The Lost World Of Small Press, Part IV: The Storytellers

Small press comics! Where no story is too small to tell, hence the name! Here’s part four of my ongoing occasional look at The Lost World Of Small Press and obscure and famous zines, comics and mimeographed gems from the 1990s. 

One of the most popular forms of small press comics is the autobiographical comic – stories, big or small, about ordinary lives. The late great Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor was the godfather to this genre, and it’s in some ways one of the easiest ways to get going on a comic – just tell your story. Sure, there’s a hundred mediocre autobio comics for every good one, but there’s a lot of greatness in this genre. Here’s random samples from my collection of five creators who excelled at it!

King-Cat Comics and Stories #70, 2009, John Porcellino – Porcellino is another legend in small press and autobio comics – he’s been running his series King-Cat Comics since 1989 and still going strong. He has a simple, spare yet amiable style, slowly polished to perfection over the years. Like the best autobio comics, he doesn’t do sprawling epics, but instead picks up on the little beauties of life.

This sample issue from a few years back tells about getting his wisdom teeth out and the hunt for a local folk artist in brief comic stories, but it also includes some of Porcellino’s gentle abstract “tone poems” which are barely stories at all – just moments, glimpsed in memory, turned into a few vivid words and drawings and yet somehow, encapsulating a little bit of everything. (Porcellino’s early zines have also been collected in some hefty books which are worth seeking out.) 

Dishwasher #12, 1994, Pete Jordan – I’ve written about Dishwasher Pete before, and his quixotic quest to wash dishes in all 50 states and publishing zines about it along the way. There’s something so totally ‘90s about Pete’s semi-slacker lifestyle, and becoming a bit of a cult hero along the way with his erratic zine with dishwashing stories, cartoons and more. This is the only issue of the zine I ever picked up and one of the final ones, but packed with fun stuff. It’s a great mix of Pete’s journal style entries of gigs in Mississippi and Arkansas, an excerpt from a 1930s dishwasher’s account, tips for proper dishwashing and amusing cartoon anecdotes and letters from other dishwashers. These days, shudder to think, Pete would probably have to be some kind of TikTok dish influencer to get noticed, but back then, a handmade zine felt, well, just more real, man. Fortunately for Dishwasher Pete fans, after hanging up his scrubs he later wrote a very entertaining memoir of his “dish dog” days that’s worth seeking out. 

Southern Fried #3, 1998, Jerry Smith – Jerry drew a series of chilled-out autobio comics about life and growing up in the South that had a lot of heart and debunked a lot of the lazier broad stereotypes about the South, even as he’s writing about hunting turtles or the local good ol’ boys. In this sample issue, he also drew some quietly devastating work about his relationship with his dad or the memories of his grandmother. Jerry’s work always felt to me the epitome of the “everyone’s got a story inside them” mantra – and everyone’s life is just as interesting as your own, examined the right way. I always liked Jerry’s art in these comics, a kind of rubbery realism which kind of skirts right at the line of being “ugly art” – that’s not a putdown, but there’s a kind of intense texture which makes his characters feel very lived-in. He’s still out there doing comics and art which is worth hunting for. 

Destined #3, 1997, Jeff Zenick – Back before you followed people on social media, you might follow their lives through zines. Jeff Zenick put out a lot of whimsical, candid “travel journal” type zines of his bicycle wanderings around the U.S. back in the day and I’ve always enjoyed their insightful, gentle charms. This issue of Destined tells of Jeff’s adventures in Oregon in a series of diary entries, illustrated with these finely detailed little landscape pen and ink drawings. There’s no real “plot” here, only a guy wandering around, visiting diners and coffee joints, taking on odd jobs and simply enjoying the pleasure of being, in a way that feels utterly present now – perhaps that’s just the nostalgia talking. (The only down side I find about some of these old zines when I re-read them now is that the sometimes tiny handwritten text is way harder to read for these ageing eyes.) These days Zenick does a lot of great portraits and art which can be sought out online too.

Tales From The Petro-Canada Man #4, 1994, Jason Marcy – Jay and I became pals back in the 1990s and we’re still pals today, so I’m biased as heck about him, but he is one of the great unsung autobiographical cartoonists around, doing brutally honest work for more than 30 (!) years now. He started out with his superhero parody “Powerwus,” but really found his calling with a series of tales about his life and work. The six-part Tales From The Petro-Canada Man comic, loosely organised around his late-night job at a petrol station and meeting the woman he’d go on to marry, are still fantastic work, scrappy and raw but sincere. Jay’s one, two or three-page strips were heavily influenced by the cartoonist Joe Matt (who was big in the 1990s, but Jay has actually gone on to be far more productive than Joe ever was). He’s unafraid to reveal all, from his mental health struggles to his, um, bodily functions (I still have nightmares about a few of his toilet strips) but there’s always a real humility and openness to his work that keeps it from ever feeling too exhibitionistic. A lot of autobio comics also tend to get whiny and maudlin but Jay’s work is often side-splittingly funny. Jay has gone on to do graphic novels and web toons and is still doing great autobio comics today, check out his Patreon!

Also in this series:

The Lost World Of Small Press, Part III: Mysterious minicomics

The Lost World of Small Press Part II: Minicomics maestros

The Lost World of Small Press, Part I: Bruce Chrislip makes history

Movies I Have Never Seen #22: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

What is it? I’m a movie-loving goof, and I’m still on my post-Oscars coverage high this week. And as a movie goof, I sometimes find myself staring off into space mulling the big questions – such as, who was the greatest movie star of all time? And the answer almost always is, Cary Grant, of course. 

“We had faces,” goes the famous line from Sunset Boulevard, and iron-chinned Grant perhaps had the greatest movie face of all. Less rugged than Bogart, more confident than Jimmy Stewart, a bit harder than Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant could do broad comedy or bold adventure and rarely did a star make it all seem so effortless. Much of the DNA you find in Tom Cruise today comes straight from the Cary Grant foundation. 

Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic stage farce which still gets rolled out for local theatre productions on a regular basis, where two charming little old ladies are revealed to be disarmingly genial serial killers – plus, there’s a criminal on the run, a befuddled newlywed, fumbling cops and a confused fellow who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. It’s a farce with a staggeringly high body count (13 bodies in the basement!) that somehow remains charmingly light on its feet. Frank Capra’s 1944 adaptation of the beloved play was originally going to star Bob Hope, and believe me, we’d barely remember it today if that bland hambone starred in it. Instead, Cary Grant signed on to play critic and playwright Mortimer Brewster (that name!) and it became one of his sweatiest, most frenetic performances. Turns out there’s few things funnier than watching smooth, smooth Cary Grant slowly come apart over the course of two hours. 

Why I never saw it: I’ve loved Cary Grant for decades, from his iconic Hitchcock roles to the early screwball stuff – The Philadelphia Story might be the single most starpower-packed comedy of all time, and surely Bringing Up Baby is the awkward height of the “meet cute” romance trope? His Girl Friday, still one of the best journalism movies of all time? But Arsenic and Old Lace somehow slipped through the cracks for me. Grant’s been gone for coming up on 40 years now, but there’s still gold in that there filmography to be mined for a movie goof. 

Does it measure up to its rep? I’ll make a slight confession – unlike other movies in this occasional series, I actually watched Arsenic and Old Lace twice before writing this up, a month or so apart. Partly that’s because of the bombastic pace of these witty old comedies, where the jokes and puns fly so fast that you barely absorb them all (seriously, if you’ve never watched His Girl Friday some time, it’s like a machine gun barrage of witty verbiage). So on the first viewing Arsenic is an energetic slap to the face, but it’s on a second viewing that the sheer craft of Capra’s stagecraft shows, with Grant’s immaculate comic timing, Raymond Massey’s jarringly sinister calm, Peter Lorre’s invaluable pop-eyed sidekick anxiety and the utterly hilarious Josephine Hull (who looks disarmingly like the late Rip Torn in drag) and Jean Adair as Grant’s dotty, murderous aunties. They’re quite convinced they’re doing the lord’s work by poisoning lonely old men, you see.  

Like most farces, it’s all a jumble of moving parts that somehow barely holds together. There are a few dated and strained comic gags (the Teddy Roosevelt stuff gets a bit much), but most of it still works beautifully. Filmed more than 80 years ago, it’s still stagey and broad (it never really lets you forget it was originally a play) but it’s also a masterpiece of comic chaos with a twisted, dark underbelly that lets it hold up better than some other farces of the era – a scene where Mortimer is about to be tortured by his sinister brother goes into some pretty darned dark places before the comedy kicks in again. 

Worth seeing? The thing with a broad farce is you absolutely have to be on its wavelength and roll with it. The densely silly farces of yesteryear with their rat-a-tat pace aren’t meant to be watched while also scrolling through Twitter and checking your emails. If you abandon distraction and go with the flow, Arsenic and Old Lace is a goofy blast of anarchy, with Cary Grant at his loosest and silliest.

In a week where Hollywood once again lined up to celebrate its stars and stories, it’s not a bad time to take a moment to salute the king, who shockingly never won a competitive Oscar. There was only one Cary Grant, after all. 

Concert Review: Pavement, Auckland, March 7

Look, we’re all a bit nostalgic for the 1990s these days, right? It’s a cliche, but it’s almost relaxing to recall an era where pop culture’s greatest fear was “selling out” rather than worrying about climate apocalypse, social media overload, misinformation and creeping fascism. It was hardly perfect but we like to imagine it was.

Not every ’90s band is the same. I can’t remember the last time I listened to Pearl Jam, but I put on a Pavement song every week or two at the very least. For a band whose full albums precisely spanned the 1990s, from 1992’s Slanted And Enchanted to 1999’s Terror Twilight, they feel far less bound to their era than others. Pavement returned to New Zealand for a fantastic show at the Civic Theatre last night and reminded us all why they still matter, decades after their final album. 

I saw Pavement play their first reunion tour in 2010 (reviewed on Version 1.0 of my website) and it was marvellous fun, but 13 years on, even though they’ve never put out any new music, they felt even more contemporary somehow – all the angst and weirdness of the last few years just seem to make them more relevant than ever. 

The band were a bit looser and more playful than in 2010, stretching out nicely in extended spacey jams on songs like “Type Slowly” that built on the hazy vibe, with frontman Stephen Malkmus’ spiky guitar solos evoking the late great Tom Verlaine of Television and his own relaxed and sprawling solo albums. 

Pavement have often been misleadingly described as “slacker rock,” including probably by myself at some point, but it occurred to me that lazy label obscures the amiable craftwork behind their songs – earworm nuggets like “Gold Soundz,” “Summer Babe” or the surprising viral hit B-side “Harness Your Hopes” have a tight power pop catchiness at their core. 

Malkmus’ lyrics have always had a charmingly casual quality to them, sounding like a super-relaxed rapper. But no matter how surreal the songs may get with their asides about Geddy Lee’s voice or how sexy Stone Temple Pilots are, Malkmus always managed to sound disarmingly sincere. “I’m an island of such great complexity,” he sings in one of my top 10 Pavement songs, “Shady Lane,” and the key is he never makes that seem like hard work. 

They had the blissful upbeat tunes like “Cut Your Hair” and “Stereo,” but there’s always been a gently melancholy core to the band, too, a quality which helps their music endure in numbers like “Here” or “Stop Breathing.” I’ve listened to my favourite of their albums, 1997’s Brighten The Corners, about a zillion times and still manage to come away with new things from each song. 

Last week I had the pleasure of “writing up” – as they say in the biz – an interview Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich gave to Radio New Zealand’s Music 101 before their show, talking about how NZ’s classic Flying Nun bands like The Clean and Chris Knox influenced their sound. Maybe that’s why they sounded faintly alien in the flannel 1990s. They hailed from Stockton, California, and were an ordinary-looking group of dudes, but at their core Pavement were inspired more by bands like Can and The Fall than KISS and Led Zeppelin. They have always been a rather unique brew of American casual and avant-garde surrealism. 

Everyone seemed to have a different favourite song last night, as Pavement dipped between their “hits” and more obscure numbers. That’s kind of the beauty of their work – it’s whatever you want it to be.

I’m sorry if I ever called them slacker rock – they’re their own beast, really. Maybe it’s the dream of the 1990s, hazy and irresistible like that summer babe in the distance, unforgettable and you’ve always just missed her. 

Farewell Ricou Browning, the last of the Universal Classic Monsters

He was the last of the monsters, the creatures who stalked the screen in vivid black and white, the horror icons of an age before blood ran red on the screens. Ricou Browning, who died this week at age 93, was the last living person who played one of the classic Universal Movie Monsters. 

The Universal monstersBoris Karloff’s Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman and more – lit up the screens in the 1930s through 1956 and helped define what we think of when we think of movie monsters. You think of Frankenstein’s monster, you think of Karloff’s looming golem, you think of Dracula, you probably think of Lugosi’s slick old-world menace. I fell in love with the Universal movies as a kid during afterschool TV marathons when I first watched flicks like Ghost of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand. 

But my favourite was 1954’s The Creature From The Black Lagoon, which I taped on a battered VHS cassette that I watched over and over periodically for years. It’s still a succinct, chilling little fable about man meddling with nature and the uncanny allure of how beauty killed the beast. The monster was one of the best movie designs of the era – perhaps only second to Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein makeup – and recently Mallory O’Meara’s book The Lady From The Black Lagoon delves into the fascinating, contentious story of how it came to be.

The Gill-Man creature of the title was played by several people, Ben Chapman on land, and Browning, a lifeguard and excellent swimmer who at age 23 was recruited to play the monster in the film’s iconic underwater scenes.

Browning played the Gill-Man in the underwater scenes in the first Creature and the sequels Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us, a role which technically didn’t require a lot of acting – I’d imagine most of his attention was taken up by actually trying to swim in that monster gear. Yet, those scenes in the first movie particularly where the Gill-Man drifts, ominously, beneath the grey waters and stalks the gorgeous Julie Adams are indelible landmarks in creepy horror. Adams, the object of the Creature’s affections, died herself a couple years back

The few minutes where the Gill Man and Adams do a kind of underwater duet, the monster mirroring his unaware obsession, are among the finest in Universal Horror history.

The silent way the Creature stalks Adams, nearly touching her drifting toes, made an impression on Young Nik watching on TV reruns, and the influence of a scene like that – where horror is implied, rather than splashed and splattered – can be seen everywhere from Jaws to John Carpenter’s original Halloween all the way on up to the modern day in your better horror movies. 

Browning, who was just a kid when he first donned that gill man suit 70 years ago, outlived his fellow Universal monster actors by more than 50 years – Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney Jr. were all gone by 1973 – and for years he enjoyed his peculiar fame on the convention circuit among the still quite active world of classic horror fans. Unlike Chaney Jr and Lugosi, who died neglected addicts, he lived a long, fulfilling life (among his other movie underwater credits were Flipper and James Bond’s Thunderball). 

Julie Adams and Ricou Browning in 2014 (Photo: Monster Bash News)

Still, Ricou Browning was the last of his kind – the unforgettable monster from the deep who swam beneath your feet, always in black and white, terrifying and yet slightly sympathetic like the best of monsters. Universal’s Classic Monster greats are all gone now, but they still lurk on, flickering away every time I rewatch one of the classic scares.