Here's to you, Oliver Queen, and the worlds you created

Arrow could be subtitled, “The Evolution of a Hero.” Oliver Queen started out as a guy running around in a hood murdering bad guys; he ended it as a cosmic Christ-like figure literally sacrificing himself for the entire universe. 

With its final episode this week, I bid a sad farewell to my favourite superhero TV series after 8 years and 170 episodes, which left an entire comic book cosmos spinning it its wake. 

Batwoman? Black Lightning? Supergirl and The Flash? Who could’ve imagined when the dark, gritty first episode of Arrow aired in 2012 it would amount to all this?

Stephen Amell was never really the comics Oliver Queen, a grouchy cynical disillusioned liberal who has always seemed prematurely middle aged. In a lot of ways, TV Arrow was more of a Batman stand-in. Yet Arrow made its Green Arrow work, thanks to Amell’s constantly growing charisma and his sturdy moral centre. 

Arrow started out running away from being a ‘superhero’ show but soon embraced all the goofy possibilities of the medium. Pretty darned obscure comics characters were dredged up – Ragman? Mr Terrific? Wild Dog? It took until Season 4 for the title character to actually call himself “The Green Arrow,” for pete’s sake. 

It all wrapped up with Crisis on Infinite Earths, the live-action adaptation I’d never have imagined possible. Crisis, like most Arrowverse shows, wasn’t perfect, but it was damn close, a giddy, universe-shaking salute to the DC universe. 

“Arrowverse” shows lack the machine-tooled precision of the Marvel movies, but in some ways, their awkwardly episodic charm feels more comic booky to me. Unlike Marvel movies, which tend to be big event after big event, these TV series feel more like the comic books, which just keep coming month after month. 

The shows have been all over the map, quality wise – Flash started great and has gotten progressively worse, Supergirl has gotten better each season, while Legends of Tomorrow is now a completely different show than it started as. Batwoman and Black Lightning do a terrific job of expanding the diversity of comic-book stardom. 

They’ve been far more diverse than the Marvel movies – gay characters have been in the mix since the start, including the first gay superhero to get her own series. Supergirl debuted the first trans character. Meanwhile, all the Marvel movies have mustered up so far is a brief nod in the direction. 

Subtlety isn’t an Arrowverse strong suit – a theme will be hammered home repeatedly. They can be repetitive, cliched and sentimental (number one on my hit list – ending any episode with a sappy montage set to a lame pop song). There’s a lot of plain mediocre and some truly awful episodes in the Arrowverse. But also a lot of moments I’ve loved. 

Yet in many ways the Arrowverse is just as successful as the Marvel Universe has been in movies – introducing entire worlds, broadening horizons and ultimately embracing the joy behind the superheroic concept. 

Here’s to you, Oliver Queen. You kicked it all off. 

Comic conventions and me: Being a fan and a dad

(Been a bit busy lately, but here’s a freelance piece I did late last year that never quite found a home, tied into the local Armageddon Expo series of pop-culture conventions held around New Zealand. It’s also a kind of ramble about being a fan and being a dad. Give it a read and more “content” soon!)

Having a child means passing on the things you love to them, and hoping they stick. 

Every parent does it, whether it’s the All Blacks, the Beatles or Star Wars

When they’re young and malleable as modelling clay, you imprint them with your likes. 

Then as they start to form their own opinions, their shape changes, and as a parent you just hope they kind of hold on to the geeky love for Spider-Man that their dad once taught them. 

For years, my son and I have had a ritual of heading each Labour Weekend to Armageddon Expo, New Zealand’s biggest pop culture convention. I’m a comic book fan, and no son of mine was going to grow up not knowing his Green Lantern from his Green Arrow.

We’ve been at Armageddon pretty much every year from the time he was 5 until now when he’s pushing 16. 

Armageddon is small potatoes compared to some of the massive US comic book conventions I’ve been to, but it’s just right for New Zealand. It’s an assault on the senses with celebrity visits, hundreds of booths filled with every cult item you can imagine, video games blaring, bodies packed tightly together in the aisles and the occasionally overpowering odour of other fans. 

It’s crowded. It’s hot. It’s full of people in amazing costumes, sometimes with really pointy edges. It’s a Disneyland for three days of fans and fandom, and for years we wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

When I look back on my muddled journey of being a dad, I often think of how the boy and I journeyed deep into the world of Armageddon each year, and I tried to show him how to be a fan. 

There was the year we saw two Doctor Whos (well, OK, two actors who played The Doctor) and the boy became very keen to watch this long-running TV show that started years before his parents were even born. 

Over time, we got to see some of the greatest names in science fiction and fantasy history. Christopher Lloyd from Back To The Future, Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek, Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who, Nathan Fillion from Firefly.

We met New Zealand comics creators and bagged weird toys and big bargains and junk food, and ended each visit weighed down by our loot and overstimulated by sensation. When the boy was younger, I’d sometimes carry him back to the car and he’d fall asleep before he even hit the seat. 

It was a little different when I was his age. I was embarrassed to tell most people I read comic books. I had grand mythic adventures with a few like-minded pals playing Dungeons and Dragons until I worried what everyone else would think of me and grew out of it. 

These days, movies starring the Avengers whose comics I tried to hide reading make billions of dollars and what once seemed a bit nerdy and uncool is mainstream culture. People on the street know who Thanos and the Black Panther are. 

At some point in my life – embarrassingly late, I must admit – I got comfortable with telling other actual grown-ups that I’m a huge comic book fan, that I can rattle off obscure trivia about Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to you until the sun sets. 

Pretty much everyone who’s an avid fan of something feels a bit like an outcast sometimes. Maybe someone bagged on you for liking anime, or digging Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But at a pop culture convention, everyone’s a fan. There’s no shame in your passion. 

It’s OK to like what you like, be what you want to be, embrace whatever fantasy world turns you on. 

That’s the message of a place like Armageddon, where you can dress up like a samurai, a robot or a superhero for a day and be surrounded by your people. And it’s cool. 

That’s not the worst message to teach your son. 

I don’t know how much longer the boy and I will go to Armageddon together, before I become an embarrassment to him or he’d rather hang out with his friends. 

You measure parenthood by rituals, things you do every year which become commonplace until one day you don’t do them at all anymore. 

The boy I once had to crouch down to hug is now nearly as tall as I am, and I still can’t get used to it. He seems to grow a few centimetres a day. 

Now he’s into big epic World War II video games that kind of give me a headache to watch, and the Lego he once spent every waking moment playing with is getting dusty. I still read comic books and keep running out of ways to rearrange my shelf space. 

Once, he would watch Cars over and over. Now, he and I are sitting down to watch Apocalypse Now. He’s not the same little boy I once hopefully tried to tutor in the ways of Star Wars and Marvel Comics. He doesn’t like everything I like. 

But he likes a lot of it. 

He still loves Star Trek and watches reruns with us at least once a week. He’s into his own things, his own passions, and instead of me teaching him about Jedi Knights and Earth-2, he’s the one rattling off factoids to us about the things he’s into. Now he’s the fan, trying to convert us. 

Armageddon is a big, huge, crazy crowded event full of people who are all fans of something, whether it’s Pokemon or Call Of Duty or Deadpool. 

But for me it’ll also always be a place where my son and I bonded over superheroes and spaceships, and I watched him grow from a tiny boy dwarfed by a Dalek to a hulking teenager with his own obsessions, his own thoughts and his own fandom.

May it live long and prosper. 

Hey now! We are all Hank Kingsley in the end

The classic late-night TV show is kind of a relic of the past, living on mostly through sliced-and-diced into YouTube-ready viral clips by Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon.

But the whole corny pre-internet package of celeb guests, lame gags and stupid pet tricks that Johnny Carson and David Letterman exemplified got its magnum opus in the late Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, one of the best satires ever created. 

The 1992-1998 series told the behind-the-scenes tale of the fictional Sanders show, with Shandling (Sanders), his pit bull producer Artie (Rip Torn) and especially, his tortured sidekick, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor). Tambor’s performance and the show’s fantastic writing elevated Hank’s travails to an almost Shakespearean depth. Hank is the perpetual #2, a huckster and a glad-hander who’s also pathetically needy. He’s one of the greatest characters ever seen on television. 

Hank Kingsley contains multitudes. He’s conniving, crude, arrogant and perverted; and yet, at the same time, he’s often shown to be sympathetic, insecure, lonely and capable of surprising kindness. 

“Hank’s Night In the Sun”, when Hank finally gets his moment to guest-host Larry’s show, is a rich rise-and-fall-and-rise-again tale of Hank’s ever-present hubris being sabotaged by his many weaknesses.  It’d be easy to just make Hank a monster, but take the scene where, consumed with nerves, he asks Rip Torn’s Artie for some reassurance and gets a gruff, “You do not suck” in answer. With all sincerity, downtrodden Hank responds with, “That’s one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me.” There’s no sarcasm there. Hank’s heart is always on his sleeve, right next to his ego.

Tambor, sadly, is the only surviving member of the show’s main trio of characters – Shandling died way too young at just 66 in 2016, and Rip Torn passed away just last year. But “The Larry Sanders Show” lives on as one of the best TV sitcoms of all time. 

Jeffrey Tambor is one of the great character actors in sitcom history, going all the way back to his goofy supporting work in the late ’70s The Ropers spinoff from Three’s Company. His default mode is a kind of clueless arrogance, but Tambor paints many different shades in that narrow template. While his later work in Arrested Development and Transparent is fantastic, to me his Hank Kingsley is his Mount Rushmore. 

It’s easy to play a buffoon. It’s harder to make them magnetic. But I can’t take my eye off Hank Kingsley whenever he’s on screen in Sanders, which boasted one of the greatest casts and guest actor casts in all of television history.

We all would like to be a Larry Sanders, star of our own show, king of the mountain, but in reality I’m way more likely to be a Hank Kingsley, knocked flat again and again by my own foibles, but still getting back up again every single time. Hey now! 

Movies I have Never Seen #5: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

What is it: One of the most famous horror movies of all time, Tobe Hooper’s grim ’n gritty 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low-budget smash, changing the horror genre forever and inspiring Halloween, Friday The 13th, Evil Dead and a million other ‘slasher’ movies. It sets the template for countless gore-fests, with a small group of sexy young people running afoul of a house full of murderous redneck serial killers in rural Texas, notably the chainsaw-wielding maniac “Leatherface.” 

Why I never saw it: Look, I’m a big horror movie fan. Monster movies, Universal classics, John Carpenter, Evil Dead, Hammer horror, you name it… except I don’t really care for slasher movies. There have been some great “slasher” flicks I dig, like the original Halloween and the fantasy-tinged Nightmare on Elm Street series, but to be honest, I’ve never liked horror that leans too much into sadism (I know, a bit hypocritical). The whole “torture porn” genre of Saw and Hostel type movies that are direct descendants of Chainsaw Massacre are not my bag at all. So even though I’m keen to fill in the gaps in my movie watching ledger, there was something kind of offputting about Texas Chainsaw Massacre for me that took me a while to get to it. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely. Chainsaw sets up its mood of intense wrongness from the opening scenes. It’s a movie where death and evil seems to lurk behind every tree. It takes a little while to “get going,” and there’s a fair bit of rather bad acting by the amateur cast until the carnage starts, but when it does, Chainsaw turns into a white-knuckle ride of sheer horror until the very final moments. The last 30 minutes or so, as lone survivor Sally flees for her life and escapes by the thinnest of margins, is unrelenting in its intensity. It doesn’t let up, and the viewer echoes the shocked, dazed trauma of Sally (Marilyn Burns) by the end. You feel pummeled, haunted by glimpses into an abyss. Chainsaw doesn’t attempt to explain its killers, to give them any motivation beyond sheer madness, and that’s scarier than anything else. 

How it’s different than I thought: Well, despite the carnage left in its wake, the original Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a terribly gory movie. The horror mostly comes from suggestion – we don’t actually see that chainsaw carving up kids, but what we do see is in some ways more terrible. It is a very scary, haunting movie, without a doubt, but it’s not wall-to-wall blood. 

Worth seeing? Yes, for its place in film history, its intense sense of mood and place, and for plunging deep into the depths of depravity – but I don’t really feel the urge to see it again any time soon. Once was enough to look into this darkness. Your mileage may vary.

Year in review: Disappointments of 2019

Let’s kick 2019 one last time as it goes out the door!

I waxed enthusiastic and positive about my favourite 12 pop-culture moments of the year just dusted, but now let’s look at the things that weren’t so great. 

* The internet and toxic fandom. Wayyy back in the early 2000s I found the net a welcoming place to discuss my geeky afflictions, to find like minds and hunt down rare information. These days, it’s more like a toxic waste dump filled with fetid landmines, with occasional patches of grace you have to contort yourself to find. Picking up blogging again for me has become a hell of a lot more positive action than making random nasty tweets and posts. I gave up entirely trying to be a Star Wars fan online, for example, keeping it to myself like a secret fetish rather than engaging with a world where too many fans think fandom is about hate rather than love. I don’t even want to TALK about Rise of Skywalker online because it’s like a magnet for the worst of us, and I actually more or less liked it. 

* Terrible comic book “events.” I’m a sucker for hype but I’ve gotten a lot more judicious about buying into overwrought, dull comic book apocalypses these days. This year I got suckered by a few – the ponderous, pretentious and unnecessary Heroes In Crisis by Tom King, a writer whom I generally like; Doomsday Clock, the never-ending Watchmen sequel/crossover that read like bad Alan Moore fan fiction and I only read out of a kind of misguided curious masochism; or DC’s endless “dark” versions of their existing heroes like The Batman Who Laughs. I’ve seen enough twisted evil versions of superheroes or dystopian alternate realities to last a million multiverses, thanks. Resolution for 2020: Don’t believe the hype.

* Cari Mora by Thomas Harris. Look, I always go into a book *hoping* it will be good. And I am a fan of Harris’ pulpy, compulsively readable Hannibal Lecter series. But this reads like Harris scribbled a few notes for a bad episode of CSI: Miami on a cocktail napkin and handed it in. It’s his first non-Lecter novel since the 1970s and was definitely not worth the wait. Predictable and stale with no characters as indelible as Lecter or Clarice Starling, and typeset in a 15-point or so font that makes this brief read seem longer than it is, Cari Mora is the worst book I read in 2019. Glad I only borrowed it from a library!

* Death, in general and specific. Grand, doom-pop singer Scott Walker. Creature of the Black Lagoon muse Julie Adams. Pioneering gay cartoonist Howard Cruse. Psychedelic legend Roky Erickson. Comics journalists Tom Spurgeon and Bill Schelly. Terrific character actor Robert Forster. Pop magician Ric Ocasek. Monkee man Peter Tork. Two stars of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Rene Auberjonois and Aron Eisenberg. Easy ridin’ Peter Fonda. So many more. The year also saw the loss of old friends and family too soon like Oxford, Mississippi’s great bohemian cultural envoy Ron Shapiro; my uncle James House, who I wish I’d known better, and my ’90s small press pal and seriously underrated weird fiction writer Sam Gafford who died at just 56 years old. RIP to all and many more. Let’s hope 2020 is kinder.

Year in Review: My top 12 pop-culture moments of 2019

It’s 2020, and I’m still getting used to that fact. While I’m recovering from three weeks in California and a return to New Zealand summer, let’s hit my 12 favourite pop-culture moments of 2019!

* It’s an obvious pick, but … Avengers: Endgame, Captain America and that hammer. Marvel fanboy bliss in a movie full of great moments and the culmination of an act of movie world-building this comic book geek couldn’t have imagined possible back in 1984. 

* Exploring the bizarre world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with his novels The Scar and The Iron Council. Superb reads and a doorway to exploring the whole remarkable “new weird” genre for me (latest obsession, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Area X trilogy).  

* Accepting middle-aged manhood with a newfound appreciation for jazz and sax men, mainlining Miles Davis and Coltrane riffs, and catching an awesome Auckland show by Kamasi WashingtonThe wails of a saxophone soothes the savage breast of a middle-aged dude.

* The Chills are some of the greatest pop musicians New Zealand has ever spawned, and a fantastic documentary on the ups and downs of their mastermind Martin Philipps is a great look at their career. Seeing it at a special showing with Philipps himself in attendance and singing a few songs was fantastic. More reading: Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

* The Hulk can be anything, and Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk continues to be the best comic book Marvel’s done in ages, combining horror, heroics and awe as we discover there’s life galore in the gamma giant yet. This is the only entry to repeat from last year’s list, which tells you how good it is. 

* Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a cinema for the first time in years on Halloween night in a benefit hosted by creator, songwriter and actor Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien. Go-go dancers, flying toilet paper and profanity, spooky, hilarious fun and sweet transvestites galore. 

* The Mandalorian and finally seeing an IG droid do its thing nearly 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t tell you how geeked out IG-11 made me feel. More reading: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years.

* Rediscovering Akira Kurosawa. Even though I love Seven Samurai, Ikuru and the Yojimbo series, my knowledge of Kurosawa’s deeper filmography has been sadly lacking, until now. High And Low, Stray Dog, Red Beard, The Bad Sleep Well and so much more are like full-course meals for the head and heart. 

* Volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe for a third season this year and, particularly, seeing their fine version of Hamlet at least 8 or 9 times, each time the performances and bottomless wisdom of the play getting deeper and deeper for me. More reading: Hamlet, the play that never ends 

* Superheroes are everywhere, and it’s impossible to see every movie and TV show, but a real highlight this year was DC’s quirky, foul-mouthed Doom Patrol series, which captured the surrealism and horror of Grant Morrison’s epic run nicely. More reading: It’s the end of the world and I like it

* Bong Joon-Ho’s astounding Parasite and those stairs. Best movie of the year in a year with a whole lot of great movies? I have to suspect it is. 

* The opening of the heartfelt and gorgeous Tongan/New Zealand documentary For My Father’s Kingdom at the NZ International Film Festival, in a colourful gala packed with Tongan spirit, music and pride. Tongans are among my favourite of New Zealand’s rich tapestry of diversity, and in a year that also brought us the horror of the Christchurch attacks, this night at the movies was an inspiration of what this country is really all about. It was a privilege to witness this. More reading: Film festivals are the best-ivals

Next time, I’ll get negative with a look back at a few cultural lowlights of 2019!