How Bob Dylan might just be the next Billy Joel

…OK, that title is a bit of a joke, I’ll admit it. 

But in listening to Bob Dylan’s masterful, dense new album, Rough And Rowdy Ways, and its epic closing track, “Murder Most Foul,” I find myself spinning back to make a most peculiar connection: This feels like Dylan’s homage to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” 

I was a card-carrying Billy Joel fan in 1989. Joel’s easily digested, open-hearted everyman pop songs were everywhere in the 1980s, and what turned out to be one of his last big hits, 1989’s Storm Front album, got to me. In particular, his endearingly clumsy anthem “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” 

I have a soft spot for it, coming as it did in the fall of 1989, when the Soviet Union abruptly crumbled and the Cold War we’d all been conditioned since birth to be afraid of just went away almost overnight. I was just turned 18, at that peculiar junction in life, between high school and whatever lies next, at the cusp of adult cares and fears. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” seemed a totem of that urgency, of being suspended between moments in history. 

“We Didn’t Start The Fire” hasn’t aged particularly well, I’ll admit. Billy Joel’s songs were best when he went for the personal. When he tried to go big and broad on social issues, he wasn’t subtle – “Allentown,” “Goodnight Saigon” – but they were powerful, angry songs still, and anchored in human experience. The problem with “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is that it’s all huff and no puff, a list without much of a message.

Joel’s song is angry. He basically recites a list of cultural touchstones from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War, catchily rapping off names from Stalin to Elvis to Bernie Goetz, interrupting the lists with his chest-thumping chorus, “We didn’t start the fire / It was always burning / Since the world’s been turning.

Now, that rhyme makes me cringe a bit. Yet I still kinda love that song. It’s awkward and befuddled and the only real message despite its urgency seems to be, “Hey, shit happens.” In the video, Joel pumps his fists and rages as the background bursts into flames behind him. Again, it ain’t subtle. 

Now, take Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” at 17 minutes the longest song the bard’s recorded in his 50-year-career. If anything, Dylan’s song is even more of a laundry list than Joel’s. He peppers in Tom Jones lyrics, Freddy Krueger, Buster Keaton, BB King.

Unlike “Fire,” it’s structured around a narrative, a hallucinatory seance of imagery revolving around the assassination of President Kennedy, fragments of Americana scattered by the death of a dream: “They killed him once and they killed him twice / Killed him like a human sacrifice.

Joel hits on JFK too, of course, with a particularly wince-worthy rhyme again: “JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say?” 

Dylan is 79 now. He doesn’t rage, he contemplates. There’s a mesmerizing power to “Murder Most Foul,” even as the tempo barely changes, as the song just kind of chugs along without any of the fire of Billy Joel. It’s got the power of a mystic chanting around a campfire, a thousand years ago. 

At one point Dylan asks, “What is the truth, and where did it go?” In 2020, nobody knows. 

The difference is that “Fire” is a list, a yell. “Foul” is a sermon, a prayer, and in wrapping his summoning of all America’s highs and lows around the fateful events in Dallas in 1963, Dylan conjures up something sadder, more haunting than Joel’s outraged yelp. I’ve listened to “Murder Most Foul” many times so far, and each time it unfolds new facets. 

Dylan’s become more of a magpie than ever in his autumn, picking up bits and pieces of pop culture strewn throughout history and saying something new with it. Who’s to say he didn’t perhaps find a kernel of meaning to redirect in Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as he assembled what might be his magnum opus, a song that stretches wide and high to try to define the indefinable? 

One song seemed perfect for the perhaps misguided optimism of 1989. One seems just right for the muddy, uncertain waters of 2020. One was the sounds of being 18, and one hits home with me as I near a half-century on this strange, perplexing world. 

Both songs grapple with that old chestnut, the American dream, a hope and a mystery nobody ever really seems able to solve. 

Halfway through the longest year ever

…I keep meaning to write something here but life gets in the way. The calendar is nearly halfway through 2020, or approximately 5,000 years since the world felt normal.

I wrote a thing for Radio New Zealand just two weeks back about what a strange feeling it is being an American living in New Zealand right now.

If anything, I’d go back right now and add about 100 exclamation points and a couple of choice swears to it.

It’s terrifying to watch the country I love and where my family and so many of my friends live go through this, and to know it didn’t have to be this bad.

New Zealand is coming through this better than many places, but we’re having our own problems as kiwis abroad return home and how we deal with it in a kind and intelligent manner. We aren’t able to just disconnect ourselves from the rest of the world, and as it suffers, we suffer too.

People simply aren’t used to collective efforts and the notion that a crisis can last a bit longer than it takes to binge-watch a Netflix series. We aren’t even through a first wave yet, let alone what might happen next.

I wish I could fast-forward through to around December and tell everyone that things work out OK, or that it won’t be as bad as my anxiety and fears keep whispering in my ear right now.

But I can’t.

The complete Amoeba Adventures #1-27 are here! Hoo-ha!

Great scott! The final three issues of Amoeba Adventures written by myself and drawn by Max Ink and a cast of thousands are now online as free PDF downloads, meaning the entire story of Prometheus the Protoplasm is on the internets for you to read!

All 27 issues of the series are back just in time for the 30th anniversary of Amoeba Adventures #1! Even if you have the original comics these are worth a read as I’ve added more than 150 pages (urk) of bonus art, notes, interviews and more to the comics! 

Head on over to the Amoeba Adventures subpage and download with wild abandon! There’s still a few more publications to be uploaded, and stay tuned soon for some pretty cool news about the upcoming Amoeba Adventures Archive digital download!

Guided By Voices and the songs that never stop

I first encountered Guided By Voices in a pile of free CDs. It was 1994, I was working as an intern at Billboard magazine in New York City, and one of the undeniable perks of the gig was the massive amount of freebies that poured into the mag in that pre-Internet era. 

I discovered a lot of great new music that summer, but nothing that blew my mind quite like the work of Robert Pollard and his band Guided By Voices. While it may sound a bit absurd, it felt like I’d discovered a secret Beatles nobody knew about but me.

GbV’s seminal disc Bee Thousand hit me like a thousand surreal butterflies singing pop tunes, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Their very best songs make me want to scream along at the top of my lungs, anthems for those who didn’t know they needed an anthem. 

It’s hard to nail down Guided By Voices. They’re a rock band with a strong power-pop vibe, and an often-nonsensical stew of lyrics that make just as much sense as you want them to. At their peak, each album from GbV feels like a message from another planet made just for me – lo-fi and crackling with pretty little mistakes, a radio stuck between stations on the coolest sounds around. On stage, they were a boozing, debauched riot far different from the brittle beauty of their albums. 

I like bands that feel bottomless. Acts that have deep backlists, frequent changes in style and approach, and a dogged determination to see their own vision through. The Bowies, the Zappas, the Nick Caves, the Pollards. A self-proclaimed jock from Dayton, Ohio, Robert Pollard isn’t someone you’d pick to be one of the busiest songwriters of all time. 

And he’s prolific. Good god, he’s prolific. Pollard has a compulsion that drives him to perpetually come up with new songs – more than 2000 in his career to date, spread out over more than 100 albums by Guided By Voices, solo albums and an entire stadium full of side bands and one-of projects. 

I mean jeez, I’m a pretty big fan, I’ve got something like 60 of Pollard’s various albums GbV and otherwise, and I’m still a long way from having it all. Still, nothing for me quite tops that absolutely golden stretch from album no. 3 (Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia) to album no. 11 (Do The Collapse). 

A recent biography of Pollard, Closer You Are by Matthew Cutter, does a pretty good job of attempting to nail down GbV’s niche appeal. It’s particularly strong on the band’s early years, sketching Pollard as an eager young rock fan who became a professional teacher with musician dreams. Pollard was the kind of teenager who’d literally spend hours making up dozens of pretend album covers for his imaginary bands. The after-hours musician didn’t actually “make it” until he was in his mid-30s. 

The flood never stops. After breaking up for the first time in 2004, GbV returned just a few years later and the albums have been coming one, two or three a year at least ever since. Pollard is 62 now, and still banging out the hits for a very devoted fan base. 

That can be to GbV’s detriment for some. Of their 13 (!!!) albums since 2012’s revival, there’s always a few great songs, a lot of good ones, maybe one or two dogs. The music has lost that mysterious edge it first had in the 1990s, but still has plenty of great hooks and riffs. But the constant flow of new material makes it kind of hard to sit down and soak them in properly. 

That’s just Bob’s way, like it or lump it. Yet it’s kind of fun to pick up GbV album No. 26 or Pollard side project No. 37 and find a few songs that sound like they should’ve been massive hits in some alternate universe. He won’t stop. Maybe he can’t stop.

And maybe that’s the reason we Guided By Voices fans keep coming back, album after album after album. They’re songs just for us, in the coolest club in the land, and while they’ll never be as omnipresent as a Taylor Swift hit maybe, they’re magic all the same. 

Charlie Chaplin spoke out, but the world didn’t listen

A movie where the lead actor suddenly drops character at the end and delivers a passionate 5-minute speech directly to the audience shouldn’t work. But somehow, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator endures, and his plea for kindness still seems revolutionary nearly a century later. 

Viewed 80 years on, Charlie Chaplin imitating Adolf Hitler doesn’t seem so radical. Mocking der führer has been done since by everyone from Donald Duck to Mel Brooks to Taika Waititi. 

But what separates 1940’s The Great Dictator is he was one of the first, doing it while Hitler was still alive, still in power, on the rise. America wasn’t even at war with Germany yet. Time shouldn’t dim how revolutionary and bold this film was. It pulls no punches about the Nazi campaign against Jews, its warmongering and spreading of hatred. (Even Chaplin didn’t have any idea of how truly horrific the Holocaust was in 1940, and years later expressed some regrets about his film as a result.) 

Chaplin walks a fine tightrope here – he plays two roles, a “Tramp”-like kind-hearted Jewish barber, and the raving Hitler stand-in Hinkel. He’s magnificent in both roles. As the movie goes along the Jew and the dictator’s identities become swapped (never mind that nobody until the end of the movie seems to note the resemblance between the two characters). 

That leads to the grand climax of The Great Dictator, when the little barber has stumbled into the dictator’s shoes and has to address a crowd of thousands of his subjects on the eve of war. After years of silents, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first full talkie, and he unleashes a torrent of pent-up words to make up for lost time. 

What happens next is still controversial – it’s a naked act of utterly mawkish sincerity, and from a strict storytelling perspective it barely works at all. Yet it doesn’t matter, because Charlie Chaplin, the mostly mute film star, stands up before the cameras, drops all pretence of acting as the barber, and delivers an impassioned, 5-minute long call for peace and understanding among all people. It’s like Iron Man stopping before the final battle with Thanos and sitting down on a stool and talking about brotherhood in Avengers: Endgame. 

Chaplin starts slowly, almost apologetically:  “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone.” 

Nobody likes a sermon in place of a climax, do they? And indeed, the first time I saw The Great Dictator years ago it did strike an odd note. It breaks the spell of the story, but that was Chaplin’s intention, as France fell and Hitler’s plan gathered speed. The older I get, the more Chaplin’s no-bullshit appeal stings for me:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in.”

Those words seem to ring even louder in the age of coronavirus and populist blowhards. Or is it just that sadly, humanity’s flaws and foibles haven’t changed a heck of a lot since 1940? 

It’d be nice to say that Chaplin’s big speech made a difference. But history tells us otherwise. The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest hit, but it also was the end of the road for him. The “Tramp” character never returned, and while Chaplin made a few more great films, they weren’t hits. His liberal politics during the McCarthy era saw him exiled from America to Europe. Despite the boldness of The Great Dictator’s final speech, Chaplin ended his career as a kind of pariah. 

Yes, it’s a strange way to end a film. Yet when artifice and bombast and trolling seem to have an unbreakable hold on us, I’ll take kindness over selfishness every single time. 

The world’s still pretty insane, so have some more Amoeba Adventures

Well, 2020 has been quite a ride so far, hasn’t it? New Zealand is finally returning to something vaguely resembling normal life. I hope you’re well, wherever you are.

At least being shut in around the house for nearly two months gave me time to continue the great Amoeba Adventures 30th Anniversary Celebration by scannin’ up the greatest hits of Prometheus, Rambunny, Ninja Ant and the rest from my 1990-1998 small press comic series. We’re near the finish line now – only a handful more issues to go, but this lot of free PDF downloads includes three of the biggest and bulkiest issues I ever published. Go check them out on the Protoplasm Press page! 

This lot includes the epic Amoeba Adventures #10, the conclusion to the “Details of Design” storyline that changes everything for the All-Spongy Squadron; #14, the solo writing and drawing debut of Max Ink in a very special tale focusing on domestic violence; and the slam-bang gigantic Amoeba Adventures #12, at nearly 80 pages the biggest comic I ever published and one that nearly killed me! It features solo stories for Rambunny, Spif, Ninja Ant, Herr Heinous and more, the secret 50-year history of Prometheus by Troy Hickman, Prometheus meets Matt Feazell’s Cynicalman, the scoop on the legendary small-press gathering at the 1993 Chicago ComicCon, and a jam back cover with 27 small press creators. Stories and art by guest contributors Max Ink, John Hurley, Doug Lumley, Tony Lorenz, Matt Feazell, Lynn Allen, Jason Marcy, Sam Gafford, J. Kevin Carrier and many more.

This means that the first 23 issues of the entire series are now available free online. As always, most issues feature rare sketches, notes and guest artwork from the secret Amoeba Archives, located many kilometres deep in a secret vault off the coast of Tasmania. 

Thanks to those who’ve had kind things to say in various places online about the old comics, it’s been a genuine pleasure rediscovering them after many years and glad to see folks enjoying them again. 

Enjoy!

The dogged optimism of Mr. Terrific

My favourite superhero team will always be the Justice Society of America. The first superhero team in comics, the JSA made its debut 80 years ago this year, with the original Flash, Atom, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Green Lantern and many more. 

One of their lesser-known members always intrigued me – the rather boastfully named Mr. Terrific, one of the most quixotic of golden age superheroes. He barely appeared with the JSA in their original ‘40s incarnation, and mostly lived out his life as a back-up feature in the Wonder Woman-headlining Sensation Comics. 

Mr. Terrific’s back story, such as it was, was laid out in Sensation Comics #1 – He’s Terry Sloane, first introduced as a “child marvel” who’ll be “smarter than Einstein when he grows up.” Basically, he’s good at everything, without being any kind of mutant or spaceman – the kind of guy who probably annoys the hell out of everybody around him, frankly. As he grows up, he’s a genius at business, sport and love. He gets so bored, he decides to kill himself. But instead of topping himself, he saves a suicidal woman jumping off a bridge and this gives him the spark to carry on, fighting crime as the masked “Mr. Terrific.”

To be honest, it’s complete nonsense of an origin, isn’t it? It’s not even having a bat fly through your window to inspire you. When roughly a dozen new superheroes were appearing a week in the 1940s, you worked with what you could, I guess. Mr. Terrific clad himself in a striking green and red costume with “Fair Play” emblazoned across his chest in huge letters, and the peculiar vehemence of his costume is probably why he’s remembered at all.

Nevertheless, I kind of like the goofy lug, who appeared in Sensation Comics until the late 1940s, then popped up occasionally in the 1960s. He was rather randomly killed off after years of obscurity in the pages of Justice League of America in 1979, and that was it for Mr. T. 

I don’t think there was probably ever a great Golden Age Mr. Terrific story. You’ve read one, you read them all. He was just kind of there, among dozens and dozens of other do-gooders living out very repetitive, yet somehow fun adventures. Yet the plucky charm of writing out “Fair Play” on your chest and deciding to fight crime because the only other choice is killing yourself out of sheer boredom sticks with me. Maybe Mr. Terrific was the first superhero to really struggle with mental health, although you’d never really guess that from his adventures. 

In what I’d call his greatest moment, even if it was after he was dead, Mr. Terrific made a wonderful little cameo in the 1990s in James Robinson’s fantastic series Starman #37. In it, “Starman” Jack Knight imagines himself dining with his dead brother and several other dead superheroes, including Mr. Terrific, who gets a brief page or so monologue about himself and his motto. In a few panels, Robinson somehow gives Mr. Terrific the real motivation and a wee bit of pathos that he’d been lacking for his entire career. 

A new Mr. Terrific was introduced in the 1990s as an African-American inventor with a tragic past, and was a very cool addition to the Justice Society and other comics. He’s probably been in way more good stories than his inspiration, but one thing I do like is that “Fair Play” is still prominently displayed on his costume all the same. 

In a world teeming with selfish politicians and preening social influencers and a real paucity of actual superheroes, the idea of sticking your head up and saying, “Hey – Fair Play! Let’s give everyone a decent go, shall we?” Well, that feels kind of heroic.  

That one time Bela Lugosi got to be the hero

Poor Bela. 

Bela Lugosi has been cast as a kind of cinematic cautionary tale over the years, with Martin Landau’s indelible Oscar-winning portrait of him in his decline in Ed Wood forever painting the Dracula star as a drug-addicted has-been stuck in terrible no-budget movies. Hell, even Bauhaus sang mournfully for him in “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” 

While Lugosi certainly had his problems, his career at its peak was fiery, and his presence on screen had a brooding Gothic grandeur that’s been imitated by every Lestat and Twilight sparkle-vampire wanna-be ever since. 

The sad thing is that Bela Lugosi very rarely got to play the hero. His iconic performance in Dracula defined him, for better or worse, and the ensuing typecasting meant that he rarely played non-villainous roles. He was also hobbled by the thick Hungarian accent he never quite shed. 

But in one of his best roles, 1934’s The Black Cat, he got to play a daring kind of anti-hero, teamed with Boris Karloff for the first time in one twisted piece of pre-Code horror. Lugosi is Dr Vitus Werdegast, a former prisoner of war who returns to exact vengeance upon his traitorous commander, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). Dr Vitus’ mission gets tangled up with two fresh-faced newlyweds who become pawns in a showdown between him and Poelzig. 

At a brisk 69 minutes, The Black Cat is Universal Horror near its peak – all razor-sharp shadows and crackling thunder, but with a creepy, real-life edge that foresees the horrors of the Nazi party. The monsters here are all very human. Poelzig, who’s not just a war criminal but a bona fide Satanic cult leader, is one of the more unnerving villains Karloff ever played, all sallow, black-eyed stare and unrepentant malice. 

But it’s Lugosi who steals The Black Cat, looking impossibly handsome and dapper as Dr Vitus, vigorous and strong. (It’s interesting to realise that Lugosi was actually a bit taller than Karloff, who played the towering Frankenstein’s Monster.) He’s a haunted man, but one who wants to do the right thing. The tragedy of The Black Cat is that in doing so, he is seen as a villain too.

There is a scene where Dr Vitus discovers the preserved corpse of his wife, kept in a glass case by the madman Polezig (I told you this was a twisted bit of pre-Code horror!). The agony and shock that plays over Lugosi’s face in this moment is a masterpiece of horror acting. 

Of course, The Black Cat is hokey – the newlyweds are a plot device, Lugosi’s character’s inexplicable hatred of cats is kind of hilarious today (at one point, he straight up murders a cat!). But there’s a primal fear to it too that movies from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Saw have mined ever since, about good people ending up in a web of unspeakable random cruelty. 

I love the brief image we get of Lugosi as the doomed hero, a good man shattered by wartime cruelties and the sadistic tortures of Poelzig. In the end Dr Vitus gives himself entirely to revenge and cruelty, mutilating Poelzig, and flicking the switch to blow up everything and almost peacefully, intoning, “It has been a good game.” 

In another world, maybe Lugosi would’ve played the hero more often. But when he did, he was unforgettable. 

Standing on a beach, staring at the sea in Level 3

I stood on a beach today for the first time in close to six weeks, and looked at the sea. 

There’s at least 100 beaches within an hour’s drive of our house (we do live on a narrow isthmus on a small island at the bottom of the world, after all), but I couldn’t go to them. New Zealand’s strict national lockdown ended at midnight last night, and for the first time in what feels like an age, we could do a little bit more today than we did yesterday.

We’re not fully out. Level 3, as they call it here, is still pretty stern. Fast food and takeaway restaurants are open, many people are finally getting to work again and we can drive a little further, but most of society is still hunkered down for a few more weeks, likely. New Zealand and our Prime Minister’s firm, authoritative response to the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have worked well.

What did I do during the great lockdown of 2020? I worked, a fair bit more than normal, picking up extra shifts because what else was there to do. I painted walls. I fussed about the house organising boxes of old letters and heaving book shelves and music magazines I’d inexplicably kept since 2013. Every day for the duration of Level 4 I posted a comic book cover of a character in prison (or lockdown) on my Instagram account. It turns out that’s a pretty fertile genre. My son played video games with his friends online, built cool models and ventured into online schooling. My wife catalogued trees and trapped rats. We all went for a lot of walks around our hilly neighbourhood.

And I worried, of course, in vague and uncertain ways. I recognise how immensely lucky that I am in many ways in this crisis, but still like everyone else I wonder what’s next. I seethe at the inept politics back home and the sprawling misinformation, ignorance and hate that’s taken over the internet. I saw friends back in the US, dealing first hand with the death of a neighbour or a relative or a patient and silently cursed all those who’d downplay this as some passing conspiracy fad. 

There’s been a surplus of thinkpieces and essays out there imagining a better world to come, full of idealistic notions that I wish I could fully see coming true.

In the end I have to ignore everyone else’s freaking out and rage and tension and come back to what matters the most, the people I live with inside these overly familiar walls, and controlling the antic voices in my own head. 

I stood on a beach today and looked at the sea. It’s still pretty good, eh? 

More free Amoeba Adventures for those pandemic blues!

Hi all, hope everyone is staying safe and not too freaked out. Now available on the Protoplasm Press page are another five free PDF downloads of my old Amoeba Adventures comics to liven up your self-isolation with if you feel the urge, reliving the greatest hits of Prometheus, Rambunny, Ninja Ant and the rest from my 1990-1998 small press comic series!

This lot includes Amoeba Adventures #8 and 9 (parts three and four of “Details of Design”), #19 guest-starring The Period, #23, the fourth part of “The Dark Ages” storyline featuring the shocking revelation of the Dark One’s identity, and a real rarity, my grab-bag zine of ancient amoeba rarities One-Celled Tales #1 from 1991.

As always most issues feature rare sketches, notes and guest artwork from the hallowed Amoeba Archives, also known as my shed out the back.

Enjoy them all – as I wind up the celebration of 30 years since the first issue, there’s only six issues left to scan ‘n’ upload and then the entire 27-issue run of Amoeba Adventures will be rescued from dusty old boxes and on the glorious internet for all the world (well, 7 people) to read!