-X back in the day. But whipping out the Captain Ecuador of Earth-78 or the Victorian Batman of Earth 342 who’s also Sherlock Holmes has diminishing returns after a while. There have been many, many great stories involving alternate or reimagined versions of existing characters – it’s one of the ways that icons like Superman or Batman have proven so durable in nearly a century. 

Yet both Marvel and DC now seem determined to not use multiverses sparingly, but to make them the centre of their latest intellectual property strategy. Over in DC Comics, you’ve got Infinite Frontiers and Flashpoints and notions like the idea of seeing Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck’s Batman spread their wings, while Marvel is getting as lost in multiverses as DC did before their ‘80s Crisis, with the kind of underwhelming What If? cartoon show apparently entirely created to give us a shiny team of “Guardians of the Multiverse” versions of the characters we already knew, and the new Dr. Strange and Spider-Man movies set to dive deep into the multiverses of madness. 

I’m still a geek, so I do get a thrill when I see Alfred Molina’s awesome Doctor Octopus from two Spider-Man reboots ago popping up again through some timey-wimey shenanigans. I thought seeing multiple Spider-Men and -Women collide in Into The Spider-Verse was one of the best comic films in recent years. DC’s “President Superman” – a thinly-veiled Barack Obama homage who’s both Superman and the President of the United States – is a cool spin on a shopworn idea. 

But it can get old real fast and becomes the equivalent of a writer just throwing ideas into the air to see what sticks. I dip into DC Comics’ never-ending Crises now and then and it all just becomes a gaudy blur of evil Batman and sideways versions of Flashes. I skipped entirely a recent series of Avengers comics all about yet another evil alternate version of the team.

The multiverse too often becomes all about the colourful over-the-top spectacle of a dozen Batmen together rather than about a good story like Into The Spider-Verse told. It’s all about callbacks and easter eggs rather than forming a solid character arc. It’s fan service turned into plot. A character’s got to have more meaning than “wouldn’t it be cool if Batman, but from Albuquerque?” 

Like I said, the alternate realities of comics have been around a while now, and it used to be, they were a bit of a treat – the bi-monthly issues of What If? in its ‘70s heyday, the goofy stories of Batman and Superman’s sons fighting crime together. But when they start to become the main event all the time, it all just blurs together into an endless stream of writer’s drafts and easy shortcuts to character – what if Wolverine was Aquaman? What if Green Lantern was from apartheid-era South Africa? What if the Hulk was a 6-year-old boy? 

It’s easy for anyone with an imagination to knock off 50 of these multiversal variants in the space of an hour, really. But to make an actual character out of them, that isn’t just a kind of hollow echo of someone else’s creative work? That’s the hard part, and rather than endlessly revisiting the past to riff on it, it’d be great to see all the comics shared universes try a little harder to be new things, rather than new versions of old things. 

Timothy Dalton, the Bond with a killer’s eye

There’s a lot to be annoyed about right now, but in my nerdy brain one of the things that most irks me is that due to New Zealand’s ongoing Delta outbreak I’m probably not going to be seeing the long, long-delayed new James Bond No Time To Die any time soon. 

It stinks, but it is what it is. The cure for that, though – watch some of the other 24 James Bond movies! And with all the talk ramping up about this being Daniel Craig’s final Bond adventure and who the next Bond might be, I felt like taking a look back at the brief tenure of the almost forgotten Bond, Timothy Dalton.

Dalton only managed two Bond movies, the shortest tenure as 007 outside of George Lazenby’s 1969 one-off in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dalton’s term got stymied by delays and legal wrangles (a perpetual Blofeld-level villain in the Bond industry) and after waiting five years for his third film to kick into gear, he left and was replaced by the shiny if a bit insubstantial Bond of Pierce Brosnan. 

Dalton had been earmarked for years for James Bond – he was offered the role way back in 1968 before Lazenby, but he waited to take it on until he was a bit more seasoned and closer to 40. Yet although Dalton’s tenure was short, and the movies he were in never quite rise to Skyfall or Goldfinger levels of greatness, he was for a short time an excellent James Bond. 

Dalton is not exactly underrated by Bond fans – in fact, he’s been called “under-appreciated” so often that he’s actually maybe getting a bit over-appreciated in some circles. But I think for the general public, Dalton’s tenure is sadly barely remembered, which is a shame, because he was very good and unlike almost every other Bond before or since, he didn’t wear out his welcome by the end.

The Living Daylights ramps down the puns and gadgetry of Roger Moore’s tenure for a more realistic tone. But it’s saddled with a rather convoluted plot and rather than one indelible bad guy like the best Bond flicks, it’s got at least three jousting with each other. (Although any movie that features Joe Don Baker as a Bond villain I very much approve.) The story revolves around corrupt arms deals and people caught in between callous leaders during the fading days of the Cold War. It feels rather timely viewed 35 years on, with its climax featuring Bond riding into action in war-torn Afghanistan. Debuting with a minimum of pomp, Dalton’s Bond is immediately comfortable – ice-cold and professional with a hint of something more. He’s far less showy than Moore or Connery and it’s easy to see he’s the direct forefather of Craig’s own approach to Bond. 

Dalton’s second Bond, License To Kill, is stripped-down and streamlined, a straightforward tale of Bond seeking revenge against a drug dealer who crippled his friend. James Bond “going rogue” has been done a few too many times by now, but this was the first time in the movies – you get the sense that Bond is a tiger being let out of his cage. It’s rather brutal and got a very Miami Vice/Death Wish vibe to it, a world away from Roger Moore fighting on moon bases. It faltered badly in the US – License to Kill stands out as still the worst-performing of the Bond movies financially in the US with a mere $35 million, and it had the bad fortune to open in the summer of Batman. Yet it holds up far better than many other Bonds do with its angry Dalton anticipating Craig’s debut in Casino Royale. Dalton really comes into his own in License, doing a lot with his shark’s smile and never letting you forget for long that Bond is basically a hired killer. As the sinister drug dealer Sanchez, Robert Davi is one of the better Bond villains of the ‘80s. License deviates a lot from the Bond “formula” which hurt it in the go-go ‘80s, but today its mean streak and Dalton’s unsparing performance make it work well. 

What’s interesting in both of Dalton’s movies is that the fate of the world is never at stake. No nuclear annihilation or killer viruses here – these are smaller-scale battles, even if they are capped with plenty of explosions and daring chases. It was a brief blip for Bond. With the Pierce Brosnan era, big, bold Bond was back, inflated to ever more ridiculous extremes until Casino Royale came along to downsize everything once again. 

A fusion of Sean Connery’s alpha-male physicality, Moore’s wit, Craig’s wounded brute, Brosnan’s slick polish and Dalton’s glittering carnivore’s eye would probably be the iconic “best Bond,” but Timothy Dalton came very close to giving us a Bond that stepped right out of the novels. It’s a shame he didn’t get a better run, but those are the breaks, 007. 

What I’ve been working on

Get ready for the 30th issue of Amoeba Adventures, featuring the long-awaited return of fan favourite Rambunny in a story full of thrills, spills and twists, debuting October 31.

More details soon, and don’t forget you can always download every single previous issue of Amoeba Adventures going all the way back to 1990 right here on the website as free PDFs, or last year’s super-sized Amoeba Archive publication full of rarities and more!

The broken-hearted beauty of Phil Ochs

I get depressed sometimes. And like a lot of people, I listen to sad songs when I feel a certain way. And I often return to the brilliant, bittersweet songs of Phil Ochs, the gifted singer who never quite found the stardom he desperately craved. 

There’s a crystalline beauty to his early ’60s protest songs like “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “There But For Fortune” or “Here’s To The State of Mississippi.” Ochs’ voice was clear and loud, and to me at least, he lacked the strident tendency of many protest singers of that era. He was angry, he was bitterly amused, but he cared and had a sense of humour. 

He had minor hits and palled around with Bob Dylan and all kinds of ‘60s figures, but never quite made it to the A-list despite his talent. He craved fame most of his life – he got a nose job when he was a teenager because he wanted to be a star. Despite being all for revolution and a fan of Mao, Che Guevara and Chile’s Salvador Allende, he was a capitalist when it came to his career. 

Ochs, singer for the people, underwent a big transformation in the late 1960s, unleashing a trilogy of superb, emotional albums that represented a quantum leap from his previous work. Produced by Larry Marks, Pleasures of the Harbor, Tape from California and Rehearsals for Retirement abandoned the guitar-based folk for ornate chamber pop and jazzy songs that turned from the outer world to the inner world.

Gorgeous epics like “Crucifixion,” “The Scorpion Departs, But Never Returns” or “Pleasures of the Harbor” were dazzlingly melancholy, sometimes surreal evocations of Ochs’ own mental struggles. They weren’t as perky as Ochs’ folk work, but they were glittering gems of songwriting. Ochs’ protests were now against himself. 

A lot of his earlier work is topical and may seem dated, but the sentiments of a song like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” is universal, and in his best works, the 50-year-old lyrics still ring out – as he writes in “Tape From California,” “Half the world is crazy / the other half is scared,” and it’s like he looked into a crystal ball and saw the viral insanity of 2021 unfolding. 

The thing that always struck me about Ochs’ voice is the sincerity behind it. He was often hilarious, sometimes maudlin, sometimes poetic, but you always got the impression he meant it – a contrast to his friend and rival Dylan, whose best work involved a series of enigmatic masks. 

Phil Ochs cared too much, maybe. He cared about the political struggles that defined much of his career, and the chaos of the Democratic Convention in Chicago left him shattered. The album cover for Rehearsals for Retirement was of a mock tombstone, and Ochs “died, Chicago, 1968.” 

Unfortunately, things went downhill fast for Ochs after that run of terrific but poor selling albums. He was very troubled, and never got the help he so clearly needed. His longstanding mental health issues and alcoholism got much worse, and his thirst for wider fame consumed him. He ignored calls to find treatment, lashed out abusively at family and friends, wore a gold Elvis suit, changed his name to “John Train” for a little bit and his voice was damaged in a mugging in Africa. His lyrics began referring to death more and more, and he couldn’t put a record out. The sincerity that animated his best work left him. 

He hung himself at only 35 years old in 1976, a shadow of his former self. He’d be 80 years old today, if he lived. 

Suicide never really ends. Ochs is gone, but the music, and the pain irrevocably buried in it, is still here. Like so many other musicians who took their own lives – Cobain, Elliot Smith, Ian Curtis, Chris Cornell – that fact floats, like a haze, over the music. But that doesn’t have to make every song sad. 

The broken beauty in Phil Ochs’ best songs makes me kind of happy, even when they’re kind of sad, because they’re such gorgeous things and they live on long after the man himself left this troubled world. 

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in New Zealand, by the way. Maybe play some Phil Ochs sometime during it.

Still trying to figure out how I feel about The Doors

Some bands find strange places in your brain. They’re ones that you like at one point, then one day wake up and are embarrassed you ever did – and then on yet another day, you decide they weren’t that bad after all. 

Everyone’s got a few of these musical guilty conundrums. Some we outgrow, some we don’t. And that’s totally cool. Everyone also hopefully reaches that point when you don’t give a flying fig for popular opinion and just try to like something because you like it. 

Of course, I’m talking about The Doors. I’ve gone through many cycles with The Doors over the years – from liking them like any teenage boy does for their leathery brooding cool, to mocking their pomposity, to finding them hugely overrated to, in these weird pandemic days, finding their songs a bit of a comfort. 

Jim Morrison was a pretentious git in many ways and paid the price by dying before he hit 27, yet he also was soaked in that elusive star swagger that’s fuelled singers from Elvis to Bowie to Lizzo. Backed by a terrific band who added heft to his hippie-god musings, he created a sound that feels both cliched and raw at the same time. The Doors always danced on the edge of kitsch and cheese, but they often would, as they put it, “break on through to the other side.”

Crank up “Riders on The Storm,” “Light My Fire,” “Crystal Ship” or “Strange Days” and you’re floating in a patchouli-scented haze of angsty mood. The Doors generally lacked a sense of humour, yet their music could often be quite funny – “Hello, I Love You” always sounded to me like the kind of thing a lounge-act singer coughs out at the end of the night, while I dare anyone but a 17-year-old to get through the hysterics of “The End” without smiling a little. 

The Doors had more than their share of dogs, whenever Morrison’s indulgences overpowered generic bar-band romps, and limp songs like “We Could Be So Good Together” or “Easy Ride” sound like parodies of the band. Their albums remain a heady time capsule of the era, with great songs mixed in amongst the dross. 

Jim Morrison died four months before I was even born, so it’s kind of weird he’s been this perpetually returning pop culture revenant. Like a lot of people, I got a bit into The Doors during the hype fest for Oliver Stone’s bombastic biopic (itself now nearly 30 years old!). I think the pendulum has swung again away from The Doors a bit, where it’s not as cool to admit you like them as it is Bowie or the Kinks or Prince. They’re so alpha-male, so unconcerned about the wider world, so, so … ego.  

I often find Morrison’s dead stoned stare kind of annoying, yet still… when the tinkling chords and thunder crashing of “Riders on the Storm” kicks in, I’m swept away. 

In a way, The Doors to me are a part of the greater problem when consuming any pop culture in an age of 24-7 hot takes – it’s hard sometimes to know what you feel and separate it from what the world around you tells you to feel. It’s the Chuck Klosterman dilemma of overthinking a song so much it starts to fray into pieces. 

Jim Morrison was the bombastic lead character in his own story, and the songs reflect that, all from the perspective of a young man full of piss and vinegar, the centre of his own personal universe, the Lizard King. It’s both the appeal and the tragedy of The Doors that Jim Morrison didn’t live long enough to come to the point where we realise we’re not the main story at all, that you’re just another human, plodding along and trying every day to make your small narrative life’s big epic. 

So yeah, sometimes The Doors were ridiculous and silly, sometimes they were sweeping, dark and profound, sometimes they were both at the same time. I think after decades of intermittently listening to them, I’m kind of finally starting to be OK with that. 

The Mighty Marvel Age of Insanely Insular One-Shot Comics

One of the big appeals of Marvel Comics back in their pre-blockbuster movie days was that it seemed like a fun clubhouse, a friendly neighbourhood pub exclusively for comic-loving kids. 

Stan Lee had a salesman’s knack for pumping up his own product starting all the way back in the ‘60s, with his snappy notes to “true believers” peppering every comic, editorial page and story credits. It set Marvel apart from the staid stiffness of DC Comics back then, and that wacky “Marvel Bullpen” idea carried right on through the swingin’ ‘70s, as Marvel started fan clubs and magazines and Stan appeared on the cover of magazines. Marvel was hip, it was cool!

That clubhouse mentality reached a fever pitch in the 1980s, long after Stan moved on to Hollywood, with Marvel’s in-house fanzine Marvel Age and the goofy delights of “Assistant Editor’s Month,” where Marvel pretended that the assistants took charge for a month of especially offbeat comics. Entire insanely comprehensive “official guidebooks” to Marvel’s fictional universe emerged in this time too, manna from heaven for kid geeks like me. 

And then there were a series of early 1980s bizarre one-shot comics cashing in on that whole “ain’t Marvel fun?” mentality that I still kind of love, as silly and reeking of product-placement as they were. They were all experimental and heavily played up the exclusive club feeling Marvel strived so hard to keep going. Mostly forgotten now, these comics curios were peak Marvel gazing into the mirror at itself. 

The Official Marvel No-Prize Book of 1983 was my favourite of the lot, a print version of the “TV bloopers” shows of the time where Marvel looked back at its greatest errors and mistakes. Stan Lee was dressed up as Dr. Doom on the cover and it was a giddy inside-baseball lark, exhuming such mishaps as Peter Parker becoming “Peter Palmer” in one story or the Hulk having only three toes. These were the memes of the pre-meme era, and Marvel was showing us it could laugh at itself with this deep-dive into continuity errors and artist’s gaffes. “It’s like the internet, except with paper cuts,” is the best possible review of this one.

The Marvel Fumetti Book wasn’t quite as successful, mainly because of the utterly dismal print quality of the time. The artists, writers and editors of the Marvel Bullpen took centre stage in this collection of comic ‘fumetti’ photographs with silly captions, with all sorts of crazy hijinks in Marvel’s offices (and of course, mascot Stan Lee on the cover, again). It’s amusingly meta but for me, the dim grey reproduction of the almost illegible photos kind of ruins the idea. But boy, did they make Marvel seem like a fun place to be. 

Last and definitely least of these one-shots was 1984’s insane Generic Comic Book, a parody of the omnipresent fad for “generic” food products. It starred “Super Hero” fighting a “Super Villain” and hitting every by-the-numbers cliche about great power and great responsibility, secret identity dramas and more. Honestly, the best thing about is it the cover. The problem was within a few years an awful lot of comic books would fit this same generic template and the story lacks the go-for-broke spirit of a complete parody. It’s kind of like making a parody of Airplane! You could, but why would you? It’s an amusing curio, but about as essential as all those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle parodies that littered the floor of comic shops a year or two later. (And of course, Marvel did one of those, too.)

We know now that much of the happy-go-lucky Marvel bullpen notion was a bit of a fantasy – it was a workplace, after all, and as full of backstabbing and rivalries as anywhere else. Sean Howe’s masterful Marvel Comics: The Untold Story delves into this a lot. While great, late personalities like Mark Gruenwald and Archie Goodwin do sound like they were a lot of fun to work for, there was also a fair share of drama at Marvel in the 1980s too and Jim Shooter – who was in charge when most of these came out – was no Stan Lee. These days, it’s a multi-zillion-dollar moviemaking machine, part of the Disney empire, and while the comics are still going they probably seem a bit ancillary to the MCU. 

But even though I know it was all a bit of a public-relations stunt, I still like the weird society Marvel pushed so hard in those days, the root of so many fan Facebook groups, message boards and channels today. These one-shots hyped the platonic idea of Marvel, and sure, they were selling you, but it felt fun to be sold to. Comics about creators of the comics were kind of a dead-end creatively, but I still like walking through that clubhouse door. 

Rockwell and the pop of paranoia

Rockwell was pretty much the definition of a one-hit wonder.

But for a few minutes in 1984 you couldn’t get away from his hit single “Somebody’s Watching Me.” It spun, haunted, out of radios everywhere, helped by the presence of the then-untainted Michael Jackson singing the insanely catchy chorus. It tapped into that universal phobia – “I always feel like / somebody’s watching me.

Rockwell had a niche, and he was good at it. He could sell suspicion – “People call me on the phone, I’m trying to avoid / But can the people on TV see me or am I just paranoid?” – and his songs were filled with bouncy keyboards and drum machines providing a catchy beat. For some reason, this very American singer periodically put on a dire British accent, which just added to his askew appeal.

The delightfully creepy/silly video for “Somebody’s Watching Me” features Rockwell repeatedly showering (while wearing shorts!), standing at his own grave (!!) and being haunted by strange white people. It’s amazing

The common thread coursing through both of Rockwell’s major albums was an unsparing paranoia about the world – it’s a surprisingly bitter perspective that stands out in the glossy era of ‘80s pop hits. He followed up “Somebody’s Watching Me” with another stalker anthem, “Obscene Phone Caller.” It’s another ridiculous earworm of a tune, with its heavy-breathing phone call chorus and Rockwell’s pained delivery of awkward lines like “Why did you have to pick me / out of all the people in the directory?” 

He covered George Harrison’s extremely cynical “Taxman,” and for the difficult second album Captured, his next singles were songs like “Peeping Tom” (the phone caller’s distaff cousin, I guess), “He’s a Cobra” and “Captured (By An Evil Mind).” The back cover of Captured is a kitschy delight, with Rockwell pictured shrunken down in a gilded birdcage with a giant woman staring in at him. They’re always watching him, you see. 

I spun my cassette of his album Somebody’s Watching Me an awful lot in 1984. It’s still a delightfully cheesy slab of ‘80s synth-Motown. Follow-up Captured didn’t do very well – but I bought that cassette. I might’ve been the only one. Then Rockwell pretty much vanished after putting out a third and final album that nobody ever heard of. 

I had absolutely no clue who Rockwell really was back in the day; he was like another Ray Parker Jr who had a huge hit and never topped it. Turns out he was actually the son of one of the biggest men in music, Motown founder Berry Gordy, and was born Kennedy Gordy and changed his name to avoid appearances of nepotism. Instead of a one-hit wonder, Rockwell was actually from the house of endless hits.

What was it that made Rockwell’s music so freaked out about the world around him? And why did he vanish as quickly as he arrived? Post-fame, Rockwell hasn’t had a great run of it, including some arrests and lawsuits.

“I needed to just be a regular guy, and that’s why I disappeared. I came from a king, Berry Gordy, and I’m like a prince,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. 

I always wondered if Rockwell’s background played a part in the very specifically constrained, paranoid perspective of his best songs. Was there something there about growing up the son of a rich, famous music legend that made him want to sing about obscene phone callers and peeping toms and tax men?

One of more endearingly clumsy bits on “Somebody’s Watching Me” goes, “And I don’t feel safe anymore, oh, what a mess / I wonder who’s watching me now (Who?!) – the IRS?” First single off his first album and the guy’s already worried about the government coming after him.  

I wouldn’t argue that Rockwell was some great lost legend – his voice was on the average side and his albums outside of the paranoid singles tended to be swamped by overproduced painfully generic dated ‘80s R&B. He always sounded vaguely insincere when singing about love instead of fear – for example the ballad “Knife,” in which love, you guessed it, cuts just like one. But I still have a guilty enjoyment of his two extremely tense, worried albums, where everybody is out to get you and you always feel like there’s somebody watching you. 

Am I just paranoid? Baby, in 2021, that almost feels like a prophecy. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #12: Faces (1968)

What is it: Independent film pioneer John Cassavetes’ breakthrough film, an intense, almost unbearably voyeuristic look at the disintegration of a middle-aged couple’s marriage told over the course of one free-wheeling night of affairs, drunkenness and messy, messy lives. A sharp break from more formal storytelling in film, Faces often feels like it’s being made up on the spot, threatening at any second to collapse on itself. It was and still is divisive – Pauline Kael hated it, but Roger Ebert called it “astonishing.” “He has made a film that tenderly, honestly and uncompromisingly examines the way we really live,” Ebert wrote. The way we live is, of course, messy, unorganised and often makes no sense to us. Cassavetes tried to show us ordinary life in a way sometimes called “cinematic jazz.” A cult taste at the best of times, Cassavetes died too young but his fingerprints can be seen all over film today – The New Yorker has said that he “may be the most influential American director of the last half century.”

Why I never saw it: I grew up on a steady diet of Lucas and Spielberg and it took me years to broaden my cinematic tastes a bit. “Cassavetes” was one of those arty names that always seemed to float just beyond the horizon, daunting by its sheer reputation. Would I like this stuff? Would he be someone like Robert Altman or Kurosawa, who blew me away and showed me whole ways of thinking, or would he be someone like Fellini, who I still haven’t quite managed to crack? 

Does it measure up to its rep? Faces is more than 50 years old now, and yet it’s still confrontational and raw. There’s a reason Cassavetes’ work is still pored over and analysed today. He attempted to show us real life in a way that feels totally improvised (but wasn’t). He made movies his way, outside the studio system. Faces was a tiny production, made in glittering 16mm black-and-white with an endlessly probing camera that anticipates today’s reality TV. It ended up getting nominated for Oscars and riding the wave of groundbreaking movies circa 1967-68 like Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate that were slowly breaking down Hollywood’s ossified ways. But Faces is far more punk rock than The Graduate’s sly and polished Simon and Garfunkeled cynicism. 

Faces is a story that’s as old as time – a couple get tired of each other, experiment with other people, then end up back where they started – but it’s the way Cassavetes tells this story that makes it feel like the audience is eavesdropping on something they weren’t meant to see. With game actors like the astounding Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and (in other films) Peter Falk and Ben Gazarra, Cassavetes built up a company of like-minded souls who wanted to use cinema to probe into the heart and mind. 

Cassavetes pushes you, with his scenes of drunken, plotless hijinks or gritty, intense arguments, to the point where you sometimes ask yourself why you’re sticking with this movie, only to find as the credits roll that you can’t stop thinking about it. Faces demands you engage with it, question it, not half-watch it while scrolling on your phone. These days, that feels like a challenge. 

His characters often do inexplicable, nasty and self-sabotaging things. And we often do that in real life, too – good god, the number of times I finish up a day thinking, “Why did I do this thing? Why did I act that way?” Cassavetes used film to try to explain the human spirit, an impossible and yet endlessly fascinating task.

Faces tests your patience – every Cassavetes film I’ve seen seems overlong at the time, but you aren’t ready for them to end. The controlled chaos of their production is the antithesis of tightly-controlled blockbusters, and movies like Husbands or A Woman Under The Influence leave you feeling vaguely battered, half-drunk yourself, and yet… somehow happy to be alive, to be here on this endlessly complicated world, flawed and broken like everybody else in Cassavetes’ cinematic universe. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely, but if you’re one of those people who want movies to entertain and only entertain, you may give up the ghost. Stick with it, and you’ll be left with a movie that both frustrates and haunts you, and may just end up sucked down the Cassavetes wormhole.