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. 

Comic conventions and me: Being a fan and a dad

(Been a bit busy lately, but here’s a freelance piece I did late last year that never quite found a home, tied into the local Armageddon Expo series of pop-culture conventions held around New Zealand. It’s also a kind of ramble about being a fan and being a dad. Give it a read and more “content” soon!)

Having a child means passing on the things you love to them, and hoping they stick. 

Every parent does it, whether it’s the All Blacks, the Beatles or Star Wars

When they’re young and malleable as modelling clay, you imprint them with your likes. 

Then as they start to form their own opinions, their shape changes, and as a parent you just hope they kind of hold on to the geeky love for Spider-Man that their dad once taught them. 

For years, my son and I have had a ritual of heading each Labour Weekend to Armageddon Expo, New Zealand’s biggest pop culture convention. I’m a comic book fan, and no son of mine was going to grow up not knowing his Green Lantern from his Green Arrow.

We’ve been at Armageddon pretty much every year from the time he was 5 until now when he’s pushing 16. 

Armageddon is small potatoes compared to some of the massive US comic book conventions I’ve been to, but it’s just right for New Zealand. It’s an assault on the senses with celebrity visits, hundreds of booths filled with every cult item you can imagine, video games blaring, bodies packed tightly together in the aisles and the occasionally overpowering odour of other fans. 

It’s crowded. It’s hot. It’s full of people in amazing costumes, sometimes with really pointy edges. It’s a Disneyland for three days of fans and fandom, and for years we wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

When I look back on my muddled journey of being a dad, I often think of how the boy and I journeyed deep into the world of Armageddon each year, and I tried to show him how to be a fan. 

There was the year we saw two Doctor Whos (well, OK, two actors who played The Doctor) and the boy became very keen to watch this long-running TV show that started years before his parents were even born. 

Over time, we got to see some of the greatest names in science fiction and fantasy history. Christopher Lloyd from Back To The Future, Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek, Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who, Nathan Fillion from Firefly.

We met New Zealand comics creators and bagged weird toys and big bargains and junk food, and ended each visit weighed down by our loot and overstimulated by sensation. When the boy was younger, I’d sometimes carry him back to the car and he’d fall asleep before he even hit the seat. 

It was a little different when I was his age. I was embarrassed to tell most people I read comic books. I had grand mythic adventures with a few like-minded pals playing Dungeons and Dragons until I worried what everyone else would think of me and grew out of it. 

These days, movies starring the Avengers whose comics I tried to hide reading make billions of dollars and what once seemed a bit nerdy and uncool is mainstream culture. People on the street know who Thanos and the Black Panther are. 

At some point in my life – embarrassingly late, I must admit – I got comfortable with telling other actual grown-ups that I’m a huge comic book fan, that I can rattle off obscure trivia about Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to you until the sun sets. 

Pretty much everyone who’s an avid fan of something feels a bit like an outcast sometimes. Maybe someone bagged on you for liking anime, or digging Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But at a pop culture convention, everyone’s a fan. There’s no shame in your passion. 

It’s OK to like what you like, be what you want to be, embrace whatever fantasy world turns you on. 

That’s the message of a place like Armageddon, where you can dress up like a samurai, a robot or a superhero for a day and be surrounded by your people. And it’s cool. 

That’s not the worst message to teach your son. 

I don’t know how much longer the boy and I will go to Armageddon together, before I become an embarrassment to him or he’d rather hang out with his friends. 

You measure parenthood by rituals, things you do every year which become commonplace until one day you don’t do them at all anymore. 

The boy I once had to crouch down to hug is now nearly as tall as I am, and I still can’t get used to it. He seems to grow a few centimetres a day. 

Now he’s into big epic World War II video games that kind of give me a headache to watch, and the Lego he once spent every waking moment playing with is getting dusty. I still read comic books and keep running out of ways to rearrange my shelf space. 

Once, he would watch Cars over and over. Now, he and I are sitting down to watch Apocalypse Now. He’s not the same little boy I once hopefully tried to tutor in the ways of Star Wars and Marvel Comics. He doesn’t like everything I like. 

But he likes a lot of it. 

He still loves Star Trek and watches reruns with us at least once a week. He’s into his own things, his own passions, and instead of me teaching him about Jedi Knights and Earth-2, he’s the one rattling off factoids to us about the things he’s into. Now he’s the fan, trying to convert us. 

Armageddon is a big, huge, crazy crowded event full of people who are all fans of something, whether it’s Pokemon or Call Of Duty or Deadpool. 

But for me it’ll also always be a place where my son and I bonded over superheroes and spaceships, and I watched him grow from a tiny boy dwarfed by a Dalek to a hulking teenager with his own obsessions, his own thoughts and his own fandom.

May it live long and prosper. 

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.

Year in Review: My top 12 pop-culture moments of 2019

It’s 2020, and I’m still getting used to that fact. While I’m recovering from three weeks in California and a return to New Zealand summer, let’s hit my 12 favourite pop-culture moments of 2019!

* It’s an obvious pick, but … Avengers: Endgame, Captain America and that hammer. Marvel fanboy bliss in a movie full of great moments and the culmination of an act of movie world-building this comic book geek couldn’t have imagined possible back in 1984. 

* Exploring the bizarre world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with his novels The Scar and The Iron Council. Superb reads and a doorway to exploring the whole remarkable “new weird” genre for me (latest obsession, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Area X trilogy).  

* Accepting middle-aged manhood with a newfound appreciation for jazz and sax men, mainlining Miles Davis and Coltrane riffs, and catching an awesome Auckland show by Kamasi WashingtonThe wails of a saxophone soothes the savage breast of a middle-aged dude.

* The Chills are some of the greatest pop musicians New Zealand has ever spawned, and a fantastic documentary on the ups and downs of their mastermind Martin Philipps is a great look at their career. Seeing it at a special showing with Philipps himself in attendance and singing a few songs was fantastic. More reading: Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

* The Hulk can be anything, and Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk continues to be the best comic book Marvel’s done in ages, combining horror, heroics and awe as we discover there’s life galore in the gamma giant yet. This is the only entry to repeat from last year’s list, which tells you how good it is. 

* Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a cinema for the first time in years on Halloween night in a benefit hosted by creator, songwriter and actor Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien. Go-go dancers, flying toilet paper and profanity, spooky, hilarious fun and sweet transvestites galore. 

* The Mandalorian and finally seeing an IG droid do its thing nearly 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t tell you how geeked out IG-11 made me feel. More reading: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years.

* Rediscovering Akira Kurosawa. Even though I love Seven Samurai, Ikuru and the Yojimbo series, my knowledge of Kurosawa’s deeper filmography has been sadly lacking, until now. High And Low, Stray Dog, Red Beard, The Bad Sleep Well and so much more are like full-course meals for the head and heart. 

* Volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe for a third season this year and, particularly, seeing their fine version of Hamlet at least 8 or 9 times, each time the performances and bottomless wisdom of the play getting deeper and deeper for me. More reading: Hamlet, the play that never ends 

* Superheroes are everywhere, and it’s impossible to see every movie and TV show, but a real highlight this year was DC’s quirky, foul-mouthed Doom Patrol series, which captured the surrealism and horror of Grant Morrison’s epic run nicely. More reading: It’s the end of the world and I like it

* Bong Joon-Ho’s astounding Parasite and those stairs. Best movie of the year in a year with a whole lot of great movies? I have to suspect it is. 

* The opening of the heartfelt and gorgeous Tongan/New Zealand documentary For My Father’s Kingdom at the NZ International Film Festival, in a colourful gala packed with Tongan spirit, music and pride. Tongans are among my favourite of New Zealand’s rich tapestry of diversity, and in a year that also brought us the horror of the Christchurch attacks, this night at the movies was an inspiration of what this country is really all about. It was a privilege to witness this. More reading: Film festivals are the best-ivals

Next time, I’ll get negative with a look back at a few cultural lowlights of 2019! 

Tales of an obsessed comics geek, Part II

The amazing Evan Dorkin and the Eltingville Club.

The quest for comic books drove much of my youth. I wrote in Part One about the thrill of the hunt, of trying to find my comics in a small mountain town where shops came and went like the wind. (Big thanks to pal Bob for his very kind words on that essay!) Let’s turn the page now to the late ‘80s. 

Eventually, I got older, learned to drive, even got jobs so I could buy more comics (notably a rather unsuccessful 6-week stint working at McDonald’s in the summer of ’88). After Kayo closed for the final time, there was a year or so there where the only places I could find new comics was at supermarkets. 

Then, in the shiny new shopping mall at the south end of town, a brand new comic store opened around 1989. It was a glorious change from the rather poky, uncertain shops I’d been used to. This was in a MALL, and it was a big, well-lit, clean space, with row after row of comic books. It hit during the peak of Batmania thanks to the ’89 blockbuster, and I recall an entire rack being filled with copies of the multi-coloured first issue of Legends of the Dark Knight.

It was a boom time, comics were cool, and I was old enough to have a part-time job and spent way too much money on Batman and X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man, where this weird artist named Todd McFarlane was making a splash. It was kinetic and expressive but I wasn’t entirely sure I liked it, being a fan of John Romita Jr.’s sturdy Spidey. The art seemed flashy, but lacking in substance. Welcome to the 1990s.

That mall comic shop – whose name I can’t even recall – was blandly professional but it did lack a certain style that the McNeil’s and Kayo’s of my youth had. Maybe I was just older, and less easily dazzled. But it was gone by the time I finished high school and moved across the country to little ol’ Mississippi to go to college.

My transient state and lack of a car led me to sign up for Westfield Comics, a thoroughly cool mail-order comics service I used on and off for many years until I moved overseas – they were great, but I’ll admit, I mainly used them because I didn’t have a comic shop within walking distance for long periods of my life. There’s nothing quite like discovering a new comics shop, with its hidden treasures and quirks. 

And I found a great one in Memphis, an hour or so away, that I made frequent trips to for years – Comics & Collectibles. This was now the mid-1990s, when I became less and less interested in Marvel and DC as the “Image Comics” art style became prevalent and stories and artwork became contorted, incomprehensible messes for too many years. 

Fortunately at the same time there was a golden age in great independent comics, and I would regularly hit up C&C for my fix of Hate, Eightball, Dork, Naughty Bits, Yummy Fur, Cerebus and more. Those creators kept me going through what I still consider the direst years of mainstream comics, the naughty ‘90s.

I don’t collect quite as many titles today as I once did – maybe 6-8, and a handful of miniseries and specials. I don’t do digital comics – they’re fine for some, but not for me. I’ve got two very good comic shops in my current city, which I dig.

I do still trawl the shops and online an awful lot for the old comics, because the things you grew up with are always the best things. Comics from roughly 1976-1988 hit that sweet spot for me, and always will. Obsessed comics geek for life, yo.

Consider the Man-Wolf: Marvel’s misfit lycanthrope

Marvel Comics in the 1970s was this great mad sprawling bestiary of ideas. Comics were hip, and Marvel was cool with Smilin’ Stan Lee always out hustling, but we were a long way from billion-dollar blockbusters and everyday people on the street knowing what Wakanda was. 

There’s always been a soft spot in my heart for the coulda-beens, the never-was of Marvel’s 1970s. Comics like Black Goliath or Human Fly or Shogun Warriors. And of course, the Man-Wolf, whose entire gloriously weird short resume has been collected in the new Man-Wolf: The Complete Collection TPB.

The Man-Wolf remains obscure. He’s a werewolf, see, but he’s Spider-Man’s werewolf. He’s also an astronaut, and the son of tabloid terror J. Jonah Jameson. Oh, and he carried a sword for a while and fought aliens. Gloriously weird, indeed.

The Man-Wolf first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #124, one of the oldest Spidey comics I owned until my moth-eaten copy fell apart. It’s a groovy Gil Kane cover practically ordering you to read it. The Man-Wolf ticked all the Spidey villain boxes – creepy animal alter-ego, tragic backstory, plenty of guilt. He must’ve been popular in the early 1970s, because he suddenly got his very own starring role in Marvel’s C-list Creatures on the Loose comic.

It’s weird because Marvel actually already HAD a star lycanthrope, Werewolf By Night. But this was the monster-filled 1970s, where Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, “living vampires,” mummies and zombies all had their own comic books. The problem was nobody at Marvel really seemed sure what to do with Werewolf #2, who mainly differed from the Night guy by being greyish-white instead of brown, oh, and an astronaut.

Reading Man-Wolf: The Complete Collection is the diary of a character who never entirely fit in. Was he a rampaging beast, a quasi-superhero who battled the Nazi villain the Hatemonger, or something else? 

In one of those glaring comic book about-faces that gave fans whiplash, suddenly he was a “chosen one,” the Star-God, saviour of another dimension in a strange fantasy adventure, drawn by a great young George Perez and featuring on one of the most honestly daft comic book covers of all time – he’s a Man-Wolf! In Space! With a sword! 

This collection follows the wolf’s rambling travels across dimensions and comic books, from his short-lived solo tales to guest appearances with Spider-Man and a very odd stint in Marvel’s Savage She-Hulk comic, one of the most blandly generic titles ever published. It all ends with the werewolf curse being kicked… for now. 

The Man-Wolf’s appeared since his ‘70s heyday, but really, this book collects the best of his strange saga, and while I’d balk at calling it great comics, it’s tremendously fun comics, the story of a C-list character who never quite caught on.

But you never know… by the time Marvel Studios gets to Phase 5 or 6, a space werewolf with a sword epic starring Timothée Chalamet might just be the ticket.