Charlie Chaplin spoke out, but the world didn’t listen

A movie where the lead actor suddenly drops character at the end and delivers a passionate 5-minute speech directly to the audience shouldn’t work. But somehow, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator endures, and his plea for kindness still seems revolutionary nearly a century later. 

Viewed 80 years on, Charlie Chaplin imitating Adolf Hitler doesn’t seem so radical. Mocking der führer has been done since by everyone from Donald Duck to Mel Brooks to Taika Waititi. 

But what separates 1940’s The Great Dictator is he was one of the first, doing it while Hitler was still alive, still in power, on the rise. America wasn’t even at war with Germany yet. Time shouldn’t dim how revolutionary and bold this film was. It pulls no punches about the Nazi campaign against Jews, its warmongering and spreading of hatred. (Even Chaplin didn’t have any idea of how truly horrific the Holocaust was in 1940, and years later expressed some regrets about his film as a result.) 

Chaplin walks a fine tightrope here – he plays two roles, a “Tramp”-like kind-hearted Jewish barber, and the raving Hitler stand-in Hinkel. He’s magnificent in both roles. As the movie goes along the Jew and the dictator’s identities become swapped (never mind that nobody until the end of the movie seems to note the resemblance between the two characters). 

That leads to the grand climax of The Great Dictator, when the little barber has stumbled into the dictator’s shoes and has to address a crowd of thousands of his subjects on the eve of war. After years of silents, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first full talkie, and he unleashes a torrent of pent-up words to make up for lost time. 

What happens next is still controversial – it’s a naked act of utterly mawkish sincerity, and from a strict storytelling perspective it barely works at all. Yet it doesn’t matter, because Charlie Chaplin, the mostly mute film star, stands up before the cameras, drops all pretence of acting as the barber, and delivers an impassioned, 5-minute long call for peace and understanding among all people. It’s like Iron Man stopping before the final battle with Thanos and sitting down on a stool and talking about brotherhood in Avengers: Endgame. 

Chaplin starts slowly, almost apologetically:  “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone.” 

Nobody likes a sermon in place of a climax, do they? And indeed, the first time I saw The Great Dictator years ago it did strike an odd note. It breaks the spell of the story, but that was Chaplin’s intention, as France fell and Hitler’s plan gathered speed. The older I get, the more Chaplin’s no-bullshit appeal stings for me:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in.”

Those words seem to ring even louder in the age of coronavirus and populist blowhards. Or is it just that sadly, humanity’s flaws and foibles haven’t changed a heck of a lot since 1940? 

It’d be nice to say that Chaplin’s big speech made a difference. But history tells us otherwise. The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest hit, but it also was the end of the road for him. The “Tramp” character never returned, and while Chaplin made a few more great films, they weren’t hits. His liberal politics during the McCarthy era saw him exiled from America to Europe. Despite the boldness of The Great Dictator’s final speech, Chaplin ended his career as a kind of pariah. 

Yes, it’s a strange way to end a film. Yet when artifice and bombast and trolling seem to have an unbreakable hold on us, I’ll take kindness over selfishness every single time. 

The world’s still pretty insane, so have some more Amoeba Adventures

Well, 2020 has been quite a ride so far, hasn’t it? New Zealand is finally returning to something vaguely resembling normal life. I hope you’re well, wherever you are.

At least being shut in around the house for nearly two months gave me time to continue the great Amoeba Adventures 30th Anniversary Celebration by scannin’ up the greatest hits of Prometheus, Rambunny, Ninja Ant and the rest from my 1990-1998 small press comic series. We’re near the finish line now – only a handful more issues to go, but this lot of free PDF downloads includes three of the biggest and bulkiest issues I ever published. Go check them out on the Protoplasm Press page! 

This lot includes the epic Amoeba Adventures #10, the conclusion to the “Details of Design” storyline that changes everything for the All-Spongy Squadron; #14, the solo writing and drawing debut of Max Ink in a very special tale focusing on domestic violence; and the slam-bang gigantic Amoeba Adventures #12, at nearly 80 pages the biggest comic I ever published and one that nearly killed me! It features solo stories for Rambunny, Spif, Ninja Ant, Herr Heinous and more, the secret 50-year history of Prometheus by Troy Hickman, Prometheus meets Matt Feazell’s Cynicalman, the scoop on the legendary small-press gathering at the 1993 Chicago ComicCon, and a jam back cover with 27 small press creators. Stories and art by guest contributors Max Ink, John Hurley, Doug Lumley, Tony Lorenz, Matt Feazell, Lynn Allen, Jason Marcy, Sam Gafford, J. Kevin Carrier and many more.

This means that the first 23 issues of the entire series are now available free online. As always, most issues feature rare sketches, notes and guest artwork from the secret Amoeba Archives, located many kilometres deep in a secret vault off the coast of Tasmania. 

Thanks to those who’ve had kind things to say in various places online about the old comics, it’s been a genuine pleasure rediscovering them after many years and glad to see folks enjoying them again. 

Enjoy!

The dogged optimism of Mr. Terrific

My favourite superhero team will always be the Justice Society of America. The first superhero team in comics, the JSA made its debut 80 years ago this year, with the original Flash, Atom, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Green Lantern and many more. 

One of their lesser-known members always intrigued me – the rather boastfully named Mr. Terrific, one of the most quixotic of golden age superheroes. He barely appeared with the JSA in their original ‘40s incarnation, and mostly lived out his life as a back-up feature in the Wonder Woman-headlining Sensation Comics. 

Mr. Terrific’s back story, such as it was, was laid out in Sensation Comics #1 – He’s Terry Sloane, first introduced as a “child marvel” who’ll be “smarter than Einstein when he grows up.” Basically, he’s good at everything, without being any kind of mutant or spaceman – the kind of guy who probably annoys the hell out of everybody around him, frankly. As he grows up, he’s a genius at business, sport and love. He gets so bored, he decides to kill himself. But instead of topping himself, he saves a suicidal woman jumping off a bridge and this gives him the spark to carry on, fighting crime as the masked “Mr. Terrific.”

To be honest, it’s complete nonsense of an origin, isn’t it? It’s not even having a bat fly through your window to inspire you. When roughly a dozen new superheroes were appearing a week in the 1940s, you worked with what you could, I guess. Mr. Terrific clad himself in a striking green and red costume with “Fair Play” emblazoned across his chest in huge letters, and the peculiar vehemence of his costume is probably why he’s remembered at all.

Nevertheless, I kind of like the goofy lug, who appeared in Sensation Comics until the late 1940s, then popped up occasionally in the 1960s. He was rather randomly killed off after years of obscurity in the pages of Justice League of America in 1979, and that was it for Mr. T. 

I don’t think there was probably ever a great Golden Age Mr. Terrific story. You’ve read one, you read them all. He was just kind of there, among dozens and dozens of other do-gooders living out very repetitive, yet somehow fun adventures. Yet the plucky charm of writing out “Fair Play” on your chest and deciding to fight crime because the only other choice is killing yourself out of sheer boredom sticks with me. Maybe Mr. Terrific was the first superhero to really struggle with mental health, although you’d never really guess that from his adventures. 

In what I’d call his greatest moment, even if it was after he was dead, Mr. Terrific made a wonderful little cameo in the 1990s in James Robinson’s fantastic series Starman #37. In it, “Starman” Jack Knight imagines himself dining with his dead brother and several other dead superheroes, including Mr. Terrific, who gets a brief page or so monologue about himself and his motto. In a few panels, Robinson somehow gives Mr. Terrific the real motivation and a wee bit of pathos that he’d been lacking for his entire career. 

A new Mr. Terrific was introduced in the 1990s as an African-American inventor with a tragic past, and was a very cool addition to the Justice Society and other comics. He’s probably been in way more good stories than his inspiration, but one thing I do like is that “Fair Play” is still prominently displayed on his costume all the same. 

In a world teeming with selfish politicians and preening social influencers and a real paucity of actual superheroes, the idea of sticking your head up and saying, “Hey – Fair Play! Let’s give everyone a decent go, shall we?” Well, that feels kind of heroic.  

That one time Bela Lugosi got to be the hero

Poor Bela. 

Bela Lugosi has been cast as a kind of cinematic cautionary tale over the years, with Martin Landau’s indelible Oscar-winning portrait of him in his decline in Ed Wood forever painting the Dracula star as a drug-addicted has-been stuck in terrible no-budget movies. Hell, even Bauhaus sang mournfully for him in “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” 

While Lugosi certainly had his problems, his career at its peak was fiery, and his presence on screen had a brooding Gothic grandeur that’s been imitated by every Lestat and Twilight sparkle-vampire wanna-be ever since. 

The sad thing is that Bela Lugosi very rarely got to play the hero. His iconic performance in Dracula defined him, for better or worse, and the ensuing typecasting meant that he rarely played non-villainous roles. He was also hobbled by the thick Hungarian accent he never quite shed. 

But in one of his best roles, 1934’s The Black Cat, he got to play a daring kind of anti-hero, teamed with Boris Karloff for the first time in one twisted piece of pre-Code horror. Lugosi is Dr Vitus Werdegast, a former prisoner of war who returns to exact vengeance upon his traitorous commander, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). Dr Vitus’ mission gets tangled up with two fresh-faced newlyweds who become pawns in a showdown between him and Poelzig. 

At a brisk 69 minutes, The Black Cat is Universal Horror near its peak – all razor-sharp shadows and crackling thunder, but with a creepy, real-life edge that foresees the horrors of the Nazi party. The monsters here are all very human. Poelzig, who’s not just a war criminal but a bona fide Satanic cult leader, is one of the more unnerving villains Karloff ever played, all sallow, black-eyed stare and unrepentant malice. 

But it’s Lugosi who steals The Black Cat, looking impossibly handsome and dapper as Dr Vitus, vigorous and strong. (It’s interesting to realise that Lugosi was actually a bit taller than Karloff, who played the towering Frankenstein’s Monster.) He’s a haunted man, but one who wants to do the right thing. The tragedy of The Black Cat is that in doing so, he is seen as a villain too.

There is a scene where Dr Vitus discovers the preserved corpse of his wife, kept in a glass case by the madman Polezig (I told you this was a twisted bit of pre-Code horror!). The agony and shock that plays over Lugosi’s face in this moment is a masterpiece of horror acting. 

Of course, The Black Cat is hokey – the newlyweds are a plot device, Lugosi’s character’s inexplicable hatred of cats is kind of hilarious today (at one point, he straight up murders a cat!). But there’s a primal fear to it too that movies from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Saw have mined ever since, about good people ending up in a web of unspeakable random cruelty. 

I love the brief image we get of Lugosi as the doomed hero, a good man shattered by wartime cruelties and the sadistic tortures of Poelzig. In the end Dr Vitus gives himself entirely to revenge and cruelty, mutilating Poelzig, and flicking the switch to blow up everything and almost peacefully, intoning, “It has been a good game.” 

In another world, maybe Lugosi would’ve played the hero more often. But when he did, he was unforgettable. 

Standing on a beach, staring at the sea in Level 3

I stood on a beach today for the first time in close to six weeks, and looked at the sea. 

There’s at least 100 beaches within an hour’s drive of our house (we do live on a narrow isthmus on a small island at the bottom of the world, after all), but I couldn’t go to them. New Zealand’s strict national lockdown ended at midnight last night, and for the first time in what feels like an age, we could do a little bit more today than we did yesterday.

We’re not fully out. Level 3, as they call it here, is still pretty stern. Fast food and takeaway restaurants are open, many people are finally getting to work again and we can drive a little further, but most of society is still hunkered down for a few more weeks, likely. New Zealand and our Prime Minister’s firm, authoritative response to the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have worked well.

What did I do during the great lockdown of 2020? I worked, a fair bit more than normal, picking up extra shifts because what else was there to do. I painted walls. I fussed about the house organising boxes of old letters and heaving book shelves and music magazines I’d inexplicably kept since 2013. Every day for the duration of Level 4 I posted a comic book cover of a character in prison (or lockdown) on my Instagram account. It turns out that’s a pretty fertile genre. My son played video games with his friends online, built cool models and ventured into online schooling. My wife catalogued trees and trapped rats. We all went for a lot of walks around our hilly neighbourhood.

And I worried, of course, in vague and uncertain ways. I recognise how immensely lucky that I am in many ways in this crisis, but still like everyone else I wonder what’s next. I seethe at the inept politics back home and the sprawling misinformation, ignorance and hate that’s taken over the internet. I saw friends back in the US, dealing first hand with the death of a neighbour or a relative or a patient and silently cursed all those who’d downplay this as some passing conspiracy fad. 

There’s been a surplus of thinkpieces and essays out there imagining a better world to come, full of idealistic notions that I wish I could fully see coming true.

In the end I have to ignore everyone else’s freaking out and rage and tension and come back to what matters the most, the people I live with inside these overly familiar walls, and controlling the antic voices in my own head. 

I stood on a beach today and looked at the sea. It’s still pretty good, eh? 

More free Amoeba Adventures for those pandemic blues!

Hi all, hope everyone is staying safe and not too freaked out. Now available on the Protoplasm Press page are another five free PDF downloads of my old Amoeba Adventures comics to liven up your self-isolation with if you feel the urge, reliving the greatest hits of Prometheus, Rambunny, Ninja Ant and the rest from my 1990-1998 small press comic series!

This lot includes Amoeba Adventures #8 and 9 (parts three and four of “Details of Design”), #19 guest-starring The Period, #23, the fourth part of “The Dark Ages” storyline featuring the shocking revelation of the Dark One’s identity, and a real rarity, my grab-bag zine of ancient amoeba rarities One-Celled Tales #1 from 1991.

As always most issues feature rare sketches, notes and guest artwork from the hallowed Amoeba Archives, also known as my shed out the back.

Enjoy them all – as I wind up the celebration of 30 years since the first issue, there’s only six issues left to scan ‘n’ upload and then the entire 27-issue run of Amoeba Adventures will be rescued from dusty old boxes and on the glorious internet for all the world (well, 7 people) to read!

The endless boozy charms of Nick and Nora and The Thin Man

Nick and Nora Charles never worry about money, politics, or viruses. They sleep in, drink all day and solve crimes at night. Who wouldn’t want to be Nick and Nora? 

During the current troubles, I’ve found solace by rewatching all of the great 1930s-40s Thin Man series of films, featuring husband-and-wife detectives Nick and Nora (and of course their dog, Asta). I first saw these movies as a teenager, and the snappy banter and elegant charms of a vanished black-and-white world won me over instantly. 

The unforced charisma of William Powell and Myrna Loy are what elevate the Thin Man series of six films over dozens of other forgotten screwball pics of the ‘40s. Wisecracking and booze-soaked (in the first few movies particularly), but deeply in love, Nick and Nora are one of the few couples of old-time Hollywood you can actually imagine having a sex life. Powell and Loy’s chemistry is so strong many people assumed they were actually married in real life. 

The first Thin Man sets the stage for the entire series – someone dies in mysterious circumstances, hard-drinking, wealthy, sort-of-but-not-really retired detective Nick Charles and his plucky heiress wife Nora get involved, there’s lots of banter, and in the end the crime is solved. In all the movies, the mystery really is secondary to the boozy, flirty interplay of Nick and Nora. They’re formulaic to a fault – every movie ends with a “Clue” locked-room type showdown where Nick Charles assembles various suspects for this episode’s mystery and there’s a dramatic reveal. But you don’t watch these for the mystery – you watch for the banter and the style they ooze. The first movie features some of the catchiest lines and Nick and Nora are particularly young, sexy and smart.  

1936’s first sequel After The Thin Man might just be my favourite of the series – unlike the first film, it doesn’t take ages to get to Nick & Nora, and the mystery is genuinely engaging, led by a very young Jimmy Stewart in a supporting role. For Nick and Nora, crime fighting is more of a lark in between boozy parties, and After The Thin Man does the best job of the series of capturing their pleasant debauchery while also wrapping in a good yarn. 

1939’s Another Thin Man adds the wrinkle of a baby son to Nick and Nora’s lives. It works here because the baby clearly cramps Nick and Nora’s style, but not so much that the fundamental appeal of the series goes missing. There’s also a bit of pathos behind the scenes as Powell was diagnosed with cancer between films and was in pretty rough shape, physically, but he rises admirably to the challenge. (Dig that lengthy monologue at the end of the movie and imagine how well you could deliver that in his state!)

The series does go on a gentle downward trajectory after the superior first three movies, but every Thin Man flick is worth watching. Shadow of the Thin Man ages up Nick and Nora’s son to around 4 years old and features a rambling murder plot about a racetrack. They always say having a kid is the downfall of romantic couples on screen. Nick Jr is kind of annoying here, to be honest, although I do like seeing Nick adapt his drunken ways to parenthood. Nora, on the other hand, definitely loses some of her spark as a character with her new motherhood. There’s also a rather cringe, broadly portrayed African-American maid character who hasn’t aged well at all, making Shadow one of the lesser flicks. But there’s highly amusing scenes set at a wrestling match and a great restaurant brawl. 

The Thin Man Goes Home is considered the low point of the series by some, but I actually enjoyed it because it focuses a bit more on Nick and Nora’s characters, by bringing in Nick’s aging parents and a change of scene to the sleepy town he grew up in. It’s amusing seeing Nick attempt to go “dry” (by drinking nothing but cider), and Nora remains spunky as all hell, although unusually for the series, this instalment treats her a bit too sexist. (A comic scene where Nick mockingly “spanks” her did not age well.) Their child is nowhere to be seen in this one, thank god, although the murder mystery is even more complicated and incomprehensible than usual. Goes Home gives us an unexpected side of confident, cocky Nick Charles, showing he’s still a son trying to please an unimpressed father. 

Lastly came 1947’s Song of the Thin Man. After 13 years, Nick and Nora have aged a bit and they’re a long way from the boozy, sexy young couple of the first films – Powell was in his mid-50s by now. The son is back, but this time much less annoying, played by a young Dean Stockwell (!), and the mystery this time revolves around a murder in a jazz band. The most amusing parts of this one come from Nick and Nora being dropped into the bebop post-war jazz scene, and being utterly lost amongst the hep cats, daddy-o. Back in the first Thin Man, Nick and Nora were cutting-edge cool, but now, suddenly they’re the aging hipsters adrift in popular culture. It’s a clever move that acknowledges time passing in the series. Firmly positioned in the middle of the series, Song is still a nice little farewell. 

Nick’s last line? Once the murder is solved, Nick says, “Now Nick Charles is going to retire.” Nora asks, “You’re through with crime?” “No,” says Nick. “I’m going to bed.” I like to think of Nick Charles trapped in amber at that point, perpetually toddling off to bed with a stiff shot of bourbon in his hand, waiting for the inevitable midnight phone call of yet another murder in the city, a case that only he can solve.