We can’t always pinpoint the dates that change our lives. Not the big moments, but the little ones, like a hobby that you just can’t shake.
But there’s one date I’m pretty sure about: The date I became hooked for life on comic books.
I grew up reading comic books bought by my parents, but the true pathway to addiction was when I started spending my own money on them. The spinner rack at the long-gone Lucky’s supermarket was where I became hypnotised forevermore.
The comic book that hooked me for life was Marvel’s Star Wars #58, beckoning to me from the spinner rack with an amazing Walt Simonson cover featuring C3PO and R2-D2 floating ominiously in a scarlet sky.
Forty years, and I’m still hooked on comics. My library of comics and graphic novels is kind of embarrassing in its scope, but it’s also a big old cape-wearing part of my whole identity now, as a grown man teetering into late middle age.
Comics expanded the world to me, made me want to be a journalist like Clark Kent or Peter Parker, led to me working on my own comics through the years, and introduced me to a kind of secret society of like-minded dreamers and loners.
Forty years on, and comic characters that were obscure in 1982 are the basis of billion-dollar movie blockbusters and TV shows. I love a lot of those gaudy pop-culture successes, but it’s still those musty smelling, ad-festooned and humble physical comic books themselves I love the most, especially the ones I grew up with in the early 1980s.
Thanks to Mike’s website, I can see the issues that I bought back then and that imprinted themselves on me in those early months of 1982 – Spider-Man battling his way against the impossibly powerful Juggernaut in Amazing Spider-Man #230 (part two of a story that took me ages to find the beginning of!); the creepy photo cover of Saga Of The Swamp Thing #2, calculated to scare and entice readers; the Thing grumbling and arguing his way through teaming up with Ant-Man in Marvel Two-In-One #87; Batman facing off against the deliciously divided Two-Face in Batman #346…
Marvel’s irreverent Hercules, a figure out of myth having merry madcap adventures in outer space in Hercules #1; John Byrne’s operatic and epic clash between the Fantastic Four and Galactus in Fantastic Four #242-244, which seemed as grand as three Star Wars movies put together; the funky disco-esque costume of Firestorm, a hero I’d never even heard of, exploding off the cover of Fury of Firestorm #1; the Justice League of America apparently defeated, near death, at the hands of the Royal Flush Gang in JLA #205… I could go on.
Many of these comics I’ve still got today, a bit well-read and hardly near-mint, but they always carry me back to the winter and spring of 1982. I soon discovered comic book stores (as I’ve written aboutpreviously) and well, there’s no going back from that.
Through thick and thin, comings and goings in life and great adventures and sad setbacks, those comics bought starting in January 1982 were friends and inspirations in all their weird, wonderful ways, shaping the person I ended up becoming.
The 10-year-old me of 1982 would never have guessed, turning that rack full of comics in all their gaudy colours, that that spinning rack would change everything. Life can be like that.
The rack spins, and your fortune is forever changed by one simple gesture.
…Continuing year in review list week before this newfangled 2022 gets too darned far along for everyone, here’s my favourite books I read in 2021, restricted to just those books published in 2021 (and maybe just one or two that came out at the very end of 2020 but maybe came out in paperback this year).
Once again my reading tends to be heavier on the nonfiction than the fiction, although I’m hoping to be more egalitarian in 2022.
In alphabetical order:
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood
A Swim In A Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give A Master Class on Writing, Reading, And Life, by George Saunders
Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave, by Mark Mordue
His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life, by Jonathan Alter
I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, by Carol Leonning and Philip Rucker
Mike Nichols: A Life, by Mark Harris
Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism, by Paul S. Hirsch
Times Like These: On Grief, Hope and Remarkable Love, by Michelle Langstone
Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, by Evan Osnos
It’s year in review list week before this new year gets a little too old, and here’s my 10 favourite movies of 2021 in alphabetical order, ranging from critical favourites like Jane Campion’s sublime Power Of The Dog to movies that might not be on a lot of other critical lists like Godzilla Vs Kong, because, again, monkey punching lizard!
The Beatles: Get Back
The French Dispatch
Godzilla Vs Kong
The Power of the Dog
The Sparks Brothers
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Summer of Soul
Very much tied up for No. 11: Dune, The Green Knight, Nobody, No Time To Die, The Velvet Underground
If you could live forever, would you want to? And what would it be like?
That question is at the heart of the legacy of Anne Rice, who died at 80 last month. I grew up reading many of her Vampire Chronicles, and — a bit belatedly due to Christmas and weather chaos — I wanted to think about why her work meant so much to young Nik.
Nobody was more influential in vampire fiction since Bram Stoker dragged Dracula out of the coffin back in the 1890s. Rice’s vision of blood-suckers can be seen in the DNA of everything from The Vampire Diaries to True Blood to Buffy to Twilight — some good, some not.
When we think of vampires today, you’re likely thinking of them less as Bela Lugosi and more as passionate, creepy and eternally conflicted lovers, a template Anne Rice built up more than anyone.
Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were passed-around, beloved talismans of my wayward youth. The glittering paperbacks with their gothic lettering were read, and re-read.
It was The Vampire Lestat that particularly grabbed me, with Lestat narrating the centuries of his life in first person. He was bratty, impetuous, cruel and, sometimes, kind. He may have been hundreds of years old, but Lestat kind of felt like a teenager.
Evocative and passionate, gothy as any Cure song, filled with blood and lust and long lonely meditations on what it’s all about, they were perfect reading for confused teenagers trying to figure out the world. She quietly was a progressive voice for gay equality in the ’80s, and later depicted trans characters and gender fluidity in a way that seemed groundbreaking and yet completely unforced. In her world, love is love.
Rice created a sprawling narrative filled with rich characters, many of whom went on to star in their own books after debuting in the original trilogy, and she was deft at bringing her historic settings to life. Her strength was not so much in plot or her almost Victorian prose, but in character. She made you feel the weight of immortality and what that might actually be like. Her vampires – dour Louis, insecure Armand, bold Marius or terrifying Akasha – were far more complex than the spooky boogeymen of Stoker’s Dracula. Dead, they still carried with them all the baggage of their living lives. Her vampires talked, and talked, and talked, sometimes to the point of self-parody, but in their lengthy soliloquies were all about digging into what makes us human – or inhuman.
The Vampire Chronicles did become a case of diminishing returns as it sprawled on to more than a dozen books, and Rice’s later work never quite surpassed the original books, but I’d argue everything up until Memnoch the Devil is pretty golden. As the series goes along, Lestat becomes a bit too powerful and loses some of the charming rogue vibe he has in the earlier books, and the constant adoration other characters always seem to have for him gets a bit much.
Yet there’s still a lot to like in later volumes if you’re not turned off by Rice’s endless expansion of her shared universe to include witches, Atlantis, demons and more. But in the end, the stories always circle back to Lestat, her greatest character and always, always the centre of attention.
In Lestat, Rice created a monster who constantly tries not to be one, often failing. Rice wrote other books, of course – erotic fiction, meditations on the life of Christ and more – but ultimately, it’s the vampires that make her immortal.
And so, the curtain drops on 2021, a sequel that somehow managed to perform even worse than the blockbuster year 2020 did. Still, despite the grimness on personal fronts and the continuing stupidity of life in general, there were a few halfway decent moments. So, in the spirit of looking on the bright side, here’s my top pop-culture moments of 2021, with links back to some of the original posts about them.
Filling a Crowded House, in a brief pandemic oasis – My experience seeing Crowded House playing a packed Auckland arena back in March happened in New Zealand’s several blissful months of Covid-free life, before the Delta outbreak in August. It also was a life-affirming blast of a show, with Neil Finn and company delivering a celebratory concert of hits and new songs that just made you feel glad to still be here, alive and appreciative of all the things we took for granted pre-2020. There’s been a lot of times I’ve lost faith in humans the past two years, but at that one concert, a big crowd of us all singing and smiling felt kinda sorta all right. Here’s hoping going to big concerts again becomes normal soon.
The open-throated passion of John Cassavetes – A ‘discovery’ for me this year was the work of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes, who I’ve long been meaning to delve into. His work dating back from the late 1950s sparked much of independent film, and Cassavetes was determined to present life in its messy, often unexplainable complexity. In movies like Faces, A Woman Under The Influence and Husbands, people behave madly, inconsistently, and irrationally – like they often do in real life. His movies are a challenge, to be sure – the loose-limbed Husbands at times feels like a drunken TikTok video starring Peter Falk might – but even while they push and prod you, you find yourself thinking of them constantly the next day.
When big franchises take a few chances – I’m a fanboy, but I’ve admittedly burned out a bit on the assembly line of superhero movies and childhood classics being regurgitated over and over (did anyone really want another Ghostbusters?). So I was pleasantly surprised by two venerable franchises that didn’t play it entirely safe – James Bond in the long-delayed No Time To Die, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Without spoiling either, they took risks – ones that might not have satisfied every fan. James Bond faces challenges he never had before in No Time To Die and the ending was a disturbing but effective shocker. And the idea of a multiverse-straddling take on Spider-Man could easily have gotten overstuffed and absurd (I’ve ranted about the overuse of multiverses before), but instead, we got a story that embraces the idea of the shared cinematic history of franchises and characters who just keep coming back in a heartfelt, dignified way. There’s a reason it’s smashing box office records.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman – I had been meaning to read this series of books by Grossman for a while now, which could be broadly described as “Narnia/Harry Potter, but for grownups.” They tell a somewhat familiar story of a young magician, Quentin Coldwater, and his ups and downs learning magic and having brilliant, frightening adventures in fantastic lands. The Magicians books were perfect escapist reading during the dregs of Auckland’s lengthy lockdown, brisk and darkly enjoyable, with the imaginative flair of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and the solid characters of Harry Potter, but aimed at a slightly older audience who might like a bit of drinking and sex to spice things up. I read better books objectively this year, but these ones were among the most fun.
Superman, still the best superhero – It’s been a good time to be a fan of the man of steel. One of the best decisions the corporate overlords made a few years back is to let Superman finally marry Lois Lane, and to let them have a kid together. It’s allowed Superman to mature as a character into everybody’s ideal dad, and unlike some big changes to the status quo for comics characters, for now, this one seems to stick. On TV, I praised the superbly entertaining Superman and Lois, which combines spot-on casting with great Super-action and a show that’s not afraid to get emotional. In the comics, writer Brian Bendis finished up a suprisingly cool run that felt modern and daring yet true to the character, while the anthology series Superman: Red And Blue was an ideal summation of the character’s appeal with a variety of mostly excellent short stories starring Kal-El. Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, who’s now a young adult, got his own title and it’s turned out to be one of the best new superhero comics of the year – a young, progressive and caring superhero (who’s also bisexual, which has gotten the usual suspects outraged). All in all, from the perspective of a rather troubled real world, Superman and his son seem more relevant than ever.
Lighting a Sparks – I admit I’m losing my touch with current pop culture as I settle into extreme middle age, but part of that is because there’s so darned much OLD pop culture to still enjoy. I was aware of Sparks and liked some of their work, butEdgar Wright‘s excellent documentary The Sparks Brotherstriggered one of my famed full-fledged obsessive binges, as it spurred me to dig into the art-pop band’s hefty 50-year discography. It’s a delight to find a band you like and then find out that they’ve got literal mountains of material for you to enjoy.
Godzilla smashes up King Kong – Look, I know, it’s a big dumb old monster movie. But Godzilla Vs. Kong was, in my deep critical analysis, very, very good at being a big dumb old monster movie. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a well-played VHS tape of the 1962 King Kong Vs Godzilla that I unironically love. Maybe it’s because I saw it on a booming IMAX screen, just at the start of NZ’s pandemic-free idyll mentioned above, and because I could watch King Kong and Godzilla wrestle on aircraft carriers nearly life-size. I’m not saying it will win any Oscars. I’m not saying that it always makes sense or that most of the human characters are memorable. But you know, most of the classic Toho Godzilla movies are pretty wacky, too. With magnificent modern special effects and plenty of monster action, this heavyweight bout was worth the wait. Sometimes, you just want to see Godzilla punch through a building. Indeed, after a year like this one, who doesn’t want to do that themselves sometimes?