Are we here again, at the end of another year? I’m not quite sure how this happened. The number “2023” sounds, to me, like some far futuristic utopia or dystopia, rather than the time I’m actually living in. I think I really stopped counting around 2012, anyway.
As I’ve previous said in these last twochaos-filled years, music helps keep me same. Whether it’s 6k walks around the neighbourhood or while I’m beavering away making journalism, there’s often a song nearby.
I have to say, 2022 has been, well, pretty shit in a lot of ways, on a personal level. Too much bad news in my life and the world seems to be getting stupider every day. It’s hard, sometimes, not to become the bitter sort of person you swore you wouldn’t become in your 20s.
So, music. And new music! I’m trying a little harder, like my mate Bob, not to become one of those old guys who always complains that music was better in the 1990s or whenever. I actively sought out some of the young folk making music this year, as well as my favourite old folks still making music, rather than just listening to the same Ramones and Prince albums over and over.
The Songs That Helped Me Survive 2022 Playlist is almost entirely music that came out this year (there’s a couple of perennial songs I listened to a lot that are a bit older). I listened to groovy young (or younger) folks like Wet Leg (who made the most joyously fun album of the year) and Orville Peck and Tove Lo, to awesome kiwi musicians like Marlon Williams and Troy Kingi and Aldous Harding, to old faves like Freedy Johnston and Midnight Oil and Don McGlashan who put out great new stuff this year.
And here’s my playlist. So here’s two hours of eclectic alt-rock, jazz, kiwi pop, afro-noise, songwriting genius, angry rants and wistful laments! Once upon a time it might’ve been a mixtape I mailed a dear friend or two from across the country or across the world. These days, it’s a collection of bits and bytes and well, anyone can listen. That’s music for you. It’s what keeps us going, when the going gets tough. Listen up, I made you a mixtape:
New by me over at Radio New Zealand: 12 TV series you may have missed in the age of peak content, just in time for your post-Christmas lying around groaning with a full stomach and looking for something to watch vibe!
I take a look at a dozen excellent TV shows (do we still call it TV? Stream-TV?) well worth catching up on during the holiday season if you’re so inclined including Sandman, Raised By Refugees, This Is Going To Hurt, The Old Man and much more! (Most excellent graphic above by RNZ’s most excellent graphic artist)
What is it: The greatest movie of all time* that I somehow never managed to see until now? Possibly! I don’t know how I’ve missed it because I’m a sucker for gloriously cheesy ninja action, but 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja is quite possibly the platonic ideal of what a ninja movie should be – an over-the-top mash-up of very loose takes on Japanese culture with Hollywood gloss, sloppy violence and masked men running amok. Ninjas had popped up in movies for years, including some classic Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks, but it was in the eighties where they truly were everywhere. The 1980s, in my mind, were all about ninjas – in Chuck Norris movies, in gloriously bad rock musicals, in movies that combined Flashdance-style aerobics with ninja action, and of course in teenage turtles who were also ninjas. How inescapable was the ninja? My brother had a pair of nunchucks at one point and both of us managed to severely injure ourselves with them.
In Revenge, Sho is “Cho,” whose entire family except his infant son are killed about 30 seconds into the movie by ninjas. Foreswearing violence, Cho moves to America to start a new life by selling dolls (!). Unfortunately, he ends up unwittingly becoming partners with a heroin dealer (!!) who is also a master ninja (!!!). Things go downhill from there, but it ends with a kick-ass 10-minute ninja battle on top of a skyscraper, which, really, is all I’ve ever wanted out of cinema.
Why I never saw it: Sheer, blind ignorance to one of the shining lights of the cinema art form, I guess. To be fair, my peak ninja phase was in 1984 or so, and pre-internet, if you missed a movie and it wasn’t showing on cable TV, you might just never see it.
Does it measure up to its rep? Honestly, if I were 13 years old and seeing this for the first time, I’d tell you it was the greatest movie ever made. But in somewhat settled middle age, I’ll still tell you it features everything I ever wanted in a ninja movie.
Worth seeing? Man has created the pyramids, the Mona Lisa, the symphonies of Mozart. But there’s few cultural achievements that can equal a good ninja movie. Revenge of the Ninja features a small child getting a throwing star to the face in its first five minutes, to give you an idea what kind of movie we’re talking about. Revenge features constant bombastic martial arts battles – man versus ninjas, small child vs. ninjas, small child vs. woman, ninja vs. what appears to be a group of Village People cosplayers, ninja’s mother vs. ninja, ninja vs. ninja. It’s all given propulsive energy by director Sam Firstenberg, with just the right amount of overacting, preposterousness and violence. Ninjas throw smoke bombs, display inexplicable hypnotic powers, and unleash flamethrowers in mid-fight. What more does a man need out of life?
For 90 minutes, Revenge of the Ninja features copious revenge and ninjas. It does what it says on the can, and never pretends to be anything more. Frankly, this should replace Die Hard as everyone’s go-to Christmas movie. There aren’t any Christmas scenes, to be fair, but we all know Santa Claus probably uses ninjas instead of elves to get the job done, don’t we?
* Note: This review may contain a few mild exaggerations.
I’ve been publishing small press comics on and off (mostly off) since the 1990s, but I have to admit I’ve only published a handful of minicomics, preferring the slightly larger digest size. But the minicomic itself is a work of genius – a single sheet of A4 or 8×11 paper folded in half, and folded again, trimmed and stapled, and voila! Highly portable art.
As promised back in Part I of the Lost World of Small Press, here’s a dip into my boxes of small press comics from back in the day, with a look at three of my favourite old minicomics – this time, focusing on small press legends, next time, focusing on small press unknowns!
“Legends” is a relative term in a niche field like small press, of course, but there are some names anyone who’s been around for a while gets to know – Matt Feazell, Colin Upton and John MacLeod are right up there among them, each great talents.
The Death of Antisocialman #1
Anyone can draw a stick figure, but nobody can draw ‘em as well as Matt Feazell, who’s been doing minicomics starring Cynicalman and other stick folk for decades, even appearing in Eclipse Comics’ Zot! back in the 1980s. Matt has put out uncounted mountains of minis, but some of my favourite star the cantankerous, rude Antisocialman, who “died” (not really) in a series of great energy-filled minis circa 1991. Matt’s stick art has ranged from the extremely sketchy to the highly polished, his gags from silly to complex, but he’s always worth reading.
Famous Bus Rides #3
There’s a zillion “autobiographical” comix out there, ranging from the sublime to the infantile. Canadian Colin Upton has been around for a long time and done all kinds of interesting work, but something about Famous Bus Rides sums up the tidy, compact pleasures of an autobio minicomic for me, where a single weird encounter on a bus ride can turn into a lightning-quick short story. Like the late great Harvey Pekar, Upton takes a random moment or two from life and makes it into humble comics art.
The Night I Almost Met Shonen Knife
John MacLeod is another well known small presser for his amazingly cool low-fi series Dishman. His crisp, clean art always appeals to me, and the 1994 minicomic The Night I Almost Met Shonen Knife is a brisk, funny little anecdote about learning a cool band is a fan of your work and almost – but not quite – meeting them. It’s the kind of yarn that would seem a bit flimsy for a full on comic story, but in a tidy little 16-page mini, it’s just right.
All three of these folks are still in the game producing comics in some form or another – Matt Feazell has his own website with lots of great stuff for sale, while both John MacLeod and Colin Upton’s recent work can be found by seeking out their Facebook pages.
Next time: From legends to mysterious minicomics outsiders!
Good god, mid-December! How did this happen? Who’s responsible?
One saving grace of the end of the year is lists! I love lists of people’s favourite movies and music and books and such. For the second year in a row, I was invited to take part in the New Zealand Listener magazine’s Best Books issue, picking a handful of books to go in the big ol’ pile of recommendations they publish.
For posterity’s sake, here’s the books I sent in as my own picks for the year’s best reading!
FICTION:Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel – The first great COVID-19 novel as well as an unforgettable meditation on life, time and fate.
Devil House, John Darnielle – A novel that starts as an investigation into occult murders that becomes something deeper and stranger. The movie Zodiac meets Lovecraft.
Heat 2 – Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner – A written sequel and prequel to a 30-year old crime epic movie shouldn’t work, but this does, exceedingly well. A cracking thriller.
NONFICTION: Grand, Noelle McCarthy – This comic and pained Irish kiwi’s memoir about battling alcoholism, family demons and moving to the other side of the world feels just right in a time when so many of us are mourning the changes and loss in the last few years.
The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman – A snarky, critical examination of a decade that you can both agree with and argue about. I’ve actually warmed to this more than my initially ambivalent review may have made it seem, and it’s truly peak Klosterman, witty and amusingly scattered.
Buster Keaton – A Filmmaker’s Life, James Curtis – The greatest of silent film stars gets the epic biography he richly deserves. Thorough, revelatory and a fascinating look at cinema from a century ago.
Most of us learn it when we’re kids – all you really need to make a comic is a pencil and a piece of blank paper. That’s the beauty and the charm of small press comics, wonderfully explained in a brilliant, extremely niche book of comics history I read recently that I highly recommend, The Minicomix Revolution 1969-1989.
The Minicomix Revolution is a sweeping, if by its very nature incomplete, history of a creative movement that still animates culture today – after all, what is internet “content” from influencers but yet another way of doing it all yourself, and taking your work directly to the people?
There’s dozens of names in here, from the notable to the obscure, and Chrislip keeps his narrative from turning into a dry list by bringing them to life with tales of late-night jam sessions, friendships made and always, madcap invention. Chrislip also notes those who started in small press who went on to much bigger things, like Simpsons guru Matt Groening and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creators Eastman and Laird.
Chrislip includes dozens of comics covers that capture the beautiful anarchy of small press, where a comic can be everything from a goofy superhero riff (cough cough) to highly personal autobiography or a series of self-portraits or just sheer dadaist gags. (The book is available directly from him directly, and you can look him up on Facebook, contact him via email email@example.com or mail him a check or money order at 2113 Endovalley Dr. Cincinnati, OH 45244 – it’s $45 postpaid, beautifully produced and well worth the cash if you’re into rare comics history.)
There are brilliant artists working in small press that few comics fans will ever hear about. That’s kind of sad to me, but it’s an artist’s life, too. A few very noble efforts to collect some classic minicomics have been published but it’s a bit like attempting to collect snow – for every mini “superstar” like a Matt Feazell there’s a dozen others who may have only sold 10 copies of their comic, but it’s still grand fun.
The “zine” scene is still alive and well bubbling beneath our TikTok and Twittified world, and dogged folks like me are still producing unique pieces of comic art that maybe only a few dozen people will read, but hey, it’s the creating that really counts, in my mind. You feel the call to make things, and you’ll never quite stop hearing it.
In the end, it’s just about the comics, really. My collection has whittled down a bit over the years what with moving around the world and such but I’ve still kept a hardcore pile of the minicomics that mean the most to me over the years. They’re literally irreplaceable, as some creators have vanished from the scene or even died and their comics are totally unavailable today.
All this lengthy preamble leads up to me starting an occasional blog series here on the “Lost World of Small Press” looking at a handful of these groovy handmade gems hidden in my boxes o’ comix! Look for more rare 1990s small press comics showcased here mighty soon.
Our family managed to avoid the Covid-19 pandemic for almost three years, but our number finally came up during our overseas holiday visiting family in the US. We caught it in transit, somehow, despite wearing masks as much as possible. Like dominoes cascading downwards, once the first person tested positive the entire family shortly followed. Thanksgiving became Covidsgiving.
Fortunately, we all caught a pretty mild case of the virus – good news as several folks in the family aren’t in the best of health and it was very worrying to see them test positive. It still sucked, particularly as it kind of mucked up our holiday, but after close watching of all the grim headlines the past few years I know it could’ve been so much worse.
All journalists have cliches they loathe to see in print, and “post-pandemic” is one I’ve been kicking out of news copy every chance I get. We’re definitely post-lockdown – whatever your views on that, it’s clear the cultural buy-in for such policies has passed – but “post-pandemic” implies the disease has somehow gone away. If anything, far more people I know have been touched by Covid-19 in 2022 than at any time in the years prior.
The virus felt particularly inescapable these past few months, when it seemed like every friend I knew in New Zealand caught it, especially many who had also managed to avoid it earlier on. It became pretty clear that no matter how hard we tried to do the right thing, we were probably going to get it eventually.
A friendly acquaintance from my 1990s small press comics days, Andrew Ford, died of it in New York recently. An energetic booster of self-publishing comics and bringing rare art back into print, he was just 48 years old when he died. It’d been many years since we’d been in regular touch but it was still a shock to remember this go-getter kid I once knew and exchanged letters and drawings with and to realise he was one of the Covid casualties. I think of Andrew Ford often lately, and the millions of others whose stories have been cut short by Covid.
I traveled an awful lot at the beginning of this year as I first stepped outside the pandemic bubble of New Zealand. Despite having to deal with incredibly lengthy travel, quarantine back home in New Zealand and an Omicron surge, I somehow didn’t catch Covid. Yet this time when my family boarded the plane from NZ to the US, it wasn’t even 72 hours before the first of us tested positive. Both times, I and the rest of my family wore high quality masks.
Last Christmas when I traveled the vast majority of people in transit in Los Angeles and elsewhere I went wore masks in crowded airports. But in November 2022, maybe 20% of the other people in the airport and planes were wearing masks. We tried our best, but when the majority of other people aren’t masking up… well, you get Covid, I guess. We’ll never know who we caught it from – was it the guy coughing a few rows up? Someone at the airport we passed by? It was such a mild case that the contact must have been fleeting. But I do wonder if that person had bothered to mask up in crowded public areas, our holiday might have turned out differently. Everyone’s sick and tired of all this, I get it, and a rugged, brutal individualism has replaced whatever fleeting community spirit first animated our Covid responses. You do you, and well, other people will do whatever.
One of the biggest knock-on effects of the Covid years for me has been a gradual lowering of my respect for other human beings. I hate that I’ve become more judgy, more annoyed at idiots going down conspiracy rabbit holes, pissed off at people flouting mask rules and everyone being outraged all the time – including myself. Many of the people I know who’ve caught Covid at last these recent months have expressed the same frustration – we tried, we did the right thing, we still caught it, so what’s the point?
Despite it all, it was still a good holiday – bonding with my parents and a new baby in the family and seeing the gorgeous colours of fall in California. The trees blazed up into autumn colours and the kinds of brilliant yellows, oranges and reds we just don’t see in our part of New Zealand.
At times the leaves fell in thick fluttering sheets, dotting the bright blue California skies with colour and reminding me that even in this age of outrage and plans never quite working out how you hoped, there are moments where you can still try to be a little more like one of those flimsy leaves, floating on the breeze and letting the sun shine on you while it can. There are no outraged leaves in nature.
I love a pop-culture list. I don’t get annoyed at lists, because they’re a great way to discover new things. For a film nerd, the release of the once-a-decade Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll of critics and film buffs is a bit like an early Christmas.
I like the Sight and Sound poll because its ten-year gaps force us, in a culture that never stops speeding along, to slow down and take stock. Cinema is barely more than a century old after all, and this poll has always felt a bit more sturdy and authoritative than year-end magazine lists and listicles. That’s not to say it’s always “right,” but it’s always worth reading.
The poll seems to have taken a large leap forward this year rather than the more stagnant aura it once had – Kanetopped it from 1962 to 2002, for instance. I’m sure certain corners of the internet are howling that Hitchcock and Welles were pipped by a woman, but I’m totally cool with it. I adore Hitchcock and Welles and as fun as these lists are, nothing has changed about that for me today. But I do get to (eventually) check out Jeanne Dielman, and hey, I might discover a movie I totally love in the process.
That’s the true beauty of lists like Sight and Sound for me. I grew up on Police Academy movies, but there’s so much more to cinema too. I was introduced to Yasujirō Ozu’s heartbreakingly good 1953 dramaTokyo Story because of its high placement on previous lists. I’ve discovered many more movies because of lists like this or the late great Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” features.
There’s some great progression from 2012 on the 2022 list, which features far more women and Black and minority creators than ever before. Some absolutely stellar more recent films have inched up – David Lynch’s masterpiece, 2001’s Mulholland Dr., is now in the top 10, the newest movie there, while very recent movies like Parasite, Get Out and Portrait of a Lady On Fire are included. Others are gone – Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown dropped from the top 100, but that doesn’t make them any lesser in my own eyes.
Film ain’t a contest to me, and I don’t care if your list puts Jaws above Kubrick’s 2001 or you think Adventures in Babysitting is the best movie of all time. We love what we love, and in an increasingly vile and argumentative internet, that bears remembering.
Anyway, I’m happy to spend weeks poring over the list, which now includes at least 35 movies I’ve never seen. Film internet will be debating, arguing, praising and condemning the Sight and Sound list probably until the next one rolls around in 2032 (assuming we’re all still here). Me, I’ll be watching some movies.