The world’s still pretty insane, so have some more Amoeba Adventures

Well, 2020 has been quite a ride so far, hasn’t it? New Zealand is finally returning to something vaguely resembling normal life. I hope you’re well, wherever you are.

At least being shut in around the house for nearly two months gave me time to continue the great Amoeba Adventures 30th Anniversary Celebration by scannin’ up the greatest hits of Prometheus, Rambunny, Ninja Ant and the rest from my 1990-1998 small press comic series. We’re near the finish line now – only a handful more issues to go, but this lot of free PDF downloads includes three of the biggest and bulkiest issues I ever published. Go check them out on the Protoplasm Press page! 

This lot includes the epic Amoeba Adventures #10, the conclusion to the “Details of Design” storyline that changes everything for the All-Spongy Squadron; #14, the solo writing and drawing debut of Max Ink in a very special tale focusing on domestic violence; and the slam-bang gigantic Amoeba Adventures #12, at nearly 80 pages the biggest comic I ever published and one that nearly killed me! It features solo stories for Rambunny, Spif, Ninja Ant, Herr Heinous and more, the secret 50-year history of Prometheus by Troy Hickman, Prometheus meets Matt Feazell’s Cynicalman, the scoop on the legendary small-press gathering at the 1993 Chicago ComicCon, and a jam back cover with 27 small press creators. Stories and art by guest contributors Max Ink, John Hurley, Doug Lumley, Tony Lorenz, Matt Feazell, Lynn Allen, Jason Marcy, Sam Gafford, J. Kevin Carrier and many more.

This means that the first 23 issues of the entire series are now available free online. As always, most issues feature rare sketches, notes and guest artwork from the secret Amoeba Archives, located many kilometres deep in a secret vault off the coast of Tasmania. 

Thanks to those who’ve had kind things to say in various places online about the old comics, it’s been a genuine pleasure rediscovering them after many years and glad to see folks enjoying them again. 

Enjoy!

The dogged optimism of Mr. Terrific

My favourite superhero team will always be the Justice Society of America. The first superhero team in comics, the JSA made its debut 80 years ago this year, with the original Flash, Atom, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Green Lantern and many more. 

One of their lesser-known members always intrigued me – the rather boastfully named Mr. Terrific, one of the most quixotic of golden age superheroes. He barely appeared with the JSA in their original ‘40s incarnation, and mostly lived out his life as a back-up feature in the Wonder Woman-headlining Sensation Comics. 

Mr. Terrific’s back story, such as it was, was laid out in Sensation Comics #1 – He’s Terry Sloane, first introduced as a “child marvel” who’ll be “smarter than Einstein when he grows up.” Basically, he’s good at everything, without being any kind of mutant or spaceman – the kind of guy who probably annoys the hell out of everybody around him, frankly. As he grows up, he’s a genius at business, sport and love. He gets so bored, he decides to kill himself. But instead of topping himself, he saves a suicidal woman jumping off a bridge and this gives him the spark to carry on, fighting crime as the masked “Mr. Terrific.”

To be honest, it’s complete nonsense of an origin, isn’t it? It’s not even having a bat fly through your window to inspire you. When roughly a dozen new superheroes were appearing a week in the 1940s, you worked with what you could, I guess. Mr. Terrific clad himself in a striking green and red costume with “Fair Play” emblazoned across his chest in huge letters, and the peculiar vehemence of his costume is probably why he’s remembered at all.

Nevertheless, I kind of like the goofy lug, who appeared in Sensation Comics until the late 1940s, then popped up occasionally in the 1960s. He was rather randomly killed off after years of obscurity in the pages of Justice League of America in 1979, and that was it for Mr. T. 

I don’t think there was probably ever a great Golden Age Mr. Terrific story. You’ve read one, you read them all. He was just kind of there, among dozens and dozens of other do-gooders living out very repetitive, yet somehow fun adventures. Yet the plucky charm of writing out “Fair Play” on your chest and deciding to fight crime because the only other choice is killing yourself out of sheer boredom sticks with me. Maybe Mr. Terrific was the first superhero to really struggle with mental health, although you’d never really guess that from his adventures. 

In what I’d call his greatest moment, even if it was after he was dead, Mr. Terrific made a wonderful little cameo in the 1990s in James Robinson’s fantastic series Starman #37. In it, “Starman” Jack Knight imagines himself dining with his dead brother and several other dead superheroes, including Mr. Terrific, who gets a brief page or so monologue about himself and his motto. In a few panels, Robinson somehow gives Mr. Terrific the real motivation and a wee bit of pathos that he’d been lacking for his entire career. 

A new Mr. Terrific was introduced in the 1990s as an African-American inventor with a tragic past, and was a very cool addition to the Justice Society and other comics. He’s probably been in way more good stories than his inspiration, but one thing I do like is that “Fair Play” is still prominently displayed on his costume all the same. 

In a world teeming with selfish politicians and preening social influencers and a real paucity of actual superheroes, the idea of sticking your head up and saying, “Hey – Fair Play! Let’s give everyone a decent go, shall we?” Well, that feels kind of heroic.  

Romance comics: Sometimes, all you need IS love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

Celebrating 30 years of Amoeba Adventures – with free stuff!

GROOVY ANNOUNCEMENT TIME: So, I used to do a small-press comic book zine back in the 1990s called Amoeba Adventures. Written and drawn by myself and later with the amazing art of Max Ink, it ran for 27 issues from 1990 to 1998. 

Together with a bunch of spin-offs, specials and the like, as Protoplasm Press I published around 40 comics in that crazy pre-internet era of fanzine-dom, made a few fans, worked with a lot of terrific fellow creators, and generally had a real blast. But time moved on, I got more into my so-called journalism career and also things like getting married, having a kid, and moving clear across to the other side of the world, and before I knew it, years had passed. 

Crazy as it is, 2020 marks the THIRTIETH anniversary of that first issue of Amoeba Adventures. I was an 18-year-old college freshman when I drew most of that first issue, a California kid who ended up in a dorm room, in Mississippi of all places, trying to reinvent himself.  Generally I’m still darned proud of Amoeba Adventures, which grew a lot over 8 years – I compare the scribbles of #1 and the almost professional look of #27 and I’m pretty happy. 

Small press comics were a pretty transient form, limited print runs and photocopied comics, and the stuff a lot of folks sweated to make back in the day can easily vanish without a trace. An awful lot of my Amoeba Adventures days were stored for years in my parents’ basement in California until I finally got around to shipping them to New Zealand. 

Anyway, the point of all this lengthy preamble is that to celebrate 30 years, I’m bringing Amoeba Adventures into the digital era by scanning and making PDFs of all the old issues available for FREE download right here on this website. It’s a lengthy process (some of the issues and artwork are in better shape than others) but I’ve started off by picking five of my favourite issues from back in the day and putting them up right here at the Protoplasm Press link at the menu at the top of the page. I’ve even added ‘bonus material’ to some of the issues from my “Amoeba Archives.” 

This middle-aged retired comic creator still gets a kick out of Amoeba Adventures. I hope those of you who were fans back in the day might too, and maybe even some new readers will enjoy ‘em. I plan on adding more issues every couple of weeks, so do check back, and hopefully will have the entire run online at some point.

If you have trouble downloading the PDFs or any comment on ways I can improve ‘em, just let me know! 

Meet Vartox, the most inappropriately costumed superhero of all time

When it’s midsummer and it’s hot and the news is all politics and doom, I turn to old Superman comics, the balm for many an ache. 

I love the ‘pre-Crisis’ era of Superman comics prior to 1986, when Superman could basically do anything and the stories were often batshit crazy. Often drawn by the terrific trusty Curt Swan, these stories juggled planets and killer robots and cosmic coincidences. The Superman stories of the 1970s and early ‘80s are overlooked (you can usually buy issues dirt-cheap), but they’re great fun comics. 

Which brings me to Vartox. Vartox appeared in a dozen or two stories between 1975 and 1986, a superhero from another world who was often Superman’s frenemy. An older man, Vartox could be an interesting counterpoint to the younger Superman. But nobody remembers Vartox because of that. 

They remember what he wore. For some reason writer Cary Bates and Swan decided to make Vartox an EXACT ripoff of Sean Connery’s unflattering nearly nude space cowboy character in the oddball 1974 sci-fi movie Zardoz. Clad in a bizarre orange space diaper, ammo belt, thigh-high boots and a man pony-tail, this was not Connery’s finest hour. 

Why Vartox was designed to so clearly mimic Zardoz is weird and never more so than when this half-naked, excessively hairy character shares panel space with the more modest Superman.

I felt vaguely embarrassed for Superman, having to spend so much time staring at another man’s hairy legs and chest. And dude, you’re flying through space, why the heck wouldn’t you wear something a bit more practical than a vest and thigh-high boots?

All that said, the Vartox stories are often good fun – I like the idea of a balding, older, slightly more melancholy superhero being a mentor to Superman and his “hyper powers” are completely wonderful comic-book gibberish – he apparently can do just about anything, including hyper-future reading, hyper-teleportation, hyper-energy blasts, et cetera. It’s a good drinking game just seeing how many times the phrase “hyper” is used in Vartox tales. 

Vartox has apparently occasionally appeared since his ‘70s-‘80s heyday, but never quite broke out of the C-list. I lift a glass to Vartox, a contender hobbled by perhaps the least flattering costume in comic-book history. 

Here’s to you, Oliver Queen, and the worlds you created

Arrow could be subtitled, “The Evolution of a Hero.” Oliver Queen started out as a guy running around in a hood murdering bad guys; he ended it as a cosmic Christ-like figure literally sacrificing himself for the entire universe. 

With its final episode this week, I bid a sad farewell to my favourite superhero TV series after 8 years and 170 episodes, which left an entire comic book cosmos spinning it its wake. 

Batwoman? Black Lightning? Supergirl and The Flash? Who could’ve imagined when the dark, gritty first episode of Arrow aired in 2012 it would amount to all this?

Stephen Amell was never really the comics Oliver Queen, a grouchy cynical disillusioned liberal who has always seemed prematurely middle aged. In a lot of ways, TV Arrow was more of a Batman stand-in. Yet Arrow made its Green Arrow work, thanks to Amell’s constantly growing charisma and his sturdy moral centre. 

Arrow started out running away from being a ‘superhero’ show but soon embraced all the goofy possibilities of the medium. Pretty darned obscure comics characters were dredged up – Ragman? Mr Terrific? Wild Dog? It took until Season 4 for the title character to actually call himself “The Green Arrow,” for pete’s sake. 

It all wrapped up with Crisis on Infinite Earths, the live-action adaptation I’d never have imagined possible. Crisis, like most Arrowverse shows, wasn’t perfect, but it was damn close, a giddy, universe-shaking salute to the DC universe. 

“Arrowverse” shows lack the machine-tooled precision of the Marvel movies, but in some ways, their awkwardly episodic charm feels more comic booky to me. Unlike Marvel movies, which tend to be big event after big event, these TV series feel more like the comic books, which just keep coming month after month. 

The shows have been all over the map, quality wise – Flash started great and has gotten progressively worse, Supergirl has gotten better each season, while Legends of Tomorrow is now a completely different show than it started as. Batwoman and Black Lightning do a terrific job of expanding the diversity of comic-book stardom. 

They’ve been far more diverse than the Marvel movies – gay characters have been in the mix since the start, including the first gay superhero to get her own series. Supergirl debuted the first trans character. Meanwhile, all the Marvel movies have mustered up so far is a brief nod in the direction. 

Subtlety isn’t an Arrowverse strong suit – a theme will be hammered home repeatedly. They can be repetitive, cliched and sentimental (number one on my hit list – ending any episode with a sappy montage set to a lame pop song). There’s a lot of plain mediocre and some truly awful episodes in the Arrowverse. But also a lot of moments I’ve loved. 

Yet in many ways the Arrowverse is just as successful as the Marvel Universe has been in movies – introducing entire worlds, broadening horizons and ultimately embracing the joy behind the superheroic concept. 

Here’s to you, Oliver Queen. You kicked it all off.