Stripped down: In praise of the humble newspaper comic

I love comic books, but I also love comic strips. And man, I miss them.

The ritual of paging through a newspaper and basking in the glory of an entire page or two of comic strips has been something I loved most of my life. One of the first things I remember reading were battered paperbacks of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” the Citizen Kane of strips. I remember clipping out old strips from The Union newspaper when I was growing up and making makeshift albums of them. 

One of my first jobs in real life was as a newspaper boy delivering that same Union, and so I got to read “Peanuts” and the rest before anybody else. Years later at a small town paper in Mississippi in my first job after college, one of my wage-slave gigs in a less computerised era was pasting up the newspaper’s comics pages by hand, clipping them out from the glossy sheets the syndicates sent and gluing “Shoe”, “Luann” and the like onto the page. Finally, I was making the comic strip pages! 

As I grew older, I moved on from “Garfield” and “Peanuts” to “Bloom County” and “Doonesbury” (where I learned more about US politics than I ever did in school) and finally the surreal charms of “Red Meat” and “Zippy The Pinhead.” I even achieved the ultimate dream when I drew my own comic strip “Jip” for a little more than a year for my college newspaper, where I unashamedly pilfered from all my favourite comic strips for inspiration. 

Comic books are huge intellectual property now and fodder for countless blockbuster movies and TV shows, but the comic strip feels somewhat cast aside, quaint, an echo of the past. Yet at its peak through most of the 20th century, the newspaper comic strip was probably far more influential on popular culture than comic books, an eclectic mix of cornball, adventure and gags that showcased how diverse the medium could be. 

Newspapers have been shrinking for years now and the comics page is one of the casualties. A lot of strips that have been going for a long time have ended this year, and it’s hard not to imagine even more will follow as papers fold and comic sections, where there are any left, shrink further. 

The immortal “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Bloom County” and “The Far Side” in the 1980s and 1990s might’ve been the last big gasps of the comic strip as pop culture giants. The death of Charles Schulz in 2000 seemed the end of more than just his era. It was a portent of the end of comics pages as a cultural touchstone. 

When I moved to New Zealand in 2006, it was a bummer to find out that the country’s biggest newspaper didn’t have a comics page at all. Pal Bob assures me that wasn’t always the case, and NZ newspapers once had robust comics sections too (including great Kiwi comic strips like the classic “Footrot Flats” by Murray Ball). But by the time I arrived down here, nuthin’. Somehow, a newspaper feels like it’s missing something irreplaceable without a page full of goofy comic strips. 

And yeah, I’ll admit, many comic strips have been pretty mediocre or gone on for literally decades longer than they should’ve. It’s hard to believe relics like “Andy Capp” or “Snuffy Smith” (mining that ever-topical hillbilly humour 90 years past its peak) are still going. When I do see the comic strip pages in America on visits now, they’re a pretty dusty lot. Given the ageing demographics of print media and their fetish for snorefests like “Mark Trail” and “The Lockhorns”, fresh new talent finds it hard to break in. There are a lot of “zombie comic strips” out there that take up the space that new talent might have. 

(As an example of comic strip inertia, that newspaper I worked for in Mississippi back in the mid-1990s still ran “Bringing Up Father,” surely one of the last papers anywhere to run a strip that began in 1913 and finally keeled over in 2000.)

The comic art form hasn’t gone anywhere of course, and endless legions of great, diverse creative folk are doing amazing comics online and elsewhere. But there’s a part of me that will always miss the humble newspaper comics page, where Garfield, Snoopy, Doonesbury and many more leapt out from the ink every single day.

Godzilla Vs Hedorah, or the grooviest kaiju flick ever

Brothers and sisters, let’s rap about Godzilla’s strangest trip of all time, the crazy, freaked-out madness that is 1971’s Godzilla Vs Hedorah (also known as Godzilla vs the Smog Monster in the US). 

I love me some Godzilla, but the psychedelic 11th Godzilla movie is, um, divisive among Godzilla fans, and even landed a spot in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time

Yet there’s something nervy and loose about Godzilla Vs Hedorah that the mostly formulaic 30-something other movies in the franchise lack. It’s a Godzilla movie, so there’s smashing and screeching. But it’s also without a doubt one of the strangest Godzilla movies ever made, a dogged attempt to be topical and hip as Godzilla fights the evils of … pollution. 

The “smog monster” Hedorah is, to put it mildly, disgusting. He’s a shapeshifting blob of goop and tendrils whose most imposing form has a strong Cthulhu vibe, with one single sideways staring eye that never fails to creep me out. At one point Hedroah gets blissfully stoned sucking on factory smokestacks. He’s constantly leaking and spurting out his bodily fluids, raw toxins and disease. Unlike say, Rodan or Mothra, he isn’t cuddly at all. A scientist at one point says he comes from “a negative world of death.” He looms over the movie far more than Godzilla does. 

A trippy movie that’s soaked in 1971 vibes, from the go-go hippie music sequences to the inexplicable brief animated cartoons that pop up between scenes, Hedorah is firmly planted in its time. It boasts many of the familiar Godzilla cliches – an evil monster to fight, buildings toppling, an incredibly annoying little kid who keeps screaming “Godzillaaaaa!” – but there’s something spartan and weird about Hedorah. Godzilla himself seems half drunk, introduced with a bizarre woozy horn fanfare in each scene. (One of the most infamous scenes in Hedorah has Godzilla flying, backwards, using his nuclear breath to propel him. It’s mental as anything, and yet it’s another one of the weird touches that give this flick the feeling of a strange fever dream.) 

Unlike pretty much every other kaiju monster in the Godzilla series, Hedorah doesn’t flinch in showing the body count. At one point his toxic goo invades a boardroom of Japanese businessmen, who are then shown in a rapid cutaway all dead, soaking in ooze and oddly evocative of some of the horrors of Hiroshima. In several scenes, Hedorah swamps civilians and leaves them nothing but smoking bones. In most Godzilla movies, carnage is abstract, smashed buildings. Hedorah dissolves you.

Godzilla movies mostly stick to the basics, but some of the other films have tried to be topical – the 1954 original is all about nuclear fears, while 2016’s innovative Shin Godzilla, made in the shadows of the Fukushima disaster, is one of the boldest movies in the series since Hedorah. Hedorah is definitely preachy, but it’s hard to pretend its environmental message isn’t still in the right place nearly 50 years later. 

Director Yoshimitsu Banno was trying to shake up the Godzilla franchise from its kiddy-movie reputation. He didn’t really succeed in the long run – he was actually fired from the franchise! – but yet his goopy masterpiece still stands out from a line of assembly-line kaiju clashes. Most Godzilla movies are just popcorn fun, which is totally cool, but Godzilla Vs. Hedorah is the only one of them that really leaves you feeling a little creeped out over the horrors we can’t always see. 

The Stooges, over and over and over again

I’m lost / I’m lost / I’m lost, yeah / I’m lost

Lost, lost, lost

– The Stooges, Down In The Street 

When I was a wee sprat in the pre-internet era, I’d often record songs off the radio, those poppy synth hits of 1983/84 or so, and I’d listen to them over and over in a strange fugue state, engraving them on my frontal lobes, trying to figure out the peculiar power that Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” or Prince’s “When The Doves Cry” held on me. 

Nobody records the radio on cassette tapes any more, but sometimes, I still crave the calm of noisy repetition. Sometimes you just want to fall into a kind of trance state, and listening to 13 or so takes of a single song in a row can certainly get you there. 

I’m ambivalent about the phrase “only for the fans” – as if there’s something wrong with being a passionate fan of something – but “complete studio sessions” type boxes probably do fall squarely in that category, I’ll admit. I’m a big fan of the Iggy Pop-led pivotal punk band The Stooges, and the completist in me has scooped up several “complete sessions” compilations devoted to them. 

The Complete Funhouse Sessions is a brick of a box set collecting six entire discs of takes on The Stooges’ fiery second album, 1970s’ Funhouse, and if you crave screaming guitars, Iggy Pop at his howling messiah peak and the clattering anarchy of garage rock melted down to its core elements, this is the place to be. Be warned, there’s 26 takes of “Loose” at one point. This is not for amateurs. Another great set, Heavy Liquid, grabs together scraps and blueprints for the album Raw Power, where you can hear The Stooges breaking down “I Got A Right” 13 times over, slower, faster, louder, softer, clattering into instrumental versions, studio chatter, a scrappy take on “Louie Louie” and more. You become sucked into the rhythm of repetition. How many ways can you play a song?

The Stooges are music at its most basic – there’s not a lot of deep eloquence in lyrics like “She got a TV eye on me” or “I feel fine to be dancin’, baby”, but there’s a churning power to it that sometimes is all you want. It’s just rock. 

I wouldn’t want to listen to “complete sessions” for every band, but there’s nothing quite like it to really get into the DNA of the creative process. You can hear how the song is made. The Beatles’ sessions that have slowly been coming out in the past few years are like getting a look into the birth of mythology itself, while stuff like the wild improvisations and alchemy found in Miles Davis’ sessions make the music feel as big and wide as the sky.

And in the Stooges, you’ll hear the churning chaos of their songs stretched, bent and swollen into a wall of sound that’d make Phil Spector jealous. So I’ll listen to takes on “TV Eye” ten times over some days when I’m in the right mood for it, slight variations and all, and it works. 

Sometimes you just want to get lost in the bones of the song and let the noise wash over you. 

Sometimes you can go back, and it is most excellent

So a few weeks ago I had a bit of a rant about inessential sequels, the never-ending Terminators and Predators and remakes which plague Hollywood.

But then on the flip side, there are the revivals that bring something new to their franchise, and when it works it’s like the best school reunion ever. 

Exhibit A: Forget Tenet, I am so here for Bill And Ted Face The Music. It was the first new movie I’d seen in theatres since March, and the first time the whole family went to a cinema since gosh, maybe Avengers: Endgame.

After nearly 30 years, was the return of Bill and Ted really necessary? Turns out it kinda was. Face The Music is goofy, silly and big-hearted, just like the other two Bill and Ted movies, and even if I kept squinting and seeing John Wick when I looked at Ted now, it was ultimately a mighty fine palate-cleanser for the sour stew that is 2020. 

These movies about time-travelling doofuses are not high art – and don’t think too hard about the plot mechanics – but they’re effortlessly charming, thanks to a never-goofier Keanu Reeves and the spunky Alex Winter (who is always fun despite a pretty low-profile acting career). When writing about Terminator: Dark Fate and other encore sequels the other week, I lamented how they just keep repeating the greatest hits. Bill And Ted 3 does a bit of that too, but it still feels scrappy, surprising and less machine-made than Terminator 6 or Predator 4 – and has a great subtext about what it’s like to be a middle-aged dude and still not quite made it. Its message of unity makes Bill and Ted feel weirdly relevant in 2020. It won’t win Oscars, but most of the unashamedly feel-good Bill And Ted 3 left me smiling like seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in years. That’s what any long-in-the-works sequel should do, rather than just straining to keep the intellectual property alive. 

Meanwhile, I’d have laughed if you’d told me a decades-on sequel to The Karate Kid would be some of the most enjoyable TV in ages, but Cobra Kai, which recently landed on Netflix, is absolutely a blast. I grew up with Ralph Macchio’s cheesy inspirational Karate Kid series, and even had one of my quasi-first dates at a screening of The Karate Kid Part II. (Peter Cetera’s goopy power ballad The Glory Of Love still slays the memory of pubescent me every time.) Cobra Kai is brilliant because it flips the script to tell us the story of Karate Kid Danny LaRusso’s nemesis from the first film, Johnny Lawrence (a terrific William Zabka), now a washed-up alcoholic trying to make one last go at his dreams. By turning the heel into a troubled antihero and giving returning Karate Kid Macchio (now a car salesman!) some much-needed moral ambiguity of his own, and tossing in the same stirringly motivational karate kicks of the original films, Cobra Kai turns out to be the model for how a franchise can come back from the dead and really have something to say. 

Even a once-adapted, beloved novel can have some new life in it, like Hulu’s recent take on Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. The 2000 film starred John Cusack, but the recent TV series flipped the switch and cast Zoe Kravitz as “Rob” Robin, record store owner and confused romantic. Switching genders doesn’t always improve a story – see the forgettable Ghostbusters remake – but Kravitz’s excellent performance finds new depth in Hornby’s tale, and the grittier, more lived-in feeling of the series elevates it above the movie. It’s a shame the show was cancelled after just one season as it was very promising stuff and moving well beyond just being a cover version of its predecessors. 

I still think there’s way too much strip-mining of popular movies of the past in hopes of striking gold twice. But Bill And Ted, Cobra Kai and High Fidelity show that if you’ve still got a good story to tell, there’s still hope for the future in the past.

Chadwick Boseman, and the stories left to tell

The death of Chadwick Boseman at just 43 from cancer hurts, coming as it does in a year when there’s been so much hurt already. 

Just over two years ago, he was the star of the biggest superhero movie ever at the time, the first nominated for Best Picture. But he was eye-catching and charismatic in everything he appeared in during his too-short starring film career, which spanned just seven years. To most of the world’s shock and dismay, we learned that he was fighting colon cancer for much of the time he was starring in some of the biggest movies on the planet. Unimaginable. 

He’s going to always be remembered for Black Panther, but he starred in several wonderful films, carving out a bit of a niche career as a chameleon portraying famous inspirational Black figures. Legendary baseball star Jackie Robinson. Soul star James Brown. The first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He was very different, dazzling in each role and was much more than just T’Challa, the Black Panther. He leaves us these stories. 

I always loved the Black Panther as a kid. He was mysterious and cool, and back in the 1980s, he didn’t actually appear all that often in comics. And Chadwick Boseman brought him to life wonderfully on screen, capturing the Shakespearean tumult of a Prince-turned-King wrestling with his own power. I would’ve loved to see what he did in future films. 

Boseman’s pivotal place in Black film history is not my story to tell. But his starring as the Black Panther – telling millions of Black kids and adults that yes, a superhero could look like anybody – changed the parameters. He made the world bigger, and broader.

Some of us mourn actors and musicians because we see the storytellers they are, and when one of them dies suddenly or too young all you can see are the stories yet untold. Chadwick Boseman should’ve had a career stretching for decades, and it’s unfair. The last sudden film star death that hit me like this was Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I felt much the same thing – I wanted to see more. I felt cheated. 

Two scenes from Boseman’s turn as the Black Panther keep ringing in my head, neither one of them your typical superhero punch-ups. One is the quiet moment at the very end of Black Panther between T’Challa and his vanquished foe Killmonger, which achieves a kind of graceful sadness. The other came at the very end of Captain America: Civil War, where T’Challa confronts Baron Zemo, the villain who assassinated his father. 

Both scenes are notable for the calm centeredness of Boseman. At the end of Civil War, T’Challa decides not to kill the man he’s been hunting the entire film, and stops him from killing himself. 

He tells Zemo, “The living are not done with you yet.” Yes, it’s a line by a superhero to a murderous villain, yet somehow it echoes to me so much as I think about Chadwick Boseman today. 

He is free from pain now, but the living were not done with you yet.

There were so many stories left to tell. 

That time the Son of Satan was a superhero

I’ve written before about my love for the weird stuff Marvel Comics put out in the early 1970s.  Perhaps one of their strangest gambles was a series that could only have risen from the grave in the age of The Exorcist and The Omen. Let’s give it up for … The Son Of Satan!

After years of comics being constrained by the Comics Code Authority, the reins were loosened a bit early in the 1970s, allowing previously taboo subjects. Marvel Comics went BIG on the horror in the early ‘70s, and as a result dug up some of its best work. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, a living mummy, a Man-Wolf, a werewolf, a zombie, hell, even a golem and a Manphibian … They’d throw anything at the wall of the horror superheroes boom to see if it stuck. 

So why not the Son of the Dark Lord himself? Hilariously, according to a feature in Back Issue magazine #21, Stan Lee actually proposed Marvel do a comic book starring Satan himself – in other words, DC/Vertigo’s Lucifer decades ahead of its time. Cooler heads prevailed and instead a feature called Son of Satan debuted in a 1973 issue of Marvel Spotlight, starring Damien Hellstrom – also confusingly sometimes called “Hellstorm” – the son of the devil and a mortal woman torn between two worlds. 

You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of calling a comic book Son of SatanFredric Wertham surely would be turning in his grave. I love the title, even when the book itself was rather schizophrenic – during his 20 or so issue solo run in Marvel Spotlight and then his own short-lived comic, Damien Hellstrom’s adventures fighting both evil and his own evil side ran all over the place and went through many creators (the best being the late writer Steve Gerber). At one point, he even got into a fight with Adam – yes, that Adam. Like many Marvel books of the era, Son of Satan constantly changed course to try and win readers. He was clad in circus-devil yellow and red and carried a pitchfork, teamed up with Human Torch and Ghost Rider and kept on with all his daddy issues. 

He did get flak – at least one letter writer accused the creators of being “tools” of Satan. Artist Herb Trimpe told Back Issue he was “uncomfortable” with “evil being the star of the book.” Years later, ol’ Son Of was even retconned so he wasn’t actually the son of that Satan, but of a more generic demon who sometimes called himself Satan. Son Of Someone Who Might Be Satan really isn’t as catchy.  

The original ‘70s run was all nicely collected in the Son of Satan Classic paperback. Later, Damien popped up in Marvel’s clearing-house non-team book The Defenders for some fun stories, and kept bopping around ever since. You can’t keep a good devil down. 

Hellstorm got grim and gritty in the 1990s, really leaned into the whole Satanic thing and started looking like Rob Zombie and gave up the superhero spandex in a 1990s well-received gory reboot by Warren Ellis. He’s often been an outright villain in more recent appearances. He’s even finally getting some kind of adaptation in a TV series (with a fairly underwhelming first trailer, and this time he’s spelled Helstrom!).

Admittedly, the entire concept is better geared towards dark horror than heroics, but I still kind of dig the era when a guy calling himself the Son of Satan ran around in a superhero cape. “Hellstrom” or “Hellstorm” or whatever is a decent enough name, but to be honest, if you’re the son of the devil, you need to own that. 

Son Of Satan is an intriguing little throwback to an era when such a character could be featured in what were ostensibly kid’s comics without major protests. So you know, hail Satan — he might just have cleared the way for much darker and grimmer comics yet to come. 

I’ll be back. And back, and back, and back again.

So I finally got around to watching Terminator: Dark Fate the other night, the sixth in a series of films that have been going since I was 13 years old. I am now pushing 50.

And it was … fine. Good action, bit of Arnold and Linda Hamilton, hitting all the right Terminator beats. But was it essential?

It’s not like this is any startling revelation, but the field of genre films is littered with unnecessary sequels that are only there for one reason – cash and “protecting the brand.” So many of these sequels fail to pass the pub test – do they tell a story that is worth telling? 

Terminator and Terminator 2 together tell a concise apocalyptic story, one that has been exhumed every few years with diminishing returns ever since. Instead of it becoming a story of humanity changing a dark future, seen over six films it’s actually a tale of how no matter how many robots you kill, everything is still going to go horribly wrong somehow in the end. 

Take the Alien movies. I had to do a double-check to actually see how many there have been now – eight if you count the spin-offs! Yet the story of Ellen Ripley is actually told pretty well through the first two or three movies alone, and all else is papering in cracks and investigating corners that didn’t turn out to be that interesting in the long run. 

Or Predator, one of those franchises that they just can’t let die. One perfect bloody brawler of an action movie. Five increasingly nonessential reboots, sequels and prequels.

And, as I said, Terminator: Dark Fate was fine. It was certainly better than the fourth and fifth Terminator movies, not quite as good as the rather underrated third. But for all intents and purposes, the story of Sarah Connor and Terminators trying to kill her was told perfectly well in the first two movies. 

The marketing machines gear up these nonessential sequels and reboots every few years and they become a blur. Just in the last 15 years or so we’ve had airy reworkings of Total Recall, Fright Night, Robocop, Tron, Ghostbusters, Point Break and more that evaporate almost from the moment you think of them. It doesn’t mean a franchise can’t carry on indefinitely – the Marvel movies machine franchise manages to keep you wanting to know what’s happening next in the sprawling tapestry, and even if the movies aren’t all of the same quality, you generally feel they were worth telling. And even a years-later sequel to an old idea can still bring something new, such as Mad Max: Fury Road or Blade Runner 2049. 

I know it won’t happen in Hollywood, but just wish sometimes the question would be asked, is the story worth telling? Most of the time, the answer is that it was told fine the first time. 

Sherlock Holmes: The game will always be afoot

It’s no mystery why Sherlock Holmes endures. 

I first came to Sherlock as a teenager, sucked into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s intricate little puzzle-boxes of stories. There are just 56 stories and four short novels that Doyle wrote, which when you tick them all off, may leave you feeling a bit bereft.

But the thing about a great character like Sherlock Holmes is he’s pretty malleable. The pile of “Sherlockiana” – Holmes reboots, sequels, prequels, reimaginings and more – far exceeds what Doyle wrote in his lifetime. He’s the most portrayed fictional character in history

As a sucker for Sherlock who finished the original canon decades ago, I’m an easy mark for the never-ending cascade of Sherlockiana stories. Some are great, good as anything Doyle ever wrote and occasionally even better. Some of them are pretty dire. Many are just kind of there. But there’s literally a Holmes for everyone, and that’s part of the fun of diving in. 

There are new Holmes mysteries, written in as close a style to Doyle as possible. There are alternate history versions, team-ups, and more. I scored a whole pile of Titan Books’ recent reissues of “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” pastiches a while back, which feature reimaginings galore starring everyone from President Theodore Roosevelt to Harry Houdini to Tarzan, fighting Jack the Ripper or Dracula or The Phantom of the Opera. 

There’s an amusingly twisted series of “Warlock Holmes” Lovecraftian comic parodies which imagine a demon-haunted magician Holmes aided by his partner Watson, the true detective of the duo. 

There’s even a subset of “ancient Sherlock” stories featuring Holmes in his extreme old age, such as Michael Chabon’s bittersweet “The Final Solution,” Neil Gaiman’s “The Case of Death and Honey,” or Mitch Cullins’s “Mr. Holmes.”

But boy, I wish Sherlock pastiche writers would retire the unbearable cliche of Professor Moriarty “suddenly” being revealed as the mastermind in their mysteries. While Moriarty’s a fascinating character, despite his barely appearing in just two Doyle stories, he’s also a crutch for writers searching for their Joker to Sherlock’s Batman. Pulling him out as the trump card is the lazy way out. 

Not that Moriarty pastiches – and of course, there’s plenty of these too – are a bad thing. I particularly like Kim Newman’s Moriarty novel retelling Doyle’s stories entirely from the perspective of Moriarty and his henchman Moran. And none other than famed basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbara big Sherlockian himself – has done a few novels starring Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s mysterious brother.

Gender swapped, racially reimagined, time tossed or even Sherlock in space, it’s all out there in the Sherlock multiverse. I like a good mystery. And while the flood of Sherlockiana is admittedly inconsistent and requires a solid detective to ferret out the gems, there’s few pleasures more cozy than settling in with a new take on the sacred hunt. The game’s always afoot! 

The Amoeba Adventures Archive is now a real thing

It’s here! The project I’ve been filling my pandemic-free hours with for the past month or two.

The AMOEBA ADVENTURES ARCHIVE is now available for your digital reading pleasure, marking the grand conclusion of my 30th anniversary of Amoeba Adventures celebration. A whopping 130-page digital book, it includes:

* The return of Prometheus the Protoplasm in the first NEW Amoeba Adventures story since 1998! It’s been a real trip to return to drawing comics again after wayyyyyy too long, and hopefully you enjoy!

* Troy Hickman pens a long-lost untold story of the Flaming Flag during World War II!

* Not one but rare two team-up stories with Jason Marcy’s brawling bruiser Powerwus!

* Rare Amoeba Adventures stories from fanzines, The Rap Sheet, and special publications! 

* Excerpts from the legendary Small Press Syndicate jam comic crossover!

* The never-before-published, embarrassingly primitive very first Prometheus two comic books ever drawn! 

* A look into the vaults at scripts and art for several stories that never quite made it to print, including a team-up with the late Sam Gafford, an Amoeba Adventures Annual with Lynn Allen, and much more! 

* A gallery of rare art by Max Ink!

* A complete cover gallery of vintage Amoeba Adventures publications! 

It’s only a mere $2.00 US / $3 NZ to get the whole package downloaded direct to the tablet/laptop/Commodore 64 of your choice, plus, as a bonus, I’ll also throw in the digital reprint of the 1995 Amoeba Adventures 5th Anniversary Special, a 36-page look back at the first 5 years of the All-Spongy Squadron featuring profiles, essays and pin-ups galore. That’s a grand total of more than 160 pages of material for less than the cost of a single new comic book. 

(Sorry, at the moment it’s digital-only for me, but maybe once the world calms down a little I’ll do a limited edition print version.) 

Donate with PayPal

Payment accepted via Paypal or hit me up via message if you need other options. 

And don’t forget, every single issue of Amoeba Adventures is already available for a free download over on this page – so you have no excuse!

21 minutes and done: In praise of the classic sitcom

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it a little hard to concentrate this year.

I’ve got a hefty 600-page novel I’ve been working on for weeks now that’s really good, yet I keep getting distracted. I have plans and projects. Yet I keep “doomscrolling” (a fantastic phrase) and worry I’ve missed the latest catastrophe.

Thus, for solace, I turn to the essence of distraction: the classic sitcom. I think it might just be the perfect tonic for the befuddled mind. To me, despite all the great dramas out there, the platonic ideal of television is still the 21-minute sitcom. 

A good episode of Frasier or Seinfeld or Brooklyn Nine-Nine has all the energy of a terrific one-act play. A familiar cast of characters, a story that unfolds conflict and resolution in just a score or so of minutes, and a few jokes you can laugh at. I’m easy to please. 

Not all sitcoms are created equal. Seinfeld still holds up brilliantly, but I simply don’t get the belated critical elevation of Friends, an amiable show that I watched while it aired but feel no need to ever revisit again. I can watch episodes of Frasier until the sun grows cold and dark, but maybe thanks to my son’s youthful addiction to it, my tolerance for all but the most classic episodes of The Simpsons is kinda low now. 

It doesn’t all have to be old stuff from the pre-internet days, although the nostalgic kick of an old episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or M*A*S*H still holds up for me. I fondly remember watching many of these shows after school in an era where streaming was something you did while fishing. I’ve also been rewatching all of the brilliant Community, or newer stuff like the terrific The Good Place, Fleabag or Schitt’s Creek.

A good comedy can take a simple plot – two brothers open a restaurant together; a television clown dies; a group of friends can’t find their parking spot; a cool dude in a leather jacket jumps over a shark – and make it sing. 

There’s an endless ocean of content streaming out there, and it seems like there’s a new hot show every week. Yet I have to admit I’m giving most of it a miss. There’s a million classic movies to watch if I feel the urge for something longer, but the bloated storytelling of many streaming shows turns me off. 

Looking back, commercial television kind of sucked – I don’t miss the adverts much. Like many of us now, the times I actually watch “live” TV with commercials and everything are pretty rare.  

Without commercial restraints a single episode can stretch on as long as it wants, often without really earning that running time. Shows that merit 21 or 40 minutes turn into 60, 70 minutes. They lack the Oscar Wildean economy of wit that tight 21 minutes forced a sitcom to be. 

An awful lot of so-called “classic” weren’t all that great either, to be fair. But it also forced creatives to work within those tight parameters. Twenty-one, 22 minutes, tell a story and get out, and for those 21 minutes, all the blues are chased away.