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.