This is not a blog post about The Fall.

I keep trying to write a blog post about The Fall, and failing.

This is not a blog post about The Fall.

The Fall were a post-punk band from industrial Manchester who were insanely prolific, yet the very definition of a cult act. Frontman Mark E. Smith stomped, snarled and muttered his way through an endless sea of clattering albums over 40 years until his death at age 60 in 2018.

For some people, The Fall are everything. For some, if they’ve even heard of them, they’re just annoying noise. 

I have a greatest hits collection, the ironically titled 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong. The first song on it is “Repetition,” and it sums up the band’s gritty ethos with the first words Smith utters – “Right noise!”

Prior to 2018, I liked The Fall, and had a couple of their albums, but I wasn’t what I’d call a super-fan. There’s people who devote a giant chunk of their lives to The Fall.

When Mark E. Smith died, I started listening to them more and more and scooping up albums any time I saw them. I often do that when someone famous dies, I go back to their work, and get a bit obsessive about them for a spell. It’s morbid but I bet I’m not the only person who does it.

The Fall has a song on their 2001 Album Are You Missing Winner? I listened to like five times yesterday. That’s not their best known or loved album, and the song, “Crop-Dust,” is probably not even in their 100 best songs. I kind of love it.

It swirls in and out like a deranged anthem from another world, distorted and spooky, hypnotic, and Smith starts barking away like a lost dog. A YouTube commenter says, “It sounds like a drunk Mark E. Smith phoned the vocal in after getting trapped inside a telephone box.” It really does. 

At least 60% of people I know would hate that song.

The late John Peel memorably summed up The Fall by saying, “They are always different; they are always the same.” 

Smith was fascinating, querulous and eccentric, but I don’t imagine I’d have liked him much in real life. In his final years he looked like a melting wax figure of himself. 

In January 2018, the same month Mark E. Smith died of cancer, I nearly died of something I didn’t even know I had. I’ve kind of divided my life since then into “before, and after.” I began listening to The Fall a lot that year, spurred on by editing news stories about Mark E. Smith’s death, and listening to 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong over and over and over. It was a weird time in my life, and the snarling chaos of The Fall seemed to help it make sense.

Every time I turned around, there was a new album to discover. There’s still a dozen or two I haven’t listened to. I like The Fall a lot, but I wouldn’t call me expert enough in their strange universe to write about the sweep of their career, of their deeper meaning. 

Music is weird because it’s like a fingerprint on your brain. The things I see when I hear Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” or Crowded House’s “Distant Sun” aren’t the things you see; the soothing void “Crop-Dust” plunges me into might just give you a migraine. 

Sometimes you want right noise, you want a secret language that you feel like only you can understand.

I listen to The Fall a lot, and I’m nowhere near the bottom yet. 

This was not a blog post about The Fall. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #11: Isthar (1987)

What is it: First off, before we get into Ishtar, let’s talk about how awesome Elaine May is. With the late Mike Nichols, she was half of Nichols and May, a hilarious and subversive comic duo who took America by storm in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with their dry, improvisational wit inspiring folks like Steve Martin and David Letterman. A lot of their stuff is still pretty darned funny today. After Nichols and May ran their course, Elaine May became a screenwriter, director and wry actress in her own right – her fingerprints are all over movies as a writer and “script polisher” including Tootsie, The Birdcage, Labyrinth, Reds and Heaven Can Wait

May’s work as a film director never got quite as famous as her former partner Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl) but her small filmography – just four movies as director – is a treasure trove of askew, insightful comedy that’s well worth hunting out. You’ve got Walter Matthau in the 1971 black romantic comedy A New Leaf, a perfect little offbeat love story between spoiled rich jerk Matthau and May herself as a ditzy botanist; the twisted hit man buddy comedy/drama Mikey and Nicky with a fantastic John Cassavetes as a man having a nervous breakdown and Peter Falk as his best friend; and her masterpiece, 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, starring the late great Charles Grodin and an absolutely luminous Cybill Shepherd in one of the meanest, most biting romantic satires I’ve ever seen. May was a pioneer for women in filmmaking – when she signed a deal with Paramount to make A New Leaf in the late 1960s, she was the first female director in decades to break that glass ceiling, in a world where female directors were as rare as snow leopards in a desert. But she also fought with the studio bosses from her first film to her last, culminating in her being fired from Mikey and Nicky and actually stealing some of the film canisters and hiding them in a garage in a bit that sounds like it was ripped straight from an Elaine May movie. 

And then there’s 1987’s Ishtar, her fourth and final film as a director, a word that became shorthand for “box office disaster.” Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty were massive stars at the time, and an epic road trip buddy comedy starring them as hack musicians caught up in a Cold War-era spy plot seemed like it’d be a box office bonanza in the heady 1980s. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. May, still around at 89, never directed another major Hollywood movie again, although she did continue working as a screenwriter and occasional actress and these days she’s widely remembered for her career highs rather than the occasional lows. 

Why I never saw it: While I’m a connoisseur of fascinatingly bad movies – I proudly own Plan Nine From Outer Space, The Room and Toxic AvengerIshtar was seen as more of a bloated classic Hollywood misfire than a movie that’s so bad it’s good. I only finally got to it recently because I’ve been watching May’s utterly charming earlier films, and it felt like it was time to finally come to terms with the one that basically ended her directing career. The reason Ishtar flopped are many, but it basically boils down to money and hubris. May had a reputation as an indecisive and somewhat spendthrift director, which worked for smaller character-focused work like The Heartbreak Kid, but Ishtar was one of those big booming ‘80s comedies where excess was part of the furniture. Throw in the big egos of Beatty and Hoffman and the studio heads, and autopsies of Ishtar show it’s clearly a case of far too many cooks labouring over a rather mediocre, overstuffed dish. 

Does it measure up to its rep? So how bad is this film, anyway? At the time of its release in 1987, you’d have thought Ishtar was a child-eating serial killer, so bad was its press. Roger Ebert called it “truly dreadful” and endless reams of newspaper and magazine copy focused on the wasteful big budget and production dramas. But while there have been efforts to reclaim Ishtar in the years since as some kind of underrated gem, in reality it’s somewhere in between. Distanced from all the drama about budget and production, it’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s also a clunky patched-together beast that lacks the tight focus of a twisted buddy comedy like May’s Mikey and Nicky

Here’s the main problem – you’re asked to buy Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, two of the world’s biggest movie stars, as sad-sack loser songwriters convinced of their own genius. Their star power overwhelms the premise. Hoffman comes off marginally better – “overconfident loser” is part of his whole vibe – but Beatty, much as I like him, is simply not plausible as a fumbling dimwit. Beatty can play losers – the iconic Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Altman’s doomed gambler in McCabe and Mrs Miller, the corrupt politician having a nervous breakdown in the terrific Bulworth – but he’s not right for this role at all. When the movie focuses on Hoffman and Beatty as failed musicians performing their terrible songs, it’s fitfully amusing, but when the action shifts to Morocco, where they’ve somehow managed to land a few gigs, it turns into one of those very ‘80s spy action comedies with a convoluted, confusing plot about lost magical maps and duelling factions in the Middle East. A little bit racist now in its ogling of the culture and traditions of a “foreign land” (a scene where Hoffman starts screaming in pidgin Arabic does not age well), Ishtar loses what little grounding it had when it goes to Morocco. I will admit the recurring gags with a blind camel are pretty good, though.

Ishtar has the bones of a decent movie in it – recast Beatty with someone like an ‘80s Michael Keaton, trim the Morocco adventures and focus more on two loveable loser songwriters, and it might work, but then it’d probably be a different movie entirely. Elaine May’s comedy is at its best when it picks at the recognisable foibles and flaws in everyday life and exaggerates them. When you start having Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in a pitched gun battle with helicopters in the Moroccan desert, you lose that. Regrettably, May’s career took the brunt of the Ishtar fallout and the resulting backlash hurt women directors in general, which seems more than a little unfair as it sounds like Warren Beatty and others own a fair bit of the blame as well. 

Worth seeing? More of an interesting failure rather than a world-shattering bomb for the ages, it’s a compromised, uncertain comic romp lacking the focus of May’s other films. If you’re making a pilgrimage through history’s “biggest bombs” it’s worth seeing, but on its own merits the pleasures are sporadic at best. I’d definitely start with The Heartbreak Kid if you want to get a better feel for May’s witty charms. Ishtar may have bombed, but Elaine May’s career was more like that of a shooting star. 

To make a comic book great, make it Weird

If you want a comic book to be truly great, in my humble opinion, add the word “WEIRD” to the title.

As I get older and quirkier, I find odd ways to satisfy my comic book needs. And Weird is always a good way to do it. There’s something about the word “Weird” appended to any comic book name that automatically makes it reek of pulpy charms, of dashing granite-jawed heroes and gorgeous dames, of creepy swamp-dwellers and horrible twists of fate. 

It’s a catchy adjective. There’s been something like 100 titles with the word “Weird” in them since the first comics more than 80 years ago. 

The granddaddy of Weird Comics was of course, EC Comics’ marvellous Weird Science and Weird Fantasy titles, which produced some of the most beautifully drawn, sharp-witted science fiction stories in comics history, led by the stunning art of Wallace Wood. I first read those Weird Science and Fantasy titles when they were reprinted in the 1980s, and to this day they’re stunning stuff. (When the market turned toxic for EC Comics, they briefly became the very oddly named Weird Science-Fantasy before the line ended entirely.)

Before Weird Science, there was the golden age Weird Comics, a grab-bag anthology that wasn’t so much weird as bargain-basement cheap, like a lot of forgotten lower-tier Golden Age stuff, featuring the adventures of The Dart, Panther Woman, Dr. Mortal, and … Thor? (No, not that Thor.)  

In the horror boom of the 1950s led by EC Comics and its many, many ripoffs/homages, there were things like Weird Terror and Weird Chills and Adventures Into Weird Worlds galore. 

But the weird kept on coming, with DC Comics leading the way with one of my favourite peculiarities, the 1970s’ Weird War Tales, which managed to combine the gritty he-man realism of the publisher’s Sgt. Rock type comics with the spooky horror of House of Mystery. You would think “war stories with an element of the supernatural” would run out of steam quickly, but it lasted a surprisingly long 124 issues and 12 years, dying off along with pretty much every other DC Comics war title in the early 1980s.   I always go out of my way to grab Weird War Tales when I see it in the back-issue bins; the stories could be rather daffy and the general theme of “hey, war is hell” hammered into the ground, but the art was almost always amazing and there’s a mad invention to the stories, especially when they started adding things like G.I Robot and the Creature Commandos (“What if the Universal Horror monsters were war heroes?”) to the mix. 

DC also saw Weird Western Tales, which mainly focused on the awesomely hard-boiled adventures of Jonah Hex and the Native American Scalphunter, and Weird Mystery Tales, one of the endless horror anthologies that thrived in the early 1970s.

Later, DC went full weird and introduced a compelling antihero simply CALLED “The Weird,” in a rather good offbeat superhero miniseries of the same name by Jim Starlin and the amazing Bernie Wrightson where a cosmic energy possesses a dead man.  

Marvel Comics never got quite as titularly weird as DC, although they did have the catch-all reprints series Weird Wonder Tales, which I dig because it introduced the modern version of the bald hero everybody loves to hate, Doctor Druid. Later Marvel even introduced a whole Weirdworld which was basically Lord of the Rings meets Elfquest, appeared sporadically in the 1970s and was briefly revived a few years back.

Meanwhile, if you care to indulge in the most adult side of things, you’ve got more adult-oriented underground comix series like Weird Sex and Weird Smut (I’ll let you google those yourselves). But my personal favourite weird comic in recent years was IDW/Yoe Comics’ series reprinting the strangest and silliest of the vast world of vintage romance comics, Weird Love.

It ran for 24 issues and every single of them was full of gems of a genre that’s almost forgotten nowadays and it was honestly one of my favourite comics in recent years, even if everything in it was decades old. Kitschy, sexy and pulpy as heck, Weird Love summed up the essence of what weird comics are all about. 

It’s a reminder that the very, very weird is often the best comics can get.

The Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, Part VI

I’ve got a shelf in the spare bedroom that’s overloaded with musty vintage Stephen King paperbacks, stacked up high. I like to think of the man as our modern Charles Dickens, a spinner of ripping yarns who’s managed to be insanely popular and yet also, kind of great at what he does.

In his nearly 50-year-career, he’s written an astonishing 80 or so books – novels, story collections, rare limited editions and pulpy crime novels that use horror to get at the truths of the human heart. Some are better than others, but his batting average is pretty darned good. Everyone loves The Stand, but how about a good ol’ creepy underrated tale like From A Buick 8

Many years ago now, I set off on the insane task to do a complete brief review of every Stephen King book (leaving out the oddities like limited editions and children’s books). I began this all the way the hell back in 2009 on my old blog, and as King keeps on scribbling, I keep on updating it. It’s been two years since my last round-up and there’s still more King to examine! Long may the King reign. Here’s the sixth and latest Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, from 2015’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams to 2021’s Later

Bazaar of Bad Dreams: A Stephen King short story collection is like grabbing a big ol’ pile of vintage EC Comics and diving into an assortment of creepy, haunting little gems. In some ways, the short story is King’s best showcase, because if an idea hasn’t quite worked, there’s another dozen within to grab you. So it’s a mixed bag by nature – the (mildly dated) e-reader-themed piece “Ur” is a grabber, but the poems here, um, aren’t really King’s forte. But I automatically knock up a big thick story collection a half-grade for its sheer bountiful pleasures, and this one’s got many to offer. Grade: A- 

End of Watch: The climax of King’s “Detective Hodges” trilogy, with one of his more enduring groups of characters – ageing ex-cop private detective Bill Hodges, autistic savant Holly Gibney and psycho killer Brady Hartsfield. The down-to-earth duo of Bill and Holly have made for some of King’s best and most humane writing in recent years, and while this final book of Bill’s adventures gets a little over-the-top – turning Hartsfield into some kind of evil supervillain rather than the slightly more believable lone madman of Mr. Mercedes – it’s still an enjoyably twisted tale and a fine capper to the series. Grade: B+  

Gwendy’s Button Box: A short novella co-written with Richard Chizmar, this tale of an unloved young girl is a kind of spin on “The Monkey’s Paw,” where a mysterious stranger gives a random person an incredibly powerful strange box. Aimed a bit more at the “Harry Potter” crowd than King’s typical work, it’s a quick read that feels more like a sampler aimed at fans who haven’t tried the hardcore King yet. In a collection it might feel a little less puffed-up, but as a slim novella it’s a little forgettable. There’s apparently a sequel by Chizmar I haven’t read and a third book by King and Chizmar on the way, so I might need to revisit this one soon and see how it holds up. Grade: Probationary B, incomplete. 

Sleeping Beauties: This one has a good hook but fails to meet its potential. All of the women in the world suddenly disappear, leaving a world of men behind in chaos. Where have they gone, and why?  The tone in this one – a collaboration between King and his son Owen – feels curiously inert. While there’s some good ideas about men and women here, they’re delivered in a ham-handed fashion, and the story heavily relies on some fantasy storytelling which doesn’t quite work. I hate to blame it on the younger King, but this just doesn’t feel quite like a Stephen King book. Sleeping Beauties is overlong, but worse, unlike some of King’s other brick-sized books, it’s often boring. Grade: C-

The Outsider: A grim, satisfying murder mystery. A young boy is murdered and all the evidence points to an amiable little league coach even though he is convinced of his innocence. Is there an “outsider” somewhere who’s able to mimic him and commit the most horrible of crimes unpunished? While it gets a little bogged down in one of King’s trademark kind of enigmatic magical climaxes, for the most part this is a terrific read about a man who’s sure of his innocence despite all the evidence, and the devils that lurk inside us all. Grade: A

Elevation: This brisk novella about a man who keeps losing weight might sound like a remake of the far more gruesome Thinner, but it’s more of a fable about a person trying to make peace with his life in an imperfect world. It’s a quick read with some good heart, but a little clumsy in its moralising, so it falls somewhere squarely in the middle of just adequate King-land. Grade: B-

The Institute: It’s inevitable you start to repeat yourself a bit after 50+ books. The Institute has heavy Firestarter vibes with a dash of The Shining, all about young children with mysterious powers taken away to a secret institution. It’s a paranoid, chilling book and you’re left rooting for the young victims of the “Institute.” But while it’s a compulsively readable tale, it doesn’t quite linger in the mind as strongly as King’s similar works. Grade: B 

If It Bleeds: Some of my absolute favourite King books have been his collections of hefty themed novellas like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight. This one is a more oddball grouping of odds ’n’ ends – the “Detective Hodges” trilogy coda “If It Bleeds,” a good ol’ fashioned scary morality play in “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a rather goofy monster tale in “Rat,” and the best of the lot, the highly experimental “The Life of Chuck,” a man’s life told backwards. It all averages out to a decent bunch of yarns. Grade: B+ 

Later: I do love the “Hard Case Crime” imprint King has lent some of his pulpier work to in more recent years. It’s a chance for King to be short, sharp and mean, and Later is one of his better pulp efforts, the story of a kid who can “see dead people.” Being King, this is a lot gnarlier than The Sixth Sense. A tale of twisted obsession that calls back to It and King’s recurring theme of young people with special abilities being manipulated and abused, it’s not deep, but it’s solidly entertaining, and ends on a resonant, bittersweet note. Grade:  B+

And let’s not forget, the rest of the Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King series:

Part 1: Carrie to The Stand

Part 2: The Dead Zone to The Bachman Books

Part 3: The Talisman to Insomnia

Part 4: Rose Madder to Under The Dome

Part 5: 11/22/63 to Finders Keepers

Charlton Heston and the humbling of the alpha male

Charlton Heston, screaming on the beach. Charlton Heston, bleeding out in a fountain. Charlton Heston, being dragged off to the insane asylum.

“I feel lonely.” – Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes

There’s a special place in my heart for Heston’s dark apocalypse trilogy of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the three brutal dystopian futures of Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man. I’ve watched each of these movies multiple times over the years, and Heston’s clench-jawed, manly man everyman struts through each one of them like a soon-to-be-deposed king. You can’t take your eyes off of him.

Heston had a gung-ho heroic image polished in such films as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. But in the 1970s, he cleverly subverted his image with this run of bleak sci-fi classics, each of which positions Heston as a so-called “superior man” who’s repeatedly humbled.

In every one of these films, he loses, hardly the “heroic narrative” but perfectly in place for the pre-Star Wars bleak vision of much 1970s science fiction. In Apes, he’s discovered he’s been a fool all along, and that his most cynical ideas about humanity have come true. (In the underrated and utterly nihilist Beneath The Planet of the Apes, Heston only pops up briefly to bleed to death and bring on a nuclear apocalypse, making the first movie’s ending seem positively idyllic.)

In The Omega Man, Heston dies Christ-like, shot down and bloody while trying to save the world, while in Soylent Green, he’s hauled off by the police to an asylum or worse, spouting crazy conspiracy theories about humans being turned into food.

Matthias: “You are discarded. You are the refuse of the past.”
Neville: “You are full of crap.” – The Omega Man

It’s easy to see Heston as a dinosaur from another age 50 years on, especially with his image off the screen. Heston in later life was a pretty gung-ho Reagan conservative and infamously a cheerleader for the National Rifle Association. (However, for those who want to paint him entirely as some Trumpian troll in real life, it’s worth noting that he was also an outspoken supporter of civil rights and marched with Martin Luther King Jr.)

But on the screen on the 1970s, Heston’s image was crucial to making the doom trilogy of films work. Our first sight of him in Planet of the Apes is him alone, on a spaceship, smoking a cigar (!!!) and ruminating about man and his place in the universe. In The Omega Man, he spends much of the movie alone in his doomsday bunker of a house, the “last man on earth.” In the crowded future of Soylent Green, he’s rarely alone, but his gradual uncovering of the title conspiracy leaves him utterly alone in a crowd by the end.

Yet what I like about Heston’s clench-jawed manly man image in the apocalypse trilogy is that it’s always on the verge of cracking. John Wayne or Clint Eastwood’s earlier films also served up manly men archetypes, yet Heston’s arrives imperfect from the get-go in these films. He’s the portrait of the American white male circa 1970, screaming “it’s a madhouse” as the world around him changes in ways he can’t fathom. The seeds for the popularity of the flawed, “un-Hollywood” leading men of the 1970s played by DeNiro, Pacino or Hoffman are found here.

Heston is so watchable for me in these films partly because he is humbled, again and again, in this apocalypse trilogy. In Apes, he’s reduced to a mute, naked beast, running through the bush in terror.

Life is a series of humiliations for us all, really, of attempts to climb to the top of the heap and constantly finding the flaws within.

Heston’s vivid presence keeps these films alive today, even with his sometimes retrograde sexism and unquestioned white privilege. The subtle ways the narratives in these films question his status stand out now. The opening half hour of so of Planet of the Apes, before those apes come along, is a showcase for his diamond-sharp, Darwinian worldview. One of the central images of Planet of the Apes is him realising he’s no longer the alpha male, again and again.

George Taylor: The way you humiliated me? All of you? YOU led me around on a LEASH!
Cornelius: That was different. We thought you were inferior.
George Taylor: Now you know better.

Mere minutes after this exchange, Heston’s Taylor is left weeping on an empty beach, pounding sand and beholding the ruin of his world.

Why I’m sorry I ever laughed at Yoko Ono

My first memory of Yoko Ono is of making fun of her. 

It’s unfortunate, but I remember listening to John Lennon and Yoko’s album Double Fantasy many years ago with friends, long after John was shot and killed. We all loved “Watching The Wheels,” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and the other Lennon tracks, but the Yoko ones that alternated with his were… jarring. 

Yoko’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss” slammed open the barn doors after the laid-back charms of album opener “Starting Over.” What was this weird, defiant prancing melody? Yoko suddenly starts screaming “Why death? Why life? Warm hearts / cold darts” and holy moses, what a mood-changer. When the song dissolves into a cackling chorus of Yokos moaning and groaning and ululating their way into a mock orgasm, we couldn’t help it – everyone listening burst into laughter. (To be fair, it is a kind of funny, chirpy song.) 

And yet. 

I keep coming back to Yoko’s oft-maligned solo work in recent years, much of which has that same fierce, uncompromising power in that same way “Kiss Kiss Kiss” bursts into the room. Yoko, more than 50 years after the Beatles ended, still gets people going. She didn’t break up the Beatles, of course, who were going to split no matter what happened. But for far too long, she’s been painted as the villain in their story. 

Yoko turned a lot of people off with the defiantly experimental Unfinished Music No. 1 and No. 2 she did with John before the Beatles even broke up. The fact the couple posed stark nekkid on the cover of Two Virgins didn’t help, and to be honest, these two albums are very odd, hard to listen to, noodling noise compared to what both did later. Appearing with John live in the late 1960s, her howling anarchy put a lot of people off. While it’s definitely intense and abrasive, 50 years on the catharsis of “Don’t Worry Kyoko” feels passionate and raw – Yoko went for it. She didn’t care what they said about her sex, her race or her boldness – she just yelled. 

The controversy around her shaped much of the reaction to Yoko’s own solo albums of the 1970s like Fly, Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling The Space. They’re less experimental than her most-out there stuff (like recording her own miscarriage), and as a result they hold up pretty well, marrying compulsively offbeat grooves with her infinitely flexible voice, a yowl one second and a croon the next.  I don’t argue that all Ono’s work was great – lyrics generally aren’t her strong point, and few singers could make lines like “We’re all blind and crippled mates / Frustrated would-be presidents of united states” work. 

These albums still dazzle with as much energy and invention as the great krautrock records of Can and Kraftwerk, her howling as passionate today as Kim Gordon and Courtney Love’s would be decades later. Listened to today, a propulsive stomp like Fly’s epic trance “Mindtrain” sounds a lot more modern than some of the stuff John, Paul and George were doing in 1971.  

Yoko pushed Lennon in uncompromising directions too, although for the most part his ‘70s work was actually far less inventive and more nostalgic than Ono’s. She and Lennon released Plastic Ono Band albums with almost identical covers and titles in 1970, but while his is part of the canon now with super-deluxe reissues, her own angrier, rawer Plastic Ono Band is somewhat forgotten.

From the very first song, a chattering, shrieking psych-freakout called “Why”, it’s an in-your-face statement that even manages to make Lennon’s stark and powerful “Mother” opening his own album feel a bit restrained. In an era filled with Carpenters and ABBA, Yoko was singing song titles like “I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window,” “Angry Young Woman” and “What A Bastard The World Is.” 

Yoko’s 88 years old now and John’s been gone for 40 years, but she’s still sharing her art and her music – her latest, Warzone, was released when she was 85! Listen to 2014’s Between My Head And The Sky, which starts off with Yoko’s patented screeches and moans packing way more power than a senior citizen rocker should. 

In everything, Yoko goes for it. Sometimes that “it” can be a bit much, but nobody would ever accuse her of holding back onstage. 

Yoko is a pioneer shunned in her own time – imagine in 1970 a Japanese woman with a very big voice daring to demand her place at the side of one of the most famous men on the planet, on doing her own creative work wherever it led and seemingly never, ever embarrassed of being who she was?

Yoko had to fight racism, sexism and Beatle fanboyism all of her life, and it still lingers to this day. The criticism back in the day was that Yoko didn’t know her place. Yoko always knew her place. Yoko’s even been pretty big in the clubs in recent years), and her spirit of independence, defiance and confidence can still be found everywhere in 2021 among brave young artists. 

Sorry we laughed at you, Yoko. 

Superman and Lois: The hero the world needs now

I’m the first to admit that even a die-hard comics fan like me can’t keep up with the endless movies and TV shows based on spandex-clad superheroes these days. When a new Superman series from the “Arrowverse” stable of shows was announced, I was interested, but not exactly dazzled. But it’s turned out that Superman and Lois might just be the best take on the Man of Steel since the glory days of Christopher Reeve.

The secret? A Superman who smiles. A Superman who isn’t fraught with lonely alien tension or the burden of god-like powers all of the time. A Superman who’s got problems, sure, but who still is a beacon of hope. That’s not an easy character to get right – Batman or Wolverine will always seem cooler, but Superman was the first and is still in my mind the greatest of superheroes. And at his best, his adventures should make us feel good. It’s harder than it looks – but the best Superman stories, whether it’s Alan Moore’s “For The Man Who Has Everything” or Gene Luen Yang’s Superman Smashes The Klan, make it work. 

Look at this brief scene from the latest episode, and it sums up why Superman and Lois is becoming my favourite comics-based show on TV these days. 

“My mom made it for me” = Superman’s character in a nutshell.

A square-jawed mom-loving good guy can be boring, but all it takes is a good actor and decent storylines and Superman soars. (Look at Chris Evans, whose definitive take gave new life to Captain America, a character I always considered kind of boring.) There’s things I do like quite a lot about Henry Cavill’s Superman in the Snyderverse – he’s got the look down pat – but he’s ill-served by grim-dark storytelling that positions Superman as the haunted eternal outsider, instead of what he really is – the ultimate successful immigration story. 

Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman debuted as a guest-star on the Supergirl TV series and was striking but a bit unformed – he seemed a bit too thin at first, with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow – but in his own solo series with an excellent Elizabeth Tulloch as the best Lois Lane since Margot Kidder, Hoechlin’s portrayal of Superman is getting better every week. Unmoored from the increasingly complicated antics of the Arrowverse, this is an older, more settled Man of Steel. Superman and Lois comfortably breaks the old paradigms by showing a comfortably married Clark and Lois, with two teenage sons, moved back to Clark’s old hometown of Smallville from the big city. There’s plenty of super-action, but also the drama of Clark and Lois’s teen sons Jonathan and Jordan – one of whom is developing super powers of his own.

Superman and Lois may have started a little slow – the first few episodes were heavy on the teen angst which all felt a bit 90210, but gradually the show began to give Clark and Lois equal time. There’s been some excellent plot twists in recent weeks as a dire threat against Superman and Earth itself becomes apparent, but the biggest focus for Superman and Lois is family. It’s a show that’s unafraid to care about its characters, and instead of seeing Clark Kent as an aloof alien, he’s unabashedly human. He’s a father who sometimes stumbles but his love for his sons is uncomplicated and unwavering, which is nice to see. 

A recent flashback episode dove into Clark and Lois’ courtship, and was a beautiful love letter to the Superman mythos that also felt kind of fresh and daring. Instead of the whole rather played-out “spineless milksop” Clark Kent pining after a Lois Lane who only has eyes for Superman, this Lois Lane actually falls for Clark Kent first. Yeah, you still have to buy into the notion that a pair of glasses and a mild hairstyle change can keep people from realising Clark = Superman, but hey, that’s comics. Tulloch’s Lois is also terrific, with her go-getter independence and reporting tenacity intact and her mom energy strong. Superman and Lois could easily turn into a goopy family drama but the actors have a confidence and sincerity that makes the show stand out from the increasingly repetitive feeling of the surviving Arrowverse shows like Flash

Superman here feels more joyous than he has on screen in ages – between Bryan Singer’s misguidedly overwrought Superman Returns, which wallowed in the drama of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies without ever finding their heart and humour, or Zach Snyder’s increasingly militaristic and stern Superman, it feels like we’ve gone years without seeing a Superman who simply enjoys his life and his family. Reeve became an iconic Superman because of his elegant charm, and light touch. Hoechlin gets that. 

The Superman of Superman and Lois is certainly facing challenges – there’s a dark threat of his turning against humanity as one of the plot threads – but I like to think it’s still a show that will keep the optimism and hope of its titular hero at centre stage. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a Superman who likes his job, is there? 

Movies I Have Never Seen #10: Nightmare Alley (1947)

What is it: One of the classic film noirs, 1947’s Nightmare Alley stars Tyrone Power in a dark and perverse tale of power corrupting absolutely. Power is Stan Carlisle, a charming carnival worker with big dreams and bigger ambition. Stan works his way into the act of carnival mind-reader Zeena, then steals her act and uses it to become a nightclub star, fleecing his way to bigger and bigger pockets. He takes off with chipper carnival sidekick Molly as his assistant, but soon falls into the web of a canny psychologist (a stunningly cold Helen Walker) who’s even better at manipulation than he is. Stan’s career soon crumbles into a nightmare of alcoholism and despair. 

Why I never saw it: Nightmare Alley was a passion project for Power, who wanted to show his range after making his name in swashbuckling heroic roles. Stan is a helluva role, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing how morally flexible he is, discarding old friends at the drop of a hat in his lust for fame. Like the old spiritualists, he preys on the needs of lonely people and claims to see “spirits.” Of course, the bold and daring Nightmare Alley was a flop at the time for audiences who found it too dark and unsparing, and it sank into obscurity. Thankfully, an excellent new restoration by the Criterion Collection puts it into the canon where it belongs.  At the very start of the film, young Stan is disgusted by the carnival “geek,” a sideshow attraction played by a drunken lush who’s somehow less than human who entertains the crowd by biting the head off of live chickens. “How can a guy get so low?” Stan wonders. But by the end of the movie, a crushed, alcoholic Stan is well along on the same dark road. The movie’s original pitch-black ending was lightened to allow a happy romantic reunion, but it’s still doused in sorrow – there’s no going back when you’ve fallen this far. 

Does it measure up to its rep? One of those hidden gems that film noir is full of, Nightmare Alley is far more appreciated now than it was back in the day. In fact, Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro is prepping a remake of it starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, so expect the original to get even more attention soon. I’d definitely put it in the upper tier of noirs I’ve seen. There’s a masochistic air to Nightmare Alley, which has just enough dark humour and strong performances to keep it from being a mawkish morality tale. Power is particularly devastating in it, with a layered performance taking him from confident striver to national success to the very bottom of the heap, an unrecognizable wreck in the final scene. Sadly, Power would die shockingly young of a sudden heart attack at only age 44. But with classics like this, The Mark Of Zorro, Witness For The Prosecution and others, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars left a sizeable legacy to enjoy today. Nightmare Alley was his favorite film. 

Worth seeing? I love a good film noir, and this one stands up with other genre classics like Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil. Embrace the darkness behind the carnival midway lights, and take a trip to Nightmare Alley. It’ll haunt you. 

Vertigo: So, is Jimmy Stewart the bad guy here?

Vertigo is a masterpiece. Or is it problematic? Why not both?

I got to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller again this past weekend, on the big screen for the first time, and it never fails to amaze me with its bold colours and dazzling imagery. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most perverse works, on the surface another glossy, stylish tale of murder and mystery but underneath, it plunges deep into the depths of sex and longing. 

(Spoilers ahoy for a 63-year-old movie follow:)

Vertigo starts as a thriller, turns into a mystery, pivots into a love story, and then goes right back around to where it began again. It’s about the cruelty love can create, in the perils of obsession. Vertigo‘s reputation has risen over the years, and it was named the best movie of all time in the critics’ Sight and Sound poll a few years back. But some also say that Vertigo is overrated and rather, well, problematic in its take on women. 

“Problematic,” like “woke,” can sometimes turn into one of those words that doesn’t really mean any more than “I don’t like this thing.” Vertigo is problematic, but a problem means something you’re supposed to figure out, something you twist and examine in your head and come to your own conclusions about. 

Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie is a haunted man, a former police detective traumatised by his near-death on the job, laid out in the smashingly tense opening sequence, and the resulting fear of heights it’s given him. When old friend Gavin approaches him and asks him to spy on his peculiar-acting wife Madeleine, Scottie is hesitant, but takes the case. But Scottie finds that distant, mysterious Madeleine (a luminous Kim Novak, perhaps the ultimate Hitchcock ice queen) ends up captivating him far more than he’d ever dreamed. He falls for her, but then she apparently dies in a hideous suicide/accident. 

Scottie is shattered, sinking deep into his fixations, seeing Madeleine everywhere. When he stumbles across a woman named Judy who vaguely resembles her, he falls for her and takes control of her life, remaking her hair, wardrobe and style so she’s a dead ringer for Madeleine. Spoiler alert: She actually is Madeleine, in hiding after one of those typically twisty Hitchcock murder plots. She was hired by Gavin to pretend to be his wife and suck Scottie into being a witness, and is actually a cog in a conspiracy to have Gavin’s actual wife murdered (she was the one killed in the “suicide”). It’s convoluted and far-fetched, but basically the plot is an excuse for Hitchcock to delve deep into the tropes of obsession, and boy does Vertigo deliver. 

There’s been a lot written about Hitchcock’s relationships with his actresses, and his unpleasant habit of moulding them like clay into his blonde, icy vision of what a woman “should” be. Certainly a lot of what he apparently did was utterly wrong, but the obsessiveness of his art itself still created a potent cinematic world, never more layered in meaning than it was in Vertigo

Casting good ol’ Jimmy Stewart, well on the way to losing the aw-shucks charm of his earlier work with nuanced portrayals in movies like Rope and Rear Window, was Hitchcock’s masterstroke. He’s the embodiment of the male gaze here, at first passive and objective, but gradually invading Madeline/Joan’s “new life” and remaking her to fit the girl in his head. The scenes where “victim” Scottie turns the tables to prod Joan are still hard to watch today. It’s one of his best performances. If Hitchcock saw himself somehow as the hero in his films, then he’s revealing an awful lot about his own predilections and flaws here. 

In something like North by Northwest, there’s a clear hero in Hitchcock’s tale. But Scottie’s behaviour in Vertigo pushes back against the hero role. You’re set up to identify with him as genial Jimmy Stewart at the start, but over the course of the film, Stewart’s amiable grin develops into a creeper’s unnerving stare. He abuses his “new” Madeleine Judy with persistence, not with a slap but with mental cruelty, shaping her into the woman he thinks he lost. But like all relationships, it’s complicated, and Hitchcock here makes both parties culpable in their obsessive dance. 

While Scottie acts wrongly, let’s not forget that in Vertigo, Judy/Madeleine is a character who aided in an innocent woman’s murder, so she’s no angel here. But is she the villain? 

The real villain is probably the dodgy husband Gavin, who vanishes to Europe and doesn’t pay a price for his sin. He’s simply a plot element in Hitchcock’s little pantomime of obsession. Vertigo is a murder mystery where the murderer barely matters. 

Madeleine/Judy pays a price at the end of Vertigo, as the plot drives her back to same place she assisted in her double’s murder, and a spooky bit of vengeance (actually, a baffled nun with an amazingly poor sense of timing) leads to her own death. She pays a price for the sins orchestrated by the men in her life. 

But what about Scottie? The last shot of Vertigo is of him standing, aghast, at a great height, contemplating the ruin of his own life. Perhaps he’s conquered his vertigo and perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he falls. Perhaps he doesn’t. It’s no heroic epiphany.

Is he the villain here? Sometimes he is, sometimes he’s not. The pleasures of Vertigo after all these years is how dizzy it leaves you with ambiguities, and how the heart can make the head spin, over and over. Hitchcock was a flawed human being for sure, but in Vertigo, he turned those flaws into unforgettable images. 

Introducing… Amoeba Adventures #29

A noir detective story about a crime-fighting ant and his protoplasm pal? Come on, who wouldn’t want to read that?

I’ve spent the last few months working on it, and my new small press comic Amoeba Adventures #29 is now available to the world. The second all-new issue of AA for a bold new era, it’s 24 pages of ant antics and protoplasmic perils written and drawn by yours truly.

Get ready for a madcap detective adventure as Ninja Ant, private eye teams up with Prometheus to unravel a mystery that brings back an old friend and features shocking twists and turns galore and callbacks to some of the very first Amoeba Adventures stories. It’s “Who Is Raoul the Boy Cockroach?”

Sneak preview of first few pages below:

You can view and download a 100% free digital PDF of the whole issue right here:

Amoeba Adventures #29

And don’t forget you can download and read literally every other issue of Amoeba Adventures since 1990 and many other comics by me right over here: Protoplasm Press

For those who dig it when it’s tangible, I’ll be producing a limited-edition print version of Amoeba Adventures #29 which will be available for a mere $7.50 shipped anywhere in the entire world from New Zealand to you, and will even include a special personalised Prometheus sketch, whatever you like! You can pre-order that by Paypalling me some cash right here:

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Once again, my grateful thanks to those who’ve encouraged my return to the occasional cartooning scribble after far too long. I only wish it hadn’t taken me quite so long, but I’m having a blast rediscovering this world again, and plans for Amoeba Adventures #30 are already well underway!