Sunday, October 31, 2004

Can you feature that horrible creature?

I just spent a delightful half-hour watching a Second Look documentary special on KTVU, the FOX affiliate in Oakland, about the old Creature Features show. For those of you who were not privileged to spend any portion of your youth in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s, I'll offer a bit of background.

Creature Features was a locally produced horror film anthology program that ran every Friday and Saturday night on KTVU (back when it was a major independent channel, and there was no FOX TV network) following the late news. Host Bob Wilkins screened a fascinating selection of wretched low-budget horror and science fiction flicks (and the occasional decent example) for the audience's perverse enjoyment.

Wilkins's shtick, if shtick it was, was not playing down to the viewer. The films on Creature Features were uniformly dreadful, and Bob wasn't embarrassed to call them as he saw them. He'd flat-out rip the movie he was airing on a given evening — albeit with dry humor and a gentle tone — at times even going so far as to read other stations' program listings from TV Guide in case you wanted to switch channels.

The gimmick worked in large part because Wilkins, unlike other horror-film hosts over the years, didn't adopt a horror-themed persona (in the manner of Elvira, Vampira, Zacherle, the Weird Beard, and dozens of others in TV markets across the country). He was just a skinny, soft-spoken blond fellow with immense black-rimmed spectacles who wore a suit and tie on the show every week, sat in a beat-up yellow rocking chair that looked as though it had been carted away from a nearby swap meet, and smoked (really!) a fat cigar on the show every week.

Even when the movie really tanked (which was more frequently than not), Bob could be counted on to enliven the proceedings with his droll wit and a spirit of harmless fun. Occasionally he'd have in-studio guests on the show. Sometimes these were industry people — members of the original Star Trek cast, for example, or filmmakers such as special effects guru Ray Harryhausen — and sometimes they were the strange, borderline psychotic folks who haunt comic book conventions, midnight movie showings, and inner-city bus depots.

Wilkins tired of the late night gig after a few years, and handed the program over to film critic and author (The Creature Features Movie Guide) John Stanley in 1979. Stanley carried on for another five years, but the magic was gone; unlike Bob, John was a true horror movie buff (he's written several books on the genre) and took the films a little more seriously than Bob (who frankly admitted in interviews that he never much cared for the kind of pictures he showed on Creature Features, which was why mocking them came so naturally to him).

Creature Features was definitely a "you had to be there" sort of experience, but if you're curious, you can savor the flavor at Bob Wilkins's official Web site and this Creature Features tribute site. I can't help but believe that the creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000 owed a huge debt to Creature Features for paving the way for their iconoclastic approach to film. I'll never forget the many weekend nights I spent huddled in front of the tube as Bob and I shared yet another sci-fi trash classic together. Thousands of other middle-aged folks who were Bay Area kids in the '70s won't forget either.

I wonder if he got a ring for his birthday

Today Peter Jackson turns 43. He and I are the same age, or will be when I undergo my next rite of birthdayhood in December.

So let's see.

Peter Jackson at 43 has a slew of Academy Awards, millions of dollars in the bank, the acclaim of fantasy enthusiasts everywhere, and directed quite possibly the greatest trilogy of films in the history of cinema.

I wrote a terrific review of The Two Towers once. And a pretty good review of the Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition DVD too.


Excuse me, but I think I'll go drown my miserable existence in a vat of cream soda now.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

BAM! the Web site

My chorus debuted our new Web site this week, featuring our new name, logo, and color scheme. Pretty slick, huh? (I'm not on the Web team, so I absolve myself of all blame for any typos.)

Art day, Silver Age style

Today these two attractive drawings arrived from artist Mark Spears. I already own another piece by Mark, depicting a fistfight between Captain America and Batman.

Mark's character interpretations show a beautiful, classic sensibility — his Cap could step right into a Marvel comic from the '70s and not look out of place, and his Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman come straight out of those cheesy but fun SuperFriends cartoons we all grew up with. Best of all, Mark advertised the Cap drawing as 9" x 12", but when I opened the package I was stunned to see that it's an even bigger 11" x 14" — in person, Cap just pops off the page.

A couple of pieces are still missing from my Captain America gallery. I'd like to have a two-shot of Cap and the Falcon, his partner from the '70s. (There was a gorgeous action scene featuring Cap and the Falcon up for auction on eBay earlier this week, but the bidding escalated out of my price range.) I'd also like to have something with both Cap and the U.S. Agent, the Cap wannabe and lookalike who appeared when Steve Rogers took a forced hiatus from being Captain America in the late '80s. The U.S. Agent went on to become a key member of the short-lived West Coast Avengers (aka Force Works). I'll probably end up commissioning these two pieces.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Confessions of a middle-aged hobby geek

The Bay Area entertainment 'zine The Wave recently published a list of the ten geekiest hobbies. From top to bottom (or geekiest to least geeky, take your pick), the list includes:

1. Live Action Role Playing
2. Furries/Plushies
3. Star Trek
4. Everquest
5. Collectible Card Games
6. Vampirism
7. Star Wars
8. Scrapbooking
9. Role Playing Games
10. Comic Books

You will understand my relief to find that only a few of these even remotely apply to me.

I'll confess to being a comic book geek, although my comic book geekdom is of a nostalgic bent rather than a current one — the only comics I read are old ones.

I used to be a hardcore Star Trek geek — yes, I attended the conventions, though never in costume — but that interest petered out along about the third season of Deep Space Nine. I found Voyager unwatchable, and I have yet to be moved to see a single episode of Enterprise, my friend DL's ongoing Scott Bakula jones notwithstanding. I haven't seen the last three Trek movies, either. Star Wars? I thought the whole business was a crock even before the last two films stank on ice.

That's pretty much it for the items on the list. I never really got into role playing, either of the board game or the Renaissance Faire varieties. I played a few rounds of Dungeons & Dragons with friends back when the craze was new, but never found the fascination. I do like going to the RenFaire if it's nearby and not too expensive, and once or twice I've even thought about participating. Most of the creative anachronists (as they like to be called) whom I know personally seem like fun people.

Collectible card game players, frankly, frighten me — the primary reason I don't visit the local comic book shop more than I do (aside from the indifferent customer service and labyrinthine merchandising system) is that it's overrun with juvenile Magic: The Gathering gamer geeks.

And, not to be judgmental about the deal, but people who find sexual arousal in dressing up like cartoon animals or vampires need professional help, in my humble lay (no pun intended) opinion.

The author of this list, however, missed one geeky hobby that does involve me intimately. No hobbyists in the world are geekier in their obsession than a cappella singers, and barbershop singers in particular. There's a great Christopher Guest mockumentary waiting to be made about the barbershopping community. Trust me. I know.

Cap by Ringo!

Here's some art I received earlier this week but forgot to mention here until now. As you can tell by the inscription, it's a sketch done by artist Mike Wieringo at the Houston Con back in 1996, for someone named Cory.

Since the guy from whom I bought the piece isn't named Cory, I'm guessing it's changed hands a time or two in the past eight years. It still looks great, though. Based on my examination, it appears that Ringo! (as he usually signs his work) roughed the sketch in pencil, then finished it with a black Sharpie marker.

Ringo has been high on my list of artists from whom I wanted to collect at least one piece. He's one of my favorite "modern" artists — I enjoy his retro, energetically cartoony style very much. He came to prominence in the early '90s as the primary artist on The Flash, then later drew extended runs on both The Sensational Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. One of my "most wanted" commissions is a Doc Savage piece by Ringo, who drew the Man of Bronze for a minor comics publisher called Millennium early in his career.

I guess by now you've figured out that I'm a Captain America fan, huh?

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Money solves everything...

...including those embarrassing sexual harassment allegations against talk show host Bill O'Reilly, apparently.

One again, the American motto is, "If you can't be good, at least be rich."

Kiss me: I voted

I did my civic duty tonight, in time to get my ballot in the mail and to the County Registrar of Voters before Tuesday. KJ and I have been permanent absentee voters since her cancer treatment started four years ago, at which point it was a major hassle for her to get out to the polling place. We liked the convenience so much that we made our absentee status permanent. One of these days, hopefully, they'll develop a sufficiently secure system for online voting.

Since I'm not the least bit secretive about it, I'll tell you how I marked my scorecard.

For President and Vice President: John Kerry and John Edwards. (Yeah, like that was a major surprise to you.) I have no particular enthusiasm for Senator Kerry — indeed, I think he's the Democrats' flimsiest candidate since George McGovern in '72. But as I've written before, Presidents get elected either because they're perceived as a Cool Guy (i.e., Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton) or because they're Not the Other Guy. George W. Bush is one of the scariest Other Guys we've had to face in a while — he's an unintelligent man who has no apparent desire to get any smarter, or to surround himself with people who are. He's unflinchingly rigid, incapable of changing his mind about anything even in the face of overwhelming evidence that suggests he should. He's also defiant about admitting his mistakes, which in my opinion is one of the worst qualities a leader can possess. When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," he could well have been referring to the little mind of Bush 43.

President Bush has been wrong about just about every major decision he's been called upon to make during his nearly four years in office, both internationally and domestically. He gives every indication that he'll continue that pattern if reelected. If you or I were employees who erred as frequently in judgment as the President has, we would be fired. I believe that the President should be held to the same standard, and should face the same consequences. For the failure to destroy Osama bin Laden while the iron was hot, for the horrendous miscalculations in Iraq and the 1000-plus American casualties and the near-universal alienation from the world community those miscalculations engendered, for an economic policy that has resulted in the only net job loss in American history, for handing the keys to the kingdom to incompetent ideologues like Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft, George W. Bush deserves to be fired.

I share this for informational purposes only. (I'm a blogger. It's what I do.) I don't expect you to follow my lead. I'll still like you just the same even if you negate my vote all the way down the ballot. (I'll think you're ill-informed, and possibly mentally challenged, but I'll still like you.) But if you're not an absentee voter, and assuming you're registered in your jurisdiction, please go to the polls on Tuesday and vote your conscience — or at least vote the way that least disturbs your conscience. The choices may all suck, but these are the choices we have. Be thankful that you live in a country where you have a choice at all.

And by the way, for those tempted to think I'm a merely a yellow-dog Democratic hardliner, think again. I voted for the Republican candidate for State Senate in California's Third District. From everything I've read about him, Andrew Felder is a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, and straight-shooting kind of guy. He'll do a good job if elected. I'm also no admirer of the Democratic candidate, Carole Migden, a San Franciscan gerrymandered into and essentially carpetbagging in a district she knows little about. In our heavily Democratic district, Felder has little chance of winning, but I hope he does.

Plan 9 From Planet X

Movie buffs who only know infamous director Edward D. Wood, Jr. from his epic Plan 9 from Outer Space might — or might not — be surprised to know that the man often called cinema's most inept practitioner resorted to making films "for more mature audiences" (to swipe a line from A Mighty Wind) in his declining days. (Actually, Wood's entire filmmaking career represents one long, inexorable decline into madness. But I digress.)

Wood's last gasp, the porn extravaganza Necromania, is about to be released on DVD. Now, I'm certainly not advocating anyone rushing online to buy a porn video — even one as fraught with unintentional hilarity as one directed by Wood must surely be. This is, however, a friendly reminder that Tim Burton's 1994 biopic Ed Wood — starring Johnny Depp in the eponymous role, with brilliant supporting turns by Martin Landau and Bill Murray — was also recently released on DVD, and is a real hoot. If you've never seen it, Joe Bob...err...SwanShadow says check it out.

It's a Walt world after all

According to this CNN/Money article, the Disneyland folks are making an effort (just in time for the Magic Kingdom's 50th anniversary next year) to get the park back on the right track after a decade or so of foundering.

So far I'm not all that impressed with the specific adjustments — the teacup ride is lame at any speed, and who really cares if the Jungle Cruise guide does or doesn't shoot blanks at the hippo? — but it sounds as though the hearts of the people running the Happiest Place on Earth are back in the right place.

Disneyland should be the most spectacular place current technology can create, with all the accoutrements to match. In recent years, though, Mickey's joint has been looking rather sad, thanks largely to the nickel-clutching ways of The Powers That Be at Disney HQ. Good to hear things may be on the upswing by the time I make my next foray to the Magic Kingdom.

I still miss the microscope ride, though. (Incidentally, if you long for the days of Disneyland past, check out Werner Weiss's delightful Yesterland site.)

That's why they filmed Animal House in Oregon

As if frat boys needed yet another excuse to overconsume alcohol:

The Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery has become the official sponsor of the Pi Beta Rho fraternity at the University of Oregon in Corvallis.

At least they didn't change the name of the frat to Tappa Kegga Dei.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Ten great comics artists

Over on the comic arts collectors' Yahoo! group, comicart-l, members have been trading lists of their favorite comic book artists working today. I don't have a dog in this fight, mostly because I only occasionally glance at today's comics, and thus I'm only vaguely familiar with many of the current artists. So, rather than clutter the group with a list that's not quite on target, I'll instead share with you loyal SSTOL readers my favorite comic book artists whose primary work occurred during my comic-reading period (essentially, from the mid-'60s forward), whether currently living or deceased, active or retired. I'm not going to try to rank them; the names appear here in more or less chronological order, based on when I discovered them.

1. Jack Kirby. I'm not a huge Kirby apologist. I believe his influence far outstrips the actual quality of his art — a rough, often inconsistent draftsman, Kirby relied on good inkers to truly make his work magical. But no one can deny his power, or his sheer visionary scope.

2. Steve Ditko. Like Kirby, Ditko's imagination was better than his draftsmanship. He was, however, one of the great visual storytellers in the history of the medium, and the man responsible for two of comics' iconic characters: Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.

3. John Buscema. In my opinion, the greatest superhero artist of the Silver Age. No one before or since has matched Buscema's sense of drama and anatomical accuracy. And, ironically, he didn't much like drawing superheroes.

4. Wally Wood. Probably still better known for his EC Comics and Mad magazine work than for superhero art, Wood produced some of the best pictures ever in his mid-60s Tower Comics books (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Dynamo). Wood was also the artist who designed Daredevil's costume.

5. John Romita, Sr. The man who taught me to love Spider-Man. As art director at Marvel for decades, he shaped a generation of comics artists.

6. Sal Buscema. An underrated artist — not quite the equal of his brother John, but plenty good nonetheless. Still very active as an inker, and doing excellent work. One of my prize collection pieces is a Spider-Girl page he inked over Ron Frenz's pencils.

7. Neal Adams. Second only to John Buscema as a picture-perfect superhero artist. Brought a tremendous sense of mood and mystery to comics.

8. Barry Windsor-Smith. I wasn't a big fan of sword-and-sorcery comics like Conan the Barbarian, but I simply had to read it every month just to ogle that gorgeous Barry Smith art.

9. John Byrne. The first and still one of the best of the modern-era superstars. Byrne was the guy who made it okay for superhero art to be ever so slightly cartoony again, without losing any of the realism.

10. George Pérez. If he'd never done anything except Crisis on Infinite Earths, he'd deserve a spot on this list. But his incredible array of landmark work, from Avengers to Wonder Woman, makes him probably comics' greatest active artist.

Restricting the list to my "lifetime" enabled me to cut the names to 10. Just missing the top ten were Jim Starlin (Captain Marvel, Warlock), Murphy Anderson (pencils on Hawkman, inks on Adam Strange), Jim Steranko (one of comics' most distinctive and innovative stylists), Mike Kaluta (mostly for his revival of The Shadow), and Mike Ploog, whose brief run on Marvel's horror comics in the early '70s generated some of the most spectacularly moody art I've ever seen.

Were I to reach back to the Golden Age, I'd need room for such people as Mac Raboy (the primary artist on the Captain Marvel Jr. feature in Master Comics), Lou Fine (mostly worked for Quality Comics, on such characters as The Ray and The Black Condor), Jack Cole (the genius behind Plastic Man), and the phenomenal Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit and one of the most influential stylists in comics history). As a sentimental favorite, I'd also try to work in Matt Baker, the stellar "good girl" artist for Fiction House (the man whose buxom rendition of Phantom Lady gave rise to the phrase "headlight comics") and the first prominent black creator in mainstream comics.

Babe Ruth is dead and so is his curse

Although I'm a National League fan, and usually root for the NL team in the World Series when the Giants aren't in it (which is pretty much every year, now that I'm thinking about it), I'm glad those longsuffering Boston Red Sox fans finally have a world championship to celebrate. Eighty-six years is an eternity to wallow in futility and self-loathing. Good to know the BoSox are off the schnied at last.

Bad news for the Bambino, though. This year, his curse goes bye-bye; next year, he'll be lapped on the home run chart by Barry Bonds. Nothing lasts forever.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

G-Men honored in postseason awards haul

Congratulations to Giants Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt for being named, respectively, The Sporting News Major League Player of the Year and National League Pitcher of the Year.

Well deserved on both counts. Until getting hurt and struggling a bit down the stretch, Schmidt was simply "lights out" for opposing hitters. Bonds was, well, Bonds, becoming only the third player in history to slam 700 home runs and turning in yet another MVP-caliber season in a summer during which he turned 40.

The TSN awards, incidentally, are unusual in that they are voted on by the players, not by sportswriters or broadcasters. Praise is always sweetest when it comes from your competition.

Before you vote, read this (relax — it's nonpartisan)

Financial guru Marshall Loeb at CBS MarketWatch offers this excellent list of ten things to know before you vote. Read it, know it, live it.

What's Up With That? #8: Houses for the unholy

Officials at San Quentin State Penitentiary want to spend $220 million on a new prison housing facility for California's 629 Death Row inmates.

$220 million for living quarters for people we're eventually going to put to death anyway?

Maybe we ought to spend that $220 million on people we'd like to keep around for awhile — say, on education and job training in impoverished neighborhoods. If we did, perhaps we'd eventually have fewer than 629 inmates on Death Row.


Democratic mothers make better lovers

Governor Schwarzenegger (yes, I still laugh when I type that) says he and Republican State Assembly candidate Steve Poizner (and isn't that a great surname for a GOP politician?) have one key factor in common: They're both married to Democratic women.

And if you know anything about Republican women, you understand why.

Monday, October 25, 2004

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Soap Opera Man

It pays to read closely:

When I first read this official Warner Bros. press release, I thought they said Babe Ruth had been cast as Superman.

Silly me.

Given the history of this role, I hope young Mr. Routh keeps a healthy distance from firearms and equestrian sports.

America's most trusted man speaks truth

Walter Cronkite, the former CBS news anchor often dubbed "the most trusted man in America," says this about U.S. foreign policy in Iraq:
"The problem, quite clearly, is we have excited the Arab world, the Muslim world, to take up arms against us."
If you can't believe Walter Cronkite on an issue this important, who can you believe?

The Supremes (sans Diana Ross)

It will be interesting to see what impact the announcement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist's thyroid cancer diagnosis will have on the final days of the Presidential race. With Rehnquist's illness (as well as his age; he's 80), it's a near-certainty now that the incoming President will nominate the next Chief Justice of the United States. You can be sure that the Republicans will make this an issue if they can.

Funny thing about Supreme Court appointments, though — they don't always work out as the nominating President might hope. The current Court's longest-standing liberal Justice, John Paul Stevens, was appointed by Republican Gerald Ford. Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, both Reagan appointees, and David Souter, appointed by the first President Bush, have proved to be more moderate/centrist, I'm sure, than their conservative nominators might have hoped. (In fairness, though, the Reaganistas nominated Kennedy more or less as an offset to arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, the previous Justice appointed by Reagan. In the same way, Bush 41 appointed right-winger Clarence Thomas to replace the late Thurgood Marshall in part because Souter turned out to be far less a conservative idealogue than many GOP hardliners wanted.)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

In New York City's war on crime, the worst criminal offenders are pursued by the detectives of the Major Case Squad. These are their stories.

As I watch tonight's episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, it strikes me that Kathryn Erbe may be the most underrated performer on network television.

Not a supermodel or glamour girl, Erbe is short, wiry, pushing 40, has flat hair and bad skin, looks like the last plain Jane in the neighborhood bar at closing time, and possesses the creakiest female voice in TV drama since Kate Jackson's heyday. But as Detective Alex Eames (Am I the only one who's noticed how popular the name Alex is for female TV characters these days? Two L&O series — CI and SVU — and CSI: Miami have all featured Alexes in recent seasons), Erbe lends an air of gritty, streetwise intelligence and desert-dry, razor-sharp wit to a vehicle dominated by the quasi-schizophrenic Sherlockian histrionics of Vincent D'Onofrio. And when she took most of last season off for maternity, leaving D'Onofrio without an adequate foil, the show lacked its usual zip.

While I'm on the subject of L&O:CI, if I could trade my speaking voice for any other on the planet, I'd take Courtney B. Vance's resonant baritone in a heartbeat.

Girl, you know it's not true

For my money, the real shocker in the Ashlee "Don't Call Me Jessica" Simpson lip-synching debacle isn't that the teenaged pop idol got caught doing the Milli Vanilli on Saturday Night Live.

It's that anyone still watches Saturday Night Live.

I haven't viewed SNL with any regularity since Eddie Murphy was the show's big star. I used to pop in occasionally for "Weekend Update" when Dennis Miller did it, then sporadically during the Kevin Nealon and Norm McDonald periods. The program's sketch comedy and my sense of humor long since parted company, as attested by the fact that I don't find any of the show's more recent alumni the least bit funny. I think the last regular cast member I liked was Tim Meadows, whose "Ladies' Man" segments were always good for a laugh. (The movie that sketch spawned, on the other hand, sucked swamp water through a cocktail straw.)

The original SNL cast, of course, was nonpareil, even though a fair portion of their success came from being first. Seriously, when was the last time you saw Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, or, for that matter, Chevy Chase in something that was actually good?

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Out of the inkwell

Here's a stunning comparison. The first picture is the Dan Jurgens pencil sketch of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, I picked up recently. The second is the exact same drawing after a beautiful inking job by veteran comic artist Josef Rubinstein. Pretty incredible, huh?

As amazing as the art is the manner in which this project unfolded. Joe Rubinstein spotted this drawing in my online gallery at the Comic Art Fans site, and e-mailed me to ask whether I might be interested in commissioning him to ink it. I leapt at the opportunity to have one of my pieces worked on personally by an artist who, at one time or another, has worked on just about every major character in the Marvel and DC pantheons.

I shipped the artwork off just before I left for southern California last week, and it was completed and back on my desk by the time I returned home. And, as you can see here, Mr. Rubinstein's results are nothing short of spectacular. He'll be taking on my Dan Jurgens Booster Gold sketch next.


While I was away, this remarkable portrait of Mary Marvel, the original Captain Marvel's little sister arrived. The artist, Michael McDaniel, is unknown to me, but I was immediately struck by his fine line work and subtle sense of detail. It's also a very different take on the character that I'm accustomed to seeing. Mary Marvel traditionally has been drawn as a cute, cherubic young girl in her early-to-mid-teens, much like the original incarnation of Supergirl. Mr. McDaniel's view of Mary is more mature, I think.

For those who didn't know, or have forgotten, Mary Bromfield (nee Batson) transforms into her heroic alter ego by shouting the magic word "Shazam!" — an anagram which reflects Mary's endowment with the grace of Selena (goddess of the moon), the strength of Hippolyta (queen of the Amazons, and mother of Wonder Woman), the skill of Ariadne (the crafty daughter of King Minos of Crete, who helped Theseus solve the riddle of the labyrinth), the speed of Zephyrus (the West Wind — a male character, but legendary figures whose names start with Z were apparently few and far between), the beauty of Aurora (goddess of the dawn), and the wisdom of Minerva (goddess of, well, wisdom).

Incidentally, the whole history of the Captain Marvel name presents an interesting lesson in trademark law. The original character by that name — the burly fellow in the white cape and the red union suit with the lightning bolt on the chest — was created by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker in 1940 for Fawcett Publications. DC Comics, publishers of Superman, slapped Fawcett with a lawsuit when the character first appeared, claiming he was nothing more than a rip-off of the Man of Steel. (Of course, Superman himself was in many respects a blatant swipe of Doc Savage, but we'll relate that story another time.) Fawcett managed to stave off DC's legal onslaught until the early 1950s, by which point the superhero phenomenon had pretty well played out. In settling the suit, Fawcett agreed to discontinue publishing Captain Marvel (they actually already had by this time) and his spin-off family, which included Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel.

In 1966, an outfit called MF Enterprises (keep the jokes to yourself) picked up on the fact that the "Captain Marvel" trademark was lying fallow. They came up with their own Captain Marvel, who bore no resemblance to the Big Red Cheese other than in name. The MF version possessed a dubious superpower that enabled him to separate his body into smaller pieces by shouting the magic word "Split!" (If you can appreciate how such a skill would be beneficial in crimefighting, you have a more vivid imagination than I.) This silly concept quickly went down to cancellation, and the publishing company faded from the comics scene.

Noticing that the Captain Marvel trademark was again in disuse, Stan Lee and his cohorts at Marvel Comics concocted a new Captain Marvel in 1967. This version, a green-and-white-clad space warrior (whose real name was, predictably enough, Mar-Vell), was better thought-out and more enthusiastically received by the comic-buying public than his immediate predecessor. The character later switched to a red-and-blue costume, in which he enjoyed a modicum of success under the ministrations of artist Jim Starlin. Interestingly, because Marvel now held the trademark to the name, when DC purchased the rights to the original Captain Marvel from the smoldering heap that had once been Fawcett, the Distinguished Competition had to call its new comic, and the Saturday morning kidvid series based on it, Shazam! (although the character in both the comic and the TV show was identified as Captain Marvel).

Marvel killed off its Captain Marvel in 1982, then promptly devised a new character by the same name (this one an African American policewoman named Monica Rambeau) to keep the trademark alive. (This latter character later changed her name to Photon.)

Friday, October 22, 2004

New on the DVD rack, 10/22/04

The Day After Tomorrow. I watched this tonight with the girls over Chinese takeout — KJ slept through most of it, as usual — and found it cheesy and embarrassingly silly, but reasonably entertaining. I'm not a big Roland Emmerich fan — Independence Day is the only one of his films that I've ever liked — but he certainly knows how to make big, loud, incoherent popcorn movies, and this is another one. The science is at times Hollywood enviro-terrorist puffery and at other times screamingly obtuse. The CGI is shockingly transparent, given the money Emmerich spent on it. The actors, led by an oddly restrained Dennis Quaid, play along as though inwardly aware of how dopey it all is, but with a dogged determination not to wink at the camera. You won't learn anything important watching this, but then again, you won't be demanding to reclaim the two hours of precious life you spent watching it. Best of all, it passes the wristwatch test with flying colors.

Aladdin: Platinum Edition. This is not one of my favorite films of the latter-day Disney renaissance (I'm looking much more forward to the Special Edition DVD of Mulan that premieres next week), but it's fun and fast-moving and, of course, features a raucously comic voice performance by Robin Williams. (For my money, Eddie Murphy in Mulan and David Spade in The Emperor's New Groove are immeasurably funnier in similar roles. That's just one Disneyphile's taste talking, though.) The added content should be worth perusing, however. (I'm still waiting for the Lilo & Stitch Special Edition the Mouse House shelved on us last year.)

Van Helsing: Ultimate Edition
. Frankly, I'm not all that interested in the title picture itself, which garnered tepid reviews and unenthusiastic box office. I really wanted this for the added content, which includes Universal's original classics Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man together on one disc. Those three masterworks will be well worth owning, even if the Hugh Jackman thing stinks on ice, as I suspect it will.

Welcome back, my friends, to the blog that never ends

Ah, home. Be it ever so humble, and all that.

I've returned, as you've no doubt guessed from the appearance of these words. I spent most of the past week in not-so-sunny southern California, where the weather outside was frightful. The orange and palm trees swayed, to borrow a lyric from Irving Berlin, but mostly due to stiff gale-force winds that blew in with the unseasonably early rains that plagued us for most of my visit.

The occasion for my trip to the Southland was a five-lecture series hosted by a church in the coastal hamlet of Port Hueneme, nestled into a tidy pocket of beachfront property between the more sizable cities of Oxnard and Ventura. From what little I saw, I'd guess that Port Hueneme is a Naval installation, a few housing tracts, some rather seedy-looking apartment complexes, and not much else. Most of the urban staples — shopping malls, fast food joints, and so on — appear to be concentrated in the surrounding burgs.

I had a delightful time, bookended by a pair of 422-mile drives — the first partly through a driving monsoon that made the trip slower, more nerve-jangling, and ultimately a couple of hours later in arriving than I'd anticipated. (Fortunately, the sun blazed gloriously for the ride home yesterday, and the traffic parted before me like the Red Sea before Moses, so I made up time on the back end.)

The trip was truly made memorable by the members of the local church, who welcomed me with open arms, and feted and feasted me far beyond what I needed or deserved. Everyone I met seemed genuinely warm and gracious. The lessons went well — I always find myself thinking, "I should have made that point better," or, "I should have worked this thought in somewhere" — but all in all I presented as well as I'm capable, and I felt good about the overall effort. I developed a fast new friend in the local minister, with whom I had many a probing chat about issues of faith and of the day. His son, who was instrumental in recommending me for the appointment, and I had a great visit on Wednesday, touring the local countryside (there really is countryside in the unpaved portions of the Los Angeles basin) and enjoying a leisurely chat.

As pleasant as the time away was, nothing beats the sweet feeling of my old familiar office, and the enveloping presence of my wife, daughter, and dog. I missed them, along with my computer — I can't recall the last time I was offline for six entire days — the clutter of my workstation, and the posterior-caressing comfort of my desk chair. I spent today plowing through the tsunami of e-mail that washed in while I was gone, paying a stack of bills, and dashing off a pile of thank-you notes to my host family and all the folks who took me out or had me in for meals during my stay in Port Hueneme.

Home, someone once observed, is the one place in the world where you can go that they have to let you in. I'm happy to report that no one changed the locks in my absence.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Blog break!

I'll be offline for a few days, with a five-day speaking engagement starting on Sunday. Check back on Friday, and I'll give you all the scoop, if scoop there be. While I'm gone, you boys and girls play nicely, and keep each other's pigtails out of the inkwells.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Batman artist Irv Novick dead at 88

I heard today through the comic art collectors' e-mail list that longtime DC artist Irv Novick has died. Mark Evanier posts a fine retrospective about Mr. Novick on his blog, News From ME.

During his incredibly lengthy career in comics, spanning more than 50 years, Mr. Novick drew every notable character in the DC pantheon, plus many more that have long been forgotten. He co-created the original patriotic superhero, The Shield, who predated the infinitely more successful Captain America by more than a year. I mostly remember Mr. Novick for his bold work on the Batman comic in the late '60s and '70s, and on The Flash for years after Carmine Infantino left the book to head DC's art department.

A sad loss for the comic creators' community.

Booster, Booster, be a Booster

So I was sitting at my computer last week (you're always sitting at the computer, you're thinking, and you're more right than not) when I received an e-mail from the art dealer from whom I'd recently purchased three snazzy drawings by fan favorite Dan Jurgens.

"Hey," writes my art dealer comrade, "I'm going to the Minnesota FallCon this weekend, and Dan Jurgens is going to be dropping by. Since you like his art so well, would you like me to see if he'll do a sketch for you?"

It took me all of, oh, five seconds to begin typing my reply. Of course, I'd love to get a new sketch from Dan! said I. And I knew exactly what character I wanted him to draw — Booster Gold, comics' most venal and self-absorbed superhero. When you can get the actual creator of a character to interpret the character for you, you jump on it. I did, and this fantastic sketch of Booster arrived on Thursday. My scanner's too pathetically small to capture the entire image, but this will give you a tantalizing taste of the Booster goodness.

The real treat of this prize lies in the backstory. When my dealer pal approached Dan Jurgens at the con, the artist wasn't planning to do any fan sketches. But when Dan heard that I'd asked him to draw his brainchild, he was so pleased that someone remembered "the old days," as he put it, he not only agreed to do the sketch but charged less than his usual fee for doing it. How awesome is that? Well, pretty doggoned awesome, if you ask me.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Living the life of O'Reilly

You know who I'm glad I'm not this week?

Bill O'Reilly.

If even a fraction of what's in this complaint (posted by The Smoking Gun) filed against the FOX News talk show host and conservative pundit is true, the Bill-man is going to be wiping enough egg off his face to fuel Grand Slam Breakfasts at his local Denny's well into the next decade.

(Sensibility alert: The above-referenced document contains material that will make you want to scrub yourself vigorously all over with a Brillo pad. Viewer discretion is heartily advised.)

O'Reilly a lecher? Bill Bennett a compulsive gambler? Tom DeLay a scam artist? Next, you'll be telling me Dick Cheney's daughter is a lesbian. No, wait...

Faux pas cabana

This snippet from the S.F. Chronicle's Daily Dish, one of the 'Net's juiciest sources for celebrity scoop:
Crooning legend Barry Manilow has apologized to his gay fans after offending them at a New York concert.

When the "Copacabana" singer introduced his duet "Every Single Day" with Brian Darcy James last Thursday, he said, "We're not going to sing it to each other -- because that would be creepy."

After a string of complaints from homosexual rights groups, Manilow's spokeswoman Jill Fritzo says, "The line was meant lightheartedly, but he's very sorry if he offended anyone.

"Barry is a longtime supporter of AIDS research and Lambda Legal Defense (gay rights firm)."
I always thought Barry Manilow was gay. Not sure now why I thought that, but I did. My bad.

Personally, I think the idea of Barry Manilow singing to anyone — male, female, transgender, undecided voter — is a little creepy. Did you see him on American Idol last season? Egad. Barry: Put the plastic surgeon's phone number down. Now.

And by the way..."I Write the Songs"? Manilow didn't even write that song. Bruce Johnston, occasionally of the Beach Boys, wrote it. What's up with that?

Rock on, Oscar

This should be interesting: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has hired Chris Rock to host the Oscarcast next year.

Rock's an excellent choice, IMHO. He's sharp, accessible, quick on his feet, and devastatingly funny when he's on. (His mannerisms drive me nuts, but that's probably just a personal taste issue.) He'll be another in the line of Oscar hosts who, though appearing in films, were still better recognized as comics: Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg. (Just a side note: I think Whoopi has done a brilliant job each time she's hosted — immeasurably better than the tepid Steve Martin — and I wish they'd just give her the job indefinitely.)

As viewers of Rock's late, lamented HBO talk show well know, Chris is more than capable of managing the master of ceremonies role. He's also one of the best topical comics working today, in every aspect superior to, say, the smug, self-satisfied Bill Maher.

The network censors will have a panic attack, I'm sure. Rock's standup act occasionally falls into the old trap of thinking profanity is humorous for its own sake, but he knows where the lines are.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Emerald Archer fires again

Once again, more than three decades after he helped turn the comics world on its collective ear, the venerable DC hero Green Arrow is being used as an avatar for social activism.

According to this Associated Press story on, Green Arrow writer Judd Winick (best known outside comics fandom as one of the roommates on the third season of MTV's The Real World, shot in San Francisco in 1993) has transformed GA's sidekick, Speedy, into a teenaged girl whose previous life on the streets has rendered her HIV-positive. The series will showcase the personal turmoil of the junior superhero in the aftermath of her diagnosis.

Bronze Age comics fans will recall the now-legendary Green Lantern/Green Arrow series of the early 1970s, penned by the great Denny O'Neil and drawn by the arguably greater Neal Adams (and later in the '70s by such up-and-comers as Mike Grell and Alex Saviuk), wherein the two verdant-clad superdoers clashed over racism, the war on poverty, street crime, and drug abuse. In the latter storyline, the original Speedy — a male adolescent named Roy Harper, who in more recent times has broken away from the Emerald Archer and taken the nom de guerre Arsenal — was revealed as a heroin addict. Who could forget the classic sequence of panels in which an elderly African American man confronts Green Lantern:
"I been reading about you ... how you work for the blue skins ... and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins ... and you done considerable for the purple skins. Only there’s skins you never bothered with ... the black skins. I want to know ... how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!"
To which the Emerald Gladiator could only reply with an anguished, "I ... can’t ..."

None of this has anything to do with my recent acquisition of this Mike Grell sketch of Green Arrow, purchased days before I stumbled upon this news story.

But it makes a slick introduction, yes?

"This same progeny of evils comes from our debate"

— Titania, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene 1.

I heard the first hour of Prezlemania III on the radio. Yawn. Same creamed chipped beef, different toast.

The night before the Ronald Reagan-Fritz Mondale debate in 1984, Mondale's family staged a mock debate between two dogs, a Rottweiler and a German shepherd. In People magazine afterward, journalist Michael Small wrote:
"To their credit, neither candidate said anything that would damage his campaign, and neither bit his opponent."
The three Bush-Kerry set-tos have been pretty much like that.

As pundit Peter Goldman noted following the aforementioned Reagan-Mondale debate (the actual one between the candidates, not the one with the shepherd and the Rottweiler):
"A debate before 70 million people is in fact a distorting glass, a fun-house mirror in which wrinkles look like canyons and hesitation like an attack of amnesia."
It's hard to imagine anything said between Kerry and Bush swaying an undecided voter in either direction. People who haven't yet made up their minds will probably just Rho-Sham-Bo before they step into the booth on November 2.

This just in: Florida physician speaks to recently deceased actor!

From the Web site of CBS Channel 47 in Jacksonville, here's a shining example of why editors, myself included, will always have work.
A doctor from the First Coast was able to spend time with recently deceased actor, Christopher Reeve, whose efforts to promote stem cell research continues to stir up controversy.
Promoting stem cell research, stirring up controversy, and spending time with doctors — all while "recently deceased." Hmm. Maybe Christopher Reeve wasn't really Superman...but he might have been The Spectre.

Thanks to my fellow Bay Area Editors' Forum member John Maybury for pointing out this little nugget of bad writing.

(I didn't even mention the numerical disagreement inherent in "whose efforts ... continues." But I could have.)

Plus, I can't afford a Jaguar

Okay, it's now official:

The most annoying commercial currently running on national television is the Jaguar ad that features the chugging guitar riff from the swordfight scene in Kill Bill, Volume 1. In the late evening/early morning hours when I typically have the TV on for background noise, that sucker airs during darn near every commercial break.

Look, the movie was all right (Volume 2 was immeasurably better, IMHO), as was the soundtrack the first half-dozen times. The repetitive airplay this ad is getting, however, makes me want to yank my copy of Kill Bill, Volume 1 off the DVD rack and grind it under the tires of my Mazda MPV.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Oliver Stone's next film: Too Much Information

According to this published report, maverick film director Oliver Stone revealed to an interviewer from Playboy magazine that he lost his virginity to a prostitute, whose services were solicited by Stone's father.

Question one: We needed to know this why?

Question two: Assuming for a moment that this was true of you (and I'm using the generic second person here, not insinuating anything untoward about you personally), would it be the sort of thing you'd want to tell the world?

Sure explains a lot about Stone's cinematic oeuvre, though.

Bring me the ashes of Veronica Lake

Just because Veronica Lake is one of my favorite female movie stars from the 1940s, I found fascinating this convoluted tale about the authenticity (or lack thereof) of a collection of ashes that are purported to be Ms. Lake's mortal remains.

If you don't know who Veronica Lake was — and unless you're either on the hoary side of middle age or, like myself, one who spent far too many hours of precious youth camped out in front of the television set watching old movies, you probably don't — you should drop by the classics section of your local DVD outlet and check out Sullivan's Travels or This Gun For Hire. (Regrettably, two of Lake's best films, the war drama So Proudly We Hail and the Raymond Chandler-scripted film noir The Blue Dahlia, aren't yet available on DVD.)

Lake possessed a fragile, ethereal yet cuddly quality that was truly compelling on screen (aided by the fact that she stood four-foot-eleven and couldn't have carried more than 100 pounds on a surprisingly curvaceous frame for so petite a woman), and a keen but rarely exploited sense of comic timing. Today, she's probably best remembered not for her acting ability but for her trademark hairstyle: wavy blonde locks brushed down over her right eye, creating a "peek-a-boo" effect. (During World War II, the U.S. government asked her to rearrange her tresses, for fear that women wearing the Lake 'do would injure themselves while working on assembly lines, due to decreased visibility.) In L.A. Confidential, Kim Basinger played a prostitute whose marketing gimmick was imitating the appearance of Veronica Lake.

If you happen to be touring the Catskills anytime soon, drop by Homer and Langley's Mystery Spot, the antique shop in Phoenicia, New York where the supposed ashes of Veronica Lake reside. Maybe the proprietors will give you a peek. (I'd always heard that Lake's ashes were scattered off the Florida coast near Miami. But what do I know?)

Monday, October 11, 2004

Not Having Been Discovered Yet Day

The headline comes from an ancient Flip Wilson routine (of course, it's not as though there are any new Flip Wilson routines, Mr. Wilson having slipped the surly bonds of Earth six years ago) in which Christopher Columbus makes landfall in the Americas on a local holiday by that name, and proceeds to ruin everything for the preexisting residents for centuries to come.

The highlight of the bit is a Native American Princess — inexplicably but hilariously speaking in Geraldine's soulful screech — telling the European explorer, "We don't wanna be discovered. You can't discover nobody if they don't wanna be discovered. You better discover your [anatomical reference deleted] away from here."

I feel certain that many Native Americans would share that sentiment still today.

Of course, in Flip's less sensitive heyday, we weren't using the term "Native Americans" yet. We still referred to indigenous North Americans as "Indians," perpetuating our cultural Eurocentricity. On the other hand, the title of the Flip Wilson album on which the Columbus routine appears is Cowboys and Colored People, the latter of which no one uses anymore except the National Association for the Advancement thereof.

Times change. Now, no one gets Having Been Discovered Yet Day off except the folks at the bank and the Post Office.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


I just heard the news about the passing of Christopher Reeve. Bittersweet, I'm sure, for those who loved him up close and personally — bitter, in that he never seemed to lose his lust for life even in the face of his tragic injury, and brought encouragement, inspiration, and hope to many millions of disabled individuals and their loved ones; sweet, if only in the knowledge that he is now unencumbered by the frailty that beset him the last decade of his life.

I wasn't a fan of the Superman films — I've never cared much for Superman the character, in any venue — but certainly no one could have worn the blue underwear with the big red "S" with more grace and goodwill than Reeve did. Ironically, though, my strongest cinematic memories of Reeve aren't connected to the Metropolis Marvel. I remember him most as the scheming playwright in the film version of Deathtrap, a crackling good role that pitted Reeve against Michael Caine in a deviously twisted plot. I also remember his voiceover from the trailer of one of the most abysmal movies Hollywood ever made, the religious intrigue potboiler Monsignor: "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned...I have killed for my country...I have stolen for my church...I have made love to a woman...and Father...I am a PRIEST!" I've always wondered how many takes were required for Reeve to get through that ridiculous soliloquy without breaking up.

Sad news. My condolences to Mr. Reeve's family.

I also just heard that Ken Caminiti, the 1996 National League Most Valuable Player who tossed his illustrious career down the sewer with cocaine and steroids, also died today. That's sad too — he was only 41. But as the late John Lennon once observed, instant karma's gonna get you.

My condolences to the Caminiti family as well.

Icky furniture

Yesterday on the way home from the memorial service, I took KJ to the mammoth IKEA furniture store in Emeryville. She's always wanted to check it out, but this was one of the precious few times the two of us were in the vicinity of the place together when we didn't have someplace else to be.

My first thought upon entering the IKEA complex is that this outfit may well be the world's premier triumph of marketing. I have never in my life been to a furniture store so busy that it requires its own multistory garage. I have also never been to a furniture store that attracted the veritable cornucopia of human life that IKEA appears to draw. People of all ages, ethnicities, and — judging by the clothing worn by some of the patrons — economic strata pour like lemmings into this labyrinthine catacomb of a retail outlet, including people one would not customarily regard as prime candidates for trendy furniture purchases. There were families with children, couples straight, gay, and orientationally indeterminate, yuppies, buppies, rubes, boobs, DINKs, retirees, skater kids, biker dudes, elderly Asian folks, middle-aged black folks, people who looked as though they had wandered in from the local rescue mission, and at least one interracial couple who looked as though they had wandered in from a funeral. (That would have been us.)

All of this mass of humanity packed itself into a colossal store that, so far as I could determine, sold nothing more fascinating than a motley collection of drab and rather utilitarian home furnishings. I expected to see a lot of stuff that looked like runaway exhibits from SFMOMA. I didn't. With rare exception, all of the merchandise was conventional enough, if somewhat Spartan in appearance. No California King beds with down comforters and frilly dust ruffles. Instead, plain and boxy futons. No chairs that resembled Salvador Dali fever dreams. Instead, stark and singularly uncomfortable-looking seating.

While I did not feel compelled to play Goldilocks and test the various products for ergonomic soundness, I did note that few of the offerings were designed for people of ample proportions. The chairs were all built very low to the floor, and would require a crane to extract me from them. The beds looked about as cozy as a fakir's pallet of nails. In the office furniture section, I saw several desk chairs made entirely of wood. I spend twelve to sixteen hours a day in my chair — were it solid wood, my buttocks would hemorrhage before the end of the first week.

I thought it novel that all of the products had droll little names, many of them apparently Swedish (although, for all of my extensive knowledge of Swedish, they may well have been Klingon), displayed on prosaic paper signs. There was a bookcase named Billy. A TV table named Ivar. A sofa named Karlanda. A bed named Robin. A chair named Oland (named, no doubt, after the Caucasian actor of Scandinavian extraction who played Charlie Chan in the old politically incorrect film series). There was a computer workstation named Mikael, spelled oddly but endearingly recognizable nonetheless.

In an ingenious move, the IKEA architects have designed the store layout so that it is generally possible to move in only one direction through the store, with few opportunities to opt out of the nearly endless trudge from department to department. Once you're in the maze, you pretty well have condemned yourself to seeing every doggoned item in the place, which, I'm sure, results in plenty of impulse purchases by people who latch onto something for no better reason than they were compelled by the traffic flow to shuffle right past it.

I saw nothing I was even remotely moved to buy. KJ got bored plodding through the cattle drive almost as quickly as I did, which should give you some hint of the tedious nature of this exercise. When the world's greatest window-shopper develops ennui halfway through your store, you have way too little good stuff, the Brobdingnagian volume of merchandise notwithstanding. I did notice, however, that the checkout lines were jam-packed by enthusiastic shoppers who did not share our sensibility. I don't think IKEA will be filing Chapter 11 anytime in the foreseeable future, if the Emeryville outlet is an accurate bellwether of the overall health of the operation.

I still don't understand why anyone would want icky furniture. But since I don't speak Swedish, I'm probably just saying it wrong.

Then again, I don't understand why a furniture store sells Swedish meatballs, either.

Happy Craigslist Day to you

Today was Craigslist Day in San Francisco. In honor of the founder of the world's greatest electronic community bulletin board, the Chronicle's Carolyne Zinko published a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of one of the Internet's few genuine innovators. Craig Newmark is one cool dude.

Art to soothe the savage breast

Sorry I was rather quiet yesterday. KJ and I attended a memorial service down in the South Bay during the afternoon, stopped on the way home for dinner and a little shopping. By the time we got in, I wasn't in much of a self-revelatory mood.

Getting art in the mail always perks me up, though. Here's a wicked cool portrait of that long-time Avengers stalwart, the Scarlet Witch, drawn and inked by an up-and-coming Canadian artist named Peter Repovski. Peter employs a clean, sleek ink line that reminds me of some of the great inkers of the '70s, guys like Joltin' Joe Sinnott, Murphy Anderson, and Bob McLeod. This is easily one of the most beautifully rendered pieces in my collection. I'm predicting Mr. Repovski's going to be a major star in the industry before too long. (Remember, you read it here first.)

Peter, whose work has appeared in the Dark Horse Comics series Fused: Think Like a Machine, is one heck of a nice guy in addition to being a superlative artist. He was an absolute gem to do business with. He even included with this drawing an autographed copy of Fused #4. I've moved him near the top of the list of artists from whom I want to obtain some commissioned artwork. (If you'd like to request a commission from Peter yourself, you can contact him through his Web site.)

Also in Saturday's mail were these two interesting published pages.


The first is a full-page splash from Namor, issue #9, penciled by Patrick Olliffe and inked by John Livesay (who usually bills himself by surname only — like Madonna, only in reverse). The second is a nicely atmospheric panel page from Spider-Girl #61, penciled by Ron Frenz (who also autographed the page) and inked by one of the master artists from the '70s, Sal Buscema. Both Olliffe and Frenz draw in styles reminiscent of the Silver Age, which of course appeals to the nostalgic old fogey in me.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Going to the candidates' debate

I didn't spot Mrs. Robinson in the audience, but a collection of stouthearted Missourians was present last night as Bush and Kerry got their debate on for the second time.

Bush fared better in the pseudo-town hall format than he did in the stand-and-speechify affair last week, but he still sounded peevish and petulant. Kerry, conversely, was less in his element here, but he made a stronger showing than I had anticipated, frequently taking the point of his responses directly to the President. Kerry also showed a greater tendency in this format to resort to the convoluted rambling for which he has become notorious on the campaign trail, though he usually managed to get the cows back into the barn before his two minutes expired.

Both candidates frequently got stuck in recycling the same phrases again and again — I wanted to reach through the television and smack the Prez alongside his noggin every time he launched into the old "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time" business — to the extent that I feared their tongues might suffer repetitive-motion injury. And both stumbled over questions that they would just as soon not had to answer, if they'd had their druthers. Bush totally punted a query about the mistakes he's made in office, giving a borderline snarky reply that sounded as if he never thought he'd made a mistake ever, and certainly not in the Iraq debacle (the questioner didn't ask about Iraq specifically, and the fact that Bush went right to Iraq in his answer only served to remind everyone listening how blind he remains to those egregious errors). Kerry delivered a circuitous and windy response to a question about abortion that even I, with my highly developed language skills, had a difficult time following, and that I'm certain left most of the audience either dumbfounded or asleep.

Speaking of the audience, what's the point of having them there if they aren't allowed to respond to the candidates or engage them directly? You might as well have left the questioning to Charlie Gibson, and filled the seats with mannequins.

I still think Kerry came out ahead again this time — if there is such a concept as "ahead" in these things — but Bush managed not to hurt himself as badly as he did in Round One. The third "debate" reverts to the dueling-lecterns approach that generally favors Kerry. We'll see what happens.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

SwanShadow on the air!

SSTOL fans can enjoy (if "enjoy" is the word) listening to my triumphant (if "triumphant" is the word) return to my radio roots this Friday night, October 8, from 8 to 10 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. I'll be cohosting with my good friend, vocal coach and a cappella legend Phil DeBar, on our local PBS station, KRCB 91.1 FM. Those of you outside central Sonoma County, California (which is pretty much all of you, last time I checked) can catch the streaming audio feed at this link:

Phil's putting together a stellar mix of a cappella, gospel, doowop, and various and sundry other vocal musics for this commercial-free joy ride. For my part, I will chip in with the occasional "You're right, Phil," "That's interesting, Phil," or "You're the greatest, Phil." (I'm kidding, but only a little. This is really Phil's gig, and he was kind enough to invite me along. We're hoping that a successful tryout might turn into a regular feature at KRCB.)

Phil has hosted a cappella radio shows on Bay Area public broadcasting stations for more than 15 years. He's also the cohost of the annual webcast from the Barbershop Harmony Society's International convention. He knows everybody who's anybody in the a cappella music world and its barbershop subgenre, and was the producer of the SING! vocal music festival in Nashville in July 2001.

If you're wondering about my radio credentials, here's the skinny — and I do mean skinny, given the paucity of my airwave resume next to Phil's. For two years in the early '80s, I was a member (some might even go so far as to say a key member) of the staff of KMBU-FM in Malibu, California. I hosted weekly music shows, read news and sports, co-produced the public affairs program, co-managed the music department, directed the traffic department, was the chief studio engineer for remote sports broadcasts, and broadcast baseball play-by-play. Later, when I transferred from Pepperdine University to San Francisco State, I hosted another weekly music program on KSFS-FM.

And, at the bottom of a sock drawer somewhere, I own a real live Bachelor of Arts degree in Radio and Television Broadcasting that got me my first job out of college, selling ads for a country station in Modesto. A job from which I was unceremoniously dumped after two months in the wake of an ownership change. Thus ended my brilliant nascent broadcasting career.

As Robert Blake used to say before he got his battered mug plastered on the post office wall, that's the name of that tune.

So if you're at your computer on Friday night with nothing more pressing to emanate from your speakers, hop the feed and check out the show. The music will make you tap your toes, the witty banter will sparkle, and you'll be a better human being (assuming you're a human being already) for having listened. I guarantee it.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Ripped from the headlines

Dick Wolf, the producer of Law & Order, must be grinning from ear to ear.

The day after Merck is forced to yank the painkiller Vioxx off pharmacy shelves after a report links the popular drug to "thousands of deaths," Wolf pulls an L&O episode out of his hip pocket that could have been based on that very same late-breaking story.

How does he do that? And where does he get those wonderful toys?

(For the record, the episode was actually based on the link between the antidepressant Paxil and teen suicide, but who's nitpicky?)

WMDs prove harder to find than Waldo

The United States' lead arms inspector, Charles Duelfer, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee today that his investigation not only concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction at the time the current Traq conflict began, but also that Saddam hasn't had any WMD capability since the 1991 Gulf War.

Color me...well...not shocked.

With Duelfer's testimony coming on the heels of former Iraq honcho Paul Bremer's remarks earlier in the week that the administration had botched the Iraq invasion by sending in too few troops, you can almost smell the flop sweat beading on brows all over the White House.

The President, for his part, continued to aver that, WMD or no, Saddam was a threat who justified preemptive action. So let's see...if I suspect (without any concrete evidence to support my suspicion) that you might shoot me someday, and I know you used to own a gun 13 years ago (even though there's no concrete evidence that you own one at present, or that you have owned one at any time in the past 13 years), I would be justified in bombing your house to smithereens.

I know I've said this before, but...that sounds a little like Minority Report, doesn't it?

You'd think she'd have seen this coming...

Astrologer Joyce Jillson, who claimed to have worked her mojo for then-First Lady Nancy Reagan, died today.

Ironically, her horoscope for today read, "You are about to meet Rodney Dangerfield and Janet Leigh."

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

You owe it to the women you love — and if you're a woman, include yourself in that number — to learn all you can about this scourge that will affect one in every eight American women. The folks listed below would love to share with you what they've learned. The life you help save may be your wife's, your daughter's, your mother's, your grandmother's, or even your own.As with all forms of cancer, early detection and treatment is crucial. Women of all ages need to learn self-examination techniques, and to discuss with their physicians their possible risk factors. Women age 40 and over, and younger women who are otherwise at risk due to familial history or other indicators (your doctor can help you decide), should get mammograms annually.

Four years ago last month, my wife was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. At the time, she was 34 years old. Thanks to prompt surgical, chemotherapeutic, and radiation treatment — and hundreds of prayers — KJ today is in remission and in excellent health. Trust me on this — I've done a lot of difficult things in my lifetime, but none tougher than telling my 11-year-old daughter that her mother had cancer. I pray you never have to have that conversation with someone you love. But until the day when we can say breast cancer has gone the way of the passenger pigeon, education is the most effective weapon we have.

And if you've a few extra bucks lining your wallet this week, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the National Breast Cancer Coalition will put them to excellent use.


Tuesday, October 05, 2004

All those his foes who'd oppose this shield must yield

First, feast your eyes on this star-spangled wonder that arrived today from the potent pencil of artist Geof Isherwood:

Now, observe this little gem, which Mr. Isherwood kindly sent along as a bonus. It's a copy of the first issue of his self-published comic book Lincoln-16, autographed by the artist and personalized to yours truly in the lower right corner of the cover. (The signature is hard to read in this scan, as it's written in silver gel pen. But it's the thought that counts.)

This unexpected treat was an extremely generous gift on the part of Mr. Isherwood and his nonpareil art rep, Colleen McCool of Empyreal Press in Montreal. You wouldn't hurt my feelings one little bit if you popped over to Geof's Web site, browsed his wares, and maybe picked up a nice decoration for your living space.


All right, I admit it: I enjoyed Rodney Dangerfield.

No, he wasn't cool or hip or topical. Yes, his style was old-school Catskills resort instead of cutting-edge and streetwise. Yes, he was lowbrow and crass. And yes, he told some of the same hoary one-liners over and over again for decades.

But the man was funny.

As much as I liked his standup, my favorite memory of Rodney Dangerfield will be his role as Thornton Melon, the self-made garment tycoon who used his wealth from a chain of "Tall and Fat" stores to join his teenage son at college in Back to School. Only Rodney could get away with this exchange with a female student one-fourth his age:

He: What's your favorite subject?
She: Poetry.
He: Really? Well, maybe you can help me straighten out my Longfellow.

Or this one, with a sophisticated English teacher played by Sally Kellerman:

She: I'd love to go with you, but I've got a class right now.
He: Well, why don't you come and see me some time when you have no class?

Those lines may not look funny when read from a monitor screen, but when delivered with Rodney's impeccable timing and his signature "I don't care what anyone thinks about me, here I am" savoir faire, they were golden.

Maybe now, as the retrospectives and eulogies tumble forth from a million keyboards, old Rodney will, at long last, get some respect.

A true space cadet: Gordo Cooper

There's irony for you:

On the same day that a solo American pilot took a reusable private craft into space for its second trip within two weeks, securing the Ansari X Prize for Burt Rutan and his Tier One team, the last American pilot to orbit the Earth solo died.

Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr., known as "Gordo" to his colleagues, was the sixth and last of the Mercury astronauts who kicked off the first phase of the U.S. spaceflight program in the early 1960s. After launching on May 15, 1963, Gordo rode the capsule dubbed Faith 7 for 22 circuits of the globe during the next 34 hours. He later became the first person to repeat the orbital spaceflight experience when he and Charles "Pete" Conrad piloted Gemini 5 in August 1965.

Gordo — who was played by Dennis Quaid in Philip Kaufman's film The Right Stuff — had a reputation among the astronaut corps for being...well...different. He believed in UFOs, for example, to the degree that he spent the latter years of his life trying to convince people that a government conspiracy is covering up evidence that aliens have visited Earth. His book Leap of Faith, written in 2000, reiterated his claim, once made in an address before the United Nations, that he saw an alien spacecraft land at Edwards Air Force Base in 1957, and that his film of the event was confiscated by Federal agents. Cooper also said the government took away pictures he shot from Gemini 5 of the notorious Area 51 in Nevada.

(And yes, you're right, there were seven Mercury astronauts. Donald "Deke" Slayton, the seventh in line, was pulled from flight duty due to a heart murmur and never manned a Mercury capsule, instead becoming one of NASA's key Mission Control personnel. Slayton finally got his shot at space in 1975, when he participated in the joint Apollo-Soyuz docking mission.)

Monday, October 04, 2004

Art day in absentia

I had an art day on Saturday while I was gone, and it was an excellent one: three original pencil sketches by writer-artist Dan Jurgens, known forever as the man who drew the much-hyped Death of Superman cycle of stories for the Distinguished Competition. Dan's also the guy who created Booster Gold, DC's first significant post-Crisis on Infinite Earths character.


These scans lack definition (the art was scanned while framed), but until I can get new scans made (the pieces are too large for my scanner), these will have to do. The Hulk vs. Thor picture (Dan recently completed a lengthy run as writer on the Thor book) is absolutely stunning up close — I may think about commissioning someone to ink this one for me. The Lara Croft, Tomb Raider pinup is magnificent too, and it should be; Dan was the writer (not the artist, though; those chores went to Andy Park and Jonathan Sibal) on that Top Cow title. Spider-Man can you not love anything with Spidey on it?

Today's earworm

It's there, bouncing to and fro inside my skull, and I have no earthly idea why:

Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On, Reggae Woman."

At least it's not something by Tiffany or Chris De Burgh.

Giants postmortem

Alas, the Giants. So close, and yet...well, that would be a cliché.

It wasn't a bad season — plenty of teams would kill to win 91 games — especially given how utterly hapless the Giants looked at times in the early going. But when one more win would have landed you in the postseason, where anything can happen in a short series, you have to ask what you could and should have done better.

Hopefully, the ownership group learned that taking the cheap route doesn't cut it in today's baseball economy. The Giants had opportunities last off-season to land players of the caliber of Vlad Guerrero and Gary Sheffield, but instead chose to play their cards (and their wallets) close to the vest. Most of the major acquisitions were only so-so: Brett Tomko was up and down all year, but came on very strong in late season. A.J. Pierzynski had a lackluster year with negligible power (11 home runs) in a power-hitter's position — his backup, Yorvit Torrealba, had more than half as many homers (6) in only about a third as many at-bats — plus, he alienated most of the pitching staff (Tomko especially, in a now-legendary dustup) with his lackadaisical work habits. Michael Tucker had okay numbers for a fourth outfielder...except for the fact that he started most of the year, and except for the fact that he whiffed an embarrassing 106 times. Guys like Neifi Perez and Matt Herges got kicked to the curb or relegated to invisibility when they couldn't cut the mustard. Ricky Ledee...well, I told you so.

On the bright side, the Giants got another MVP-quality season and beaucoup publicity value out of the 40-year-old record-chaser in left field, who mashed 45 more monster blasts to push his career total to 703. J.T. Snow came back from the dead to post his best year in eons (.327 average, .529 slugging percentage). Ray Durham (.282, 17 homers as a leadoff man in only 120 games), Pedro Feliz (22 big flies, 84 RBI), and the ageless Marquis Grissom (22 homers, 90 RBI) all had solid offensive seasons (defense was often another story altogether). Deivi Cruz stepped in at shortstop when Perez got axed and put up a .292 average. In the pitching department, Jason Schmidt was Jason Schmidt — maybe the most imposing starter in the league after the freak of nature, Randy Johnson. Jerome "The Goods" Williams proved he's the real deal; he won 10 games despite being injured for nearly two months. Tomko, as previously noted, came around to be a dependable contributor. And my fellow Pepperdine Wave, Noah Lowry, was a revelation in the late going, posting a 6-0 record in 14 starts after Williams went down.

For next year, the Giants must at least think about:
  • Upgrading the outfield defensively by bringing in a fresh center fielder (Steve Finley?), moving Grissom to right and the Tucker-Dustan Mohr platoon to the scrap heap.

  • Giving up on the Robb Nen pipe dream and finding a legitimate closer. We can't live another year running guys like Herges and Dustin Hermanson out there in the late innings. Workhorse Jim Brower is a capable set-up man but no closer.

  • Persuading Kirk "Woody" Rueter to retire or move on. It's time.

  • What to do at shortstop, rather than rolling the dice that Deivi Cruz can maintain this pace over a full season as a starter.

  • Signing a slugging catcher who won't irritate the pitchers.

  • Finding better answers at utility infield than Cody Ransom and Brian Dallimore.
As Mr. Bonds told the Chronicle's John Shea yesterday, "You're upset, but you move on. It's life. It's baseball. It's easy. Turn it off. Go to the next thing. I'll take a week or two off and start up again."

See you in February, G-Men.

Lights out at the Bates Motel

Sad to hear that the star of my favorite scary movie, and one of my ten favorite films of all time, has passed on: Janet Leigh, who changed the face of motion pictures forever as Marion Crane, the victim of the world's most famous shower-stall murder, in Alfred Hitchcock's nonpareil Psycho. Is there a more indelible image in all of cinema than Leigh's horrified scream as Anthony Perkins's butcher knife swings down and Bernard Herrmann's violins screech in the background?

Ms. Leigh's lengthy Hollywood career held more delights than just her best-known role. She was equally fine as Meg March in the 1949 version of Little Women, as the master magician's longsuffering wife in Houdini (opposite then-husband Tony Curtis), as the bride of Charlton Heston's Mexican detective in Orson Welles's classic film noir Touch of Evil (if you haven't seen this picture, run — don't walk — to your local DVD outlet and pick it up), and one of the key players in John Frankenheimer's original Manchurian Candidate (ditto). In light of that sensational body of work, we can forgive her for Night of the Lepus, can't we?

And of course, Ms. Leigh provided the cinema an additional gift by bringing another scream queen into the world: daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, with whom she costarred in John Carpenter's The Fog.

A great loss to entertainment, though her films live on.

One related thought. To today's audiences accustomed to bucketloads of faux gore splattered across the screen, the terror engendered by Psycho (during its original 1960 theatrical release, people with weak hearts were cautioned against seeing it) may seem inexplicable. But I recall watching Psycho for my umpteenth time in a university auditorium on Halloween night in 1980 with a roomful of college kids, most of whom had never seen the film before. Trust me when I say that more lights were left on in dormitory rooms that night than on any other occasion in the history of that campus. Hitchcock knew what he was doing.

Capsule review: Boston Legal

I caught the debut episode of Boston Legal, David E. Kelley's spinoff from the late, lamented The Practice, last night. Observations and opinions follow.

As I feared, this one reeks redolent of Ally McBeal right from jump street. Kelley's already gone down the "law firm where everyone's a mental or emotional freak" path twice, with Ally and the latter seasons of his first series, the quintessential legal sudser L.A. Law. By now, the concept looks disturbingly threadbare. The reason The Practice worked so well for so many years lay in the fact that, while many of the cases handled by Donnell, Dole, Young, Frutt, et al. were indeed bizarre, the recurring characters were reasonably grounded in reality. The reason Ally McBeal burned out so quickly was that all of the regulars were nutjobs, which (a) gives the average viewer no one with whom to identify, and (b) is a difficult pitch to sustain for any length of time.

James Spader's Alan Shore made a refreshing addition to The Practice in its sign-off season because his amoral and sociopathic character played in contrast to the more normal types populating the rest of the cast. On Boston Legal, Alan is just one whacko in a roomful of whackos, and the effect simply doesn't work as splendidly. That Kelley and Co. recognize this was suggested in a line of script that found Alan observing, "In this firm, I come out on the sane side." That's not a good place for this character to be, and it doesn't bode well for the show as a whole.

Kelley is also making an unwelcome return to the kind of out-of-the-blue stuntwork that characterized Ally's descent. In last night's episode, Al Sharpton and his marcelled 'do interrupt a hearing during a civil case in which a young black girl and her mother are suing the producers of a revival of Annie — the girl didn't get the lead role because she wasn't white. In real life, even a former candidate for President wouldn't be allowed to interfere with a courtroom proceeding by delivering a grandstanding speech without even being called as a witness. This sort of silliness only serves to jar the viewer out of any semblance of suspension of disbelief that might have held sway before that moment, and makes the show look stupid and crass.

Not all is lost, however. Mark Valley, late of the delightful but short-lived Keen Eddie, makes a fine addition to the cast as the one reasonably normal member of the firm. (This was the function of Australian actor Vince Colosimo in the preview episodes from last year's The Practice, though Colosimo was playing a different character. I'm not sure what prompted the casting change, as Colosimo was very good also.) And Kelley has managed to find ways, at least in the first episode, of better integrating William Shatner's pompous Denny Crane into the flow of the story and making him less of a cartoon. (The stuntcasting of comic Larry Miller as a firm partner even loopier than Denny helped.)

James Spader as Alan Shore was the most watchable presence on TV last season. I'm still hoping that Boston Legal will continue that presence in even more watchable ways. At this point, though, my optimism's flagging just a smidge.

Back in the saddle again

As I was saying...

I spent this past weekend in Bakersfield at the Barbershop Harmony Society's Far Western District annual convention. My chorus came in fifth out of 23 competitors — right where we belonged, given the relative strength of the competition, but still quite a way from recapturing our glory days from as recently as four years ago, when we won our second of back-to-back District championships. Still, a fine time was enjoyed by all. Our new District champions, the L.A.-based Masters of Harmony, will probably win the International championship next July.

Saturday morning before the contest, the chorus shared breakfast on the property of (though not exactly within) the Crystal Palace, the country and western nightclub owned by Bakersfield legend Buck Owens. (It says something about a community that its local legends are Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Whether that something is positive or negative, I'll let you be the judge.) Those of my acquaintance who know of my antipathy for country music — an antipathy legendary in itself — found no end of hilarity in the fact that I, of all people, would be compelled to dine in a veritable bastion of redneck chic. Upon entering the banquet room, a rustic setting festooned with framed sleeves from classic C&W LPs, I experienced something akin to the reaction of Eddie Murphy's character in 48 Hrs. when he and Nick Nolte enter the cowboy bar: "Not a very popular place with the brothers." I'll admit that the breakfast was mighty tasty, though.

The quartet spent Saturday evening post-contest strolling the lobby of the convention site singing our repertoire amid the cacophony of several dozen other quartets, both organized and impromptu, all doing the same thing. Good exercise in concentration, requiring intense focus on our own ensemble sound and pitch while tuning out everything around us. We met a nice young woman from Seattle, a video game producer and barbershop singer who was in L.A. on business and decided to drive up and check out our convention. She graciously listened as we sang almost everything we know, and even joined in for a couple of numbers to which she knew the lead part.

A long, tiring weekend, especially when bookended by a 325-mile drive each direction. It really is true what they say: The best view of Bakersfield is in the rear-view mirror.