‘Invisible Men’ brings Black comics history into the light

February is Black History Month, and a great new book sheds a much-needed light on the hidden history of Black golden age comics creators, mostly ignored or suppressed in their time.

There’s a lot more diversity in the comics field today than there once was. It really took until the 1980s and 1990s for things to open up some – for instance, despite comics as we know them debuting in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Black superheroes really came into their own. The first Black superhero was of course, The Black Panther, but the first to get his own book was Luke Cage, Hero For Hire in 1972.

There was a mini-boom in Black heroes in the ‘70s (pretty much every one of which got the word “Black” in their superhero name). I was always fascinated by the 1970s adventures of Luke Cage, the short-lived Black Goliath, The Falcon, DC’s Green Lantern John Stewart, Tony Isabella’s street-level hero Black Lightning, and of course, the Black Panther. 

Reflecting the industry at the time, the ‘70s Black hero adventures were pretty much always written by white men, although the late Black artist Billy Graham played a pivotal part in Luke Cage and Black Panther adventures. And sure, these comics overplay the “angry Black man” trope a bit, but they’re also very much a product of their protest-filled era. 

Before that, there were few brief sightings of Black leading characters in comics – the interesting short-lived western curio Lobo for instance – but much of Black comics history remains frustratingly obscured. The new book Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books by Ken Quattro attempts to correct that, with an excellent compilation of essays about and excerpts from Black-created comics from the 1930s on up to the late 1960s. 

Here you’ll find the life stories of a dozen Black men who blazed trails in comics, often discriminated against, sadly too often forgotten (women of any colour were exceedingly rare in Golden Age comics). You’ll meet Elmer Cecil Stoner, Owen Charles Middleton, Elton Clay Fax, Matt Baker and many more. 

Matt Baker is probably the best known Black comics artist of the Golden Age, a creator of spectacularly sexy 1950s “good girl” art with characters like Phantom Lady. Yet despite his amazing talent, Baker and his Black identity were obscure until long after his early death at just 38. 

Other Black artists edged their way into comics working on mainstream characters like Blue Beetle or Spy Smasher, while others attempted to tell stories about Black history or were pigeonholed into the “jungle comics” genre. Some of these artists only dabbled in comics and went on to far greater success in illustration, painting or other art endeavours, such as Alvin Carl Hollingsworth

Invisible Men includes an essay on and excerpts from the Black-created All-Negro Comics #1 – a title which admittedly is pretty problematic in 2021 – but in 1947, this short-lived title attempted to be a landmark showcase for Black cartoonists with characters like “Ace Harlem” and “Lion Man.”

Quattro’s done an excellent job of excavating the obscurest of historical details to fill in the lives of creators who in another era, might’ve been the next Christopher Priest or Denys Cowan. 

The history of Black comics artists in the Golden Age isn’t always uplifting – for every Matt Baker there were dozens of frustrated artists locked out of the medium – but Invisible Men is essential reading. The creators here paved the path for things like black-controlled Milestone Comics, for the Black Panther to star in one of the biggest movies of all time … and for a world where far more people are able to be visible instead of invisible. 

All the Presidents’ books: The best reads about America’s leaders

So I’m a massive Presidential history nerd, a hobby which has felt more than a little shameful the last four years under President Asterisk*, he-who-shall-not-be-named. Fortunately, it feels OK to admit this in public again now.

I love a good presidential history book, and I’m fascinated by the lives and times of most of the men (so far, all men and happily, now one female vice-president) who’ve held the office, even if I loathed their politics at times. February is when the US celebrates Presidents Day – hopefully a little less bleakly this year – and it’s the month during which the birthdays of George Washington (1732) and Abraham Lincoln (1809) fell. It’s a great month to look back at the presidency over nearly 250 years and remember that despite the current troubles, there’s still a lot to learn from history. 

Of the dozens of Presidential books I’ve read over the years, here’s some highlights: 

Most interesting president to read about: Theodore Roosevelt was a cowboy, a policeman, a rancher, a war hero, naturalist, historian and still, at 42, the youngest President in American history. You pretty much have to work to make his life story boring, and there’s many fascinating books about ol’ Teddy’s life and presidency. The king of these is the late Edmund Morris’ three-book trilogy, with the first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, probably the best book about a President’s early life I’ve ever read. Teddy built himself up from an asthmatic child into a swaggering pile of masculine, determined ego, and while he was frequently overbearing, he also was surprisingly progressive in many areas. You can’t go wrong with Morris’ trilogy, or for a great side story, Candice Millard’s The River Of Doubt is a terrific manly travel tale about TR’s near-fatal trip deep into the Amazon after his presidency. And Teddy himself also wrote some great books about his adventures.  Runners-up: Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Thomas Jefferson

Greatest writing about a President: Robert A. Caro’s epic multi-volume look at the life and times of President Lyndon Johnson is held up as the gold standard of biographies, having won the Pulitzer Prize twice. I won’t be contrarian. It’s an absolutely stunning, authoritative piece of work that shows the countless hours of research and shoe-leather reporting Caro has put into his masterpiece over the decades, from evocative portrayals of the dirt-poor Texas hill country where LBJ came from to untangling the ins and outs of the US Senate works without boring the pants off readers. It now sprawls for thousands of pages, but every word of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is essential. The fifth and final volume is in progress now and like many other readers I am hoping Caro, now 85, sees it all through to the end. It’s a blueprint for how to tell the full story of a life and the times they lived in. Runners-up: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Grant by Ron Chernow; Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin; Truman by David McCullough; the excellent Nixonland series by Ron Perlstein which I’ve written about before. 

President you wouldn’t think would be interesting: Grover Cleveland is mostly remembered as being the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms, so he’s technically the 22nd and 24th President. But he also had one of the greatest cover-ups in Presidential history, a top-secret cancer surgery held in the middle of the night on a boat at sea. Matthew Algeo’s fast-paced The President is A Sick Man is a great concise history of the somewhat forgotten Cleveland and one of the bigger medical scandals in US history. It reads like a thriller. And Presidents have certainly never stopped being cagey about their health, from Woodrow Wilson’s crippling stroke to Tr**p’s still mysterious COVID hospitalisation. 

Best books not quite about the Presidents: Doug Wead is a conservative activist and Tr*mp booster, which I’m not wild about, but I do rather like the two books he’s written about the children and parents of Presidents, All The Presidents’ Children and The Raising of a President. They dig into what makes a leader and what a leader’s legacy is and are chock-full of interesting trivia about the Presidential families. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of awful tragedy in the families of many Presidents, perhaps it comes with the job. Runner-Up: Alice by Stacy Cordery, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter, who lived a remarkable life in the middle of the Washington scene that spanned from the presidency of Cleveland to Jimmy Carter. 

Goofiest book about Presidents: How To Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country by Daniel O’Brien. If you want offbeat, here’s a book that looks at presidents through the filter of how good they might be at kicking your ass. It’s very silly but amusing stuff, and the only book I own that features the phrase “Ulysses S. Grant is the drunken, angry John McClane of Presidents.” The joke gets a bit old, but it’s still a pretty funny breezy, fisticuff-filled march through history. I’d still put my money on Teddy Roosevelt to smack them all down, though. 

Best overall look at the Presidents: When it comes to overall presidential trivia, nothing compares to William DeGregorio’s massive Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. How tall was Calvin Coolidge? What nasty health ailments did Chester A. Arthur have? Who, for the love of God, was Millard Fillmore’s Postmaster General? It’s a great done-in-one resource for history nerds. Unfortunately, since DeGregorio died a while back, later editions have been notably lacking in detail and accuracy regarding the more recent presidents, which is a shame, but from Washington to Clinton or so, it’s a great guide.  

Most morbid book about Presidents: Dead Presidents by Brady Carlson. What happens to Presidents after they die is sometimes more interesting than their administrations. Take Zachary Taylor, first president to die in office, who was famously exhumed in the 1990s to prove he wasn’t poisoned. Dead Presidents is a great tour of presidential demises, resting places and of their legacies, looking at things like Thomas Jefferson’s children with his slaves or the long strange journey of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. Runner-up: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.

Best presidential memoirs: People talk about how great the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant are, but I’m afraid I haven’t made it around to them quite yet. Most of the memoirs are famously stiff and reveal little about the men themselves. They tend to start strong and fizzle out, such as Bill Clinton’s My Life, which is nicely evocative about his Arkansas boyhood and difficult family life, but turns into a blur of names and places when he becomes President. Even Barack Obama’s recent A Promised Land, although eloquent and featuring great moments of detailed insight, succumbs somewhat to this problem, although I’d still probably rank it as the best memoir that I’ve read so far in a flawed genre. (But his wife’s is even better.) To me the best presidential books are the ones not written by the subjects themselves, but by talented historians. 

Sorry, but you can’t make these guys interesting: I’ve read a few books about some of the lesser-known presidents and it can be hard going. Some near-forgotten ones are surprisingly captivating to me – I’ve always had a thing for the hapless Franklin Pierce, for James Buchanan, usually considered the worst President until quite recently, or the overwhelmed Warren Harding. However, I don’t want to name-and-shame authors as it’s not always their fault if a subject isn’t Teddy Roosevelt, but let’s just say it’s pretty darned hard to make Calvin Coolidge interesting, and despite James K. Polk presiding at a pretty fascinating time in American history as the nation expanded, as a person, he seems as dull as dishwater to read about. And don’t even get me started about Benjamin Harrison.

These are just a few of the veritable mountain range of presidential literature out there to dig into around Presidents Day. Happy reading!

The best fairly recent books I read in 2020

Well, one thing you can say about 2020 is that there was a lot of time to catch up on one’s reading. The ones below are among the best I read, and are all “recent-ish” books, released in the last 2-3 years or so – and very much worth your time. Here’s eight I loved in 2020:

The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox – This sprawling fantasy epic by New Zealand’s own Knox is a dense, glittering exploration into the very meaning of stories themselves. A writer’s sister dies and it launches her on a journey between the world we know and one of demons and magic. With lots of Tolkien and Gaiman in its its DNA but distinctively in Knox’s own voice and grounded in a tense realism, it’s full of fascinating ideas – almost overstuffed – but holds together to be one of the best imaginative reads I had in a year where reality literally felt as strange as fiction. 

Antkind, by Charlie Kaufman. This first novel by the screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich is a marvel, like one of his twisting films unspooled into print. Loosely the tale of an unbelievably creative “lost film” and one man’s quest for it, it’s sprawling, chaotic and surreal, and often hilariously funny, like Thomas Pynchon meets David Foster Wallace. It may be a tad overlong and I’m still not entirely sure I understand all of it, but it it took me on a wild ride more than any other novel I read this year. 

Becoming, by Michelle Obama. I read President Obama’s memoir A Promised Land and it’s very good, but it suffers the syndrome that affects most political biographies – turning into an endless cascade of names and meetings. There’s some dazzlingly good prose in it, and it’s well worth reading, but I have to admit, Michelle Obama’s memoir moved me even more with its candour and ease. She tells her story with heartfelt emotion but also a sense of wonder, as a young Black girl in Chicago grows up to become First Lady of the United States. Twelve years on after Obama’s inauguration day, it’s still pretty cool to type those words. Sometimes, history works out OK. 

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley. I’m fascinated by the oldest of stories, the Beowulfs and the Gilgameshes. I’ve got two other translations of Beowulf, the 1000-year-old-epic, and the idea of a “modern”, more feminist translation at first sounds like a very very bad idea. But Headley’s edgy reimagining is faithful to the misty ancient past of the poem, while giving it a death-metal spin of passion that makes the story feel more alive. Her version starts out: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!” Modern slang and ancient protocols wrestle in the text, giving it a heaving urgency. Now, that may sound silly, but once you get into her rhythms, Headley’s Beowulf rocks and boasts like a hair-metal epic, while never losing sight of what it is. It’s pretty hardcore, bro. 

Demagogue: The Life And Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, by Larry Tye. We all know what “McCarthyism” means, but I only knew about the Wisconsin Senator and his grim legacy in broad strokes. This biography does an excellent job of filling in the story and bringing the Senator to life with all his flaws, hubris and arrogance, and putting his frightening anti-communist crusade in a broader context in American history. There’s so many echoes in the current US political scene that it’s almost disorienting to see the same things happening again. As Faulkner put it, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Imagine what might have happened if someone like McCarthy became President. Oh, wait… 

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake. Who doesn’t love a mushroom? The kingdom of fungi is a vast, strange place, stretching its tendrils into almost every part of our lives and yet mostly unknown. Sheldrake’s excellent guide takes a tour through the world of fungi, filled with fascinating facts and discoveries explained in clear, evocative prose. The future might very well be in fungi, and this is one of those cool books that leaves you looking at the natural world around you with different eyes. 

Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami. I know not everyone is a fan of Murakami’s very mannered, particular storytelling, but I quite enjoyed his latest, a long, meditative read about a painter whose lonely exile on top of a mountain is interrupted by mystery and obsession. I read this during the heart of NZ’s first and longest lockdown this year, and somehow its isolation spoke to me clearly in that suspended moment in time. Killing Commendatore is a meandering journey with few firm conclusions – kind of like 2020 itself often felt – but sometimes the journey itself is the point. 

Shakespeare in a Divided America, by James Shapiro. Shapiro has written a host of really fascinating Shakespeare scholarship books, but this one seems particularly relevant in 2020, looking at the complex relationship the Bard’s plays have had with American history. Did you know that 22 people died in a riot in New York in 1849 that was sparked by a performance of “MacBeth”? Shapiro draws history and literature together to create a fascinating read, culminating in the controversy of a Trump look-a-like being assassinated on stage in New York in 2017 – no fatal riots then, but it shows that the play’s still the thing, 150+ years on. 

Also worth noting: “Oscar: A Life”, Matthew Sturgis; “The Overstory,” Richard Powers; “The Nickel Boys,” Colson Whitehead; “All Who Live On Islands,” Rose Lu; “It’s Garry Shandling’s Book,” Judd Apatow; “2000ft Above Worry Level,” Eamonn Marra.

We’re all still living in “Nixonland,” 50 years on

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a little trouble concentrating as 2020 rumbles and trudges its way to the grim season finale. As a dual citizen of the US and New Zealand, I’ve got not one but TWO national elections I’m voting in this year, so everything feels soaked in political arguments and campaign slogans. My brain feels perpetually overstimulated and understaffed.

It’s hard to write about comics and music and movies and such when everything seems swamped by politics. This ain’t a political blog, but like everyone else, I’m sucked in by the tenor of the times. In search of answers for the current craziness, I’ve gone back in time more than 50 years, re-reading Rick Perlstein’s masterpiece “Nixonland,” a deep dive into American politics between 1965 to 1972. The groundwork for Trumpland begins here. 

“Nixonland” is the second of a series of four massive tomes Perlstein has written examining the world of American conservatism from Goldwater to Reagan. Packed with detail, yet in crisp and clear prose, the books form a definitive examination of the duelling forces in American life that continue clashing to this day. Lots of talking heads bang on about how America has never been more polarised than today, but that’s not exactly true. Read about the clashes at the Democratic Convention of ’68, the riots and protests in Watts and Newark, and you see a pattern that just keeps repeating in America. Nothing is all that new, it turns out – it’s just the stage dressing that changes. 

There was more than a fair bit of turbulence in the America of the late 1960s, between Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, the rise of feminism and generation gaps. You can’t point for point compare then to now – instead of a war everyone’s arguing over, we’ve got a virus that’s turned bizarrely political – but the fundamentals of a nation that’s always been torn between liberty and conformity, “freedom” and authoritarianism, are there. For most of the last 60 years, America has been a conservative nation with brief spasms of progressiveness. How it winds up in 2020, nobody knows. 

“It was coming to this – insurgents and patriots paying good money to watch the other side silenced and humiliated,” reads a passage in “Nixonland.” Sound like social media, anybody? The biggest difference between 1970 and 2020 is that an entire industry of compliant, biased media and social media silos have created a perpetually self-congratulatory echo chamber that ensures you can pick your own reality. Previously a President could have his approval rating drop down into the 20s, but these days, the echo chamber ensures that even the worst of Presidents won’t drop below a certain level of approval.

What “Nixonland” shows us so inexorably is how America keeps wrestling with the same demons over and over again. This is nothing new – as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Great Gatsby” nearly a century ago, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

Life is objectively better for many people than it was 100 years ago in America, of course. America inches forward – and a little too often, also stumbles backward in the same motion.

America is still living in Nixonland, 25 years after his death. Hopefully one day it can fully break free of it. It’s gonna take a lot more than one election to do that, though. 

Sherlock Holmes: The game will always be afoot

It’s no mystery why Sherlock Holmes endures. 

I first came to Sherlock as a teenager, sucked into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s intricate little puzzle-boxes of stories. There are just 56 stories and four short novels that Doyle wrote, which when you tick them all off, may leave you feeling a bit bereft.

But the thing about a great character like Sherlock Holmes is he’s pretty malleable. The pile of “Sherlockiana” – Holmes reboots, sequels, prequels, reimaginings and more – far exceeds what Doyle wrote in his lifetime. He’s the most portrayed fictional character in history

As a sucker for Sherlock who finished the original canon decades ago, I’m an easy mark for the never-ending cascade of Sherlockiana stories. Some are great, good as anything Doyle ever wrote and occasionally even better. Some of them are pretty dire. Many are just kind of there. But there’s literally a Holmes for everyone, and that’s part of the fun of diving in. 

There are new Holmes mysteries, written in as close a style to Doyle as possible. There are alternate history versions, team-ups, and more. I scored a whole pile of Titan Books’ recent reissues of “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” pastiches a while back, which feature reimaginings galore starring everyone from President Theodore Roosevelt to Harry Houdini to Tarzan, fighting Jack the Ripper or Dracula or The Phantom of the Opera. 

There’s an amusingly twisted series of “Warlock Holmes” Lovecraftian comic parodies which imagine a demon-haunted magician Holmes aided by his partner Watson, the true detective of the duo. 

There’s even a subset of “ancient Sherlock” stories featuring Holmes in his extreme old age, such as Michael Chabon’s bittersweet “The Final Solution,” Neil Gaiman’s “The Case of Death and Honey,” or Mitch Cullins’s “Mr. Holmes.”

But boy, I wish Sherlock pastiche writers would retire the unbearable cliche of Professor Moriarty “suddenly” being revealed as the mastermind in their mysteries. While Moriarty’s a fascinating character, despite his barely appearing in just two Doyle stories, he’s also a crutch for writers searching for their Joker to Sherlock’s Batman. Pulling him out as the trump card is the lazy way out. 

Not that Moriarty pastiches – and of course, there’s plenty of these too – are a bad thing. I particularly like Kim Newman’s Moriarty novel retelling Doyle’s stories entirely from the perspective of Moriarty and his henchman Moran. And none other than famed basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbara big Sherlockian himself – has done a few novels starring Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s mysterious brother.

Gender swapped, racially reimagined, time tossed or even Sherlock in space, it’s all out there in the Sherlock multiverse. I like a good mystery. And while the flood of Sherlockiana is admittedly inconsistent and requires a solid detective to ferret out the gems, there’s few pleasures more cozy than settling in with a new take on the sacred hunt. The game’s always afoot! 

Guided By Voices and the songs that never stop

I first encountered Guided By Voices in a pile of free CDs. It was 1994, I was working as an intern at Billboard magazine in New York City, and one of the undeniable perks of the gig was the massive amount of freebies that poured into the mag in that pre-Internet era. 

I discovered a lot of great new music that summer, but nothing that blew my mind quite like the work of Robert Pollard and his band Guided By Voices. While it may sound a bit absurd, it felt like I’d discovered a secret Beatles nobody knew about but me.

GbV’s seminal disc Bee Thousand hit me like a thousand surreal butterflies singing pop tunes, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Their very best songs make me want to scream along at the top of my lungs, anthems for those who didn’t know they needed an anthem. 

It’s hard to nail down Guided By Voices. They’re a rock band with a strong power-pop vibe, and an often-nonsensical stew of lyrics that make just as much sense as you want them to. At their peak, each album from GbV feels like a message from another planet made just for me – lo-fi and crackling with pretty little mistakes, a radio stuck between stations on the coolest sounds around. On stage, they were a boozing, debauched riot far different from the brittle beauty of their albums. 

I like bands that feel bottomless. Acts that have deep backlists, frequent changes in style and approach, and a dogged determination to see their own vision through. The Bowies, the Zappas, the Nick Caves, the Pollards. A self-proclaimed jock from Dayton, Ohio, Robert Pollard isn’t someone you’d pick to be one of the busiest songwriters of all time. 

And he’s prolific. Good god, he’s prolific. Pollard has a compulsion that drives him to perpetually come up with new songs – more than 2000 in his career to date, spread out over more than 100 albums by Guided By Voices, solo albums and an entire stadium full of side bands and one-of projects. 

I mean jeez, I’m a pretty big fan, I’ve got something like 60 of Pollard’s various albums GbV and otherwise, and I’m still a long way from having it all. Still, nothing for me quite tops that absolutely golden stretch from album no. 3 (Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia) to album no. 11 (Do The Collapse). 

A recent biography of Pollard, Closer You Are by Matthew Cutter, does a pretty good job of attempting to nail down GbV’s niche appeal. It’s particularly strong on the band’s early years, sketching Pollard as an eager young rock fan who became a professional teacher with musician dreams. Pollard was the kind of teenager who’d literally spend hours making up dozens of pretend album covers for his imaginary bands. The after-hours musician didn’t actually “make it” until he was in his mid-30s. 

The flood never stops. After breaking up for the first time in 2004, GbV returned just a few years later and the albums have been coming one, two or three a year at least ever since. Pollard is 62 now, and still banging out the hits for a very devoted fan base. 

That can be to GbV’s detriment for some. Of their 13 (!!!) albums since 2012’s revival, there’s always a few great songs, a lot of good ones, maybe one or two dogs. The music has lost that mysterious edge it first had in the 1990s, but still has plenty of great hooks and riffs. But the constant flow of new material makes it kind of hard to sit down and soak them in properly. 

That’s just Bob’s way, like it or lump it. Yet it’s kind of fun to pick up GbV album No. 26 or Pollard side project No. 37 and find a few songs that sound like they should’ve been massive hits in some alternate universe. He won’t stop. Maybe he can’t stop.

And maybe that’s the reason we Guided By Voices fans keep coming back, album after album after album. They’re songs just for us, in the coolest club in the land, and while they’ll never be as omnipresent as a Taylor Swift hit maybe, they’re magic all the same. 

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. 

Year in review: Disappointments of 2019

Let’s kick 2019 one last time as it goes out the door!

I waxed enthusiastic and positive about my favourite 12 pop-culture moments of the year just dusted, but now let’s look at the things that weren’t so great. 

* The internet and toxic fandom. Wayyy back in the early 2000s I found the net a welcoming place to discuss my geeky afflictions, to find like minds and hunt down rare information. These days, it’s more like a toxic waste dump filled with fetid landmines, with occasional patches of grace you have to contort yourself to find. Picking up blogging again for me has become a hell of a lot more positive action than making random nasty tweets and posts. I gave up entirely trying to be a Star Wars fan online, for example, keeping it to myself like a secret fetish rather than engaging with a world where too many fans think fandom is about hate rather than love. I don’t even want to TALK about Rise of Skywalker online because it’s like a magnet for the worst of us, and I actually more or less liked it. 

* Terrible comic book “events.” I’m a sucker for hype but I’ve gotten a lot more judicious about buying into overwrought, dull comic book apocalypses these days. This year I got suckered by a few – the ponderous, pretentious and unnecessary Heroes In Crisis by Tom King, a writer whom I generally like; Doomsday Clock, the never-ending Watchmen sequel/crossover that read like bad Alan Moore fan fiction and I only read out of a kind of misguided curious masochism; or DC’s endless “dark” versions of their existing heroes like The Batman Who Laughs. I’ve seen enough twisted evil versions of superheroes or dystopian alternate realities to last a million multiverses, thanks. Resolution for 2020: Don’t believe the hype.

* Cari Mora by Thomas Harris. Look, I always go into a book *hoping* it will be good. And I am a fan of Harris’ pulpy, compulsively readable Hannibal Lecter series. But this reads like Harris scribbled a few notes for a bad episode of CSI: Miami on a cocktail napkin and handed it in. It’s his first non-Lecter novel since the 1970s and was definitely not worth the wait. Predictable and stale with no characters as indelible as Lecter or Clarice Starling, and typeset in a 15-point or so font that makes this brief read seem longer than it is, Cari Mora is the worst book I read in 2019. Glad I only borrowed it from a library!

* Death, in general and specific. Grand, doom-pop singer Scott Walker. Creature of the Black Lagoon muse Julie Adams. Pioneering gay cartoonist Howard Cruse. Psychedelic legend Roky Erickson. Comics journalists Tom Spurgeon and Bill Schelly. Terrific character actor Robert Forster. Pop magician Ric Ocasek. Monkee man Peter Tork. Two stars of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Rene Auberjonois and Aron Eisenberg. Easy ridin’ Peter Fonda. So many more. The year also saw the loss of old friends and family too soon like Oxford, Mississippi’s great bohemian cultural envoy Ron Shapiro; my uncle James House, who I wish I’d known better, and my ’90s small press pal and seriously underrated weird fiction writer Sam Gafford who died at just 56 years old. RIP to all and many more. Let’s hope 2020 is kinder.

Complete succinct reviews of Stephen King, Part V

Many years ago, when the world was young and Twitter was what birds did and the idea of a President Trump was hilarious satire, on my old blog I started a deep dive through Stephen King’s formidable career, book by book. Here’s some links to the past:

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

Now, suddenly, it’s been 10 years since I did a look at King’s oeuvre, and it seems a good time to reappraise the master.

King’s now 72, and there’s a calmer maturity the work in his autumn years I’m enjoying –  and less of the unhinged horror he bashed through in classics like Pet Sematary and It. He remains one of our most compulsively readable storytellers, and there’s a lot to love about latter-day King. 

11/22/63: One of King’s best, a stunning epic about time travel and trying to change the past. “What if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated” is a well-worn topic but this one goes in directions you didn’t really expect and delivers some surprises, as well as a detailed historical epic full of emotion and regret. It’s long, but rarely feels bloated like some other King doorstops. I’m a sucker for time travel stories and King clearly is having a ball evoking the early 1960s as his traveller tries to save the world – but as usual in these cases, there’s a heavy price. Grade: A+

The Dark Tower: The Wind Through The Keyhole: Did we REALLY need another Dark Tower book after the nearly 5000 pages, seven books of the main Dark Tower saga, King’s epic fantasy which spanned entire universes? Not really, but King clearly felt the urge to return for this “Dark Tower 4 1/2” untold tale that visits Roland the gunslinger and his band on their quest. There’s stories within stories told here, and the whole thing has the feeling of a gathering of lost chapters that King couldn’t quite fit into the main Dark Tower saga. It’s engaging, even if, like me, you got a wee bit tired of the Dark Tower despite its imposing majesty by the end of the long haul. But it’s kind of like the book version of deleted scenes on a DVD, so it’s hard for it to feel essential. Grade: B

Joyland: Short but sweet, a novella about lost loves and nostalgia, which also has a few murders because it’s King, after all. Set in an amusement park in the summer of 1973, it’s full of King’s keen eye for evoking a time and place, and a summer romance that ends with bittersweet resonance. It wouldn’t go amiss side-by-side with “The Body” (aka “Stand By Me”) as one of King’s better coming-of-age stories, and surprisingly gentle compared to much of his fare. It’s one of his more unknown works, but well worth seeking out. Grade: A- 

Doctor Sleep: A sequel to The Shining is a thing I never really asked for or wanted. That said, it’s an interesting idea to follow up on Danny Torrance as an adult, suffering from deep trauma over the whole dad-possessed-by-ghosts-tried-to-kill-us-all thing. King does a nice job showing us a grounded portrayal of present-day Danny struggling to carry on; that said, the story which expands to draw in a convoluted world of secret “Shining” cults and quasi-immortals just didn’t quite work for me. Much like The Black House sequel to The Talisman decades later, looking backwards for King is a mixed bag. Grade: C+

Mr Mercedes: The first of a trilogy of novels focusing on Bill Hodges, a suicidal, retired detective and one of King’s more engaging ‘everyman’ characters. Tight and suspenseful, this one deals with the hunt for a mysterious serial killer who’s already committed one mass slaying and plans more. Hodges, the killer Brady Hartsfield and troubled young woman Holly Gibney are all some of King’s best written characters in ages, and there’s no surprise that he went on to feature them in several more books. But Mr Mercedes, with its propulsive narrative and ripped-from-the-headlines mass terror threat, is still the best. It’s also one of King’s most grounded in the real world novels and all the better for it. Grade: A

Revival: Back to pure, Lovecraftian horror for King with this one, which is a chilling riff on the Frankenstein legend. A minister loses his religion and becomes a mysterious faith healer, using electricity to heal the sick, and probing away at even darker mysteries in the universe. The novel is a beast of two sides, a more realistic look at love and loss, and a dark, fantastic glimpse into the unknown terrors of the void. Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of build-up to the main event here that will either engage you or bore you, and I came down a little bit on the side of finding Revival a promising premise that never quite leaps onto the top shelf with King’s other glimpses into the abyss. Grade: B- 

Finders Keepers: Book two in the “Bill Hodges Mysteries” (which really sounds like a mid-80s Matlock spinoff), a slight comedown from the streamlined thrills of Mr Mercedes. This time, John Rothstein, a famous reclusive novelist, is murdered and his unpublished books stolen, triggering a chain of events that draws Hodges into its web. King, as always, done a fine job of evoking a writer’s life in his portrait of Rothstein, and he also shows us the duelling sides of fandom – a kid whose love for literature is awakened and a creepy fan who takes it all so far. I’m not nuts about King’s portrayal of a witty black college student which comes across as a bit crass and dated, but it’s a small critique. Grade: B+

Next time I do this, I’ll take us from The Bazaar of Bad Dreams all the way to the present day and The Institute. Stay scared! 

Robert A. Caro and digging into the American Dream with LBJ

mag-15Caro-t_CA0-jumboI’m a sucker for a good presidential biography, even as I loathe the orange troll currently occupying the White House. There’s something about the life sagas of America’s leaders that fascinates me, from the legends like Lincoln or Roosevelt to the sad sacks like James Buchanan. 

I’ve read dozens of ‘em, but if I had to pick the best, I’d single out Robert A. Caro’s sprawling four-volume (so far) life of Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m re-reading the first book, The Path To Power, for the first time in years. 

Caro is having a moment right now, with a short memoir (“Working”) just out as he labours away on the fifth and final book of LBJ’s life and times, a monument in prose he’s been working on for an astonishing 45 years or so now. At 83, Caro is in his autumn, but many a fan like me hopes he makes it to the finish line on what is one of the finest examinations of a leader and his times ever written. Forget Game of Thrones, this is the saga I want to see finished off.

170px-Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_15-13-2_-_ca._1915As a researcher and a journalist, Caro has few peers. The man is a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up every single factoid possible to craft fully rounded tales – he famously moved to the Hill Country of Texas with his wife to research LBJ’s boyhood years, and The Path To Power shows the painstaking time he took in its vibrant invocation of a long-gone era of hardened farmers and struggling families in a hostile land. 

Re-reading The Path To Power, I’m struck by Caro’s digressions and how they never feel like digressions. In most biographies a straight line is drawn from “A” (brief sketches of parents and family history, birth of subject) to “B” (subject’s life and career begins). But Caro lingers in the telling details, making us understand the infertile dirt which birthed LBJ, such as a short chapter about what life pre-electricity really felt like for the Hill Country farmers and wives – and that’s where his work comes most alive. Thirteen pages painstakingly detailing the work Hill Country women would do to wash and iron clothes without electricity is riveting:

More than once, and more than twice, a stooped and bent Hill Country farm wife says, “You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that’s from hauling the water.” And, she will often add, “I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young.” 

0cd909cfbc5bacfb7fd48e2a43a493eaCaro takes the time to get it right, and while 5 volumes and 5000 or so pages about one man’s life may seem excessive, other, shorter biographies I’ve read about LBJ seem like Cliff’s notes skimming over the surface compared to the richness of this work. 

You don’t have to be a fan of LBJ to admire Caro’s work, which frequently points out Johnson’s selfish, ambitious and often cruel narcissism – but always counterpoints it with his knack for the common touch, or how the haunting memory of his poverty in the Hill Country never, ever left the man, even when he became President of the United States. The first book of the four so far only takes us to 1941, but in its 700+ pages is the story of an entire cosmos. 

I’m dying for Caro’s final volume because it will at long last tackle the Vietnam years, an era which scuttled forevermore much of LBJ’s achievements and blotted out his remarkable civil rights work with blood in the jungle. There’s something Shakespearean about the lives of most of our presidents, but never more so than with LBJ – a poor boy from Texas who always wanted to be President, who got there in the worst way possible, and who lost everything over his intransigence on a war on the other side of the world.

Caro is our guide through a life that evokes everything good and bad about the American dream, and it’s a pleasure to dive again into his works.