While 2020 has sucked in a lot of ways, I’m very grateful that it’s given me a chance to dig up and appreciate the old comics I did and all the friends who read it and great collaborators I worked with. The award-winning series featuring the story of Prometheus the Protoplasm got plenty of kudos and notice from comics legends including Will Eisner, Dave Sim, Sergio Aragones, Tony Isabella and many more.
The end is finally here, as the last four comics from my archive are now up for free reading: * Spif #1, written by the man, the legend Troy Hickman from a plot by me, and with art by Max Ink, reveals the secret origins of Dr. Spif and the introduction of the vigorous vigilante The Period and the menacing Stiles! * Imitation Crab Meat #1 and #2, two extremely rare personal minicomics by me from 1991-1992, with stories of teen crushes and television idols.
* Jip Book Two, collecting the second half of my daily comic strip from The Daily Mississippian, as Jip and the gang finish up their university years with a bang. Rare comics not seen since 1994 and one of my personal favourite works.
They’re all available now right over here, with a grand total of 38 comics produced by me from 1990-1998 including all 27 issues of Amoeba Adventures all there for you completely 100% free — and with literally hundreds of pages of rare behind-the-scenes material added among them.
And don’t forget this year’s new AMOEBA ADVENTURES ARCHIVE, a 130-page digital book collecting tons of rare stuff and a brand-new Amoeba Adventures story for the first time in years! And stay tuned for details on yet another new Amoeba Adventures story coming very, very soon to a computer near you. Party on, dudes!
Look, I’m a Star Trek fan. I’m used to some mild disappointment mixed with pleasure. But I’m still a fan. At its best, the questing curiousity of Star Trek blows away the good vs. evil tropes of Star Wars in my mind.
And so I watch Star Trek: Discovery, and I keep hoping for it to be better than it actually is.
Star Trek: Discovery is a show that, three seasons on, has never quite figured out what it wants to be. Season 1 was a vast war and conspiracy epic that also managed to wrap in parallel universes. Season 2 combined crowd-pleasing returns for Spock and Captain Pike with an impenetrably complex time-travel apocalypse/evil robots arc. Season 3 has jettisoned all that and taken us 900 years into the future for another fresh start.
Discovery has also spent far too much of the time focusing on Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that often tips over into straight-out overacting. Sure, Captain Kirk overacted too, but it’s not 1967 any more. The more measured acting style of a Patrick Stewart or an Avery Brooks is sorely missed.
The biggest problem with Discovery it that it goes for an 11 every time when a 6 or 7 would do. It’s a show that demands emotional bombast but doesn’t actually earn it most of the time. An overpowering soundtrack telegraphs every weepy epiphany, and the show is constantly telling us how much the characters love each other without really showing it much.
Take the most recent episode, where a security officer who’s been relegated to the background for so long now I forgot she was still on the show gets an emotional farewell arc. The worst example of this was in Season 2 when a character, Airiam, who’d barely been more than a glorified robot-headed extra, died in a blaze of glory and got what felt like an episode-long funeral. It was filled with the worst of Discovery’s mawkish sentimentality, all for a character we barely even knew but the show wanted us to mourn like she was Spock.
Three seasons on, too much of Discovery’s cast are still ciphers, with Burnham’s character taking up most of the oxygen. I don’t hate Burnham, like a lot of online fans do. I’m pleased to see a Black woman lead a Star Trek show. But her character is written as an annoyingly inconsistent cross between an impulsive rebel and a Starfleet true believer, elbowing aside all other characters.
Doug Jones’ Saru is my favourite, a fascinating contrast to previous starship captains, and he’s fortunately become more and more prominent over time. The relationship between Lt. Stamets and Dr. Culber also feels far more genuine than most of the show’s telegraphed “big moments.” Tig Notaro’s snarky Jet Reno is also a welcome addition. But three seasons on, most of the bridge crew are still not much advanced beyond “blonde girl” and “Asian man” and “person with stuff on her face.”
One of the biggest pleasures of Star Trek over the years has been its ensemble casts, something Discovery keeps losing sight of. Discovery’s choice to focus so much on Burnham has left it lacking the diverse storytelling that Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager all had, where one week might focus on Worf and the next on Riker. It makes the show feel hobbled and far less widescreen than Star Trek should be.
I’ll still boldly go where Discovery goes, because I’m a fan, and because there are plenty of good moments amid the wonky scripts and overwrought storytelling. But the voyage doesn’t have to be quite this bumpy.
I took the picture of this woman at the right at the march in 2017. I wondered this morning where she is today, and I hope she’s OK and still around to see things have gotten better. That New Zealand’s Prime Minister who walked right along with us that day was re-elected in a landslide a few weeks back, and that America is about to welcome its first woman Vice-President.
There were thousands of people that day – woman, men, children, young, old, of all races – all united in having a say over the very grim way the world seemed to be turning after Trump’s election. It felt good, damn good, to be doing something to soothe the impotent anger I felt after what happened in November 2016, even if it didn’t change the world, even if it didn’t really “matter.”
Living over here since 2006 and looking back at America has been strange. I have felt like an observer in a distant outpost looking back at my home sometimes, trying to read the smoke signals.
I lived in New Zealand through the entire Obama presidency, where I felt like America was making bold steps toward a better world, and now, I’ll have been here through the entire Trump presidency, when everything I thought about the Obama years turned out to be a bit premature. I’ve written about politics in America from my NZ perspective many times, and about Trumpism. I’m still not sure I understand it at all.
I remember marching in Auckland in January 2017 – my son, then 12, was a good foot shorter than he is now. We didn’t make a sign, which I kind of regretted. It felt good to be in a crowd – a feeling that didn’t carry any of the fear and worry it does in 2020 – and to raise our voice a bit. I hoped someone would listen to us.
America listened, or at least, enough of them to make it matter. The result of this election was wayyyyyyyy too close for my liking, and a disturbing reminder that the divide in America is about way more than the current President. I want to feel anger at people who voted for him again, but I also think about Biden’s words that they aren’t the enemy. Maybe the tone really does matter more than the clickbait, the retweets and the ratings. I don’t know how things will go under President Biden, but I do know that not having the so-called leader of the free world giving constant airtime to the worst and pettiest of our feelings will be something better than before.
At times in life, that’s all we can hope for sometimes, is the better than before.
I feel like we got it today. There’s dark days ahead and trouble to come I’m sure, but today, it’s better than before.
Hello, apparently there’s an election going on somewhere or something. I’ve been keeping busy with a few freelance think pieces this week for my friends over at Radio New Zealand:
First up, what’s it like to vote in not one but two national elections just a few weeks apart? And what can the US learn from New Zealand’s election last month? Here’s my take and what I desperately hope is the last piece I ever write involving a certain 45th President of the United States:
But wait! There’s more! The big story everybody was talking about a day or two before the latest several big stories was the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Also for Radio New Zealand, I wrote about what it all means and how it’s a worrying sign of where America’s head is at these days:
What is it: One of the grand touchstones of moody horror, Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. This highly influential film is a surreal nightmare about a young ballet dancer who discovers her new school is not what it seems. Inspired by Italy’s giallo horror subgenre (but not, according to many, technically a giallo film itself), Suspiria is drenched in vivid colours and disturbing sounds, and a horror film like few before it.
Why I never saw it: As I’ve mentioned before, while I love a good horror movie, I’m less of a slasher movie fan. Suspiria’s blood-soaked, intense reputation kind of scared me off for a long time, and for many years, pre-streaming, it was also kind of a difficult movie to find to actually watch it.
Does it measure up to its rep? Suspiria isn’t a movie you go to for plot – the “haunted house” storyline (well, haunted dance school) is as old as the movies itself. But where it soars is in creating a nightmare world all its own. Much of what makes a good horror movie work is mood. And Suspiria is almost all mood. The acting can be wooden and the story is a thin thread to drape the atmosphere around. Yet it all works, because Suspiria is about unsettling you. It’s that pounding iconic score by the band Goblin, which ramps up for the film’s gory set pieces to almost unbearable intensity. The gory scenes are brash and brutal, but the bulk of the movie basks in creating a more subtle unsettling dread. It’s seen in the film’s striking use of colours (it was the final film to use three-strip Technicolor), which make even the most gruesome of scenes oddly beautiful. In its own way, it uses colour as memorably as The Wizard of Oz, Vertigo or Black Narcissus. It feels like an adult fairy tale, a Snow White without dwarves but plenty of witches. Argento’s chilly, removed storytelling gives Suspiria a very Stanley Kubrick vibe. It’s defiantly original and unforgettable.
Worth seeing? Absolutely, but not for the squeamish or easily rattled. As a sheer exercise in macabre, colourful style, it’s a cinematic milestone and perfect for the spooky season.
Howdy, amigos! It’s been a little while since I added new stuff to the Amoeba Adventures online archive, but now two more blasts from the past are available as FREE PDF downloads right here.
2020 marks the 30th anniversary of my small press seriesAmoeba Adventures, and here are two of the more unique publications from my ’90s comics work, digitally resurrected for this bold new age we live in:
Chiaroscurocollects quite possibly the strangest comics I ever published, from the pages of the alternative weekly newspaper (they were once a thing!) Oxford Town that I worked at. I was allowed to do pretty much anything I wanted, so for 6 months or so I drew a comic about whatever I felt like that week. Included are the adventures of Lil’ Kafka, the horror of the shivering walnuts, the return of Jip, the Notional Squad, Bob The Rabbit, President James Buchanan and much more. Some of these strips still remain among my favourite comics I’ve ever done. Here, read it for yourself.
Completely at the opposite end of the comics spectrum is Rambunny: Unacceptable Losses #1, a one-shot solo adventure for the Amoeba Adventures action hero. A man from Rambunny’s past returns with a tempting offer, launching Rambunny back into a dark world he thought he’d left behind. Action, adventure, and explosions galore, with art by Ron Gravelle and a story by me in full Frank Miller/’80s action movie mode. It also features a bruising battle in a bathroom WAY before Tom Cruise did it in Mission Impossible: Fallout. Read it here!
It’s Halloween season, and while this year has admittedly been spooky enough for most, I still love to dive into some of my favourite horror movies over the month of October. Spook-tober generally always involves an annual visit to my old pal Freddy Krueger, one of the 1980s’ strangest pop culture heroes.
I do dig the Nightmare on Elm Street series, with its dream-stalking serial killer Freddy murdering people in deeply inventive ways, usually while making terrible puns. I prefer Freddy, portrayed with a corny charisma by Robert Englund, over Halloween’s Michael Myers or Friday The 13th’s lumbering brute Jason Vorhees, who both always seemed rather dull compared to Freddy. Adding a dollop of black humour to the silent, ultra-serious slasher villains like Jason and Michael took Freddy to the next level. The potentials of the dream landscape gives the Nightmare movies far more creative killing fields than its rivals.
The Nightmare movies – there’s been eight of them, plus a widely panned reboot – are generally good gory fun. You’ve got the still-creepy original, the ultimate ‘80s horror/superhero indulgence of Part 3, The Dream Warriors, and a pretty clever meta reinvention with ANew Nightmare. Even the lesser sequels – and by part 6, Freddy’s Dead, they got pretty sloppy – usually have a few fun one-liners and inventive slayings to enjoy. Heck, I even kind of like the monster mash Freddy Vs. Jason.
But what’s still truly strange about Freddy to me is how popular he was for a span of a couple of years in the mid-1980s. Not just in a cult way. A child-killing nightmarish serial killer became a pop icon, appearing in everything from terrible rap videos to fan clubs to board games and bubble gum. The movies became big events, even as the quality of the series went downhill. I still remember going to a packed theatre for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, which is objectively not a great movie. Freddy became a wisecracking goofball who also murdered people, like an R-rated version of Bart Simpson or Yosemite Sam.
Horror icons have often crossed over into pop culture – Karloff’s Frankenstein, Christopher Lee’s sexy Dracula, the Vampire Lestat – but they’ve rarely been quite so celebrated in the mainstream as Freddy was for that brief period of time. Make no mistake – Freddy Krueger, no matter how witty Englund’s portrayal made him, was no hero, not even an anti-hero. He was a thuggish, inventive psychopath, who hacked up children and teenagers and was never really given any sort of redemptive arc to make him more likable.
The original series very carefully walked the line between “Freddy kills kids” and “Well, actually, Freddy’s a pedophile child molester.” (The 2010 reboot made Freddy more serious and really leaned into the pedo-thing, one of several reasons it failed to catch fire.) The sexual undertones of the Nightmare movies are a bit icky today, but they’re somewhat redeemed by the fact that in nearly every movie, a strong woman kicks Freddy’s arse in the end.
As much as I like the Nightmare series, I’m not alone in wondering what that brief period of Freddy-mania said about where America’s head was at in the 1980s. Creeps were big – look at movies like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Wall Street, where the heroes are all basically kind of jerks.
Was it just that Freddy was a funny guy who shook up the system? An ‘80s maverick party animal like Chevy Chase or Rodney Dangerfield who also killed folks? That Freddy didn’t seem to give a f**k about who he offended? (Cue up analogy comparing him to the current President.) Or was this pizza-faced, ratty-sweater wearing villain just cool, like the rock stars on MTV that he ended up hobnobbing with?
I’ll always love the original Nightmare movies, even at their campiest. It’s hard to imagine a child-killing undead burn victim making it quite so big in 2020. I don’t think it’s that our culture has become “snowflakes” as some would have it, but somehow, things have changed a bit and while horror movies will always endure, it doesn’t seem likely their villains will become quite the pop culture juggernaut Freddy Krueger was for a year or two in my teenage nightmares.
I don’t know about you, but I’m having a little trouble concentrating as 2020 rumbles and trudges its way to the grim season finale. As a dual citizen of the US and New Zealand, I’ve got not one but TWO national elections I’m voting in this year, so everything feels soaked in political arguments and campaign slogans. My brain feels perpetually overstimulated and understaffed.
It’s hard to write about comics and music and movies and such when everything seems swamped by politics. This ain’t a political blog, but like everyone else, I’m sucked in by the tenor of the times. In search of answers for the current craziness, I’ve gone back in time more than 50 years, re-reading Rick Perlstein’s masterpiece “Nixonland,” a deep dive into American politics between 1965 to 1972. The groundwork for Trumpland begins here.
“Nixonland” is the second of a series of four massive tomes Perlstein has written examining the world of American conservatism from Goldwater to Reagan. Packed with detail, yet in crisp and clear prose, the books form a definitive examination of the duelling forces in American life that continue clashing to this day. Lots of talking heads bang on about how America has never been more polarised than today, but that’s not exactly true. Read about the clashes at the Democratic Convention of ’68, the riots and protests in Watts and Newark, and you see a pattern that just keeps repeating in America. Nothing is all that new, it turns out – it’s just the stage dressing that changes.
There was more than a fair bit of turbulence in the America of the late 1960s, between Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, the rise of feminism and generation gaps. You can’t point for point compare then to now – instead of a war everyone’s arguing over, we’ve got a virus that’s turned bizarrely political – but the fundamentals of a nation that’s always been torn between liberty and conformity, “freedom” and authoritarianism, are there. For most of the last 60 years, America has been a conservative nation with brief spasms of progressiveness. How it winds up in 2020, nobody knows.
“It was coming to this – insurgents and patriots paying good money to watch the other side silenced and humiliated,” reads a passage in “Nixonland.” Sound like social media, anybody? The biggest difference between 1970 and 2020 is that an entire industry of compliant, biased media and social media silos have created a perpetually self-congratulatory echo chamber that ensures you can pick your own reality. Previously a President could have his approval rating drop down into the 20s, but these days, the echo chamber ensures that even the worst of Presidents won’t drop below a certain level of approval.
What “Nixonland” shows us so inexorably is how America keeps wrestling with the same demons over and over again. This is nothing new – as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Great Gatsby” nearly a century ago, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Life is objectively better for many people than it was 100 years ago in America, of course. America inches forward – and a little too often, also stumbles backward in the same motion.
America is still living in Nixonland, 25 years after his death. Hopefully one day it can fully break free of it. It’s gonna take a lot more than one election to do that, though.
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!
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.
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.