Review: Fiona Apple and the stark sounds of 2020

Fiona Apple is like a rare orchid. She blooms only occasionally, you’re dazzled and amazed by the colours she shows you, and then she fades away for a long time. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is her first album in 8 years, and it turns out it’s the isolation soundtrack of our strange days. 

It sure sounds like a record about this moment, even if it’s one that’s been in the works for years. A fascinating New Yorker profile goes into Cutters’ long genesis and Apple’s idiosyncratic path from brief MTV pop star with the hit “Criminal” in 1996 to today, in her early 40s, carefully spending years crafting music. Whenever she returns, Apple is always worth listening to.

Cutters, only Apple’s fifth album in 24 years, is not a gentle listen – her stern, anguished voice and clattering, raw percussion are placed right at the foreground, giving it an almost rap/spoken word cadence, with the elegant piano of her earlier work only coming in as occasional flourishes. Recorded at her home, you even hear her dogs barking occasionally. These are songs stripped to the bone and always on the edge of collapse.  

It’s stark and sometimes abrasive, reminding me a lot of Sinead O’Connor, Lou Reed or primal scream-era John Lennon, but it’s also full of wistful beauty floating in at unexpected moments and a welcome relief from pop songs so processed you can’t find the real core. It feels real. “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure,” she spits out in “Relay.” 

Broadly, Bolt Cutters is about heartbreak and betrayal – there’s a lot of anger and cutting lines. Apple’s lyrics are just opaque enough to be grabbed and molded into your own little mantras. “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up,” she sings. It’s an album that evokes singing to yourself in an empty room, of facing off against your inner demons and past.

We’re all coping with isolation in different ways, but there’s definitely a lot of stock-taking going on. Who are we, and in this peculiar pause in day-to-day rituals, who can we be? I suspect Bring Out The Bolt Cutters is going to playing in my head for a long time as we all try to make sense of 2020. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #6: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

What is it: The biggest box-office hit of 1984, it turned Eddie Murphy into a superstar. Axel Foley is a street-smart Detroit cop who goes to Beverly Hills to uncover the truth about a friend’s murder. Hijinks ensue. 

Why I never saw it: If you’d asked me, I would have thought I’d seen Beverly Hills Cop. After all, it was EVERYWHERE in 1984 when I was a wee tween. Yet when Mr. 16 and I decided to watch it the other day, I realised unless I’ve completely and utterly blanked it from my mind, I’d never actually seen one of the biggest hits of my childhood years. (I’m fairly sure I have seen Beverly Hills Cop II, which I think I confused with the first one.) I felt like I had seen it because it was simply in the air. It’s hard to state just how big Eddie was in 1984, the summer of Ghostbusters and Walter Mondale-mania. (Was that a thing?) My brother owned the soundtrack on cassette tape, but because BHC was R-rated, I, a mere sprat of 12, never saw it in theatres and missed out on videocassette, a medium by which I date myself horribly. Yet like every kid in 1984, I knew the plinky keyboards of Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F earworm, which pops up in the movie approximately every 30 seconds. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Eddie Murphy’s material is hit-or-miss for me. He’s full of charm, but a lot of his stand-up comedy has dated a lot worse than his idol Richard Pryor (the movies Raw and Delirious are unwatchable to me today, all preening ego and lots of rank homophobia and sexism). Yet in movies like 48 Hours and Coming To America he’s one of the great comic actors. He singlehandedly makes BHC worth watching with his ultra-confident, cocky cop who’s got an answer for everybody.

It’s also worth noting that it was by far the biggest blockbuster of 1984, and the first time a black actor headlined such a smash hit. BHC doesn’t make racism a dominating plot point, but there’s certainly an awful lot of subtext here (Axel Foley keeps getting arrested by cops, for instance). He’s the smartest guy in the room, outsmarting all the by-the-book white cops and crooks. Eddie’s Foley takes the proud black heroic figures from blaxploitation movies of the 1970s like Dolemite and Shaft and plugs them into a more mainstream action blockbuster. It was a winning combination. But seen 35 years on, BHC doesn’t seem quite so revolutionary – and it’s genuinely a bit baffling that the boilerplate script actually got an Academy Award nomination. The murder mystery at the centre of the plot lacks any tension, and most of the other actors are blown off the screen by Murphy. Strip Eddie out of the movie and replace him with Sylvester Stallone (who was originally set to star) and you’ve got Cobra. 

Worth seeing? It’s worth a watch, but I don’t consider it anywhere near as much of a classic as ’84’s other big hit comedy Ghostbusters is in my heart. (Then again, maybe if I’d seen it at the same age as I first saw Ghostbusters, I’d feel differently.) Beverly Hills Cop is an entertaining ride for a cop action-comedy, and it’s full of ‘80s fashion and excess, but to be honest, other than Murphy’s still-dazzling charisma, there’s nothing here that hasn’t really been done better elsewhere. 

Romance comics: Sometimes, all you need IS love

I’ve been collecting comics for something approaching 40 years now (argh), yet there’s always new stuff to surprise me. Lately, I find myself besotted with, possibly a little in love with, one of the most maligned genres of comics – the romance comic book.

Romance comics haven’t been cool for decades. Yet for a comics fan looking for something novel to distract themselves during these plague days, there’s something inescapably alluring about the kitsch-soaked, tear-stained pathos of the romance comic. 

And romance comics were bloody HUGE back in the day. According to Love On The Racks, a very entertaining overview of the genre by Michelle Nolan, more than 6000 titles were published between 1947 to 1977. Then they basically vanished, gone like the westerns and war comics that also thrived back then. 

To be fair – these comics offer up a fair bit of cringeworthy sexism, the people mostly were white and protestant, and the only sexuality is heterosexuality. Yet in between the cliches and cuddles, there’s a lot of subtle statements on life in America in the last century. They’re theatrical pageants for a world that never actually existed. They’re history writ broad in four-colours and cartoon tears.

A lot of the romance comics were just dire, cookie-cutter dramas. But for me, many of the most enjoyable romance comics are the ones where women take their own agency and slap back at the stereotypes. I admit to being particularly partial for the romance comics of the swingin’ 70s, where feminists, hippies and biker dudes sit a bit uneasily with the traditional tropes of the genre. 

I’ve added several romance comic collections to the ol’ library in recent years, each of which is well worth seeking out to take a dip in the waters of this almost-forgotten genre: 

Young Romance was the very first major romance comic, by the legendary Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. The best of its 1940s-1950s run was collected in two nice thick tomes by Fantagraphics a while back. While Kirby’s art is rawer, looser than it later became, “Young Romance” holds up very well, mainly because the stories are surprisingly edgy and less sappy than many romance comics became. 

“Marvel Romance” and the long out of print 1970s DC Comics collection “Heart Throbs” collect the best of each of those publishers’ romance comics from titles like My Love, Secret Heart, Young Romance and more. They’re less eccentric than some of the smaller publishers, but these comics often featured absolutely stunning art by the likes of John Romita, Sr. 

“Return To Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney” is an utter hoot.   One of the great off-the-wall comics in history is Odgen Whitney and Richard Hughes’s Herbie, the surreal adventures of an obese young boy with a magic lollipop. The rare romance comics by the same creative team were recently released in a book and they are far out, romance comics as if they were done by John Waters and David Lynch working together. They zig when you expect them to zag and they’re always highlighted by Whitney’s dazzling, crisp and expressive cartooning.

Two other excellent post-2000 compendiums of random romance comics are “Romance Without Tears” by Fantagraphics and “Agonizing Love” by Harper Collins, both of which present a great assortment of stories and commentary on the era. 

Weird Love was an utterly fantastic reprint series by Yoe Books that ran for 24 issues up until last year, collecting the strangest love stories from the medium’s history – it was one of the kookiest, best comics in years, featuring at least TWO separate stories about women falling in agonising love with circus clowns.

I won’t say that romance comics are the creative peak of the medium. Yet perhaps more than any other subgenre of comics, superheroes included, they’re a time capsule of the era they were created in, and if you don’t mind how dated they might be from a 2020 perspective, they’re still often a swingin’ good time. 

…Well, more free comics couldn’t hurt

So, how’s everybody doing? 

In the absence of being able to leave the house much or have a life, why not relive the good ol’ days, with five more free PDF downloads of my old 1990s Amoeba Adventures comics? 

It’s hard to know exactly what to do in these surreal times, but stay home, stay safe and be kind pretty much covers it. We’re in day seven of a nation-wide lockdown down here in my part of the world, so suddenly I’ve got a fair bit of free time. I’ve added four more issues of Amoeba Adventures to the Protoplasm Press section of this site – #4, 7, 18 and 22, plus the way-goofy, possibly triggering Dr. Phlegm minicomic.

As always, most issues include several extra pages of “bonus features” including rare art, sketches, reviews and more, so even if you read them back in the day, it’s like they’re kinda practically new again.

I’ve passed the halfway point of scannin’ and uploadin’ – There’s now TWENTY entire free comics for you to download to the laptop/computer/tablet/brain of your choice up on the site, which hopefully might provide a moment or two’s distraction in these weird days. Enjoy!

He had my name, and he died in a pandemic

Nicholas Dirga died in a pandemic.

This was my great-grandfather, who I share a name with, and he died 101 years ago at the age of 38. He was one of an estimated 50 million people who died then in the great “Spanish flu” pandemic.

I think about my great-grandfather, gone more than 50 years before I was born, a lot these strange days. He and his family had emigrated from what used to be Austria-Hungary (now somewhere in Slovakia). I’ve got just two pictures of him, one from his wedding day in 1901, another taken in 1911 of him with his young family. My grandfather, yet another Nicholas Dirga, just a baby, is in that image. 

You stare at a photo long enough you can project a lot of things. My great-grandfather looks a fair bit like a sterner version of my own father, with the distinctive “Dirga chin” (a cavernous dimple much reduced by my generation) and an impressively cool moustache. I don’t know a lot about him, but we shared a name and a pile of genes. And he died way too young of a disease that swept the world. 

So, my whole country entered a month-long lockdown last night, where for four weeks, almost everyone in the country of more than 4 million people has to shelter in place. I’m counting my blessings. I already work from home, my family is safe, and I’m surrounded by books to read.

I have to admit I’ve been thinking a lot about the relative with my name who died in a similar pandemic a century ago. With my recent health troubles, I’m somewhat at a higher risk category than some, so it’s even more important that I do what our Prime Minister has said – “Stay home, be kind.” 

A lot of families are going to have stories that end cruelly, sooner than they should, like the Nicholas Dirga who died 101 years ago did. His wife lived to be 96 – she died the year after I was born!

There’s a lot of flailing and some truly appalling behaviour by some governments going on, but there’s also moments of grace and at the moment, I’m very, very happy to be in New Zealand, even if much of my family is still on the other side of this troubled world. 

It’s a world Nicholas Dirga wouldn’t recognise, although he might recognise the story of a disease spreading, inexorably, around the world. And I figure by staying shut in for the next four weeks or so, I’m at least giving myself a fighting chance of outlasting this one. 

Pandemonium: My top 10 fictional apocalypses

It’s weird times. My country has closed its borders to the world, which sounds like the opening sentence to a hundred dystopian fiction novels and movies. It doesn’t quite feel real.

New Zealand has been luckier, so far, than many other nations during this global pandemic. But we’re all still connected, and all still freaked out a bit. We’ve seen the end of the world coming many times in stories, and maybe that’s why this particular crisis seems so terrifying and uncertain. We’ve imagined how it could go for years. 

In the spirit of howling defiantly into the abyss, here’s my top 10 apocalypses of all time – an apocalypse defined as one where most of the population bites the dust. We’re not there in real life, yet, cross fingers, and hopefully we never will be.

10. Atomic Knights, DC Comics

I always dug this old 1960s sci-fi serial comic from the pages of Strange Adventures, which images a post-World War III world (the war of 1986!) where a group of plucky survivors don old medieval suits of armour that turn out to be ray-gun proof and fight evil warlords and also there are giant mutant Dalmatians and … OK, it’s pretty silly, but good fun, and this may be the most cheery, clean-cut apocalypse of all time, in the G-rated way of Silver Age comics.  Plausibility factor – Could this actually happen? Medium. While we may get all wiped out in a nuclear war, it probably wouldn’t be quite as tidy as this comic imagines. Trigger warning – Would I want to revisit this if self-isolating during the current unpleasantness? I’m always up for goofy sci-fi comics. 

9. The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

Of everything on this list, this is probably the most “realistic” work, a fine epic novel from 2016 starting with the economic collapse of America in 2029 and following what happens to one family as everything goes to shit.  Plausibility factor – High. This is one of those books that may seem eerily prescient.  Trigger warning – High. The Mandibles is great, but all too plausible. 

8. Dawn Of The Dead (1979 and 2004 versions)

Zombies run amok and the only sanctuary is a shopping mall. While George Romero’s original is a stone-cold classic of the zombie genre, Zack Snyder’s millennial remake is surprisingly good too, amping up the action and yet still keeping the essential unease of the premise. Plausibility factor – Low. We’re still not at zombie stage of this outbreak. Trigger warning – Medium. Both Dawns offer up a lot of scary scenarios for society breaking down. 

7. Battlestar Galactica

I grew up not knowing this was regarded as a Star Wars ripoff, but at its core, both the underrated cheese of the original and the stoic doomsday of the reboot are about humanity carrying on after it’s been reduced to mere shreds of itself. Plus, Cylons! Plausibility factor – Low. Remember when we all worried about the robots killing us? Trigger warning – Medium. The reboot gets pretty damn dark sometimes, but the original is swashbucklingly easygoing for the most part. 

6. Marvel Zombies

A series of Marvel comics starting in 2005 imagined what might happen if superheroes turned into brainless zombies and ate the world. Often hilarious, very gory and, until the premise started getting wrung out by endless sequels, one of the more creative “what ifs” of the overused superhero dystopia genre. Plausibility factor – Low. First, we’d have to have superheroes, then zombies. Trigger warning – Low. A good bloody tonic for the staying-at-home blues. 

5. 1984 by George Orwell

One of my all-time favourite novels, barely fitting into the “apocalypse” scenario, but a lot of the action in Orwell’s imagined “Big Brother” world is predicated upon endless wars with unrevealed death tolls and a world laid low by chaos. Its message of media control and manipulation only seems more urgent every day. Plausibility factor – High! Trigger warning – Medium to high. While pessimistic at its core, to me 1984 is still a story about the power of hope. 

4. “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison 

This 1974 short story from Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories collection has always kind of got me right in the feels. It’s kind of a rewritten take on the Bible, where Satan is actually the good guy, and it’s about finding the strength to end everything. It’s also very emotionally vulnerable, not always a quality associated with the bigger-than-life Ellison, and beautiful in its shattered way. It’s a quiet storm about the very end of all things. Plausibility factor – Low. Of all the things I have to worry about, the Deathbird is low on the list. Trigger warning – Medium to high, depending on how you feel about sad stories about dying pets. 

3. The Stand by Stephen King

The plague novel to end all plague novels, and one of King’s finest epics. A disease sweeps across the world, leaving only a handful of people to face a second kind of Armageddon against a very real devil. As the critics say, “impossible to put down,” even if it’s approximately 3000 pages long. Plausibility factor – Medium. We’re not likely to see Randall Flagg wandering Las Vegas, but as always with King, he’s got a lot of tiny details that ground his fanciful fiction. Trigger warning – Medium. The famous scenes of characters trying to make their way out of a body-filled Manhattan might be a bit harrowing now. 

2. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson 

They’ve tried to make this into a movie several times, but nothing touches Matheson’s original novel, about the last human on earth in a world of vampires. Claustrophobic, creepy and stark, it’s a gem in apocalypse literature.  Plausibility factor – Medium. Matheson ably captures the siege mentality of self-isolation, but so far vampires aren’t really a threat. Trigger warning – Medium. Matheson eerily captures the feeling of being the last man on earth. 

1. Planet of the Apes/Beneath The Planet of the Apes

Damn dirty apes, Charlton Heston in a loincloth, Roddy McDowell and quite possibly the bleakest single ending to a big-budget franchise in history (the nuclear annihilation of Beneath) – what’s not to love? Sure, most people are dead, enslaved or hideous mutants living underground, but still, for all my end-of-the-world needs, I’ll always go ape first. Plausibility factor – Low. Even when the great more recent Apes reboot tried to make it more plausible, we’re still a while from Caesar swinging in the trees. Trigger warning – Low, unless you’ve recently visited the Statue of Liberty. 

How Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer helped make NZ feel less isolated

Hi all, just a quick linkpost today – let me turn your attention to a review/essay sort of thing I wrote over at Radio New Zealand during this crazy week: Finding a community in isolation.

As I wrote last post, Amanda Palmer has been touring New Zealand, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic played havoc with the end of her tour. She wrapped it up in style, though, with a livestream “ninja concert” Monday in Wellington featuring special guest star Neil Gaiman, puppets and more. I wrote about watching it and how we can all maybe find new kinds of communities until this weirdness passes. Amanda herself had a very kind word or two to say about it on her various platforms as she and Neil prepare to bunk down in NZ for a while.

Go read it. And I’ll just note one last thing, it’s pretty darned cool to have one of my literary idols Neil Gaiman retweet a tweet from his wife praising an article that I wrote. If it’s all gonna crash down soon, it’s not a bad way to go out.