The Amoeba Adventures Archive is now a real thing

It’s here! The project I’ve been filling my pandemic-free hours with for the past month or two.

The AMOEBA ADVENTURES ARCHIVE is now available for your digital reading pleasure, marking the grand conclusion of my 30th anniversary of Amoeba Adventures celebration. A whopping 130-page digital book, it includes:

* The return of Prometheus the Protoplasm in the first NEW Amoeba Adventures story since 1998! It’s been a real trip to return to drawing comics again after wayyyyyy too long, and hopefully you enjoy!

* Troy Hickman pens a long-lost untold story of the Flaming Flag during World War II!

* Not one but rare two team-up stories with Jason Marcy’s brawling bruiser Powerwus!

* Rare Amoeba Adventures stories from fanzines, The Rap Sheet, and special publications! 

* Excerpts from the legendary Small Press Syndicate jam comic crossover!

* The never-before-published, embarrassingly primitive very first Prometheus two comic books ever drawn! 

* A look into the vaults at scripts and art for several stories that never quite made it to print, including a team-up with the late Sam Gafford, an Amoeba Adventures Annual with Lynn Allen, and much more! 

* A gallery of rare art by Max Ink!

* A complete cover gallery of vintage Amoeba Adventures publications! 

It’s only a mere $2.00 US / $3 NZ to get the whole package downloaded direct to the tablet/laptop/Commodore 64 of your choice, plus, as a bonus, I’ll also throw in the digital reprint of the 1995 Amoeba Adventures 5th Anniversary Special, a 36-page look back at the first 5 years of the All-Spongy Squadron featuring profiles, essays and pin-ups galore. That’s a grand total of more than 160 pages of material for less than the cost of a single new comic book. 

(Sorry, at the moment it’s digital-only for me, but maybe once the world calms down a little I’ll do a limited edition print version.) 

Donate with PayPal

Payment accepted via Paypal or hit me up via message if you need other options. 

And don’t forget, every single issue of Amoeba Adventures is already available for a free download over on this page – so you have no excuse!

21 minutes and done: In praise of the classic sitcom

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it a little hard to concentrate this year.

I’ve got a hefty 600-page novel I’ve been working on for weeks now that’s really good, yet I keep getting distracted. I have plans and projects. Yet I keep “doomscrolling” (a fantastic phrase) and worry I’ve missed the latest catastrophe.

Thus, for solace, I turn to the essence of distraction: the classic sitcom. I think it might just be the perfect tonic for the befuddled mind. To me, despite all the great dramas out there, the platonic ideal of television is still the 21-minute sitcom. 

A good episode of Frasier or Seinfeld or Brooklyn Nine-Nine has all the energy of a terrific one-act play. A familiar cast of characters, a story that unfolds conflict and resolution in just a score or so of minutes, and a few jokes you can laugh at. I’m easy to please. 

Not all sitcoms are created equal. Seinfeld still holds up brilliantly, but I simply don’t get the belated critical elevation of Friends, an amiable show that I watched while it aired but feel no need to ever revisit again. I can watch episodes of Frasier until the sun grows cold and dark, but maybe thanks to my son’s youthful addiction to it, my tolerance for all but the most classic episodes of The Simpsons is kinda low now. 

It doesn’t all have to be old stuff from the pre-internet days, although the nostalgic kick of an old episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or M*A*S*H still holds up for me. I fondly remember watching many of these shows after school in an era where streaming was something you did while fishing. I’ve also been rewatching all of the brilliant Community, or newer stuff like the terrific The Good Place, Fleabag or Schitt’s Creek.

A good comedy can take a simple plot – two brothers open a restaurant together; a television clown dies; a group of friends can’t find their parking spot; a cool dude in a leather jacket jumps over a shark – and make it sing. 

There’s an endless ocean of content streaming out there, and it seems like there’s a new hot show every week. Yet I have to admit I’m giving most of it a miss. There’s a million classic movies to watch if I feel the urge for something longer, but the bloated storytelling of many streaming shows turns me off. 

Looking back, commercial television kind of sucked – I don’t miss the adverts much. Like many of us now, the times I actually watch “live” TV with commercials and everything are pretty rare.  

Without commercial restraints a single episode can stretch on as long as it wants, often without really earning that running time. Shows that merit 21 or 40 minutes turn into 60, 70 minutes. They lack the Oscar Wildean economy of wit that tight 21 minutes forced a sitcom to be. 

An awful lot of so-called “classic” weren’t all that great either, to be fair. But it also forced creatives to work within those tight parameters. Twenty-one, 22 minutes, tell a story and get out, and for those 21 minutes, all the blues are chased away. 

The world may be screwed, but we’ve always got the movies

Everyone’s got their social routines that have been buggered by this abominable year to date. Even though life is a lot more normal now here in New Zealand than it is in other places, it’s still a bit shaky. 

But at least, we’ve still got the movies, even if it isn’t quite the same. I know it’s a stupid thing to focus on in a world with so much pain and loss and stress going on right now, but I have to admit I think a fair bit about how in a brighter alternate timeline, I’d have seen the new Black Widow, James Bond and Wonder Woman movies by now, not to mention a handful of other wonders new and old. 

But my very cool local retro cinema finally reopened this week, with what turned out to be a sold-out showing of 1993’s True Romance. Driving up to the theatre last night, I saw crowds of people outside and had trouble finding a parking space. I was a bit confused by all the bustle. For a 27-year-old movie starring Christian Slater! (And written by Quentin Tarantino, I might add.) People were clearly starved for the magic of the movies. It was great to be back, and appreciate the strange communion of the cinema, which streaming just can’t quite recreate. 

It still feels a bit decadent, a bit strange, to be able to be crowded in a sold-out theatre with hundreds of others, nobody wearing a mask, in the age of COVID. But we’ve fought a hard battle here to get to this place of near-containment, and that does make the little victories like hanging out at the movies with a mate, a soda and a popcorn taste that much sweeter. 

The New Zealand International Film Festival is mostly online this year, which is understandable, but also a bummer – some of my best theatre memories in recent years have revolved around the bustling, diverse wonders of the festival, where you can pivot from a gory crowd-pleaser to a touching Tongan documentary with ease. New Zealand’s tentative reopening meant the festival had to stick to mostly online showings this year, which sadly isn’t quite the same. Fortunately, my local retro cinema is also showing a few of the movies in person in limited viewings this season, which I won’t pass up.

New movies are thin on the ground in 2020 and it’s kind of looking like it might stay that way all year long – this year’s summer movie season, a gaudy showcase of spandex, explosions and spaceships for as long as I can remember, simply does not exist. But hey, True Romance was pretty fun to see again for the first time in ages. And everything old is new again. 

Lights, camera, action. A crowd of strangers and a flickering screen. It may not be 100% normal life, but I’ll take what I can get. 

Coming soon, or what I did during the pandemic:

Coming in August, the grand conclusion of my 30 years of Amoeba Adventures celebration – the Amoeba Archive, a digital PDF book featuring 130 pages of rare stuff, old stuff, never-seen stuff and even a brand new Amoeba Adventures story for the first time since (gulp) 1998!

Meanwhile, browse the 30 or so issues of my 1990s small press comic I’ve already uploaded as free reads, and stay tuned!

Harold Lloyd, hanging on for nearly a century

Harold Lloyd isn’t quite the household name the other silent clowns of his generation are – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy. But doggedly, cheerfully, he endures, and in some ways he’s still the most modern of the lot.

It’s a strange feeling watching a movie made nearly a century ago and knowing that everyone in it and who worked on it is long dead. But 1923’s Safety Last, even at 97 years old, still speaks to today’s world with its singular image, of a man frantically trying to keep his balance in a changing world. 

That’s not to say Harold Lloyd was quite the genius Chaplin or Keaton were – but at his best, his work comes mighty close. I adored Chaplin and Keaton from the moment I first discovered “the silent clowns”, but Harold Lloyd was almost forgotten after his death in 1971. It’s mainly thanks to that remarkable imagery from Safety Last that he hasn’t become as obscure as some of his peers. 

Keaton was famed for his stone-faced expression, and Chaplin for his childlike innocence. Lloyd started out as a second-rate Chaplin imitator, but his character “Glasses” is how he broke through into legend. Lloyd smiled more, a genial wide Midwestern-type grin, and Glasses was just an ordinary guy, a striver in the roaring ‘20s trying to make it big, gutsy yet appealingly insecure. He seems a tad more human. And indeed, through the 1920s Lloyd was one of the world’s biggest box office stars.

The Criterion Collection has done a magnificent job restoring Lloyd’s ouevre the last few years with sweeping special editions of Speedy, The Kid Brother, The Freshman and of course, Safety Last, arguably his masterpiece and definitely the film he’s most remembered for. 

Like most silent comedies, Safety is thin on plot and long on pratfalls. Harold is a country boy who moves to the big city and gets a lowly job in a department store, determined to impress his country girlfriend. When she comes to town, he ends up in an escalating series of hijinks culminating in a still-astonishing climb up the department store skyscraper. There’s something captivating about Harold’s struggle – he doesn’t MEAN to climb the whole thing, you see – and yet he battles on, against the odds. Like Chaplin and Keaton, he’s the little guy – and everybody loves an underdog. 

Suspended in mid-air, clutching a clock’s hands to keep from falling to his death, the eternally striving Harold Lloyd feels like a meme before memes were a thing. His struggle pierces the veil between slapstick and genuine feeling, not always easy in the frantic world of silent comedy. 

It’s easy to get jaded in the age of CGI superheroes and wizards, but I’m always astonished when I contemplate the sheer guts and ingenuity of the silent clowns, when every somersault, stunt and crash were carried out by fragile blood and bone. Crowds reportedly fainted and fled the theatre at some screenings of Safety Last. Lloyd’s climb in Safety Last isn’t ENTIRELY what it appears to be – some great documentary footage on the Criterion disc shows how it was done – but it was still dangerous, challenging work.

Almost a century on, it still dazzles. 

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.