Tag Archives: Pop Culture



There is much to discover in the offbeat television program, “The Great American Dream Machine,” now collected for the first time on DVD by S’More Entertainment. It first aired on PBS for two seasons from 1971-1972. And it remains unusual even today in its honest and idiosyncratic approach. It has been labeled as a “political satire” but it was more than that as it held true to a Sixties idealism. Here you find extended pieces that simply celebrated a people power ethos: interviews with average Americans on the topic of the American Dream; an urban artist who creates art from manhole covers; or a decidedly unplugged segment hanging out with the popular daredevil of the era, Evel Knievel.

Amanda Ambrose

Amanda Ambrose

The best way to view this collection is to skip around the way you would if you happened to stumble upon a curious item in your attic or thrift store, or think of it this way: this program is like surfing the internet if it existed back in the Sixties. Here is a veritable cornucopia of content. In one respect, it recalls the ambitious installations created by Charles and Ray Eames overflowing with information. What makes this program notable is how well it holds up today and that is because it was carefully curated, not just controlled chaos.

Host Marshall Efron

Host Marshall Efron

I would not necessarily watch it from the very first episode onward. In fact, the first episode is a bit clunky as the program was still finding its feet. I think it may have been leaning towards being a show for teens and, later on, it became more of a show for teens on up. It was a trailblazer for the mashup of news and entertainment we know today but without the glitz and sensationalism. And, with its people power energy, it foresaw YouTube and citizen journalism. What it did so well was evoke a feeling of flipping through a magazine or exploring randomly. One program would run the gamut from a segment on a marriage between four people living in a Volkswagen van to children interviewing another child playing the role of God to a tour of the program host’s tiny cluttered apartment. With great panache, Marshall Efron assures us that he created his home from a plastic kit that only costs $4.95.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

Among recurring segments, there was journalist Studs Terkel moderating a gathering of average citizens discussing current events. The discussion would begin with a somewhat uncertain tone but would steadily gain ground. A construction worker, who seemed all full of hot air, would emerge as more insightful than given credit for. His insistence that he, and his working class and middle class neighbors, should not bear the burden of paying for federal social programs is initially met with scorn by Terkel. But the guy’s argument remains measured. Why don’t those at a much higher level of income pay their fair share? he asks. To that, Terkel nods in agreement.

A marriage between four people living in a Volkswagen van

A marriage between four people living in a Volkswagen van

Much in the same spirit as the magazine Adbusters, here was a program that could be a bit didactic, yet clever, with its social commentary. There’s one segment led by journalist Nicholas von Hoffman that takes aim at advertising commonly found in medical journals and stitches them together into a soap opera. It’s pretty easy given all the seduction used to sell everything from anti-depressants to laxatives. That segments segues to a dramatic piece with Linda Lavin and Rob Leibman. They create their satirical ode to romance which includes reciting advice on love from a teen magazine.

Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier

What will ultimately strike the viewer is a spirited vision and sincerity. Just listen to the stirring words of Ron Dellums, who had just been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In a montage segment of interviews, his eloquent advocacy for racial harmony remains relevant today. And then there is a segment with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte on the set of “Buck and the Preacher,” a Western with a focus on the black experience. Poitier speaks to black history and how it is part of a bigger picture, that of human history. And he speaks to moving beyond dreams, and nightmares. With determination, and against excruciating odds, an African American would someday become President of the United States.

"Up is Down" animated short

“Up is Down” animated short

“The Great American Dream Machine” wholeheartedly embraced the counterculture just as a new golden era of television was on the horizon. It was to be a heady time for offbeat humor spiked with social commentary. This would include, to varying degrees, such programs as Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” and Martin Mull’s “Fernwood 2 Night.” It is a legacy that was to be carried on by such programs as “The Daily Show,” “This American Life,” and “Saturday Night Live.”

THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE is a 4 DVD set brought to you by S’More Entertainment and available at Amazon.

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Filed under Counterculture, Entertainment, pop culture, Television


The Secret Life of Pets

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a tradition for the last 89 years and has been televised nationally on NBC since 1952. And, since 1999, NBC has followed parade coverage with the broadcast of The National Dog Show.

I’ve always found this to be a very comforting way to settle into the holiday season. It was during this program that I found out about the upcoming animated feature movie, THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS, a comedy about the lives our pets lead after we leave for work or school each day.

This one is a keeper. I think when you take the talent behind DESPICABLE ME and apply that to pets, you are definitely onto something. Based on the trailer and the all-around good buzz for this feature, I’m really looking forward to this when it comes out next summer. THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS is the fifth fully-animated feature-film collaboration between Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures. The official release date is July 8, 2016 (USA).


Filed under animation, Illumination Entertainment, movies, Pets, Universal Pictures

Review: RINGSIDE #1, published by Image Comics


Kayfabe” is the unspoken understanding between the audience and pro wrestlers to suspend disbelief. You never have to question what goes on in the ring. But what pact do pro wrestlers make amongst themselves and each other? This is part of what is going on in RINGSIDE, a new comic published by Image Comics, by writer Joe Keatinge (SHUTTER) and artist Nick Barber. Rounding out the creative team is colorist Simon Gough and letterer Ariana Maher. This is a unique behind-the-scenes look at the world of pro wrestling in the form of a noir tale which kicks off, in this first issue, with our getting to know ex-champ Dan “The Minotaur” Knossos.


In the spirit of a shaggy dog gritty story by Ed Brubaker, Joe Keatinge’s script begins with Dan as he makes his way to right some past wrongs. He’s like on a mission from God; nothing will stop him. We see him uproot himself from a relatively good position in Japan hellbent for San Francisco. Dan is now of a certain age. At this point in his career, he is best served if he was a mentor or, even better, if he just gracefully walked away. But this is a messy situation that is only going to get messier. Just what we want.

Nick Barber has a very accessible style. It reminds me a bit of Box Brown’s approach: pared down to the basics. Brown especially comes to mind since he did a tremendous book on pro wrestling a few years back. His tribute to Andre the Giant set the gold standard as far as I’m concerned. You can read my review of ANDRE THE GIANT: LIFE AND LEGEND right here. Barber has that same energy running throughout RINGSIDE.

This is a comic with a cinematic quality keeping to a steady pace. I especially enjoy the conversations here that involve some creative back and forth between poses and background and never gets caught in the rut of talking heads. The dialogue and composition won’t allow for that. This first issue offers a lot of intriguing possibilities. Dan is clearly a cut above the typical aging ex-wrestler. And he is also clearly over his head with what he plans to do next.

RINGSIDE #1 is available as of November 25. For more details, visit our friends at Image Comics right here.


Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Image Comics

Review: ‘The Puma Blues: The Complete Saga in One Volume’

The Puma Blues Murphy Zulli Dover

The Puma Blues is essential reading. And now, after being out of print for nearly 25 years, here is this beautiful definitive collection of the ecological thriller published by Dover Publications.

Look out for those flying manta rays!

Look out for those flying manta rays!

Now, you know what manta rays are, don’t you? They are those large flat-bodied fish, black on top, white underneath, with a long thin tail, a big mouth, and those fleshy horns. Ech! How about a swarm of them flying above your head? There are many beautifully rendered pages of such things in the legendary comic book series, The Puma Blues, written by Stephen Murphy, and drawn by Michael Zulli, first released starting in 1986 and now with a definitive collected hardcover published by Dover Publications. It is safe to say that there’s nothing quite like it.

The Puma Blues Gavia Immer

With its driven protagonist, conspiracy theories, and philosophical musings, The Puma Blues held its own with other ambitious works of the time like, Watchmen. It is both a thriller and a weird mystical journey for our hero, Gavia Immer. Sort of like Special Agent Mulder, Immer is a government agent tasked with investigating a myriad of ecological anomalies, like flying manta rays. Set in the not-too-distant future, Immer is equipped with a transducer gun able to transport endangered wildlife from their natural habitats to government facilities.

The Puma Blues-Dover-2015

Weighing in at 560 pages, this hardcover is aimed to please. Among its extras, is a 40-page epilogue written by the original creators. This work is in the tradition of some the greatest graphic novels and has made the short list of many critics. It will bring to mind Barry Windsor-Smith, Moebius, and Dave Sim, who happens to provide the Introduction. Another great, Stephen R. Bissette provides the Afterword.

For more details, be sure to visit our friends at Dover Publications right here.

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Filed under Comics, Dover Publications, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels

Review: MANIFESTO ITEMS #5 by David Lasky


Even in what would seem to be the carefree world of alt-comics, there is a creeping feeling of “self-publish or perish” that can nag at many a cartoonist. This can be a good thing as it helps to motivate many who must rely upon their own self-imposed deadlines. Despite all the interest that is supposed to be heaped upon the DIY world and a myriad of other endeavors conveniently labeled as “hipster,” “quirky,” or the grand ole workhorse, “geek,” there’s really no money, let alone a livelihood, to be expected from all the scribbling in notebooks and sketchbooks. Maybe, for some, there’s at least a real feeling of accomplishment from one’s efforts, not just a pat on the back. And, for a relative few who keep honing their craft, and especially at the alt level, each year brings a little more recognition. Each year makes the big picture more clear. This is certainly the case with cartoonist David Lasky. Here’s a look at a special annual publication that he’s been putting together to coincide with the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival in Seattle.

David Lasky Cat Comics

David Lasky and I are of the same vintage. I consider him a good friend and a fellow cartoonist that I’ve always admired. We’re both in Seattle and share a certain sensibility. So, of all the people who take a moment to read what I have to say, he’s one of my readers who I will hope to especially resonate with. Let me put it this way: I appreciate what he’s doing on a deep level. I believe there’s this chasing after the brass ring that was drummed into folks from our Generation X. People like us will make good on the dreams we’ve envisioned since we were little kids, as corny as that sounds. I know that makes sense to David, and probably, I would hope, to everyone reading this.


What we find in “Manifesto Items #5” is special indeed. David Lasky highlights his creation of comics from the past year. It’s a fascinating window into the creative process. Like I say, there’s that “publish or perish” mantra that can dog cartoonists. If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? That’s the challenge that many creators must contend with. They can certainly opt to work alone until a project is complete and many are just fine with that. But some want to keep stoking the fires in between significant work and so they need to hunt down viable options such as anthologies, local publications, and comics jams. In the case of Lasky, it is this short form work, with its room for experimentation, that he loves the most and that he can raise to the level of significant work. We get a nice sampling of all of that, notably a sci-fi satire that appeared in The Intruder.

David Lasky Poetry Comics

Perhaps most revealing are a couple of things that feel very natural. One is a father and son comics memoir. David is visiting his dad. And his dad gives him some advice: Rid yourself of clutter! He then proceeds to unload a bunch of books and DVDs on his son who gladly accepts each and every one. I think that speaks to a particular Gen X mad love for all media.

The other is a prose essay recollection of David visiting the Hirshhorn Museum as a little boy to see a Saul Steinberg retrospective. David was fascinated by Steinberg on many levels not the least of which was his noncommercial approach to cartooning! Here you had Steinberg creating cartoon characters without a comic strip or any scent of franchise. Ah, that’s fodder for Gen X rebellion! And to make the point, David emulated Steinberg’s penchant for drawing cartoons directly onto the envelopes he sent off in the mail. How unconventional back then and even today.

Be sure to visit David Lasky right here. Find David at Etsy right here.


Filed under Alternative Comics, Comics, David Lasky, mini-comics, Short Run, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival

Review: GONE GIRL #1 and #2 by Noel Franklin

GONE GIRL COMICS #1 by Noel Franklin

GONE GIRL COMICS #1 by Noel Franklin

Noel Franklin explores various Gen X concerns, with a Seattle sensibility, in her ongoing comics series, GONE GIRL. It will grab you right away with its distinctive use of chiaroscuro. Franklin’s artwork comes from a printmaking background and that is what you’ll find here, printmaking turned into comics.

What will charm you is Franklin’s recollections of such things as Seattle during the grunge era. Looking back on it, it was a fleeting time but perhaps no more fleeting than any other scene. Things happen. Time marches on. Fortunately, we have such keepsakes as GONE GIRL.



This is a comic on a slow boil. Take a careful look and every bit of it has been patiently put together. That owes, in no small measure, to the Gen X ethos which I proudly share with Franklin. Yes, we are Gen Xers. Baby Boomers still hold their own. Millennials shine in their own way. And Generation X still informs discussion at-large in spite of ourselves. In our youth, many of us often adopted a spacey belligerence mixed with pre-snark weird humor. In the end, we always demand authenticity.

GONE GIRL COMICS #2 by Noel Franklin

GONE GIRL COMICS #2 by Noel Franklin

Each 24-page issue of GONE GIRL collects an assortment of stories. For the first issue, Franklin features recollections that take us all over Seattle in the ’90s. There is a moving tribute to the OK Hotel which hosted some of the greatest alt-rock acts of the era. She recounts that in 1991 Nirvana first performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the OK Hotel. In 2001, the Nisqually earthquake left the venerable music venue structurally unsound and had to be closed down.



The second issue features stories ranging from childhood recollections of Chicago to a fantasy piece about anachrophobia. They are all held together by a fiercely independent vision which brings me back to the idea of a Gen X spirit running through these pages. It seems to me that we were creative trail-blazers without fully realizing it or making a particularly big show about it. All this was pre-internet. We didn’t just draw something and then post it on Tumblr. No, instead, it was like the recollections Franklin shares here about doing an odd day job to get through art school. In her case, she was working as a welder to pay her way through a degree in Photography. Back then, it seems that the art-making process was more far-ranging and we deliberately took the road less travelled. However you want to look at it, this leads to compelling art and remarkable work like this series.

For more details, visit Noel Franklin right here. Visit her on Patreon right here.


Filed under Alternative Comics, Comics, Generation X, Noel Franklin, Patreon, Short Run, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival

Review: THE AGE, Book One, by Katie Wheeler

Emma is lost and searching in "The Age."

Emma is lost and searching in “The Age.”

Especially in uncertain times, we seek escape in such genre as post-apocalyptic fiction. For her ongoing graphic novel, “The Age,” Katie Wheeler turns genre on its head by giving it a decidedly alternative comics sensibility. Her artwork has that crunchy, bold, and inky look to it, very expressive and direct. This 78-page first installment is one of my favorites from this year’s Short Run Comix & Arts Festival in Seattle. The story thus far has a nice self-contained feel to it while prompting you to look forward to more.


I believe that both Wheeler’s art and writing have a distinctively raw and authentic quality. So, when she goes in and tackles genre, it is handled in a meaningful way. When you reach that inevitable confrontation, and violence, it’s not empty entertainment, per se, but something to think about. We begin with ten-year-old Emma searching through a neglected home. The theme of searching runs throughout as Emma, and a lot of other kids, find themselves in a crisis with an aggressive airborne disease. Worse yet, it is the children themselves who may be the cause of this strange disease. No one seems to really know for sure. The only thing that is for certain is that it has led to a definite split between children and adults.


THE AGE is one of those works in comics that achieves what it sets out to do with flying colors: it holds your attention. Like I say, this has everything to do with a genuine interest in the characters and that’s a hallmark of alternative comics. Wheeler has the patience, and dedication, to spin her yarn with care. And, keep in mind, this is actually how folks like Robert Kirkman began. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but The Walking Dead began as an indie comic all those years ago. While there are no zombies to be found in Wheeler’s comic, it is going to appeal to readers looking for something different, offbeat, and with some bite.

For more details, visit Katie Wheeler right here.

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Filed under Alternative Comics, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Katie Wheeler, Short Run, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival

Mini-comic Review: ‘The Secret Life of Plants’ by Sarah Romano Diehl

"The Secret Life of Plants," by Sarah Romano Diehl

“The Secret Life of Plants,” by Sarah Romano Diehl

In the 1932 short story, “Green Thoughts,” by John Collier, we are treated to some dazzling horror but we are also invited inside the mind of a giant orchid. This unique plant’s point of view is what we find in this recent mini-comic, “The Secret Life of Plants,” by Sarah Romano Diehl.


Collier’s work most likely inspired the cult classic movie, “Little Shop of Horrors.” Diehl’s work takes a more mellow approach. In fact, her inspiration was a song by Stevie Wonder, “Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants.” You can listen to it right here.


This is a beautifully rendered little book in the true spirit of mini-comics. It’s like a little calling card for a new cartoonist. You present yourself at the party, you do a little dance, and finally you leave and go on about your business. And then maybe you wait. Someone like me might pick it up, set it down, and then return to it.

What’s interesting here is a sense of determination and an adventurous artistic spirit. This comic is alive, like a bee making its way into a flower! There’s a good deal of interesting ambiguous imagery. I really have no idea what the colorful flames represent at the end but I don’t believe you’re supposed to know. From what I see, Diehl is an accomplished artist and this little book is a fun and open-ended work that is very enchanting.

You can find Sarah Romano Diehl right here.


Filed under Alternative Comics, Comics, Illustration, mini-comics, Minicomics, Short Run, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival

Pop Culture Focus: Randy Bowles and the Sixties

Randy Bowles at Simply Desserts

Randy Bowles at Simply Desserts

Here at Comics Grinder, we not only love pop culture but we dig deeper–all the way to its roots. With musician Randy Bowles, I have a friend who can share insights into the Sixties from a unique perspective. As a co-founder of Yakima, Washington’s Velvet Illusions (1966-67), Bowles found himself in a catbird seat to view and participate in his generation’s journey through identity, rebellion, and so much more. It was the beginning of a career in music that would take him in many directions.

Randy Bowles of the Velvet Illusions

Randy Bowles of the Velvet Illusions

Ultimately, Randy Bowles carved a niche for himself in folk music and he’s remained active in that, and general storytelling, ever since. You can enjoy his special brand of insight at his WordPress blog right here. We became friends through the WordPress community and it just goes to show you yet another benefit of being part of WordPress.

The Velvet Illusions (1966-67)

The Velvet Illusions (1966-67)

Getting back to Randy, an important thing to know is that he was in this cool band, The Velvet Illusions, and then he went on to other cool bands and his own solo work. As for Velvet Illusions, listen for yourself and you’ll find a fun and steady beat. Here they are singing the Velvet Illusions theme:

In our recent chat, we discuss the Sixties for a bit and mainly focus on fashion. Bowles provides some insight on the passions and interests of the Sixties generation: what was homegrown versus what was manufactured to sell to a mainstream audience.

Randy Bowles is a good guy. I look forward to sharing more with you in the future!


Filed under 1960s, Counterculture, Music, pop culture, Randy Bowles, The Sixties, The Velvet Illusions

Review: ‘Arsene Schrauwen’ by Olivier Schrauwen

Arsene Schrauwen Fantagraphics

What if I told you that there was this one graphic novel that seemed to slip by many a reviewer’s radar last year and it turns out to be one of the most beguiling works in years? Here it is, “Arsene Schrauwen” by Olivier Schrauwen, translated from the original Flemish and published by Fantagraphics Books.

We begin with the author, Olivier Schrauwen, introducing himself byway of his connection to his grandfather. And we are soon on a boat in December of 1947 as Arsene Schrauwen leaves behind his homeland of Belgium on his way to a tropical colony. Once there, Arsene is at the mercy of the hospitality of his eccentric cousin, Roger Desmet.

Arsene meets his cousin, Roger!

Arsene meets his cousin, Roger!

Arsene is far from a dashing figure. He looks to be in pudgy middle-age although he is actually still in his twenties. Arsene looks like your typical Chris Ware character: remarkable for being unremarkable. Arsene is all banality, a portrait of grotesque pathos. He falls in love with Marieke, Roger’s wife, also a poster child for sad people. And it all works splendidly since, again like Chris Ware, we have here a multi-layered narrative employing an assortment of visual treats.

This graphic novel brings to my mind Werner Herzog’s film, “Fitzcarraldo,” about a crazed man’s dream to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle. As it turns out, Desmet gets Arsene caught up in his dream of building a shining city in the jungle that will require a caravan of workers navigating through rugged terrain that includes a roaring stream which ultimately leads to a valley situated between mountains.

Lippens and his obscenely thick lips.

Lippens and his obscenely thick lips.

Schrauwen appreciates that, if you can legitimately hold the reader’s attention, time and space recede into the background. In this way, Schrauwen can indulge in such involved scenes as, Lippens, a strange old man with thick lips who leaves Arsene feeling uneasy. As he does with other characters, Schrauwen reduces Lippens down to a cylindrical face with only thick lips. Schrauwen deftly focuses on what matters, blurring backgrounds and reducing people to basic shapes as needed.

Perhaps Marieke will save Arsene.

Perhaps Marieke will save Arsene.

With Schrauwen, you have definitely entered into an ideal example of the often cryptic and fascinating world of alternative comics. The air is thin at times in this rarefied environment. At intervals, you’ll get a notice requesting that you please wait a week before reading further. The very next page thanks you for waiting. But you cannot stop reading.

You read on about the constant threat of “elephant worms” that give Arsene nightmares about tiny elephants entering his body. Ostrich eggs appear regularly as you see Arsene preparing them for breakfast just as often as he’s throwing them against a wall. And then there’s the leopard men with insatiable sexual desires. Indeed. This is a tour de force of weird fiction full of the fantastical and an unabashed celebration of the human psyche and all bodily functions.

For a graphic novel weighing in at 257 pages, it makes sense to bring in some anchoring devices to keep things on track for the long haul. Schrauwen manages to keep to a steady pace by framing much of the story in a grid-like pattern: most pages hold six panels that oddly resemble playing cards. Ornate details are kept to a minimum. And we get a consistent pitter-patter of our many characters, much like you’d find in a classic comic strip or a silent movie. Arsene, after all, is supposed to be an enigmatic creature from a bygone era. It is in this story that, for a relatively brief time, you get to see him in all his glory, among the shadows and the ghosts, in his true element.

“Arsene Schrauwen” is a 257-page trade paperback. For more details, visit our friends at Fantagraphics Books right here.

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Filed under Comics, European Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels