A year at the movies in the year of the plague

I went to the movies 237 times this year. 

However, due to the troubling times we live in, I only saw maybe six of these movies in the actual cinema. So it goes.

We all wanted distractions this year from doomscrolling and darkthinking. And social media rarely made me feel anything but anxious or mad, so to the movies it was. With new films in short supply this year, it gave me time to dig back into cinema history and either fill in some gaps or revisit old favourites. 

I started using the nifty website Letterboxd this year to keep track of my viewing habits. Turns out it’s actually a New Zealand creation which I didn’t realise at first, and it’s pretty swell – I don’t review the movies I watch on there, because then I’d spend the entire time watching a film trying to decide if it’s three or four stars … and besides, I spent years writing video and movie reviews for newspapers back in the day, so I’ve done my rankings time. 

As of Dec. 23, I’d clocked 237 films on Letterboxd since Jan. 1. The oldest movie I watched was 1922’s Nosferatu. The newest the superb Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which came out just last week. 

I’m fairly egalitarian in my habits. I watched a lot of the wonderful works of Akira Kurosawa and Robert Altman, but also trashy fun like Blacula, The Toxic Avenger and Flash Gordon. Sometimes you want an escape, like revisiting all three Karate Kid movies, and sometimes you want to be deeply moved by a film like Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

During the depths of New Zealand’s long initial lockdown, I watched all six of William Powell and Myrna Loy’s effervescent Thin Man comedies and dreamed of martinis and solving crimes. During the heart of the Black Lives Matter protests I watched Do The Right Thing again, with my son. Around American election night I re-watched Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, about a politician who loses his mind. 

There were great movies I’d never seen before – Michael Caine’s Get Carter, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, western Rio Bravo and fantastic more recent films like Midsommar, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. There was a dive into revisiting the always welcoming works of Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd. I got very into digging into the careers of Hal Ashby, Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine and Warren Beatty. The movies are an endless maze, with many exits. 

And perhaps best of all there were the occasional visits to the cinema again – getting to watch True Romance in a jam-packed theatre after New Zealand squashed COVID-19, or taking the entire family to see the big-hearted Bill And Ted Face The Music, which was so darned good-natured and amiable a reminder of the “before times” that it made one want to cry a bit for what we’ve lost.

I don’t mind watching movies at home, but the cinema experience is the real deal. As the curtain falls on 2020 and rises on 2021, I hope the big changes in how we view movies don’t take away their magic, and that I can still find ways to sit in a big room with strangers, popcorn in hand, and enter another world. 

“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” – Roger Ebert

In defense of that New Mutants movie

The New Mutants were what the X-Men were supposed to be. 

A group of outcast teenagers, struggling with strange new superpowers they’d been born with, in a world that hates and fears them. The X-Men used to be about that, but the super-sizing of the franchise over the years meant that got more and more diluted with Phoenixes and Wolverines and Gambits and such. 

I was the perfect age for the New Mutants comic which premiered in 1982, on the cusp of teenagerdom and a bit of an outcast myself. At long last, after nearly 40 years they got their chance to star in their own movie this year. 

Considering its epic series of delays, reshoot rumours and studio squabbling, the New Mutants movie by Josh Boone actually isn’t that bad. I rather liked it. It’s certainly better than the cluttered, underwhelming last several actual X-Men movies have been. 

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a five-star classic, no game-changing Dark Knight or Black Panther, but it’s a tight little potboiler that doesn’t utterly betray the spirit of the comics it inspires. It keep the core cast of the comics – Native American Dani Moonstar, Scottish werewolf Rahne, human “Cannonball” Sam, literally fiery Brazilian Roberto and the magic-cursed Illyana. The movie is set almost entirely in one mysterious institution where the teenagers are being kept forcibly, and the movie follows their attempts to learn more and then deal with the mystery powers of one of their own. It’s an origin story, but never forgets its central metaphor: Growing up is hard, but eventually, hopefully, you get better and find your powers in life. 

They fight, they squabble and act like real teenagers, not superheroes-in-waiting. Again, it’s not perfect – while Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy is superbly charismatic as the nasty Illyana, Game of ThronesMaisie Williams makes a good Rahne, but “Cannonball” Charlie Heaton has the worst attempt at a Kentucky accent I’ve ever heard. Yet it looks and feels a lot like the comic I loved, and refreshingly, the stakes are small for a superhero movie. There’s no CGI-filled battle for the entire world. There’s a little bit of unnecessary sequel-baiting but it doesn’t feel quite as assembly line as some of the other Marvel movies have, and has a much more horror edge to its storytelling. Like the comic itself, it realises that being a teenager is often a living nightmare. 

For its first 40-50 issues, New Mutants was a terrific comic book – written by X-Men guiding light Chris Claremont, it really dug into the teenage metaphor in a way that the older X-Men at the time (with the exception of Kitty Pryde) couldn’t. In its first 17 or so issues it was sturdy fun mutant superheroics, with lots of angst and batting mutant factions. 

Then in issue 18, like a bolt of lightning, Bill Sienkiewicz came on board as the artist and New Mutants proceeded to blow my mind. His impressionistic, painterly art was a radical change from the solid but very traditional artists before him, and suddenly the chaos of the teenage mind was laid bare in colours and images that surged off the page. It was an astounding mutation and Claremont, who works best with great artists, twisted to meet Sienkiewicz’s challenge with the best stories in New Mutants history – the “Demon Bear” saga which is loosely adapted in the new movie, the introduction of the alien Warlock, a shape-shifting surrealist blob who looked like no hero ever seen in comics, the rise of mutant fighting rings and more. 

New Mutants frequently got dark. In one of the best issues, #45, a young mutant commits suicide, and it’s dealt with in a genuinely honest manner. Then there’s the shocking issue where as part of mega-crossover Secret Wars II, a cosmic entity, the Beyonder, literally slaughters the entire team. It’s one of the bleakest mainstream superhero comics of the 1980s, an unrelentingly nihilist battle against an unbeatable foe, and at the end of the issue, everybody is dead. (Yes, they came back, but to Claremont’s credit, several issues were then spent dealing with the trauma of the team’s resurrection.) That one storyline alone makes the rather muddled mess of Secret Wars II worth it in my book. 

Just like the X-Men comics, the New Mutants comics eventually spiralled into an insanely complicated mess of continuity, spinoffs and hip new characters (I have zero time for the totally x-treme Rob Liefeld/Cable years). The main characters are still around (and of course, because it’s comics, barely have aged into their early 20s) and I like to check in on them now and again, but for me the first 60 or so issues of New Mutants was all I needed. Growing up, they felt like companions.

Again, I won’t defend New Mutants the movie to anyone by saying it’s a total gem. But in a year when we surprisingly ended up with almost no new superhero movies at all, it felt welcome. It brought to life a lot of characters I fondly remember that meant something to me at their age, and didn’t make me groan. When we’re literally surrounded by superhero TV and movie products, something that felt a bit more tailored to my childhood nerd hopes and dreams personally kind of hits the spot. 

And now, after 22 years, Amoeba Adventures #28

Well, this isn’t something I expected to be doing at the start of this year. But as I’ve been chronicling all year long, the weird world of 2020 has had me revisiting my old 1990s small press comics days, and now, I’m pleased to announce there’s a new issue of my comics zine Amoeba Adventures, the first since 1998!

Amoeba Adventures #28 collects three short stories – the first new Amoeba Adventures story in 22 years, “Tempus Fugit,” first seen in the Amoeba Adventures Archive earlier this year; “Prometheus Drinks Coffee,” published just the other day online, and to cap it off, an all-new Ninja Ant short cartoon!

This one is yours to download as a PDF entirely 100% FREE right here, so enjoy!

Download Amoeba Adventures #28

And due to popular request, I’m also releasing Amoeba Adventures #28 in a limited print edition for anyone who’s interested – digital is by far the easiest way to distribute these days, but hey, I love a good print comic myself too. I’m now accepting pre-orders for the print copies which will ship in January.

Due to the costs of printing and shipping overseas, AA #28 will run $8.00 US for orders anywhere but New Zealand; NZ$4 for any orders from here in New Zealand. You can pre-order it right now by Paypal and download the digital copy to read in the meantime:

Donate with PayPal

Once again thanks to all who’ve supported my return to this comics-scribbling hobby after all these years, and thanks to Rick Bradford for plugging me over on the PF Minimart. Onwards to 2021, and brighter days!

25 songs that helped me survive 2020

Music helps keep us sane. I listened to a lot more music than usual this year, between lockdowns and working from home, and a couple dozen songs saw me through some of the tumult and craziness. 

I alternated between comfort songs and raging at the void screaming songs, probably swinging like most of our moods did this year. Isolation, political carnage in my home country, sickness and worry…  The soundtrack of 2020 is a schizophrenic thing. 

Admittedly, I skewed heavily towards older songs this year, returning to the comforts of the familiar; also, I’m an old dude. A song can reassure you, like the still-fiery Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello’s latest works, it can lift you, like the looney chaos of The Cramps or the hypnotic rhythms of Alice Coltrane, or it can fire you up, like Lou Reed’s still-incandescent rage in 1987’s “Strawman,” or Pylon’s jittery “Stop It.” 

This isn’t my “best of the year” list – but here’s a playlist of the 25 songs that helped me survive 2020: 

An Amoeba Adventures story

Hello, here’s an all-new Amoeba Adventures short story, “Prometheus Drinks Coffee,” free just for you, my second new comics story of 2020. Enjoy!

(You can also download the story directly as a PDF right here if you like.)

This one’s been floating around in my head for ages, as has Mr. 100. (He also briefly appeared in my Chiaroscuro comics strip way back when.) At the end of a truly strange year, his dreams of flying seem more apt than ever. 

Don’t forget all of my past Amoeba Adventures comics work is available for free download right over here! 

Peter Gabriel, the man who disappeared

Peter Gabriel turned 70 years old earlier this year. For a little while back in the day, he was a superstar, and I was kind of addicted to him. Then he walked away from it all.

I can’t quite overstate how ridiculous my Peter Gabriel fandom was back in the early 1990s. I listened to the tracks from his hit albums So and Us so much that they still feel tattooed on the brain. Pre-internet, I scoured the shops for rare B-sides and remixes.  I did that thing where you listen to a particular album so much you’ve memorised every vowel, every chord. Where the music itself transforms into something bigger than it is. 

To keep in silence, I resigned / My friends would think I was a nut

I dove deep into Peter Gabriel fandom at the precise moment that I graduated high school and moved to a college clear on the other side of America, where I knew nobody. I do not know what I was looking for with my Peter Gabriel obsession, but somewhere in there, I found it. 

And like anything you fall for, you think the artist is speaking directly to you. “Red Rain”? Clearly about me leaving my hometown. “In Your Eyes”? First love, of course. “Big Time”? My sky-high hopes and dreams for the future. “Secret World”? Every traumatic fumbled breakup that ever was. The entire remarkable Passion soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, a grand and sweeping instrumental meditation on what felt like life, the universe and everything, swirling around my brain. 

I was feeling part of the scenery / I walked right out of the machinery

After the smash hit of 1986’s So, Gabriel’s output slowed to a trickle. In 1992 came Us, his breakup album. Then in 2002 came Up, an album about ageing, death and transition. 

That was 18 years ago now. In the meantime he’s been heavily involved in human rights and his record label. He’s also put out a couple of albums of somewhat lifeless re-recordings of his own songs, an album of cover tunes, and some soundtracks and instrumental work, but he hasn’t released an album of his own songs in close to 20 years. (There’s a “planned album” called I/O that’s literally been in works since 1995 – I’m not holding my breath.)

Gabriel’s lyrics were never as dense as a Dylan or Costello – indeed, as his career progressed, he turned away from the surrealism of his Genesis days and his words became increasingly naked, declarative and stark, even as the music became more adventurous and layered, heavily influenced by his interest in world music.

It is a shock to see Peter Gabriel now, a bald and bearded senior citizen, when in my mind he’s still that ultra-cool guy bouncing around in the “Sledgehammer” video that MTV played endlessly once upon a time. Yet I look in the mirror and see my own face and the grey hairs and the lines that weren’t there when I picked up my first Peter Gabriel albums more than 30 years ago, and I realise we’re all going through the same thing. 

I will show another me /Today I don’t need a replacement / I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant

I listen to Peter Gabriel a lot less these days – not that I like him any less, but due to the paucity of any new material and the fact that I listened to the old stuff so many bloody times that it’s engraved into my DNA. 

A lot of artists don’t know when they’ve drained the well of inspiration, to be true. There’s a lot of great musicians who I love but consider many of their later albums utterly forgettable. Of that great run from Peter Gabriel’s 1977 solo debut to Up, every single one of them rings with meaning for me. That’s not a bad legacy to have.

My heart going boom, boom, boom / “Hey, ” I said, “You can keep my things / They’ve come to take me home”

(Lyrics “Solsbury Hill,” 1977 Peter Gabriel)

Laurel and Hardy, still funny after all these years

In my dotage, I keep turning back to the classics to make me laugh – the film stars who were mostly gone and dead long before I was even born, the Chaplins and Keatons and Marxes. But I’ve long had one curious blank spot – the stylings of Laurel and Hardy.

I’ve been chewing through a fantastic collection of most of their best shorts and feature films the last few weeks, and enjoying how well many of these 90-year-old gags still work. The basic building blocks of their comedy – the pratfalls, the slow burns, the turns of phrase and the elaborate chaos – can be seen everywhere still in comics today.

Stan and Ollie became an institution, marketed long after their heyday in comic books and products, and even lionised recently in a well-acted (if a little too melancholy) biopic. Today it’s kind of easy to just see them as dusty archetypes and forget the actual comedians who first hit the screen almost a century ago. 

Many of their famous shorts spring out of fairly everyday domestic settings – a picnic with the wives, installing a new radio antenna, moving a piano. Yet inevitably these ordinary situations seem to go horribly askew in the hands of Laurel and Hardy, ending with plenty of Ollie’s outraged squeals and Stan’s weeping, all attempts at civility and erudition collapsing into a sea of tears and babble. Unlike the Marx Brothers, they’re not quite as surreal, and they’re not as mean-spirited as the Three Stooges

You can’t quite imagine the Marx Brothers navigating the bills and obligations of ordinary life in their movies, and while Chaplin and Keaton often took on domestic life, the elaborate performative style of their silent work gave it a more pantomime quality and they generally stumbled more when sound came on. Laurel and Hardy start off grounded, then spiral into chaos. 

There’s a formulaic glee to the best of their shorts, which tend to start slowly and ramp up into elaborately orchestrated disasters – a lot like any sample episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm does today, for example. That formulaic quality means you don’t really want to binge 12 Laurel and Hardy shorts in a row, but it makes them comforting. 

Escalation and repetition is key to Laurel and Hardy. If a piano falling down an endless flight of stairs once is funny, by the third time it’s kind of zen hilarity. The key to Laurel and Hardy comedy to me seems to be that everything falls apart a bit in the end. In 2020 there’s something kind of weirdly comforting about that notion. Same as it ever was.

Laurel and Hardy, in some ways, still feel like our reaction to modern life – Ollie, exasperated and raging; Stan, confused and flailing. In Ollie’s many world-weary double-takes as one of the pioneers in breaking the fourth wall, or Stan’s always-funny “sad cry,” we see some very modern gestures that still echo today. Not everything old is still funny – but Laurel and Hardy hit a gold mine that’s still paying off to this day.

It was 30 years ago this month that I made a comic book

Hello folks! So it was one November exactly 30 years ago that a young lad sent his first fanzine issue of the Amoeba Adventures comic book out into the world, and as I’ve written about before, I’ve been celebrating that anniversary all year long by making all my ancient small press comics available for the first time in years with free digital downloads!

While 2020 has sucked in a lot of ways, I’m very grateful that it’s given me a chance to dig up and appreciate the old comics I did and all the friends who read it and great collaborators I worked with. The award-winning series featuring the story of Prometheus the Protoplasm got plenty of kudos and notice from comics legends including Will Eisner, Dave Sim, Sergio Aragones, Tony Isabella and many more.

The end is finally here, as the last four comics from my archive are now up for free reading:
* Spif #1, written by the man, the legend Troy Hickman from a plot by me, and with art by Max Ink, reveals the secret origins of Dr. Spif and the introduction of the vigorous vigilante The Period and the menacing Stiles!
* Imitation Crab Meat #1 and #2, two extremely rare personal minicomics by me from 1991-1992, with stories of teen crushes and television idols.


* Jip Book Two, collecting the second half of my daily comic strip from The Daily Mississippian, as Jip and the gang finish up their university years with a bang. Rare comics not seen since 1994 and one of my personal favourite works.

They’re all available now right over here, with a grand total of 38 comics produced by me from 1990-1998 including all 27 issues of Amoeba Adventures all there for you completely 100% free — and with literally hundreds of pages of rare behind-the-scenes material added among them.

And don’t forget this year’s new AMOEBA ADVENTURES ARCHIVE, a 130-page digital book collecting tons of rare stuff and a brand-new Amoeba Adventures story for the first time in years! And stay tuned for details on yet another new Amoeba Adventures story coming very, very soon to a computer near you. Party on, dudes!

Waiting for Star Trek: Discovery to truly take off

Look, I’m a Star Trek fan. I’m used to some mild disappointment mixed with pleasure. But I’m still a fan. At its best, the questing curiousity of Star Trek blows away the good vs. evil tropes of Star Wars in my mind. 

And so I watch Star Trek: Discovery, and I keep hoping for it to be better than it actually is. 

Star Trek: Discovery is a show that, three seasons on, has never quite figured out what it wants to be. Season 1 was a vast war and conspiracy epic that also managed to wrap in parallel universes. Season 2 combined crowd-pleasing returns for Spock and Captain Pike with an impenetrably complex time-travel apocalypse/evil robots arc. Season 3 has jettisoned all that and taken us 900 years into the future for another fresh start. 

Discovery has also spent far too much of the time focusing on Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that often tips over into straight-out overacting. Sure, Captain Kirk overacted too, but it’s not 1967 any more. The more measured acting style of a Patrick Stewart or an Avery Brooks is sorely missed. 

The biggest problem with Discovery it that it goes for an 11 every time when a 6 or 7 would do. It’s a show that demands emotional bombast but doesn’t actually earn it most of the time. An overpowering soundtrack telegraphs every weepy epiphany, and the show is constantly telling us how much the characters love each other without really showing it much. 

Take the most recent episode, where a security officer who’s been relegated to the background for so long now I forgot she was still on the show gets an emotional farewell arc. The worst example of this was in Season 2 when a character, Airiam, who’d barely been more than a glorified robot-headed extra, died in a blaze of glory and got what felt like an episode-long funeral. It was filled with the worst of Discovery’s mawkish sentimentality, all for a character we barely even knew but the show wanted us to mourn like she was Spock.  

Three seasons on, too much of Discovery’s cast are still ciphers, with Burnham’s character taking up most of the oxygen. I don’t hate Burnham, like a lot of online fans do. I’m pleased to see a Black woman lead a Star Trek show. But her character is written as an annoyingly inconsistent cross between an impulsive rebel and a Starfleet true believer, elbowing aside all other characters.

Doug Jones’ Saru is my favourite, a fascinating contrast to previous starship captains, and he’s fortunately become more and more prominent over time. The relationship between Lt. Stamets and Dr. Culber also feels far more genuine than most of the show’s telegraphed “big moments.” Tig Notaro’s snarky Jet Reno is also a welcome addition. But three seasons on, most of the bridge crew are still not much advanced beyond “blonde girl” and “Asian man” and “person with stuff on her face.”

One of the biggest pleasures of Star Trek over the years has been its ensemble casts, something Discovery keeps losing sight of. Discovery’s choice to focus so much on Burnham has left it lacking the diverse storytelling that Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager all had, where one week might focus on Worf and the next on Riker. It makes the show feel hobbled and far less widescreen than Star Trek should be. 

I’ll still boldly go where Discovery goes, because I’m a fan, and because there are plenty of good moments amid the wonky scripts and overwrought storytelling. But the voyage doesn’t have to be quite this bumpy. 

The last thing I’ll ever write about Donald Trump

A little less than four years ago today, our family marched in downtown Auckland to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Thousands of us did, including future Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

I took the picture of this woman at the right at the march in 2017. I wondered this morning where she is today, and I hope she’s OK and still around to see things have gotten better. That New Zealand’s Prime Minister who walked right along with us that day was re-elected in a landslide a few weeks back, and that America is about to welcome its first woman Vice-President. 

There were thousands of people that day – woman, men, children, young, old, of all races – all united in having a say over the very grim way the world seemed to be turning after Trump’s election. It felt good, damn good, to be doing something to soothe the impotent anger I felt after what happened in November 2016, even if it didn’t change the world, even if it didn’t really “matter.”

Yet today I look at the people today swarming the streets in America to celebrate the election of Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and I think well, maybe it did matter. 

Living over here since 2006 and looking back at America has been strange. I have felt like an observer in a distant outpost looking back at my home sometimes, trying to read the smoke signals.

I lived in New Zealand through the entire Obama presidency, where I felt like America was making bold steps toward a better world, and now, I’ll have been here through the entire Trump presidency, when everything I thought about the Obama years turned out to be a bit premature. I’ve written about politics in America from my NZ perspective many times, and about Trumpism. I’m still not sure I understand it at all.

I remember marching in Auckland in January 2017 – my son, then 12, was a good foot shorter than he is now. We didn’t make a sign, which I kind of regretted. It felt good to be in a crowd – a feeling that didn’t carry any of the fear and worry it does in 2020 – and to raise our voice a bit. I hoped someone would listen to us.

America listened, or at least, enough of them to make it matter. The result of this election was wayyyyyyyy too close for my liking, and a disturbing reminder that the divide in America is about way more than the current President. I want to feel anger at people who voted for him again, but I also think about Biden’s words that they aren’t the enemy. Maybe the tone really does matter more than the clickbait, the retweets and the ratings. I don’t know how things will go under President Biden, but I do know that not having the so-called leader of the free world giving constant airtime to the worst and pettiest of our feelings will be something better than before. 

At times in life, that’s all we can hope for sometimes, is the better than before.

I feel like we got it today. There’s dark days ahead and trouble to come I’m sure, but today, it’s better than before.