Hercules, the demigod who got Thor to loosen up

Look, I’m a New Zealander and a comics geek, so you better believe I’m excited to see homegrown talent Taika Waititi’s new Thor: Love And Thunder come out this week. And it looks set to expand the Marvel pantheon to the Greek gods, with Russell Crowe’s Zeus prominent in the trailers. 

Where Zeus goes, will Hercules follow? Marvel Comics’ version of Hercules has always been simmering somewhere around the B-list, and while the demigod Hercules has been around for eons as mythology and heroic TV and movie character, the Marvel-fied version of him has yet to debut in the MCU. 

I always kind of dug Marvel’s Hercules, who was a lot more relatable than Thor in the comics. He was a hard-drinking brawler who loved to share “the gift” (of combat!) with everyone he met. 

It’s easy to forget now with Chris Hemsworth’s winningly loose performance as the God of Thunder, but Thor was a lot less bro-tastic in the comics at first. When he debuted, Thor spoke a lofty, faux-Shakespearean prose, and even had a secret identity of sorts, a human named Don Blake he was cursed to transform into regularly. Thor began to loosen up in the comics after decades, but for years he was kind of a dull stiff. I’ve grown to appreciate the epic scope of those early Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Thor adventures more, but when I first came to comics, Thor often seemed a boring straight man. It took the energy of creators like Walt Simonson, Dan Jurgens and Jason Aaron to give him some much-needed life. 

To be honest, the MCU’s Thor owes a lot more of his character to Marvel’s Hercules. Thor’s stiffness was once a counterpoint to Hercules’ looseness, but if you squint now the characters are pretty similar. 

Now, Hercules – he was a slightly dopey bro-god from the start, impulsive and always with a flagon of ale nearby, right from his first appearance wrestling with Thor. But there’s only so many roles for god/superhero characters even somewhere as big as the Marvel universe, so Hercules was mostly related to supporting turns in Thor as a frenemy pal, some memorable runs in The Avengers and even the awesomely odd mix of characters in the short-lived 1970s Champions superteam. He’s had a few brief solo series of his own, including an excellent relatively recent run by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lante.

But the first exposure I ever had to Marvel’s Hercules was Bob Layton’s superb 1982 miniseries, an offbeat comic odyssey that wasn’t quite like anything else Marvel was putting out at the time. Hercules: Prince of Power took place in the distant future, where a still-carousing Hercules is once again banished from Olympus by his angry father Zeus, and ends up heading to the stars and having galactic adventures. Liberated from the bonds of regular continuity, Hercules could have universe-changing escapades and there was a goofy freedom to it all. Palling around with robots and Skrulls, Herc showed that being a god was kind of fun

Hercules: The Prince of Power was side-splittingly funny (name another comic that features Galactus getting drunk), but it also treated the demigod seriously. Perpetually immature, Hercules is still burdened by the weight of the years and his feats. In several sequel miniseries and graphic novels, Bob Layton proved one of Hercules’ finest chroniclers. At its heart the Hercules miniseries by Layton addressed the central question of godhood – what would it really be like to live forever? Would you learn anything or keep making the same mistakes over and over?

Marvel’s Hercules may or may not get a shot at wide cinematic universe fame at some point – hell, when She-Hulk, Rocket Raccoon and Ant-Man have all become household names, who knows? But I’d like to think he’s already had his impact, behind the scenes, by inspiring Thor to loosen the hell up. 

Jonah Hex and comic book covers you just can’t pass up

I’ve written before my sad laments about how boring comic book covers have become in recent years.

Overly mannered painted artwork, stiff poster poses and dull piles of spandex-clad bodies… that’s what you see these days on a rack of comics. 

Unfortunately, the days of comics on newsstands and spinner racks are pretty much gone. Back then, comics had to attract attention, with crazy set-ups, screaming speech balloons and bombastic slogans. I miss those comics. 

I recently scored a big pile of vintage ‘80s Jonah Hex comics for a song, and boy, did that gunslingin’ Jonah Hex know how to sell a comic book.

Dynamic, snarling and mean, they’re like posters for Clint Eastwood westerns that never were, and often darned edgy for their era. Hex was on his way out when some of these were published, as I wrote about recently when looking at comic final issues. But like any good gunfighter, he went down shootin’. 

Gut-wrenching final issue! When comic books are cancelled

The problem with never-ending serialised fiction is just that – it never ends. Unless a meteor finally hits the planet, you’ll probably never really see a truly final adventure of Superman, Spider-Man or Batman. Sure, there’s plenty of possible final stories and alternative histories out there – but the powers that be will never let the underlying intellectual property go truly dormant. 

Heck, even stories we once thought were over, such as Star Wars circa 1985, have been prequeled and sequeled and sidequeled and likely will until they run out of steam until the inevitable next reboot circa 2045. 

There are comics characters I love, but I no longer obsessively follow their every adventure. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Spider-Man and Batman, but you know, you’ve seen Bats punch out the Joker once, you’ve seen it all. Sometimes, you just want a sense of closure. 

I guess that’s why I have a nerdy fascination with picking up the final issues of long-running comics series, because it feels like a definite ending to the story. It doesn’t really happen much anymore, because there’s always another reboot, but for a while in the mid-1980s, Marvel was kind of OK with wrapping up entirely the stories of characters who had reached the end of the line – Ghost Rider, Master of Kung Fu and ROM among them, while rival DC Comics cancelled almost every non-superhero comic they had in a massive genre purge in the early 1980s, as well as long-running series like Flash and Wonder Woman in favour of reboots. 

A cover trumpeting “final issue” teases the reader that this story really, truly matters, unlike the more common “stealth cancellation” tactic these days where a comic book just quietly vanishes.

The ending of these stories could be uplifting – Ghost Rider finally breaks his demonic curse to walk off into the sunset, ROM gets his humanity returned after winning the Dire Wraith war – or surprisingly bleak, when Iron Fist is shockingly murdered in the final 125th issue of Power Man And Iron Fist, ending what had been an entertaining bi-racial buddy superhero tale on a note of discordant tragedy. (Iron Fist came back from the dead, of course, but it wasn’t for several years.) 

Other final issues serve as a farewell to dying comic book genres – Jonah Hex #92 puts a capstone on the western saga’s classic years, while G.I. Combat #288 was one of the last war comics in a once-dominant subsector of comics. From the mid-’70s on, one by one the popularity of long-running horror, western, war and romance comics faded so that by 1985, from House of Mystery to Young Romance, almost none of them were left. Sometimes the endings were pretty abrupt – the saga of the bizarre “Creature Commandos” is wrapped up in an utterly slapdash one-page story in final issue Weird War Tales #124 that just shoots them off into outer space forever! 

Some got a happy ending that stuck – ROM ended his series in 1985 and while there have been a few revivals at other comics companies of the basic concept, the Marvel version of ROM has never returned – not for creative reasons, but because of tangled copyright wrangling. I do like the idea that the spaceknight got to just walk off into the sunset for good.

I know few characters stay dead when there’s valuable intellectual property to mine – pretty much all of the characters mentioned above have come back in some form or another – but the end of a series after 100, 200 or 300 issues still feels like a pretty firm full stop on a comic’s history. The modern revivals, even when they’re great, often feel like echoes of the past rather than something truly new. 

People have been predicting the death of print comic books for ages, and it’s still shocking to see how low sales figures for print comics are these days when their stars go on to headline multi-zillion-dollar movie franchises. But I’m hoping they stick around as long as I do. I do like a final issue, but I also don’t want to see the gut-wrenching collector’s item last issue of Action Comics or Amazing Spider-Man anytime soon. 

The madcap fun of Legends of Tomorrow, gone but not forgotten

Legends of Tomorrow was the superhero TV show for people who were a bit sick of superhero shows. When it decided to stop being faithful to the comics it was inspired by and just be its own weird thing, that’s when it became kind of great. 

The cancellation announcement after seven seasons wasn’t a surprise, but it’s a bummer. It was pretty much the last “Arrowverse” show I regularly watched (other than the excellent Superman and Lois, which isn’t really Arrowverse at all) and it was the one that did the best job of truly becoming its own unique self. I’m gonna miss it. 

Legends was originally a kind of “all-star squadron” of random characters from other Arrowverse shows, all with various DC comic book ties – Firestorm, Captain Cold, The Atom, White Canary, Rip Hunter, Hawkman – but it abandoned the costumes, evolved into a series of silly time travel adventures and went pretty far from its comic book-roots – which annoyed some fans, but probably gained it some, too. By the end, Caity Lotz’s iron-jawed White Canary was the only Season 1 cast member left, and any real resemblance to existing DC Comics characters was tangential indeed.  

It wasn’t afraid to be blissfully, curiously weird, something a lot of the current superhero movie glut fails to be. Legends had a madcap ‘80s Dr. Who meets silver age DC Comics vibe and leapt through history with merry abandon. No other show on television would have featured a psychic gorilla trying to assassinate young Barack Obama, a “tickle me Elmo” type toy becoming a Viking god of war, or a wrestling match in JFK’s Oval Office over nuclear armageddon. One week might feature David Bowie, the next a robot J. Edgar Hoover.

The show embraced the fact that a story of time-travel could really go anywhere, do anything, within budget, and as a result was far more creative and unpredictable week to week than the likes of Arrow and Flash. It built its own oddball cosmos and became a home for characters marooned from other shows, like Matt Ryan’s pitch-perfect John Constantine, who somehow managed to fit in. 

There were lows – Adam Tsekhman’s Gary Green was an awful scenery-chewing nerd parody before they finally gave him some more depth, and the all-time worst Legends character was the brief addition of Mona Wu, an awkward and annoying stereotype. It was admittedly past its peak – I hated seeing characters go like Brandon Routh’s endearing Ray Palmer, Dominic Purcell’s grouchy Mick Rory and charming Nick Zano as “Steel,” and later seasons introduced some replacement characters who never really clicked for me, like the alien-hunter Spooner. But Lotz’s Sarah Lance provided a kick-ass moral centre for the show as the assassin who matures into a den mother for a team of goofballs and weirdos, and her romance with Ava (Jes Macallan) was both inspirational and darned cute to watch unfold. 

Despite its flaws, Legends was consistently entertaining, week in and week out, even as the budgets shrank and the cast rotated and the show couldn’t match its big ambitions. It had a lot of heart, such as the season 7 episode where the cast successfully integrates World War II factories and wins a cheer from special guest star Eleanor Roosevelt, or the landmark 100th episode which paid tribute to the show’s twisting path and history. It was a show made with obvious love for its characters, a team of misfits inspired by C-list comic superheroes who became something much more along the way. 

Its demise (along with the less long-lived Batwoman) kind of marks the finale of the Arrowverse, although the now decidedly mediocre Flash will stumble along a bit longer and hopefully it might somehow give a bit of closure to the cliffhanger ending for the Legends. 

The Arrowverse was never perfect and many of the series would have benefitted by about half the number of episodes per season, but at its best – such as a far better Crisis on Infinite Earths live adaptation than I imagined possible – the Arrowverse was a lot of giddy fun, and Legends of Tomorrow was always the absurdist jester at the heart of that. Sail on, Wave Rider! 

Here’s the Thing – the superhero as working-class stiff

Most superheroes are a little bit stiff, to be honest. They tend to be either godlike and unapproachable like Superman and Thor, or insanely focused like Batman or Dr. Strange. Even a guy like Spider-Man, whose whole schtick is being a friendly-neighbourhood sort, is still an insanely smart multi-tasking genius who started out as a shy teenage outcast. 

There’s not a lot of superheroes you’d want to have a beer with. Except for Ben Grimm, The Thing, who might just be the most everyman hero in comics. 

The Thing, one-quarter of the Fantastic Four, went through a curious period of solo stardom in the ‘70s and some of the ‘80s, striking out on his own with the classic team-up title Marvel Two-In-One and later, his own solo book for 36 issues. These days, he’s kind of mid-level superhero famous and a series of inadequate Fantastic Four movies haven’t helped his situation, but for a while there, he was an A-list attraction. 

The Thing didn’t start out as an obvious breakout star – in his first appearance in Fantastic Four #1 he still talks in grandiose Silver Age comics tones: “Bah! Everywhere it is the same! I live in a world too small for me!” For a while, he was just another tortured superhero like The Hulk or Iron Man. 

But after a while, although he’d always be a little bit agonised over his rocky curse and cut off from the human race, Ben Grimm seemed to accept his lot. He loosened up, peppering his language with slangy Brooklyn-ese banter, including that great catchphrase – “It’s clobberin’ time!” He drank beer and hosted superhero poker games. He wasn’t a dummy – he was a rocket pilot, after all, and before the comics aged beyond it being plausible, a World War II hero – but he was also very much an everyman. Over time, it was also revealed he was one of the first Jewish superheroes.

By the 1970s, the Thing was this cigar-smoking, wisecracking street poet of a character, grumbling away like Archie Bunker covered in orange rocks. There really wasn’t another voice quite like his. While they both were street-level superheroes from poor backgrounds, Spider-Man or Daredevil still tended to speak with a hint of stiffness, in that faux hipster I’m-down-with-the-kids lingo Stan Lee’s writers turned out reliably.

The Thing was always at home, which is why teaming him up with pretty much every hero in the Marvel Universe went down so well. Who wouldn’t want to have a beer with Ben Grimm?

He wasn’t a logical choice to lead a marquee team-up title, teaming up with everyone from The Man-Thing to The Living Mummy over 100 issues. The ‘70s were the glory day of team-ups (before pretty much every comic was just a team-up on a regular basis), but the big titles were Marvel Team-Up, starring Spider-Man, Brave and Bold starring Batman, and DC Comics Presents starring Superman himself. The Thing wasn’t quite at the same level of fame as these characters, but maybe that’s why the run of Marvel Two-In-One is still such a joy to read years later. The comics were often great little odd-couple gems of character moments, with cantankerous Ben bouncing off guest stars from Ghost Rider to Moon Knight to Captain America, always taking them down a few pegs. 

Despite being covered in orange rocks, Ben Grimm often felt like the most human of Marvel heroes for big chunks of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In one of the great team-up stories of all time, he even sat down for a few beers with longtime foe the Sandman, and by the end of the tale even convinced the villain to reform, with barely a punch thrown. It’s hard to picture Batman doing that. 

Irreverent wit became more common as comics reached the age of Seinfeldian irony – witness the rise of Deadpool, Harley Quinn, Squirrel Girl or She-Hulk. But The Thing was a bit different – he never broke the fourth wall, or did parody riffs on other heroes – he was just, simply and unchangeable, his own irrascible irreverent self, and at his best, made every other hero look like they were in black-and-white next to his orange bricks. 

Superman and Batman and the adventures of trying to be a dad

The illusion of change is one of the big things that keeps comic books going for 800, 900 issues, decades after they started. Pretty much every character in comics has died and come back at least three or four times, so excuse me if I yawn when they say Spider-Man/Batman/Wolverine is going to die, again. Show me something new. Like a superhero being a parent.  

They might die a lot, but one thing superheroes never did for the longest time was grow up, get married and have children of their own. 

That started to change in the 1990s, when they let Spider-Man get married for a while (since wiped away in one of those cosmic hand-wavings) and Superman get hitched to Lois Lane (surprisingly, still going strong years later). With wedding bells ringing, surely children aren’t far behind?

For a while there, when most superheroes had a kid, it meant they would die horribly or be revealed as imaginary or what-if stories or something. Most egregiously, Spider-Man actually had a daughter who vanished mysteriously years ago because Marvel didn’t like the idea of Spider-Man actually having a kid. 

Yet that’s changed. One of the most popular – and genuinely enjoyable – comics of 2021 turned out to be Superman: Son Of Kal-El, starring Jon Kent, the teenage son of Clark Kent, a hip, bisexual millennial who could’ve been an awful “woke” cartoon but has turned out to be a refreshing and empathetic take on the Man of Steel. A slightly different version of this story with Superman and Lois having two sons has become one of my favourite superhero TV shows in recent years. 

And a while back, Batman had a son, Damian Wayne, with his enemy’s daughter Talia al Ghul. This kid was a brutal, dark mirror to Batman, raised by his criminal foes, trained as an assassin and grown into a grim and efficient new Robin. Damian has endured since his introduction in 2006, maturing to become less violent and conceited and an actual hero of sorts. The new Superman and Robin have been an enjoyable double-act in comics too, Jon Kent’s sincerity playing well off Damian’s cynicism. 

The idea of Batman and Superman having sons was a bit of a fantastic what-if for years when they were imagined as rebellious 1970s hipsters, so it’s been surprising to see the idea emerge and stick around in canon. Jon Kent’s been around for 7 years, Damian pushing 16 years. It gives these 80-year-old superheroes a fresh direction to move in, and yet the original Batman and Superman are still allowed to exist too, mentoring and off having their own adventures. I actually find Superman more enjoyable as a character now that he’s a father.

I’m not saying they won’t decide to up and kill Jon Kent sometime soon, but comics creators seem generally content to let a hero’s kids live for now. Some, like Wolverine or Hulk, have ‘evil’ estranged children, or some like the Flash and Green Arrow have children they end up separated from for years. (Being a good parent is far less common than just being a parent in comics.) The Fantastic Four were one of the few characters allowed to have a child back in the old days, although little Franklin Richards was always under threat of death or cosmic disintegration or something. But the FF has a second kid now too, and a whole little blended “family” of assorted young folk that they’re mentoring – a sensible evolution for a comic that’s always been about the idea of family. 

As the print comics fan base ages up and more and more young people are TikTokking or whatever, comics readers maybe are a little less turned off by the idea of Batman having a Bat-spawn. They identify with a Bat-Dad a bit more than they once might have.

One thing you’ll rarely see in comics, though, are superheroes parenting babies or toddlers, or doing the boring hard yards of diapers, late nights and play-dates. In a surprisingly common comics trope, both Jon Kent and Damian Wayne were “accelerated in age” in various oddball comic-book ways so they could run around with their dads, because honestly, super-teenagers are far more interesting than super-babies would be. 

Which is probably the right call. I mean, nobody is really clamouring for the return of Super-Baby, are they? 

How January 1982 changed everything

We can’t always pinpoint the dates that change our lives. Not the big moments, but the little ones, like a hobby that you just can’t shake.

But there’s one date I’m pretty sure about: The date I became hooked for life on comic books.

I grew up reading comic books bought by my parents, but the true pathway to addiction was when I started spending my own money on them. The spinner rack at the long-gone Lucky’s supermarket was where I became hypnotised forevermore.

The comic book that hooked me for life was Marvel’s Star Wars #58, beckoning to me from the spinner rack with an amazing Walt Simonson cover featuring C3PO and R2-D2 floating ominiously in a scarlet sky.

Thanks to beauty of the resources at Mike’s Amazing World of Comics website, I can now pinpoint the exact date that issue of Star Wars went on sale – January 19, 1982. Exactly forty years ago now, ye gods.

Forty years, and I’m still hooked on comics. My library of comics and graphic novels is kind of embarrassing in its scope, but it’s also a big old cape-wearing part of my whole identity now, as a grown man teetering into late middle age.

Comics expanded the world to me, made me want to be a journalist like Clark Kent or Peter Parker, led to me working on my own comics through the years, and introduced me to a kind of secret society of like-minded dreamers and loners.

Forty years on, and comic characters that were obscure in 1982 are the basis of billion-dollar movie blockbusters and TV shows. I love a lot of those gaudy pop-culture successes, but it’s still those musty smelling, ad-festooned and humble physical comic books themselves I love the most, especially the ones I grew up with in the early 1980s.

Thanks to Mike’s website, I can see the issues that I bought back then and that imprinted themselves on me in those early months of 1982 – Spider-Man battling his way against the impossibly powerful Juggernaut in Amazing Spider-Man #230 (part two of a story that took me ages to find the beginning of!); the creepy photo cover of Saga Of The Swamp Thing #2, calculated to scare and entice readers; the Thing grumbling and arguing his way through teaming up with Ant-Man in Marvel Two-In-One #87; Batman facing off against the deliciously divided Two-Face in Batman #346…

Marvel’s irreverent Hercules, a figure out of myth having merry madcap adventures in outer space in Hercules #1; John Byrne’s operatic and epic clash between the Fantastic Four and Galactus in Fantastic Four #242-244, which seemed as grand as three Star Wars movies put together; the funky disco-esque costume of Firestorm, a hero I’d never even heard of, exploding off the cover of Fury of Firestorm #1; the Justice League of America apparently defeated, near death, at the hands of the Royal Flush Gang in JLA #205… I could go on.

Many of these comics I’ve still got today, a bit well-read and hardly near-mint, but they always carry me back to the winter and spring of 1982. I soon discovered comic book stores (as I’ve written about previously) and well, there’s no going back from that.

Through thick and thin, comings and goings in life and great adventures and sad setbacks, those comics bought starting in January 1982 were friends and inspirations in all their weird, wonderful ways, shaping the person I ended up becoming.

The 10-year-old me of 1982 would never have guessed, turning that rack full of comics in all their gaudy colours, that that spinning rack would change everything. Life can be like that.

The rack spins, and your fortune is forever changed by one simple gesture.

My top pop-culture moments of 2021

And so, the curtain drops on 2021, a sequel that somehow managed to perform even worse than the blockbuster year 2020 did. Still, despite the grimness on personal fronts and the continuing stupidity of life in general, there were a few halfway decent moments. So, in the spirit of looking on the bright side, here’s my top pop-culture moments of 2021, with links back to some of the original posts about them.

Filling a Crowded House, in a brief pandemic oasisMy experience seeing Crowded House playing a packed Auckland arena back in March happened in New Zealand’s several blissful months of Covid-free life, before the Delta outbreak in August. It also was a life-affirming blast of a show, with Neil Finn and company delivering a celebratory concert of hits and new songs that just made you feel glad to still be here, alive and appreciative of all the things we took for granted pre-2020. There’s been a lot of times I’ve lost faith in humans the past two years, but at that one concert, a big crowd of us all singing and smiling felt kinda sorta all right. Here’s hoping going to big concerts again becomes normal soon.

The open-throated passion of John Cassavetes – A ‘discovery’ for me this year was the work of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes, who I’ve long been meaning to delve into. His work dating back from the late 1950s sparked much of independent film, and Cassavetes was determined to present life in its messy, often unexplainable complexity. In movies like Faces, A Woman Under The Influence and Husbands, people behave madly, inconsistently, and irrationally – like they often do in real life. His movies are a challenge, to be sure – the loose-limbed Husbands at times feels like a drunken TikTok video starring Peter Falk might – but even while they push and prod you, you find yourself thinking of them constantly the next day.

When big franchises take a few chances – I’m a fanboy, but I’ve admittedly burned out a bit on the assembly line of superhero movies and childhood classics being regurgitated over and over (did anyone really want another Ghostbusters?). So I was pleasantly surprised by two venerable franchises that didn’t play it entirely safe – James Bond in the long-delayed No Time To Die, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Without spoiling either, they took risks – ones that might not have satisfied every fan. James Bond faces challenges he never had before in No Time To Die and the ending was a disturbing but effective shocker. And the idea of a multiverse-straddling take on Spider-Man could easily have gotten overstuffed and absurd (I’ve ranted about the overuse of multiverses before), but instead, we got a story that embraces the idea of the shared cinematic history of franchises and characters who just keep coming back in a heartfelt, dignified way. There’s a reason it’s smashing box office records.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – I had been meaning to read this series of books by Grossman for a while now, which could be broadly described as “Narnia/Harry Potter, but for grownups.” They tell a somewhat familiar story of a young magician, Quentin Coldwater, and his ups and downs learning magic and having brilliant, frightening adventures in fantastic lands. The Magicians books were perfect escapist reading during the dregs of Auckland’s lengthy lockdown, brisk and darkly enjoyable, with the imaginative flair of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and the solid characters of Harry Potter, but aimed at a slightly older audience who might like a bit of drinking and sex to spice things up. I read better books objectively this year, but these ones were among the most fun.

Superman, still the best superhero – It’s been a good time to be a fan of the man of steel. One of the best decisions the corporate overlords made a few years back is to let Superman finally marry Lois Lane, and to let them have a kid together. It’s allowed Superman to mature as a character into everybody’s ideal dad, and unlike some big changes to the status quo for comics characters, for now, this one seems to stick. On TV, I praised the superbly entertaining Superman and Lois, which combines spot-on casting with great Super-action and a show that’s not afraid to get emotional. In the comics, writer Brian Bendis finished up a suprisingly cool run that felt modern and daring yet true to the character, while the anthology series Superman: Red And Blue was an ideal summation of the character’s appeal with a variety of mostly excellent short stories starring Kal-El. Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, who’s now a young adult, got his own title and it’s turned out to be one of the best new superhero comics of the year – a young, progressive and caring superhero (who’s also bisexual, which has gotten the usual suspects outraged). All in all, from the perspective of a rather troubled real world, Superman and his son seem more relevant than ever.

Lighting a Sparks – I admit I’m losing my touch with current pop culture as I settle into extreme middle age, but part of that is because there’s so darned much OLD pop culture to still enjoy. I was aware of Sparks and liked some of their work, but Edgar Wright‘s excellent documentary The Sparks Brothers triggered one of my famed full-fledged obsessive binges, as it spurred me to dig into the art-pop band’s hefty 50-year discography. It’s a delight to find a band you like and then find out that they’ve got literal mountains of material for you to enjoy.

Meeting Neil Gaiman, in strange days – I’ve always loved the Auckland Writers Festival, and like many things I loved it’s had rocky days during the Covid era. Fortunately, this year’s festival went off just fine in May, and a big highlight was getting a chance to meet one of the world’s biggest writers, Neil Gaiman, who’s been a bit of a New Zealand resident himself with his wife Amanda Palmer during the pandemic. I waited an hour or so to briefly meet Neil and have him sign a few of my favourite books after listening to some excellent talks he gave, but that was nothing compared to some who waited up to six hours. Neil was apparently as much a gentleman with the last person in line as he was with the first. They say never meet your idols, but getting a chance to tell them how much their work means to you is sometimes worth the wait.

Godzilla smashes up King Kong – Look, I know, it’s a big dumb old monster movie. But Godzilla Vs. Kong was, in my deep critical analysis, very, very good at being a big dumb old monster movie. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a well-played VHS tape of the 1962 King Kong Vs Godzilla that I unironically love. Maybe it’s because I saw it on a booming IMAX screen, just at the start of NZ’s pandemic-free idyll mentioned above, and because I could watch King Kong and Godzilla wrestle on aircraft carriers nearly life-size. I’m not saying it will win any Oscars. I’m not saying that it always makes sense or that most of the human characters are memorable. But you know, most of the classic Toho Godzilla movies are pretty wacky, too. With magnificent modern special effects and plenty of monster action, this heavyweight bout was worth the wait. Sometimes, you just want to see Godzilla punch through a building. Indeed, after a year like this one, who doesn’t want to do that themselves sometimes?

Access, or how to ruin a cool idea with a terrible superhero

Back in the misty 1990s, what seemed rare and fanciful suddenly started happening all the time – crossovers between the comics characters of the Marvel and DC Universe

There had been crossovers for a while, starting with 1976’s gold standard of a super-meet-up, Superman Vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. There’s still few things better than the goofy charms of this comic, watching the Man of Steel and webhead meet, fight and team up, originally told in a massive tabloid-size edition. 

It was a hit, so others followed – Batman and the Hulk, the Teen Titans and the X-Men, and they were pretty good, too. Then there was a long lull, until in the 1990s we started getting crossovers all the time – Batman/Spawn, Batman/Punisher, Batman/Daredevil, and probably some that didn’t have Batman. They were less inspired than the first few, lacking the thrill of the new, and mired in that same generic gritted-teeth stoicism that marred many 1990s superhero comics. Some were good – John Byrne’s Batman/Captain America totally rules – but nobody was dying for Spider-Man/Gen 13

And then in 1996, the fanboy’s dream happened – an entire miniseries devoted to comic culture clashes, DC Vs. Marvel Comics! This would be great! Wouldn’t it?

But no, DC Vs. Marvel (or, Marvel Vs. DC) was … adequate. It’s not a complete failure, but it’s unsatisfying and never lives up to the potential dreamed up by a legion of teenage fanboys. It was a case of trying to do too much, in too little space. Instead of the room to breathe that the original Superman/Spider-Man meeting had, you had every character from two universes jammed together fighting for a couple of panels, tied together with some balderdash about cosmic “brothers” who were avatars of each universe… and then there was Access. 

Meet Access, the superhero whose power is equivalent to that of your standard-issue functioning doorknob. A blandly generic kid named Axel Asher (owch), he gets named the “keeper” between the two universes. Access is meant to provide the balance between worlds, you see. If he doesn’t crazy, cosmic things will happen. 

Of course, Access screws up, and the two universes merge, providing the somewhat cool spectacle of a line of “Amalgam” comics featuring mashup characters like Spider-Boy, Super Soldier and Dr. Strangefate who were the 1990s equivalent of the endless ‘multiverse’ stories we see today. They were fanboy service as comic characters, featured in a series of one-shots ranging from good to terrible before the whole underwhelming DC/Marvel crossover wrapped up.

There were lots of brief fun moments in the DC/Marvel mess – who wouldn’t want to see Superman fight the Hulk? And Dr. Strangefate is pretty cool. But generally, everything is rushed, rushed, rushed, and as a result it’s just a blur of capes and colours. Having a Silver Surfer/Green Lantern matchup dispatched in two pages or an Aquaman/Namor fight treated as a joke is just lazy. And honestly, you could ditch the entire Access/cosmic gateway stuff and just say “the universes crossed over because of a space-time anomaly” to streamline everything.

Access has to be just about the most boring character ever given the spotlight, a generic collection of ordinary-guy tics (he worries about his girlfriend!). So of course the publishers gave us not one but TWO forgettable miniseries focused on Mr. Doorknob and a never-ending parade of DC and Marvel guest stars, All Access and Unlimited Access. (Unfortunately, Access was never seen again after about 1997, sparing us Backstage Access.)

It’s hard not to yawn every time Access steps into a panel. He’s the superhero as plot device – at one point he’s explicitly described as having the power to “create crossovers” by staying in one place too long. His comics simply exist to throw Marvel and DC characters together in a variety of underwritten, overcrowded adventures. Reading the adventures of Access over several miniseries is like a hit of Pop-Rocks in Pepsi – it may give you a momentary buzz, but you’ll pay for it later. There hasn’t been another official DC/Marvel crossover in decades, and probably won’t be anytime soon.

I guess Access might’ve been ahead of his time as we seem rather overwhelmed by combinations and alternate versions of superheroes across the multiverses at the moment. Every fanboy likes to play “what if,” but when there’s no follow-up questions, you have to wonder what the point is. 

That, or maybe Access was a harbinger of how starting in the 1990s superhero comics, in the end, started to eat themselves. No doorway needed. 

Up in the tree, dreaming of comics

Kids do weird stuff. They all do things that seem kind of, well, wacky when you become a boring adult dealing with bills and retirement funds and insurance payments. 

Following up on the release this week of my fiftieth humble little comic book, Amoeba Adventures #30, I kept thinking about a weird habit I had from the age of about age 12 to 15. I was a confused pre-teenager and well, I was kind of a nerd. 

And so many afternoons after school, I’d climb up a tree in the backyard of our family home and perch on a patio cover built up there, and then I’d imagine comic books. 

I created an entire imaginary universe of comics in my head – like many comics nerds do. “The Galaxy Comics Universe” (which I played around with on and off with my old friend Chris) was a Marvel Comics photocopy which included a sprawling cosmos of spandex-clad warriors like The Arachnoid, Robotron, Manipulator, El Jaguar and The Dark Avenger. I’d imagine all kinds of adventures for these heroes, who were mostly thinly-veiled rip-offs of existing Marvel and DC comics. 

I’d sit up there in that tree in my parents’ backyard and dream of heroes for hours. 

But I wouldn’t just dream – I’d scribble and sketch, too. I drew bunches of covers for these imagined adventures (but never an actual story, which was kind of weird). And even nerdier, I wrote up Stan Lee-styled hype-filled solicitations for these imaginary comic books, embarrassingly detailed PR in the style of Marvel Age and the like for stories that didn’t exist. 

There’s no obsession quite like that of the 13-year-old. 

I wrote these solicitations for the “Galaxy Comics Universe” for a while there – and I’ve still got them all today, geek über-texts that I bound up along with my awful drawings of the era into little volumes years ago. They are truly absurd treasures to look at now – at one point I got so deluded I started pretending real comics creators like Walt Simonson and Frank Miller were working on my comics. All in all, I wrote hundreds of pages of summaries of comics that didn’t exist – is it any wonder I’m still a comics obsessive decades on? 

But I loved the thrill of imagining a universe, derivative as it surely was, and even as I’m an old man now with what’s left of my hair increasingly grey, that buzzy kick of creation sticks with me. As I get older and the real world seems to get worse, I’m more and more convinced that art keeps us alive. 

I strip-mined those old Galaxy Comics notes and sketches for ideas when, a few years later, I actually started DRAWING comics stories of my own with the first Prometheus the Protoplasm story in 1986.

I became a small press publisher in the early 1990s and hundreds of people actually read some goofy stories I wrote and drew. I took inspiration from some of those characters I dreamt up while sitting in the tree in the backyard and turned them into Amoeba Adventures characters – Dawn Star, Agnus Dei, Manipulator, Macabre and more all came from there. 

The dreams became real, or as real as stories do. Years on, I’m not a kid any more and I spent way, way too many years ignoring the thrilling charge that drawing a comic of your own creates. But I came back to comics in the age of Covid and have to admit, the years melt away a bit when it’s you, a pencil and a blank piece of paper, making up heroes. 

There’s a part of me that never left that tree, there in that backyard of a house I haven’t lived in for 30 years.