The sweet, sentimental sounds of Orthodontist Office Music

I spent an awful lot of my early teenage years stuck in a chair, staring at the ceiling, while an orthodontist laboured mightily to straighten out my cursed teeth.

Soft rock music piped through on the office stereo as my bicuspids were shifted and molars manipulated at great cost to my parents, and the greatest inoffensive hits of the early 1980s drifted through my brain. 

Some of it was blandly saccharine – Christopher Cross, Air Supply, Toto – some of it was grand pop – Hall and Oates, Sade, Phil Collins. I was just a wee young lad who listened obsessively to FM102 in the glory days of Prince, Madonna and Jacko, who was only beginning to figure out his own musical tastes. So as anodyne as Orthodontist Music was, it still left an impression in my sponge-like ears. 

I never particularly cared for Cross’ so-soft-rock-it’s-liquid hit “Sailing,” but it’s permanently tattooed on my brain because of Orthodontist Music. A comics nerd even then, I got a nerdy kick out of whenever Joey Scarbury’s inspirational “Believe It Or Not” theme song to The Greatest American Hero came on in rotation. I heard it all, again and again, from Spandau Ballet’s “True” to Starship’s “Sara.” 

Nothing too manic or antic on this forgotten radio station, lest the dentists’ tools slip. Even the soaring drum kicks of Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” were a bit too fist-pumping.

I wore braces or headgear or some awful contraption for a good 5-6 years of the early 1980s, and even as my tastes matured into slightly edgier Depeche Mode and Peter Gabriel, every time I went back to the orthodontist I got a good dose of the soft, sweet stuff.  

I pat myself on the back for my omnivorous musical taste now, but I’ll admit years of Orthodontist Music at such an impressionable age left its mark. The quavering tones of Peter Cetera evoke the ‘80s gloss of pre-teen first love, I’ve got a soft spot for a little bit of Journey’s power balladry, and look – I bow in my unironic love for ‘80s Phil Collins to nobody, no matter how much time I might listen to Can and Captain Beefheart and The Fall now. 

Decades later, my teeth are more or less straight, but every time I hear one of these damned songs, I’m right back there in the chair. It’s not the worst place to be – rarely painful, the endless orthodontist visits were just boring and tedious, and I sort of entered a zen state of calm staring at the same ceiling over and over. Even now, I close my eyes, and far in the distance I hear Christopher Cross, on a ship somewhere, crooning… “Saaaaaaaaailing / Takes me aaaaaaway to where I’ve always heard it could be / Just a dream and the wind to carry me / And soon I will be free.”

And I know, I will never be free of Orthodontist Music. 

Great Scott! It’s Amoeba Adventures #31!

Face front, true believers – I’ve got a new comic out, Amoeba Adventures #31, and it’s here for you to download as a FREE digital edition!

This issue, the spotlight turns to villainy, as several of Amoeba Adventures’ biggest bad guys make a return appearance, and there’s a shocking twist for one of our main characters. Heck, it’s so darned shocking I can’t even tell you the TITLE of this story, amigos!

Hasten ye to the click button and download it right here:

Download Amoeba Adventures #31 

And don’t forget, you can download 50 other comics published by me dating back to the 1990s including all 31 issues of Amoeba Adventures right here!

Believe it or not, it’s now been nearly 32 years since I put out the first issue of Amoeba Adventures, and this is the FOURTH all-new issue since I revived the story of Prometheus, Ninja Ant, Rambunny and the gang in 2020. Don’t say I’m not committed to this comics business! 

Once again I’ll be producing a limited-edition print version which will be available for a mere $7.50 shipped anywhere in the entire world to you in July. You can pre-order that by paypalling some cash to dirgas@gmail.com with your mailing details.  

If you haven’t yet, be sure to give my Amoeba Adventures Facebook page a like to keep in the loop, and thanks for reading!

Jonah Hex and comic book covers you just can’t pass up

I’ve written before my sad laments about how boring comic book covers have become in recent years.

Overly mannered painted artwork, stiff poster poses and dull piles of spandex-clad bodies… that’s what you see these days on a rack of comics. 

Unfortunately, the days of comics on newsstands and spinner racks are pretty much gone. Back then, comics had to attract attention, with crazy set-ups, screaming speech balloons and bombastic slogans. I miss those comics. 

I recently scored a big pile of vintage ‘80s Jonah Hex comics for a song, and boy, did that gunslingin’ Jonah Hex know how to sell a comic book.

Dynamic, snarling and mean, they’re like posters for Clint Eastwood westerns that never were, and often darned edgy for their era. Hex was on his way out when some of these were published, as I wrote about recently when looking at comic final issues. But like any good gunfighter, he went down shootin’. 

Keep on Trekkin’: How Strange New Worlds brings the fun back to Star Trek

Someone finally remembered to put the Trek back into Star Trek, and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has arrived just in time for weary fans of the franchise. 

Star Trek has had a mixed decade or so – ever since the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies faded out with the underwhelming Nemesis, there’s been a growing sense that Star Trek isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.

Will it reboot and start over entirely, like the three Chris Pine-led movies? Will it boldly go in a new direction like the ballyhooed Star Trek: Discovery, or return to well-loved old friends like Star Trek: Picard? Will it make a hard swerve into animated satire like Lower Decks? With the latest spin-off – the eighth live-action Star Trek series, if you’re counting – Star Trek goes back to the basics, and Strange New Worlds is all the better for it.

Retro without being camp, Strange New Worlds is set on the USS Enterprise several years before Kirk became its captain. It follows Captain Christopher Pike (first seen in a few episodes of the ‘60s series) and his science officer Spock as the ship boldly goes to explore strange new… well, you get the idea.

Although it’s a prequel and weighed down by existing canon (including Pike’s grim ultimate fate), so far it’s a breezy ride that evokes the spirit of TOS – the original series – far more successfully than anything since The Next Generation. 

I maintain that one of the worst developments for television series was Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s embrace of the serialised “Big Bad,” in which the entire season leads up to a final confrontation with some menace. While Buffy was pretty great, it didn’t mean every single series needed to have a ‘Big Bad.’ The ‘Big Bad’ has become a plague on serialised television. Its bad influence can be seen in shows like the Arrow-verse superhero franchises, which were weakened by Big Bad envy and a constant desire to top themselves and up the menace. ST: Discovery and Picard are both guilty of this too (along with other flaws) and it’s kept these shows from living up to their predecessors.

I gave up on Discovery after the third season, where despite a lot of potential, the show seemed determined to be “the Michael Burnham Show” and never let any other characters have a chance to breathe, never let up from its bludgeoning insistence that it was deep and it mattered. It wasn’t fun. 

Strange New Worlds is fun. We’re only five episodes in, but already it feels like the best Trek in years. The rainbow-coloured uniforms inspired by the original series set the tone from the start.  Anson Mount’s Captain Pike is charismatic and stalwart, while Ethan Peck has the hard job of shadowing Leonard Nimoy’s inimitable Spock, but pulls it off pretty well. The crew is a mix of familiar characters – a very young Uhura, a spunky Nurse Chapel – and new, like Rebecca Romjin’s dynamic Number One and Christina Chong‘s La’an Noonien Singh, who shares an ancestry with a very famous Trek villain. 

Strange New Worlds is confident about what kind of Star Trek it wants to be from the word “engage.” Unlike Discovery, which flailed and reinvents itself each season, SNW is fully formed. In five episodes, we’ve already learned more about the crew’s bridge characters than I did over three seasons of Discovery. Star Trek is about the entire crew, not just a captain, and so far the old-school Enterprise’s team are an enjoyable group of well-worn Starfleet cliches and intriguing newcomers. 

What’s wrong with a good done-in-one story, anyway? So far, SNW has had a blast on the “mission of the week” stories The Next Generation and original series excelled at – miniature action movies with hefty doses of character development, humour and an epic sense of wonder. 

After 50-plus years, it’s hard to find new life in a franchise. While excavating the past and nostalgia are prime reason for Strange New Worlds’ existence, it wouldn’t work if the show itself wasn’t so darned endearing. It may stumble – after all, it’s only halfway through its first season – but at the moment, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is roaring along at warp speed. 

Gut-wrenching final issue! When comic books are cancelled

The problem with never-ending serialised fiction is just that – it never ends. Unless a meteor finally hits the planet, you’ll probably never really see a truly final adventure of Superman, Spider-Man or Batman. Sure, there’s plenty of possible final stories and alternative histories out there – but the powers that be will never let the underlying intellectual property go truly dormant. 

Heck, even stories we once thought were over, such as Star Wars circa 1985, have been prequeled and sequeled and sidequeled and likely will until they run out of steam until the inevitable next reboot circa 2045. 

There are comics characters I love, but I no longer obsessively follow their every adventure. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Spider-Man and Batman, but you know, you’ve seen Bats punch out the Joker once, you’ve seen it all. Sometimes, you just want a sense of closure. 

I guess that’s why I have a nerdy fascination with picking up the final issues of long-running comics series, because it feels like a definite ending to the story. It doesn’t really happen much anymore, because there’s always another reboot, but for a while in the mid-1980s, Marvel was kind of OK with wrapping up entirely the stories of characters who had reached the end of the line – Ghost Rider, Master of Kung Fu and ROM among them, while rival DC Comics cancelled almost every non-superhero comic they had in a massive genre purge in the early 1980s, as well as long-running series like Flash and Wonder Woman in favour of reboots. 

A cover trumpeting “final issue” teases the reader that this story really, truly matters, unlike the more common “stealth cancellation” tactic these days where a comic book just quietly vanishes.

The ending of these stories could be uplifting – Ghost Rider finally breaks his demonic curse to walk off into the sunset, ROM gets his humanity returned after winning the Dire Wraith war – or surprisingly bleak, when Iron Fist is shockingly murdered in the final 125th issue of Power Man And Iron Fist, ending what had been an entertaining bi-racial buddy superhero tale on a note of discordant tragedy. (Iron Fist came back from the dead, of course, but it wasn’t for several years.) 

Other final issues serve as a farewell to dying comic book genres – Jonah Hex #92 puts a capstone on the western saga’s classic years, while G.I. Combat #288 was one of the last war comics in a once-dominant subsector of comics. From the mid-’70s on, one by one the popularity of long-running horror, western, war and romance comics faded so that by 1985, from House of Mystery to Young Romance, almost none of them were left. Sometimes the endings were pretty abrupt – the saga of the bizarre “Creature Commandos” is wrapped up in an utterly slapdash one-page story in final issue Weird War Tales #124 that just shoots them off into outer space forever! 

Some got a happy ending that stuck – ROM ended his series in 1985 and while there have been a few revivals at other comics companies of the basic concept, the Marvel version of ROM has never returned – not for creative reasons, but because of tangled copyright wrangling. I do like the idea that the spaceknight got to just walk off into the sunset for good.

I know few characters stay dead when there’s valuable intellectual property to mine – pretty much all of the characters mentioned above have come back in some form or another – but the end of a series after 100, 200 or 300 issues still feels like a pretty firm full stop on a comic’s history. The modern revivals, even when they’re great, often feel like echoes of the past rather than something truly new. 

People have been predicting the death of print comic books for ages, and it’s still shocking to see how low sales figures for print comics are these days when their stars go on to headline multi-zillion-dollar movie franchises. But I’m hoping they stick around as long as I do. I do like a final issue, but I also don’t want to see the gut-wrenching collector’s item last issue of Action Comics or Amazing Spider-Man anytime soon. 

The sounds of Aotearoa – a New Zealand Music Month playlist

Aldous Harding, Neil Finn, Reb Fountain

It’s the final few days of New Zealand Music Month, an annual celebration of all that makes Aotearoa music great. 

I’ve lived here more than 15 years now, and I’m still amazed by the depth of NZ music, from the melancholy beauty of Crowded House to the hugely influential post-punk sound of Flying Nun’s The Chills and The Clean to the rousing waiata of Māori anthems to the Kiwi-fried country of artists like Tami Neilson and Delaney Davidson. There’s the inescapable strength of amazing New Zealand women like Aldous Harding, Reb Fountain and Lorde or the madcap adventurousness of folks like Troy Kingi and SJD. 

Troy Kingi.

In this pandemic world, borders have been pretty well closed to international music, so the few concerts I have seen lately have been homegrown – a wonderful Crowded House show between Covid surges, Reb Fountain and Marlon Williams tearing up the stage, a celebration of Flying Nun Records’ 40th anniversary. 

Every country has its own sounds, and there’s something wonderful about becoming an immigrant to another land and learning about its own unique sounds. New Zealand is a melting pot of Māoritanga, British influences, Pacific emotions, the echo of the vast seas and the echoes of a few dozen other cultures who’ve also ended up calling these lands home. 

The first New Zealand music I ever heard was more than 30 years ago, a fuzzy dubbed cassette of Crowded House’s Temple of Low Men given to me by a long-vanished girlfriend. The music sunk deep into my genes, although I had no idea then I’d ever end up living in the place that band came from. 

I can’t make a definitive list of the “best” New Zealand songs, but these are 30 that make me happy every time I hear them, and represent a pretty broad cross-section of Aotearoa sounds, tilted toward my own listening preferences, of course.

Some are old, some are new, some of them are bloody obvious choices that are embedded deep into the kiwi brain, others are a bit more obscure but just say something essential about this strange little oasis at the bottom of the world where I’ve somehow ended up living a big chunk of my life. Another 30 songs could easily have been added, but let’s save some for another year!

Have a listen to my eccentric playlist Noisyland Music: NZ Music Month 2022, and celebrate the sounds of Kiwiana!

Movies I Have Never Seen #17: Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

What is it: Today, of all days, you know who this guy is. He’s the hockey mask-wearing serial killer who starred in about a jillion gory movies between 1980 and 2003 or so (to be precise, 10 Friday the 13th movies, one reboot, and one “team-up” with Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger). The sixth instalment, Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, is the charmingly low-key story of a boy with a dream … a dream which involves killing lots of teenagers. 

Why I never saw it: To be blunt, Jason scared me. I was an ‘80s horror movie buff – I loved Nightmare On Elm Street, even the awful ones, and it’s not unfair to say that David Cronenberg’s The Fly changed my life. I grooved on The Lost Boys and The Thing. Yet, for years, I was repelled and a little freaked out by the Jason movies, which were culturally everywhere in the ‘80s – parodied in Mad magazine, homaged by other movies, et cetera. Jason was of course a bit of a rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween and its own stalking silent killer Michael Myers, but there was something even more bleak and disturbing about his hockey-masked visage – a blank white canvas with staring eye-holes where a soul might be. He lacked the elegance of a Dracula or the pathos of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. All he did was kill. I even remember seeing the paperback adaptation of Jason Lives sitting on the racks in our local Kmart as a kid, where I’d flip through the pages each time I saw it – figuring it was less horrifying than seeing the movies themselves. These movies seemed more terror than horror to me – I like my horror movies with a dollop of wit in there, and sight unseen, the reputation of the Jason movies is that they were brutal, nihilistic gore-fests without the cheesy parody that made Freddy Krueger or Evil Dead II a bit more, well, loveable.

Does it measure up to its rep? Do the Friday the 13th movies have a rep, outside of horror aficionados? It turns out, years later, some of them aren’t really all that bad, although I’ve still only seen a handful of them – and I’m fond of the weirder later entries like the insanely over-the-top Freddy Vs Jason monster mash, or the absurdist “let’s just send the serial killer into space in the future, then” comedy of Jason X. But to see Jason in his pure, summer camp ghoul element, you’ve got to go back a bit. The Friday The 13th series has a weird chronology – Jason himself barely appears in the first one and doesn’t don that iconic hockey mask until Part III. For the next several sequels, the pattern was set – Jason returns, kills a lot, is defeated by some spunky teenager. By the time Part VI rolled around in ’86, the series was evolving from a creepy, somewhat human knife killer and the rather unstoppable demonic figure that Jason became by Jason X. If you’re imagining what a Friday the 13th movie might be like, then starting with Part VI isn’t actually a bad place to go. 

Worth seeing? “Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment,” the town drunk mutters at one point, just before he gets murdered. Jason Lives is the platonic ideal of the ‘80s slasher horror movie in its mainstream moment – lifting from everything from Frankenstein to James Bond to Rambo, with beloved period cliches like the perpetually angry cops, ripped-jean and pastel fashions, synth-driven pop music, the teenagers who run around rutting every chance they get. The movie starts with a thoroughly dead Jason being accidentally resurrected by one of his teenager enemies and given new superhuman endurance, and escalates from there. You can’t expect part six of a series to bring much new to the table, but with Jason Lives the execution is glossily polished to a Tupperware shine. It’s schlock, but in the right mood it’s massively entertaining schlock, really, and less sadistic than one might expect (sure, teens die, but nobody is really tortured here – Jason is quite efficient). There’s a fair bit of humour and in-jokes here, but not enough to push it into Scream meta territory. It’s simply an effective scare-fest which isn’t trying to be clever. Sometimes, on a Friday the 13th, that’s all you really want. “It’s over. It’s finally over,” we’re told at the end. Spoiler warning: It wasn’t over. 

George Pérez and Neal Adams, the men who built the comics blockbuster

In the space of a week, we’ve lost two of the greatest artists the comic book medium ever had. George Pérez and Neal Adams were giants in the worlds of comics, and we are immeasurably poorer for their losses.

Adams died at age 80 last week, while Pérez left us too soon just today at age 67 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. If you have ever watched an MCU movie or Batman growl across the big screen, if you queued up to watch the new Dr. Strange this weekend, you were following in their footsteps. 

I would argue that Adams and Pérez were probably the two most important comics artists since Jack Kirby, although they worked in very different styles. But what both of them did is shake up the artform and bring a lighting bolt of dynamism to the field using mere pens and pencils. 

Enough talk. Let’s just look at their pretty pictures, Neal first:

The first time I saw Neal Adams was probably as a kid in my beloved Batman from the ‘30s to ‘70s collection, and then in a few battered Brave and Bold comics I picked up cheap. When compared to the more stiff Silver Age drawings of Batman by the likes of Bob Kane or his ghost artists, Adams was technicolour.

The man pretty much reinvented Batman with writer Denny O’Neil and created the Dark Knight we all think of today. I can only compare the impact of Adams’ dynamic, hyper-real compositions in comics art to the way it must’ve felt to see the Beatles for the first time. 

Compared to Adams, everything that came before seemed static. Adams’ camera eye was always roaming, looking for stunning perspectives and gripping action. He combined the energy of Jack Kirby with the skill of a portrait artist. 

When I started scribbling my own little comics in the 1990s, Neal Adams was one of the main people I tried to mimic. His work, for lack of a better word, had LIFE. 

And then there’s George Pérez. I never tried to imitate George Pérez. Who in god’s name could?

If Neal Adams brought dynamism to comics, Pérez brought scale. Pérez is best known for his sprawling character-filled team comics like New Teen Titans, Avengers, and Justice League – and of course, the granddaddy of all cosmic crossovers, Crisis on Infinite Earths and its spiritual successor, Infinity Gauntlet. Pérez took the idea of a bunch of caped weirdos hanging around together and gave it an Olympian grandeur. 

He first blew my mind with Crisis on Infinite Earths #5, the cover of which beckoned at me from a newsstand and said, “Who are all these characters? Is the comics world really this big?” In George’s hands, it was. 

Pérez did big. When it came time to finally team up the Justice League and Avengers in a world-smashingly over-the-top adventure, nobody could draw it but him. But the secret of Pérez is that while he did big, he also did small equally well. Just look at the detail he packed above in a page of his future Hulk adventure with Peter David, a treasure trove of easter eggs. 

And Pérez had a skill that is remarkably rare in comics – drawing truly distinct faces. I’ve been re-reading his JLA/Avengers this week, knowing Pérez’s time was short, and what strikes me even more than the bombast is how he sets off Captain America’s chin from Superman’s, how Thor has a broad, Scandinavian look, how Hawkeye has a thick brawler’s mouth and nose – too often in comics, superhero faces are practically identical except for the hair. Pérez cared about the little things, and the big things.

Neal Adams and George Pérez were both titans in the comics field. They were also reportedly wildly different in temperament – Adams was known for his ego and his intensity, and he was an absolute powerhouse advocate for the concept of creator’s rights and independent comics back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, delivering justice for forgotten creators with the tireless drive of Batman himself. 

Pérez was considered one of the nicest men in comics, and while he did some work in independents he was mostly known for his Marvel and DC work. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year, the love that came to him from fandom and his peers was overwhelming and beautiful. In an age where social media is more noxious than kind, Pérez was loved, and I’m so happy he left us knowing exactly how much fans cared for him and his work. We all knew what was coming, but boy, we let George know how we felt about him first. 

Neal Adams and George Pérez were creators, and they were innovators. As we watch superheroes flash by with the energy of Adams and the power of Pérez on screens, never forget that creators like them are the rock that the blockbusters were built on. 

The madcap fun of Legends of Tomorrow, gone but not forgotten

Legends of Tomorrow was the superhero TV show for people who were a bit sick of superhero shows. When it decided to stop being faithful to the comics it was inspired by and just be its own weird thing, that’s when it became kind of great. 

The cancellation announcement after seven seasons wasn’t a surprise, but it’s a bummer. It was pretty much the last “Arrowverse” show I regularly watched (other than the excellent Superman and Lois, which isn’t really Arrowverse at all) and it was the one that did the best job of truly becoming its own unique self. I’m gonna miss it. 

Legends was originally a kind of “all-star squadron” of random characters from other Arrowverse shows, all with various DC comic book ties – Firestorm, Captain Cold, The Atom, White Canary, Rip Hunter, Hawkman – but it abandoned the costumes, evolved into a series of silly time travel adventures and went pretty far from its comic book-roots – which annoyed some fans, but probably gained it some, too. By the end, Caity Lotz’s iron-jawed White Canary was the only Season 1 cast member left, and any real resemblance to existing DC Comics characters was tangential indeed.  

It wasn’t afraid to be blissfully, curiously weird, something a lot of the current superhero movie glut fails to be. Legends had a madcap ‘80s Dr. Who meets silver age DC Comics vibe and leapt through history with merry abandon. No other show on television would have featured a psychic gorilla trying to assassinate young Barack Obama, a “tickle me Elmo” type toy becoming a Viking god of war, or a wrestling match in JFK’s Oval Office over nuclear armageddon. One week might feature David Bowie, the next a robot J. Edgar Hoover.

The show embraced the fact that a story of time-travel could really go anywhere, do anything, within budget, and as a result was far more creative and unpredictable week to week than the likes of Arrow and Flash. It built its own oddball cosmos and became a home for characters marooned from other shows, like Matt Ryan’s pitch-perfect John Constantine, who somehow managed to fit in. 

There were lows – Adam Tsekhman’s Gary Green was an awful scenery-chewing nerd parody before they finally gave him some more depth, and the all-time worst Legends character was the brief addition of Mona Wu, an awkward and annoying stereotype. It was admittedly past its peak – I hated seeing characters go like Brandon Routh’s endearing Ray Palmer, Dominic Purcell’s grouchy Mick Rory and charming Nick Zano as “Steel,” and later seasons introduced some replacement characters who never really clicked for me, like the alien-hunter Spooner. But Lotz’s Sarah Lance provided a kick-ass moral centre for the show as the assassin who matures into a den mother for a team of goofballs and weirdos, and her romance with Ava (Jes Macallan) was both inspirational and darned cute to watch unfold. 

Despite its flaws, Legends was consistently entertaining, week in and week out, even as the budgets shrank and the cast rotated and the show couldn’t match its big ambitions. It had a lot of heart, such as the season 7 episode where the cast successfully integrates World War II factories and wins a cheer from special guest star Eleanor Roosevelt, or the landmark 100th episode which paid tribute to the show’s twisting path and history. It was a show made with obvious love for its characters, a team of misfits inspired by C-list comic superheroes who became something much more along the way. 

Its demise (along with the less long-lived Batwoman) kind of marks the finale of the Arrowverse, although the now decidedly mediocre Flash will stumble along a bit longer and hopefully it might somehow give a bit of closure to the cliffhanger ending for the Legends. 

The Arrowverse was never perfect and many of the series would have benefitted by about half the number of episodes per season, but at its best – such as a far better Crisis on Infinite Earths live adaptation than I imagined possible – the Arrowverse was a lot of giddy fun, and Legends of Tomorrow was always the absurdist jester at the heart of that. Sail on, Wave Rider! 

Everything I need to know about America I learned from ‘Doonesbury’

I’ve written before about how I miss when newspaper comics were a bit more central in pop culture. And few have been more topical and controversial than Garry Trudeau’s venerable daily Doonesbury, still going strong, if less frequently, after 50-plus years. 

For nerdy kids like me who grew up reading the comics pages and scouring thrift shops for old paperbacks, Doonesbury was our political education. The first Doonesbury book I remember picking up was 1981’s “In Search of Reagan’s Brain,”  a pointed if often mystifying to me satire of the then-new US President’s penchant for vagueness and nostalgia. I barely knew who Reagan was at my tender age, but something about the complicated, arcane world of Doonesbury made me want to get the joke. 

Later, I bought classic treasury collections like “The Doonesbury Chronicles,” which awakened me to strange early ‘70s concepts like communes and Walden Pond, or to Nixon and Ford and the Watergate figures. There were the just plain funny strips, but then there were the ones that made me want to learn more to get the references. 

Pre-internet, the past was a rather mysterious country, and to be honest, my history classes that I recall of primary and high school education always seemed to focus on the really distant past, on Founding Fathers and constitutional principles and occasionally something as fresh as World War II.

Little was taught about injustice, or racism, or the many wrongs and missteps in America’s long, tangled history. Doonesbury had Black, Asian and gay characters long before it was common. Through Doonesbury, I learned that America was always many things at the same time, and the obscure political and cultural figures of 1975 and 1984 it stuck in my head made me want to learn more about it all in my own time. 

But Doonesbury would never have lasted if it was just a blithe satire of the news of the day, and it was the characters who kept me coming back for more – everyman Mike Doonesbury’s journey from idealistic student to ‘80s ad man to ‘00s digital hipster to today’s almost senior citizen, football player turned wounded veteran B.D., eternal hippie Zonker, Hunter Thompson stand-in Duke (who became rather tiresome through overuse), or fiery campus protester Mark’s long journey to coming out.

Doonesbury always felt kind of like the story of a family as it journeyed through five decades of America, and that human touch is what made me want to learn more about the years it spanned. 

Doonesbury is still going 51 years on – longer than Schulz did Peanuts now – although it’s been new strips on Sundays only since 2014 or so which makes it feel like it’s entered a slow final victory lap around the cultural arena. Trudeau’s been viciously funny with the Tr**p years but it’s a lot harder to pay attention in the Age of Outrage. Mike and the gang are still around, and they’ve got children, and their children even have children as Doonesbury turns sweetly generational. 

I guess I know more about how the US and the world works now in my own encroaching middle age, and there’s certainly no shortage of places one can pick up history and knowledge now, but I’ll always kind of long for the days when Trudeau’s characters were my newsprint guides to the follies and foibles of the wider world.