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. 

When Dracula became the world’s worst superhero

Count Dracula has been many things over his century-plus career – a villain, a lover, a monster, a tragic romantic figure – but then there was that time a Dracula became the world’s most inept superhero.

Dell Comics was a publisher with its main focus on comics starring licensed characters from Donald Duck to Yogi Bear to Star Trek. But for a brief time in the mid 1960s, they attempted to create the next big superhero universe by licensing the Universal Monsters characters and creating superheroes based on Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. 

None of them lasted more than three issues. Why? Because, basically, they were unspeakably bland and goofy stuff, and compared to the heyday of Marvel Comics and a slowly modernizing DC Comics, they screamed “generic superhero comic,” shoving the creepy classic monsters into ill-fitting spandex suits. 

Yet for pure kitsch value along, you can’t ignore Dell’s Dracula, perhaps the worst of all the Draculas out there. Dell’s Frankenstein was a misfire too but there’s a bit of a history with making him an antihero. But turning Count Dracula into an utterly assembly-line crimefighter, complete with spunky sidekick? To quote the original Dracula, “that sucks.” 

Dell’s Dracula isn’t the original Drac, but a modern-day Count Dracula, a scientist trying to defy the family legacy. Because he’s inept, he accidentally drinks a top-secret formula he was working on that allows him to turn into a bat. Just a regular bat. Which really isn’t the world’s best super-power, but never mind that.

He decides it’s time to fight crime and make the world a better place despite his tainted family name, dons a ridiculous costume that looks a lot more like “Cat Man” than “Bat Man,” and ends up fighting villains like Boris Eval (because he’s “Evil,” get it?) and Hob Goblin. His “secret identity” is the stunningly clever alias of “Al U. Card.” 

You might think hey, that’s not the worst hook to hang a comic book on, right? There might be potential there? Unfortunately, Dell’s Dracula was a prime example of the strained, stiff world of off-brand superhero comics of the 1960s, where writers tried to be Stan Lee and failed.

Dell’s Dracula had incredibly inert artwork and dialogue that sounded like it came from a first grader reader’s primer – “I wish to be a partner in your schemes of evil.” While silver age comics could often seem a bit childish by modern standards, Dell’s Dracula didn’t just seem immature – it was so removed from regular human interaction that it seemed like it came from another planet. 

But… that said, I still kind of love the kitschy charm of Dell’s Dracula (and Frankenstein, which is slightly less bad). With the third and final issue, the creators seem to realise this isn’t working as a serious comic.

By the time Drac’s buxom companion dresses up as “Fleeta” (short for “Fledermaus,” German for ‘bat,’ of course) in a costume that’s even worse than Dracula’s, you start to think maybe it’ll all go full camp, loosen up and embrace the absurdity of its concept. 

But nope – mere panels after Fleeta joins Dracula in his battle against crime, their comic adventures ended forever, the two would-be-heroes transformed into bats and flying off into the moonset, unmourned and forgotten.

Super-Dracula would never rise again. 

The cosmic horror of being Nicolas Cage

There have been many different Nicolas Cages

There was the offbeat comic who emerged in movies like Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, the Oscar winner or nominee of Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation, the askew popular action hero in Con Air and Face/Off, and the somewhat lost jobbing actor who appeared in an seemingly endless parade of barely-noticed flicks with titles like Rage, Arsenal and Kill Chain. He’s appeared in well over 100 films.

No matter what the material, Cage is always at least a little interesting even in the worst of movies, and a well-deserving cult has formed around him. I’ve been a fan at least since the Vampire’s Kiss days, when I rented a somewhat random VHS tape and ended up staring slackjawed at the screen, wondering what the hell I’d just seen.

It’s hard to see a pattern sometimes in Cage’s relentless productivity, allegedly at least some of which is due to money troubles

But one clear underlying theme has developed in some of Cage’s recent work – one man facing the cosmic horror of an uncaring universe, an idea straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. There’s been a string of movies in recent years where Cage takes his abilities to the outer limits, portraying a string of gruff, stoic men fighting against the random chaos and carnage the universe can produce. In movies like Mandy, Color Out Of Space, Willy’s Wonderland and Pig, Cage has morphed into a kind of bronzed icon of the doomed hero, a figure out of myth and horror who simply fights back, the best he can. 

Not all of these movies are created equal – Willy’s Wonderland is a goofy B-movie lark while Pig is a surprisingly touching drama – but what they all feature is Cage, uncaged, taking bold chances that didn’t seem possible in the days when he was doing fluff like Honeymoon In Vegas. He’s done his share of unmemorable generic action flicks, but when he wants to, Nicolas Cage still surprises you. 

In 2018’s Mandy, an almost unbearably dark slice of psychedelic horror, Cage’s wife is murdered by a Satanic cult and he amps up for a run of heavy-metal vengeance. In Willy’s Wonderland, he’s a mute janitor who ends up fighting animatronic cartoon characters in a haunted funhouse. In Color Out Of Space, a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s groundbreaking cosmic horror tale, Cage and his entire family are overwhelmed and transformed by a malign presence from beyond the stars. And in Pig, what seems to be yet another riff on John Wick, about a recluse whose pet pig is stolen, turns into a surprisingly melancholy, affecting meditation on revenge and acceptance that doesn’t go anywhere you expect it would. Pig isn’t steeped in fantasy like the other three films, but at its heart we still have Cage as a man fighting back against fearful, overwhelming forces – in this case, all of modern society. 

In all four of these movies, Cage is a solid, looming figure – he’s bulkier, beardier than he was in his lanky 1990s stardom, a hulking presence. And in each of them, he faces a world that’s out to hurt him, in which fate is unpredictable and often malign. He does more with his eyes and a piercing stare than a lot of the excitable gestures of his earlier career. 

It’s a good fit for Cage in his latter years (he’s now 57), because he’s channeled that quirky likability of his earlier films into a more ominous allure. Even in a strange experiment like Willy’s Wonderland, where his character is mute the entire film, he holds your attention in a movie that would be fairly unmemorable without him. And in something like the justly well-reviewed Pig, where he’s also highly restrained, he’s still very capable of breaking your heart a little bit as a hermit who is also kind of a sage. 

I’m digging Cage’s cosmic horror phase. I know there’ll be several more Nicolas Cages to come before his career is done – I’m particularly looking forward to seeing an elder statesman Cage – but in a world where everything we knew seems to be a bit uncertain and shaky these last few years, Nicolas Cage staring into the void and fighting back against its horrors seems like the perfect man for the times. 

My favourite guitar god: Richard Thompson

My favourite guitar player isn’t a household name. 

The thing about music criticism I’ve realised over the years I’ve dabbled in it is, all criticism is fundamentally a very personal thing. You can look at something in the broader cultural context, you can use all the fancy words you want to describe it, and yet in the end you often have to go with your gut. Does this move you?

There’s many guitar players out there who I dig, whose technical mastery is next to none. You can’t ignore Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell or Nancy Wilson, Django Reinhardt, George Harrison or Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince or Frank Zappa, Chuck Berry or Pete Townsend. And I like pretty much all of ‘em.

But when it comes to the guitarist who moves me the most, who evokes pictures in my brain that none of the rest do, it’s Richard Thompson I turn to every time. He is a comfort for me in troubling times. 

Thompson is not a rock god celebrity, although among a certain brand of music fan he’s certainly well loved. And for me, he’s among the most soulful of guitar players, his work reaching deep into some kind of elemental place. From his early days with folk-rockers Fairport Convention to his stunning collaborations with his former wife Linda Thompson and on to his venerable solo career, Thompson’s distinctive yearning sound is one I turn to again and again in life to get a break from the world. 

I first cottoned on to Thompson with his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, full of gently askew humour and pathos, with the cutting observations and forensic bits of detail in his songwriting that also make him one of our best lyricists. The “hit” single from that album, “I Feel So Good,” with its chorus, “I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight” – sums up Thompson’s worldview – happy, yet a bit bitter, nostalgic, yet optimistic. When I listened to that cassette I picked up at a shopping mall somewhere in suburban California years ago, I was transported to a new place. I’ve been going back there ever since.

Most of those who we think of when we think of the greatest guitar players are men, and the vast majority of them play with a very masculine, dominating swagger – picture Eddie Van Halen soloing, Pete Townshend windmilling. Swagger is a very big part of the rock guitar sound and hey, I love it, too.

Yet Thompson, unlike a lot of guitar gods, doesn’t play with a lot of ego. There’s little boasting in his sound, but instead a kind of cathartic release, whether he’s finger-picking a gentle ballad or soaring into dazzling long rides. There’s a great quote about the legendary Howlin’ Wolf attributed to producer Sam Phillips that I often think of whenever I listen to Thompson: “This is where the soul of man never dies.” 

There’s deep riches in Thompson’s catalogue over his 50-year career I never stop enjoying exploring. The heartbreaking character portraits of “Beeswing” or “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” or the explosive release of “Wall of Death” or “Calvary Cross,” where you can feel Thompson getting lost in the song’s story, his guitar jams a pivotal cog in the machine of songcraft rather than just being showy.

“I like playing guitar to accompany a voice, or if there is a solo, then extending the narrative of the song,” he once told The Guardian. The slow stair-stepping chord progression of “Calvary Cross,” with its building tension and release, floors me every time I listen to it, and when I dive into the never-ending joys of sprawling live versions of it. 

Look, I’m not any kind of technical music critic. I’m a listener, who’s darned clueless when it comes to the ins and outs of how gorgeous sounds are made. Hendrix made amazing, unmistakable sounds with the guitar, but how he made ‘em, I couldn’t tell you.

So with Richard Thompson, for me, it’s all about how the music hits the gut. And he moves me. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

I’ve had a few posts half-written but life has kind of been overtaken by events here in New Zealand this week and it’s been a bit crazy as we deal with an unfortunate outbreak of the Delta variant. It’s been the first time in more than 6 months for any lockdown here and this is the strictest one since April 2020, but it’s a persistent beast of a disease out there…

Hopefully things will improve soon and most of us haven’t forgotten for a second how incredibly fortunate/lucky/grateful we’ve been not to have it as bad here as so many other places in the world have, and so many friends and family have suffered in the past 18 months or so.

In the meantime, I’ve been busy doing a lot of work with Radio New Zealand, and in bloggable content I wrote about 10 recent (and a couple not-so-recent) shows to watch during lockdown, which is applicable in an awful lot of places in this troubled world at the moment. Go and have a read!

Charles Schulz and Peanuts: He walked the line

Like pretty much every cartoonist who ever picked up a pen, I worship at the feet of Charles M. Schulz, the master of the simple line.

I’ve written before about my love for the rapidly vanishing newspaper comic. After a steady diet of them as a kid, classic Peanuts strips are embedded in my brain. Even if I last read them 20, 30 years ago, they seem like familiar friends. I read them now less with an eye for the gags (although Schulz could be side-splittingly funny, especially when it came to depicting rage), and more with an eye on the craft.

They say that writing is often the art of chipping away, scraping off the excess to find the truth underneath all those fluttering words. In my work as a journalist, you’re trained to get to the point.  Every single panel by Schulz feels like the point – comic art stripped to the barest essentials.

When I first started drawing my own little silly comics years ago, I took my inspiration from superhero superstars Neal Adams, John Byrne and particularly the insanely detailed crosshatch-filled black-and-white work of Dave Sim and Gerhard on Cerebus. I did a fairly awful job of imitating these far better artists, because I didn’t have the base of skill underneath.

Even though I loved Peanuts, if you’d asked scribbling young Nik if Schulz was a great artist, he might’ve said no, but he was a good cartoonist. But now I see clearly the detail in his design, how he could dash off a few lines to clearly delineate a house, a brick wall, a kite-eating tree, a doghouse, and it worked. 

Have you ever tried to actually draw Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, like Schulz did? Most budding cartoonists give it a try, and it’s harder than it looks. I’ve done a few Peanuts pastiche/homage comic strips over the years, and every time it’s like learning to draw with a new limb:

An online strip from 2014.

You look at his earlier strips, and there was a more ornate feeling to the art, with some tricky perspective shots and more detailed backgrounds that were gradually abandoned as the strip shrunk in scope, but widened in its emotional palette. By the time Schulz hit his stride by the mid-1960s, he’d refined Peanuts to the point of abstraction. Things got weird – a kite-eating tree? A bird who spoke in scratch marks? Snoopy becomes a helicopter? – but because of Schulz’s humble everyman style, the surrealism of Peanuts always seemed downright cozy. 

There’s other cartoonists who went equally spare, like Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (Barnaby surely a distant relative of Charlie Brown?). More recently, Jeff Smith’s Bone always dazzled me with its simple, clear lines. Yet many other remaining gag cartoons like Wizard Of Id or Family Circus or Dennis The Menace were simply drawn, but never quite managed the deep control and deceptive depth Schulz could with his art.

Schulz’s smooth line got sadly shaky in his final years of Peanuts, due to health problems. The easy effortless lines of the strip’s peak gave way to an old man’s more hesitant form. Yet the DNA of a master craftsman was still there in every panel, despite his struggles.

But boy, when he was at his best – which to be honest, was for most of Peanuts’ staggering 50-year-run – Charles Schulz laid down a line that many would imitate, and few would ever better.