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 TheCramps 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:
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.
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” calledI/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”
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 ofCurb 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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
Hello, apparently there’s an election going on somewhere or something. I’ve been keeping busy with a few freelance think pieces this week for my friends over at Radio New Zealand:
First up, what’s it like to vote in not one but two national elections just a few weeks apart? And what can the US learn from New Zealand’s election last month? Here’s my take and what I desperately hope is the last piece I ever write involving a certain 45th President of the United States:
But wait! There’s more! The big story everybody was talking about a day or two before the latest several big stories was the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Also for Radio New Zealand, I wrote about what it all means and how it’s a worrying sign of where America’s head is at these days:
What is it: One of the grand touchstones of moody horror, Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. This highly influential film is a surreal nightmare about a young ballet dancer who discovers her new school is not what it seems. Inspired by Italy’s giallo horror subgenre (but not, according to many, technically a giallo film itself), Suspiria is drenched in vivid colours and disturbing sounds, and a horror film like few before it.
Why I never saw it: As I’ve mentioned before, while I love a good horror movie, I’m less of a slasher movie fan. Suspiria’s blood-soaked, intense reputation kind of scared me off for a long time, and for many years, pre-streaming, it was also kind of a difficult movie to find to actually watch it.
Does it measure up to its rep? Suspiria isn’t a movie you go to for plot – the “haunted house” storyline (well, haunted dance school) is as old as the movies itself. But where it soars is in creating a nightmare world all its own. Much of what makes a good horror movie work is mood. And Suspiria is almost all mood. The acting can be wooden and the story is a thin thread to drape the atmosphere around. Yet it all works, because Suspiria is about unsettling you. It’s that pounding iconic score by the band Goblin, which ramps up for the film’s gory set pieces to almost unbearable intensity. The gory scenes are brash and brutal, but the bulk of the movie basks in creating a more subtle unsettling dread. It’s seen in the film’s striking use of colours (it was the final film to use three-strip Technicolor), which make even the most gruesome of scenes oddly beautiful. In its own way, it uses colour as memorably as The Wizard of Oz, Vertigo or Black Narcissus. It feels like an adult fairy tale, a Snow White without dwarves but plenty of witches. Argento’s chilly, removed storytelling gives Suspiria a very Stanley Kubrick vibe. It’s defiantly original and unforgettable.
Worth seeing? Absolutely, but not for the squeamish or easily rattled. As a sheer exercise in macabre, colourful style, it’s a cinematic milestone and perfect for the spooky season.
Howdy, amigos! It’s been a little while since I added new stuff to the Amoeba Adventures online archive, but now two more blasts from the past are available as FREE PDF downloads right here.
2020 marks the 30th anniversary of my small press seriesAmoeba Adventures, and here are two of the more unique publications from my ’90s comics work, digitally resurrected for this bold new age we live in:
Chiaroscurocollects quite possibly the strangest comics I ever published, from the pages of the alternative weekly newspaper (they were once a thing!) Oxford Town that I worked at. I was allowed to do pretty much anything I wanted, so for 6 months or so I drew a comic about whatever I felt like that week. Included are the adventures of Lil’ Kafka, the horror of the shivering walnuts, the return of Jip, the Notional Squad, Bob The Rabbit, President James Buchanan and much more. Some of these strips still remain among my favourite comics I’ve ever done. Here, read it for yourself.
Completely at the opposite end of the comics spectrum is Rambunny: Unacceptable Losses #1, a one-shot solo adventure for the Amoeba Adventures action hero. A man from Rambunny’s past returns with a tempting offer, launching Rambunny back into a dark world he thought he’d left behind. Action, adventure, and explosions galore, with art by Ron Gravelle and a story by me in full Frank Miller/’80s action movie mode. It also features a bruising battle in a bathroom WAY before Tom Cruise did it in Mission Impossible: Fallout. Read it here!