Saturday, January 29, 2005

Let Wayne Entertain you

I know you thought your Uncle Swan would be the last person on God's green earth to suggest that you watch a cheesy reality show, but I'm full of surprises.

Give a peek at The Entertainer, the second episode of which debuts on E! Sunday at 10 p.m. It's sort of like American Idol with Wayne Newton substituting for Simon Cowell. Or Last Comic Standing with Wayne Newton instead of Jay Mohr. Or, if you prefer, The Apprentice with Mr. Danke Schoen stepping into the big-hair role of The Donald.

The show's pretty much what you would expect: ten young performers — six singers, three comedians, and an illusionist — vie each week to advance through a process of elimination to emerge as America's next great entertainer. Which, in the context of this program, means a year-long performing gig at the Las Vegas Hilton.

But the show itself is not the reason you should watch.

One of the ten Wayniac hopefuls is a young man named Paul Sperrazza, who performs with the 2000 Harmony Sweepstakes National A Cappella Champions, Toxic Audio. The Toxins, as the group members call themselves, are no strangers to this sort of gig — a couple of years ago, the quintet performed (and won) on Ed McMahon's Next Big Star. Toxic Audio only recently wrapped a stint off-Broadway in their own music and comedy show, for which they won the coveted (at least, I presume someone else wanted to win it) Drama Desk Award for 2004.

Toxin Paul is a hyperactive ball of energy who sings, dances, beatboxes, and does backflips that make Ozzie Smith bow in homage. He's easily the most talented contestant on The Entertainer — which, as these things usually go, probably means he'll get knocked out in the early rounds. But while you can, do yourself a favor and check him out.

Besides, doesn't it make you feel good just knowing that Wayne Newton is still upright and breathing?

Friday, January 28, 2005

A Stone Cold lock

Thanks to Bob Ames at Bullets and Beer, the Web's preeminent site for information about the novels of my favorite mystery author, Robert B. Parker, I'm eagerly looking forward to the telefilm of Parker's Stone Cold. Based on the fourth in Parker's series of books about small-town police chief Jesse Stone, Stone Cold airs on CBS (the only major network whose initials represent truth in advertising) Sunday, February 20. A good cast, featuring Tom (Magnum P.I.) Selleck, Mimi (the first ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise) Rogers, and the vastly underheralded Viola Davis, stars.

It's interesting that after all these years, Selleck is finally playing a Parker hero on screen. In the '80s, he was hotly rumored to be starring as Parker's signature character, the one-named private detective called Spenser, in a feature film based on the novel Early Autumn. Due to Selleck's Magnum commitment, the film never got off the ground, and the late Robert Urich ended up making an indelible impression as Spenser in the TV series Spenser: For Hire and a gaggle of telefilm sequels.

After Urich's untimely death from cancer, actor Joe Mantegna picked up the mantle, appearing as Spenser in three A&E cable flicks that should be avoided like a big mean guy you owe money. Mantegna doesn't make an awful Spenser — though he's too slight of build and much too New York Italian to be convincing as a Boston-Irish ex-prizefighter, he adds the right tone of smart-alecky toughness — and Marcia Gay Harden is infinitely superior to any of the actresses who played Spenser's girlfriend Susan Silverman before her. But the scripts for the three Mantegna Spenser films are execrable, the direction is even worse, and the producers — who included Parker and his wife, which is why it's stunning that the movies are so dreadful — never found an actor who could replace the charismatic Avery Brooks as Hawk, Spenser's deadly comrade-in-arms.

Jesse Stone is more or less a younger (at least in the books) Spenser with a badge and a drinking problem, so it will be interesting to get a flavor of what Selleck might have done with the role of Boston's greatest detective. I'll be watching.

The Amazing Amazon, and other heroes

Over at The Real Sam Johnson Show (and if you're not reading Sam daily...well...why the heck not?), His Samness pontificated today about the lovely and lissome Lynda Carter, television's Wonder Woman in the late 1970s. I was never a huge fan of Lynda's interpretation of the character — too sweet, too wide-eyed, too glamorous for my taste — but there's no question that when you say "Wonder Woman" to most people, it's Lynda Carter's face (and other physical attributes) they envision.

My personal Wonder Woman fixation is legend to those of you who frequent this hallowed blog. (You can go ogle my Wonder Woman pin-up art collection if you doubt.) I was a Princess Diana fanatic long before Ms. Carter took to the airwaves. In my youthful comics-reading days, there were still very few really powerful female characters in the four-color crimebusting biz. Most superheroines then had rather wimpy powers — either they possessed paranormal mental abilities, like Saturn Girl in the Legion of Super-Heroes, or Marvel Girl (later Phoenix, now simply known by her real name, Jean Grey) in the X-Men, or they had the sort of superpowers that could be exercised from a distance, like the Invisible Girl's force fields or the Scarlet Witch's hex blasts. Wonder Woman was the only super-female in those days with the strength and grit to duke it out with the big boys. And that, combined with her abundantly evident beauty and less-obvious wisdom and intelligence (a hallmark of the character from her earliest appearances), made Diana one awesome woman in my book. It wasn't until Ms. Marvel's debut in the late '70s that another superheroine came along with the toughness and attitude to get her hands dirty.

It was ironic that I read Sam's article on the same day that I read this touching piece from the Detroit News about former Wonder Woman artist William Messner-Loebs. Bill was the writer-illustrator challenged with filling the monumental shoes of the immensely popular George Pérez when George left the Wonder Woman monthly in 1992. Bill, like far too many of his contemporaries in the last generation of comics creators, fell on difficult times when the Big Two publishers stopped ringing his phone four years ago. Not that Bill is any stranger to hardship. His right arm was amputated when he was a baby, to remove a cancerous tumor. His wife Nadine has a lengthy history of health-related problems. A few years back, Bill was involved in a near-fatal automobile accident. He and Nadine lost their home due to his lack of employment.

Yet Bill soldiers on, with a commendable spirit of determination. And in so doing, shames me that I ever raise my voice in complaint about anything.

In the comics, the superheroes wear colorful costumes and fight megalomaniacal villains. In real life, the true superheroes are ordinary folks like Sam Johnson, patiently awaiting a kidney transplant but still taking time to entertain his legion of fans via radio and weblog, and William Messner-Loebs, whose story I hope will fall across the desk of some editor at Marvel or DC and motivate that person to give him a book to write or draw.

All of which is, I suppose, as good an excuse as any to show off the latest addition to my "Temple of Diana." (That, and it's Friday. And Friday means "comic art" here at the old SSTOL.)

This alluring likeness of everyone's favorite Amazon comes from the still-talent-laden pencil of the legendary Nicholas Viscardi, or Nick Cardy as he signs his work. Mr. Cardy has been illustrating comics since the Golden Age, and is still actively drawing today, mostly by commission for his adoring fans. Although he's most renowned for his decade-long run on Aquaman and his work on the original Teen Titans, he draws a mighty fine Wonder Woman, in my humble assessment.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

She can't shake your love, but she can shake her moneymaker

The latest sign of the end of the world as we know it: Debbie Gibson is posing nude for Playboy.

Say it ain't so, Debster.

What are our former '80s teen pop idols coming to? Why, the next thing you know, Tiffany will be stripping her kit off in Hefner's rag.

What's that?

Oh. Never mind.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

What's Up With That? #11: Flaming death and other contact sports

I don't understand the logic of people who want to kill themselves by putting the lives of others in danger.

Take this clown in Los Angeles who parked his SUV on the railroad track in an effort to send himself to the Great Beyond, and wound up changing his mind at the last minute and slaughtering a dozen innocent citizens. Whatever happened to a .38 to the skull, or an overdose of barbiturates? If they were good enough for generations of celebrity suicides before you, pal, they're good enough for you.

Now, of course, they have the guy in L.A. County jail under suicide watch. You can cut the irony in here with a Miracle Blade. Just not your wrists, apparently.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

"You are deceased, sir."

You knew that eventually I'd get around to Johnny Carson, who passed away on Sunday. I appreciated Carson for a number of reasons, but I'll narrow the list to two.

First, no one in history did more to promote stand-up comedy than Carson did. Inasmuch as I believe that stand-up is the purest form of comedy — not to mention one of the most effective vehicles for communication ever invented — that's no small accomplishment. Comedy Central's recent 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time series ranked Carson 11th, way too low on a list that included Rodney Dangerfield and Roseanne Barr in the top ten, but perhaps 90 percent of the others on the list owed their careers, at least in part, to appearances on Carson's Tonight Show. When, as a comedian, you cracked the Tonight Show nut, you were on your way. If the impossible happened, and Carson invited you over to sit on the big couch after your set, your asking price immediately increased by a factor of ten. No one else in the business ever wielded that kind of starmaking power.

Second, as a performer, Carson not only possessed incredible timing, but he was the best mistake-maker I've ever seen. Carson could flub a line, or have a bad joke fall flatter than a souffle at a rave, and come back with a facial reaction or ad lib that was funnier than the original line or joke could ever have been. Even when flustered — as, for example, when zoo animals appeared on the show and their handlers couldn't control them — Johnny stayed in the pocket and spun hay into comedic gold.

It was a sad night for television went Carson lobbed his last phantom golf ball into the Tonight Show band. It's sadder still to know that Johnny will never again stride through the curtain, with his aw-shucks demeanor and razor wit, and make us laugh at our own foibles and those of our fellow human beings.

No more Carnac the Magnificent. No more Art Fern and his Tea Time Movies. No more shrugs of those skinny shoulders that always seemed a mite too small for his jackets. No more hilarious takes from that wonderfully expressive face. The world is less funny without Johnny Carson in it, and that's unfortunate. We need all the laughs we can get.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Just flew in from Vegas, and man, is this joke tired

Well, sports fans, KJ and your Uncle Swan have returned from celebrating 20 years of marital bliss (at least, 20 years, in each of which something approaching marital bliss has occasionally transpired) in America’s favorite party town — the City of Neon, Las Vegas, Nevada — and, while I don’t like to brag, we tore the roof off the sucker.

Then again, maybe not.

In fact, it’s safe to say that we are probably the most sedate visitors Las Vegas welcomes, with the possible exception of the endless battalions of slow-moving elderly folks who walk in front of us everywhere we go when we’re there. We don’t drink — not so much as a jigger, however much a jigger is — so all the offers of complimentary libations lay fallow at our feet. We don’t gamble much — KJ played one session of nickel slots amounting to less than twenty bucks, and I played about three hours total of blackjack (the only casino game I play for real money, and then only when I can find a five-dollar minimum table at which no one seated immediately next to me is smoking) and broke even. We don’t visit nightclubs, which you would know was a good thing had you ever seen me attempt postmodern dance. And we don’t parade naked down the Las Vegas Strip, much to the relief of the other tourists.

What do we do, then?

Well, we check out a lot of nifty sights. We eat in a lot of interesting places. We seek out entertaining shows. We stare goggle-eyed at pretty lights. We plaster our noses to the windows of expensive shops, and poke around in the ones where the merchandise is cheap enough that we can actually afford to buy some, and in which the aisles are sufficiently wide to permit me to wander about without fear of breaking delicate items for which I will then have to pay. We ride in taxicabs and enjoy the thrill of putting our lives in the hands of people with limited conversational English skills. We walk. A lot. And come home exhausted but with plenty of fun new stories to tell.

Herewith, the highlights of our week in Neonopolis.

Ted loves you. This was our first occasion to fly Ted, which used to be called United Shuttle before United found itself swimming in red ink and unloaded the extra brand identity, only to spend serious moolah rebooting the whole thing a couple of years later with a new brand, new graphics, and repainted planes. How do I get the contract to manage a deal like this?

The name “Ted,” as the United folks are quick to explain, is “part of UniTED.” Then again, “Nit” is part of United, too, but I’ll be doggoned if I’m climbing aboard something named after lice eggs. “Ite” would also be part of United, but I guess the United people hope folks find the accommodations more than just “ite.” (If that last line makes no sense to you, you need to spend more time listening to interviews with basketball players on ESPN SportsCenter, yo.)

Ted got us to Las Vegas bang on time, and to San Francisco a half-hour early, both with a minimum of nuisance. Ted is The Man. Uncle Swan gives Ted three big tailfeathers.

Got a condo made of stone-ah. We spent the week at the Luxor, in a fifth-floor room in the great glass pyramid, with an exceptional view of the Sphinx’s rump and not much else. You may be interested to know that the Sphinx is not anatomically correct. Assuming, of course, that the anatomy of a mythical creature would be comparable to that of similar, non-mythical creatures. Perhaps mythical creatures do not need to relieve themselves.

This was our first stay at the Luxor, a very cool place to hang out, though more than moderately confusing to navigate. (It is, of course, de rigeur for casino hotels to be laid out in as mind-boggling a manner as possible, so that lost patrons will end up depositing all their cash in slot machines out of sheer desperation.) We will stay there again.

Be warned, however, that Luxor employs the most painfully sluggish check-in methodology ever devised by the hospitality industry. It took an interminable amount of time to get our room, despite the fact that the lines were not inordinately long — only about five parties were queued up in front of me, but it took the desk clerk nearly an hour to disperse them. And this was on a Monday in January. I can well imagine winding up in a sarcophagus waiting to check in at Luxor on a busy holiday weekend.

Uncle Swan gives the Luxor three tailfeathers, but bites one in half because of that darned registration line.

Eat this, tourist. In case you haven’t done the Vegas thing lately and still envision an endless supply of $1.99 steaks and all-you-can-eat lobster, be advised that those deals, while they still exist in the remote corners of the Neon City (mostly in locations frequented by the resident population and shunned by outsiders), they are increasingly few and far between. Dining in today’s Vegas is all about fancy gourmet cuisine dished up in white-linen joints with famous chefs’ names on the marquee (though usually without said chefs personally slinging hash in the kitchen).

Obviously, one can eat only so many meals in a week. Therefore, if you’re looking for a comprehensive evaluation of the gustatory opportunities in Las Vegas, hie yourself over to the Las Vegas Advisor site or Cheapo Vegas and get the full 411. But if you’re willing to settle for a few random tips based on my experience and impeccable taste, read on.
  • Have you tried the buffet? The Bellagio, hands down. If you can’t find plenty to tempt your taste buds in this place, you’re angling for charter membership in the Mary-Kate Olsen Fan Club. It’s big-time pricey, but it’s worth every simoleon. I’d heard good things about Cravings, the buffet at the Mirage, many of which were true, but it’s a distant second to the Bellagio, which rates the full four tailfeathers from Uncle Swan.

  • Have you avoided the buffet? The Fremont, downtown. I’m sure there are worse buffets in Vegas — the horror stories about the spread at Circus Circus are legendary — but the Fremont offered the only subpar meal we ate all week. We chose it for no better reason than that we had a two-for-one coupon from the Las Vegas Advisor, which serves us right, I suppose. We ate here on Friday night, when seafood is the specialty of the evening. If an inveterate seafood lover such as your Uncle Swan can’t get behind this, you know it’s bad. One and a half tailfeathers, mostly for price and volume.

  • Dining, with a view of the city lights: VooDoo Café, on the 50th floor of the Rio. We had our anniversary dinner here, and it was spectacular. Great ambience, if you dig the whole New Orleans santeria vibe (neither of us ordered chicken, but I’m sure it wasn’t served live), and the vista outside the window can’t be beat. Fine service, too. If you go on a night when Tomi Sue is the photographer on duty, let her take your picture and give her a nice tip. Uncle Swan gives VooDoo four fluffy tailfeathers.

  • Dining, with a view of the inside of a casino: Samba, the Brazilian steakhouse at the Mirage. The specialty of the house is a rodizio-style barbecue, which means servers keep sidling up with massive skewers loaded with nine varieties of grilled meats, and will keep slicing the char-grilled goodness onto your plate until you plead with them to stop. I recommend the garlic-soy flank steak and the pork tenderloin with pineapple. I think they called this place Samba because they were concerned that "Carnivorgasm" would be too hard for gamblers to say after a few rounds of free cocktails. Whatever you call it, it rates four tailfeathers from your Uncle Swan.

  • Dining, with a view of a Brobdingnagian hunk o’ beef: Sir Galahad’s Prime Rib House at Excalibur. A traditional fave — the otherwise Morris-finicky KJ loves prime rib, so we eat here at least once whenever we’re in town and are yet to be disappointed. Vegans not invited. Uncle Swan gives Sir G three tailfeathers and a huzzah!

  • Dining, with a south-of-the-border flair: Gonzalez y Gonzalez at New York New York. Alleged by some sources to be the tastiest Mexican fare in town, and I’ll not dispute it. Try the nachos and the Gulf shrimp fajitas. Uncle Swan gives the G-men three tailfeathers and an olé!
The lights are much brighter there — sundry thoughts and observations about the City of Glitter:
  • Wanna draw back a stump? To paraphrase Barnard Hughes in The Lost Boys, “If there’s one thing I hate about Las Vegas, it’s all the [expletive deleted] vampires.” In Vegas, the bloodsuckers take the form of people who are paid (not very well, I’d guess) to assault your physical space everywhere you walk. Inside the casinos, it’s the folks from the time-share joints who want to lure you into a sales presentation with the proffer of allegedly gratis show tickets and meal comps. Outside on the Strip, these same leeches are joined by innumerable hosts of pamphleteers trying to slap ads for in-room strippers and escort services into your hand as you plow through on your way to the next hotel.

    Look, you maggots — and I say that with love and respect — I don’t have any problem with the time-share rental of vacation property, and whatever activities one indulges in the privacy of his or her hotel room are between them, whomever they invite in, and their mutual Maker. But if I wanted condos or hookers while I’m in town, I’d pick up the colossal Las Vegas Yellow Pages so thoughtfully provided by the hotel, look up your number, and call you.

    Put up all the billboards you wish. Take out ads atop cabs or on bus benches. Hire mimes, or pneumatic babes in thong bikinis, to stand on street corners wearing sandwich boards announcing your wares. But all you gain by having people get in my face is one angry tourist with social anxiety disorder and an itchy right cross.

  • From the If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Mess With It Department: The new free outdoor show at Treasure Island, entitled Sirens of TI, sucks swamp water. I miss the pirates. If I want to look at bimbos in lingerie, I’ll buy a ticket to the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana, or stand outside Victoria’s Secret. (Treasure Island, which now apparently prefers to be addressed simply as TI, has eradicated most of its former pirate theme in favor of...well...I can’t tell what exactly. It looks like just an expansion of the pseudotropical garb from the Mirage next door.)

  • Super Trouper Award: Mac King, the comic magician who performs afternoons at Harrah’s. Mac was struggling with a severe bout of laryngitis the day we saw him, and his voice cracked and wheezed to the point that he was sometimes barely audible. I’m sure he must have felt dreadful, but he gave his all for the audience who paid their money to see him.

  • Funniest Comic Alive: George Wallace, performing nightly at Bugsy Siegel’s old haunt, the Flamingo. If you’re in Vegas anytime in the next two years (he just signed a new deal with the hotel) and don’t go see George Wallace, you’ve done yourself a disservice. George uses some “adult language,” but his act isn’t “blue” in the sense that that word is normally used. As good an observational comedian as there is in show business, and he never does the same set twice.

  • Expensive, and Earning It: Penn and Teller at the Rio. Seeing them on our anniversary night was the highlight of KJ’s trip. Penn Jillette (the tall, blustery one) actually provides the pre-show entertainment, playing standup bass alongside a virtuoso pianist named Mike Jones for nearly an hour before taking the stage with his ever-silent partner, Teller. After the show, the guys sign autographs (KJ had them sign the envelope our photos from VooDoo came in) and pose for pictures with their adoring public. You won’t see a more entertaining show anywhere in Vegas. Maybe anywhere, period.

  • Overrated, and Looking It: Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo. I love magic acts — witness the fact that we saw three such performances in Vegas this trip — and Burton is as talented an illusionist as they come. But compared with the unbridled, boisterous energy of Penn and Teller, Lance seems stagey and stiff, and he comes off as far less charismatic live than he does in television appearances. He also needs to ease up on the plastic surgery, before he starts looking like Wayne Newton’s skinnier brother. Lance apparently had some dental work done recently, as he spoke through clenched teeth all evening.
Things I’m glad I saw on this trip to Vegas:
  • The Eiffel Tower and faux Montgolfier Brothers balloon outside Paris Las Vegas. Tres magnifique.

  • The upgraded light show on Fremont Street downtown.

  • An ad for a musical act called G. Love and Special Sauce, appearing at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. I’d cross a wide intersection to hear a band called G. Love and Special Sauce, even without knowing what kind of music they perform.

  • The Desert Passage Mall at the Aladdin Hotel. Now that Planet Hollywood has bought the place, they’re going to re-theme it and do away with all of the gorgeous desert décor. I understand why, but it’s still a shame to see all that design work go to waste.

  • A cute woman standing barefoot in front of the CVS Pharmacy on the South Strip. She was probably in her late 30s, wearing a plain floral dress, pleasantly plump, and had a smile that could persuade Siegfried and Roy to reconsider. I'd have taken her picture if I'd thought my wife wouldn't club me. (It wasn't like that, mind you — she just had this blissful composure amid all the cacophony, and I'd have liked to have learned why.)

  • The “living statues” that grace several of the themed shopping areas. Those people share an amazing talent, and a tough job.

  • The dancing fountains at the Bellagio, and the volcano at the Mirage. Every human being should see both at least once.

  • The back end of the Sphinx. Every human being should see a mythical creature's butt at least once.

  • Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum at the Venetian. I’ve seen a lot of waxworks displays, but this is by far the best. The likeness of the late Princess Diana was so lifelike it literally brought tears to my eyes.

  • The beaming grin on KJ’s face after she met and got autographs from Penn and Teller. Priceless.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

We're off to see the Wizard!

KJ and I are taking our long-awaited anniversary junket to Las Vegas starting tomorrow. Back in a week with stories, pictures, and who knows what all.

Speaking of wizards, you can entertain yourselves in my absence with this smashing artwork by the incomparable Geof Isherwood, featuring Dr. Strange doing that voodoo that he do so well.

Geof is currently working by commission on a mate for this piece, depicting the Scarlet Witch as the Mage's opponent in this battle mystic. These two drawings will look dynamite on my wall together.

So that's it for now. You kids don't set the house afire while I'm gone, y'hear?

Friday, January 14, 2005

Women and their weapons

What would Friday be without comic art to ogle? Why, it would be like a kiss without a squeeze, that's what.

Presented for your consideration are these two fine pen-and-ink drawings I recently commissioned from a young Los Angeles artist named TG Kinobi Sangalang, who signs his work with the initials TGK. (If my name was TG Kinobi Sangalang, I'd find a way to shorten it, too.)

I've purchased a couple of TGK's creations on eBay in recent months — a wonderfully mysterious Scarlet Witch and a striking Abigail Whistler (Jessica Biel's "Nightstalker" character in the film Blade: Trinity) — and was pleased enough with the quality of his art to commission a piece from him. He did a fantastic job depicting my requested character, Marvel Comics' one-woman vigilante army Silver Sable.

So impressed was I with TGK's handiwork on his first commission assignment that I immediately wanted to give him another. But what might it be?

I've just started a series of newly commissioned artworks that will feature pairs of otherwise unrelated superheroes who have some element in common. Sometimes the connection will be as obvious as similarly themed code names (e.g., Iron Man and Iron Fist, which matchup longtime comics artist Scott Rosema is presently working on). Sometimes the link is more esoteric (the masterful Geof Isherwood is going to partner Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle — in real life, an escape artist named Scott Free — with a little-seen female character called Free Spirit, briefly an associate of Captain America).

Since TGK has a real affinity for the ladies, I decided to ask him to pair everyone's favorite Amazon, Wonder Woman, with Marvel's favorite Femizon, Thundra. This was the charming and whimsical result.

I was tempted to ask TGK to draw these two heroines wearing footed flannel nightwear. That way, they would have been an Amazon and a Femizon with pajamazon. But I figured some of you would never forgive me.

They were expendable

Over in the DVD Verdict forums — aka The Jury Room — there's currently an active thread about science fiction or fantasy films that would make great movies. I offered these suggestions:

Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat (especially The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World) and Deathworld (especially Deathworld 2) series. Great science fiction in the classic style, with a sense of humor.

Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Two of my favorite stories of all time, and perhaps Asimov's best-realized robot novels.

Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever series. People who dig The Lord of the Rings or sword-and-sorcery fantasies would enjoy these incredible tales about a man with leprosy who is mysteriously transported to a land of dark magic, where he becomes an unwilling hero.

And especially, a real, honest-to-Lester Dent Doc Savage, Man of Bronze.

After I'd submitted by post to the thread, I thought of another group of science fiction novels that, in the hands of the right filmmaker and with today's CGI capabilities, would make fantastic movies.

Back in the 1970s, veteran sci-fi writer Edmund Cooper (using the pseudonym Richard Avery) penned a series of paperback potboilers about a spacefaring team of explorers who traveled to new worlds and made them safe for colonization by humans. The team was called the Expendables, because the United Nations staffed the missions with convicted felons (each of whom also happened to be a brilliant expert in some field of science) facing life in prison or death sentences. Half the team got wiped out in every book, thus proving themselves genuinely "expendable."

The leader of the Expendables was Captain James Conrad, an irascible cuss with one bionic arm and one bionic eye, who'd been kicked out of command duty in the Space Service in disgrace due to his violent tendencies. Conrad's faithful companions were Lieutenant Indira Smith, a woman from the Subcontinent with bionic legs and white hair (from the trauma that cost her the legs), and Dr. Kurt Kwango, a half-Nigerian, half-German ecologist who was both the brains and the muscle of the operation. (As you might suppose from their survival throughout the entire series, these three characters were not, in fact, expendable. Their traveling companions, on the other hand, might as well have worn red-shirted Starfleet security uniforms.)

In each novel, Conrad, Smith and Kwango would lead their merry band of cutthroat geniuses to a nearly discovered Earth-type planet, charged with taming whatever native dangers existed there so mankind could manifest-destiny its way in. Of course, each planet to which the Expendables traveled held some awful secret. Kratos (The Deathworms of Kratos) was overrun by gigantic, flesh-eating, wormlike creatures. Tantalus (The Rings of Tantalus) was guarded by killer robot monkeys. Zelos (The War Games of Zelos) was populated by real live human beings, whose appearance and culture was remarkably like that of Earth's ancient Vikings. Argus (The Venom of Argus) carried a double threat — carnivorous plant life and intelligent baboons.

The characters were uniformly one-dimensional and stereotypical in that '70s sort of way, but the Expendables' adventures were engrossing reads and thrilling, lightning-paced entertainment. And any of the four books in the series — especially The Deathworms of Kratos and The Venom of Argus — could be turned into blockbuster film fare along the lines of Pitch Black.

At any rate, I'd plunk down twenty bucks each for the DVDs.

Now all you are is "Gone"

Over on the excellent The Art of Getting By (which, if it's not already in hot rotation on your blogging playlist, certainly deserves to be), proprietress Janet recently posed this query to her loyal readers:

"You tell me what song you know and love that you think I should know and love, but that you're certain I don't know and therefore love...yet."

Which afforded me the excuse opportunity to give props to my all-time favorite Unknown Song.

"Gone" was recorded by the House Jacks, a San Francisco-based a cappella rock/funk band (and yes, I do mean "band") on their first CD, Naked Noise, way back in 1994. Written by then-member Tristan Bishop (who went on to pen and produce the chart hit "Say You'll Stay" for another vocal group, Kai), "Gone" is, quite simply, the most ineffably gorgeous power ballad ever recorded. The track features compelling lyrics, heart-rending harmonies, the incomparable vocal percussion talents of Andrew "Kid Beyond" Chaikin, and absolutely the sweetest, soaringest six-part ultimate chord in the history of music. It's a song that deserved to be the biggest smash on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1994, but never got the chance because it appeared on a self-produced CD by an ensemble no record company would give the time of day.

Well, almost no record company. The year after Naked Noise, the Jacks signed with Tommy Boy Records, a Warner Bros. subsidiary specializing in hip-hop, at the time riding high with such artists as Coolio and Queen Latifah. For Tommy Boy the Jacks recorded, with the support of several top-name producers, an album's worth of tracks for their major label debut.

And they lived happily ever after, right? "Happily ever after" only occurs in fairy tales, not in the recording industry.

As eager as Tommy Boy had been to sign the group, their enthusiasm cooled to glacial levels when they realized they had no concept of how to market "a rock band without instruments," as the House Jacks billed themselves. Tommy Boy's A&R execs thought they were getting the next Boyz II Men -- instead, they got six guys who covered stuff like Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and featured a drummer who percussed with his lips. Onto the shelf the Jacks' tapes were hurled, to moulder in the grave of studio hell like John Brown's body.

After enduring nearly two years of dawning realization that the label was never going to release their record, the Jacks purchased the master tapes from Tommy Boy and distributed the CD themselves, with less of the boy's-choir ballad material the record company wanted and more of the funky backbeat tunes long-time House Jacks fans expected, under the title Funkwich.

And "Gone" forever lost its opportunity at FM radio stardom.

Take a listen to this clip. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Admit it. You're hooked now.

A decade later, the House Jacks are still tearing down the walls of funk in their own inimitable style. Two of the group's original members — tenor and musical director Deke Sharon and bottomless bass and chick magnet Bert Bacco — still carry the flag, along with soulful lead vocalists Austin Willacy and Garth Kravits and "mouth drummer" Wes Carroll. Their most recent CD, Unbroken, is nothing short of spectacular — check out a few sample clips and see if you don't agree. (I'm sure you'd hurt no Jack's feelings if you picked up a CD or two while you were visiting. Tell 'em "the Jeopardy! guy" sent you.)

On Sunday, January 23, the House Jacks, along with my chorus, Bay Area Metro, and a host of other acts will be performing at In Harmony for Asia, a benefit concert for tsunami disaster relief. I'll miss the gig because I'll be off celebrating twenty years with my lovely bride. But if you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, here's a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon or evening grokking some stellar vocal music, while at the same time doing good for your fellow human beings. Your Uncle Swan says you'll love yourself if you go.

You were my world
You were my song
You're everything I could depend on
But now all you are is

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Idol of American Youth...

...hopefully is not Dan Siegel, a member of the Oakland school board who got clipped trying to board a flight out of Oakland International with a stash of cannabis. Marijuana is "just a part of life," says Siegel.

And people in Oakland wonder why their public education system stinks. That odor is the smell of burning sensimilla and ZigZag paper.

The poor example to potential youthful scofflaws aside, what was this guy thinking, trying to smuggle his weed onto an airplane? Dude, they're making little old ladies strip to their skivvies at security stations now. Did you really think they weren't going to nail you with a baggie in your pocket?

I can foresee Siegel's pathetic defense being used by students in the Oakland school district for a broad variety of campus offenses. Packing a Glock? "Just a part of life, teacher." Kicking a smaller kid's butt on the playground? "Hey, abuse is just a part of life — he'll have to get used to it sooner or later." Swiping another student's lunch money out of his backpack? "Even the government's just a part of life."

Hopefully, the next time Siegel runs for public office — he's announced his intention to run for mayor next year — the voters of Oakland will show him that losing, too, is just a part of life.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Go ahead — say something in Lesbian

On tonight's Law & Order episode, the producers showed Elisabeth Röhm the door. The closet door, that is.

In her final line on the series, Röhm's character, Assistant District Attorney Serena Southerlyn, revealed to the audience that she was a lesbian. In a remarkable display of restraint, the episode's writers did not have Fred Dalton Thompson, as DA Arthur Branch, reply, " don't look like a lesbian." They also did not script Branch saying, in response to Southerlyn's tearful inquiry whether she was being fired because she was gay, "No, Serena. It's because you're a lousy actress."

Aside from the grand orientation revelation, Röhm's departure wasn't a surprise. Her exit was announced before the season began, and her replacement, former soap star Annie Parisse, will step right into the L&O revolving cast door next week. Even the manner of Serena's sayonara — she was fired by Branch for letting her emotions get in the way of her prosecutorial judgment — came as no surprise, as Serena's growing dissatisfaction with the DA's office, and her superiors' growing dissatisfaction with her job performance, has been telegraphed in almost every episode this season.

The Sapphic shocker, however, winged in from left field. L&O has always made a point of showing as little of the recurring characters' personal lives as possible, but there had never been any hint of Serena's sexuality in her three and one-half seasons on the program. (Never a hint of her personality, either, but that seemed due more to Röhm's limitations as an actress, and the fact that the writers never seemed to find an interesting hook for the character, making Serena the least engaging of all the myriad personnel who have wended their way in and out of the venerable procedural drama.)

At least we can suppose that Jack McCoy, the Executive ADA (played by Sam Waterston) with a reputation for bedding his female associates, never made it to first base with Serena.

Next time, Harry, be a pirate

England's Prince Harry is eating serious magpie after wearing a Nazi uniform, complete with swastika armband, to a masquerade party. "It was a poor choice of costume," said His Royal Highness.

Gee, think?

Perhaps the youngest Royal forgot that his grandmother changed the family name in 1952 from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, formally adopting the convention set in place during World War I by King George V, specifically so people didn't think the Royals were German. (Actually they are, by ancestry, but one doesn't mention such things in polite company.)

Or maybe His Nibs was high on the wacky tobacky again.

The bonny Prince issued a public apology, and vowed that at next year's bash, he'll select a costume more appropriate to a youth of his lofty station. He's said to be vacillating between a Klan robe and minstrel blackface.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Not just a river in Egypt

Former Congressman Gary Condit states in a sworn deposition that his relationship with Chandra Levy (forgotten about her, had you?) was nothing more than a platonic friendship.

I believe this is the point in the story when Wayne Campbell might claim that monkeys would fly out of his nether orifice.

Sounds to me as though Mr. Condit has forgotten the lesson of "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." When will politicians learn that confession is good for the soul? The American people, bless their fuzzy little hearts, will forgive pretty near anything if the offender will simply allocute to the crime.

On a related note, I had the dreadful misfortune of living for nearly two years in Mr. Condit's home town of Ceres, California. During the time I was there, the shabby hamlet's chief distinction lay in being the home of the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

I don't know whether Condit did or didn't have an affair with Chandra Levy — were I a betting man, my money would be on "did." I don't know whether Condit did or didn't have anything to do with Chandra's murder — were I a betting man, my money would be on "didn't."

But this I know: When your burg's two leading citizens are a vehement racist and Gary Condit, and you share a city limit with the home of Scott Peterson, that's a reasonably strong claim to "armpit of the universe" status.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Hi, Tim!

I spotted an old schoolmate on tonight's episode of 24.

If you frequent The West Wing, you'd recognize Timothy Davis-Reed (as he's known professionally — he was merely Tim Davis back in those long-ago high school days). He appears in about half the episodes each season as Mark O'Donnell, one of the reporters populating the White House press corps. (A common pastime on Wednesday evenings at our house is waiting for me to shout "Hi, Tim!" at the television if Tim utters a line in that week's episode.)

Tim was also a regular on Sports Night, which I watched only occasionally (I'm not a sitcom fan, I'm afraid), and from time to time he pops up on other cathode-tube fare as well.

Tim and I had what I call a "yearbook acquaintance." We had enough classes together than we knew each other well enough to swap autographs at yearbook-signing time, but not well enough that, if Tim pulled out the old Icon and leafed through it today, he'd recall who I was. I rather suspect that his signature in my yearbook is somewhat more intrinsically valuable than mine in his.

At any rate, Tim was a good guy — still is, I suppose — and I'm delighted to take a certain vicarious pride in his success. (Hi, Tim!)

Interestingly enough, I don't remember Tim being a drama geek in high school. I would remember, too, because I was one for a while (someday I'll regale you with the tale of my skyrocket to stardom as Snoopy in our production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown), and Tim didn't run in our crowd. Back then, he was an athlete. Now he's an actor. People change.

Some do, anyway. I still spend an inordinate amount of time in the doghouse.


We robbed Ryan the rabbit of his lagomorphic masculinity today. Which put me in mind of this classic panel from Gary Larson's The Far Side.

Ryan was also supposed to have a routine blood panel drawn today — a handy opportunity for a general screening, since he happened to be going under the knife anyway. However, when KM and I arrived at the animal hospital to retrieve our little furry friend, the veterinary assistant advised us, "Ryan declined his blood draw today." You've gotta love a rabbit who says, "Neuter me if you must, but there are some things up with which I will not put."

Boy, do I miss The Far Side. (Probably more than Ryan will miss his family jewels.)

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Welcome back, Jack

It's a new season of 24, and I'm a happy guy.

So far, Day Four looks pretty tasty. I wish I could say the same for Jack Bauer's anorexic-looking new girlfriend, played by Kim Raver, formerly of Third Watch. The structure of the show doesn't give Jack much opportunity for a love life, but if the producers feel it necessary to give him the hook-up, I'd rather see him with someone with the star quality of Sarah Wynter, who played Jack's love interest on Day Two. That, or they should pull something completely out of left field, like matching him up with weird little Chloe (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub), who appears to be the sole survivor of the old crew at CTU (though I understand that Reiko Aylesworth will pop up again as Michelle Dessler later in the season). A Jack-Chloe affair would rock. (Nerd girls can be wicked cute.)

I am, however, disappointed that the show will air on Monday nights this year. That being chorus night, I'll have to rely on the girls to tape it every week.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Are you lonesome tonight?

If Elvis were still alive, he'd have turned 70 today.

Of course, if Elvis were still alive, he'd probably still be cramming his aging, portly carcass into a white sequined jumpsuit every night, just so he could toddle out on stage in some half-filled casino showroom in Las Vegas to fling sweat-soaked scarves at blue-haired grannies and croak out his ancient hits in a voice long since demolished by the ravages of overuse and time.

In other words, if Elvis were still alive, he'd be Wayne Newton.

He's better off dead.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Now they can't even be Friends

Go ahead. Tell me you were shocked by this.


Have you ever considered piracy?

As if the semi-tropical climate, gorgeous scenery, and Hemingway atmosphere weren't sufficient to make me long for a vacation in Key West, Florida, this seals the deal:

The Pirate Soul Museum is now open.

Very cool. Anything that combines pirates and soul (Cutthroat Island notwithstanding) is aces in my book. Pirates of the Caribbean has always been my favorite Disneyland attraction (it was Uncle Walt's favorite, too).

I had no idea there was going to be a Pirate Soul Museum, but I'm glad there is. I can scarcely believe the world survived this far into the 21st century without one. It's the brainchild of former Philadelphia 76ers owner — now TV reality show starPat Croce, who apparently is something of a pirate fanatic. The Associated Press story chronicling the museum's debut describes Croce as "a passionate collector of pirate memorabilia, who says he uses a pirate's philosophy to steer his business ventures." (I can just picture Pat sauntering into a corporate conference room wearing an eyepatch and a bandanna, swinging a cutlass overhead and growling, "Avast there, ye scurvy dogs! Dead men tell no tales!")

I have to believe this joint is going to be jumping on Talk Like a Pirate Day.

By the way, in case the opportunity ever presents itself, I would make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts.

Somebody turn off the Sex Machine

I'm baffled by a couple of things regarding the civil case recently filed against Godfather of Soul James Brown by a former assistant who claims Butane James sexually assaulted her in 1988.

First: 1988? My daughter, who's a sophomore in high school, wasn't even born in 1988. I'm certainly not saying the incident didn't happen — there are only two people on earth who know for certain whether it did or didn't, and I suspect that the Hardest Working Man in Show Business isn't talking — but...1988? That was four Presidents ago, for crying out loud. The alleged victim couldn't have spoken up before?

And yes, I understand that some rape victims have to travel a lengthy and arduous path before they can confront their attackers. I appreciate that this would be traumatic. But...1988?

Given that Brown was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer for which he is currently undergoing treatment, one wonders whether the possibility of Mr. Good Foot's impending demise might be leading someone to make a quick grab for a chunk of his estate before the opportunity is forever lost. That smacking sound you hear may be the lips of attorneys champing at the bit.

Again, if the deed was done, the guilty party should face the appropriate penalty. (I note, however, that this is a civil action, and that no criminal charges are being sought. Hmm.) And no one should get away with sexual violence or misconduct merely because of his wealth, fame, or popularity (**cough**Neverland**cough**). But...1988?

Second: Is James Brown's manager really named "SuperFrank"?

I don't even want to know why.

The Man and Woman of Bronze

Speaking of Doc Savageand I was — check out this incredible artwork featuring Doc and his cousin and fellow adventurer Patricia ("Pat," as she's typically addressed in the Doc novels).

This piece was just completed for me this week by a brilliant artist named Darryl Banks, best known for his eight-year run on DC Comics' Green Lantern. Darryl co-created (with writer Ron Marz) the third-generation Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, who made his first appearance in 1994.

Before his GL days, Darryl produced some magnificent art for a Doc Savage miniseries for Millennium Comics in the early '90s. I like Darryl's Doc because, even though he incorporates many of the characteristics of the now-familiar depiction artist James Bama created for the covers of a series of Bantam Books reprints (a depiction that differs a good bit from the way Doc is described in the original novels by pulp author Lester Dent), Darryl manages to make Doc look more human than Bama ever did.

This is a superb example of Darryl's art — the reason he isn't working on a regular series for one of the major comics publishers is a total mystery to me — and I can't wait for it to arrive in the mail sometime soon.

I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Lex Luthor

Looks as though Bryan Singer — director of the upcoming Superman Returns, starring former soap opera pretty boy Brandon Routh — has found his villain, and it's an old friend: Kevin Spacey, who turned in an Oscar-winning performance in the movie that made Singer a hot Hollywood commodity, The Usual Suspects.

I can see that. Spacey will make a perfect Luthor, which, along with Singer's capable guiding hand, gives me some confidence that the film won't stink on ice. I've never been a big backer of the Man of Steel — I've never really forgiven him for ripping off one of my heroes, Doc Savage, every way from Sunday, including stealing his name (Superman's secret identity is Clark Kent; Doc's real first name is also Clark), his nickname (five years before Superman's debut, Doc made his first appearance in the adventure The Man of Bronze), and even his hideout (how coincidental is it that two heroes both have retreats called the Fortress of Solitude, located in the Arctic wilderness? Doc had his years earlier) — but the success of any superhero film increases the likelihood that others will get made.

I keep hoping for Iron Man. With or without Tom Cruise.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Gavin sez: Gay marriage, good; straight marriage — eh, not so much

San Francisco Mayor Gavin "I'm not a Kennedy, but I play one on TV" Newsom and his bride of three years, Court TV personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, are splitsville.

From 40 miles away, I can hear lawyers salivating.

Gav and the Kimster assure the world that all is well — they'll still be best buds and boon companions and such — they've just developed separate lives, what with her career booming in the Big Apple and his political fortunes tied to Babylon-by-the-Bay. And I guess we'll let the story play that way in the media, if that's how the kids want to portray it.

But if someone's tell-all expose landing on bookshelves in years (even months) hence fairly drips with black ink to substantiate "the whisper told most often" — the one about a certain social butterfly playing the beard for a certain fast-rising politico — well, don't say you heard it from your Uncle Swan.

The lawyers have salivated enough already.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

A fool and his football team

A thundering surprise to absolutely no one, 49ers owner John York today fired head coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue.

Hey, Dr. York: Want to get a good look at the guy in your front office you really ought to fire? Step into the executive washroom — he's staring at you from the other side of the sink.

Not that Erickson, whose game strategies were so conservative the Heritage Foundation endorsed his playbook, or Donahue, a genial but thoroughly incompetent man in so far over his head as an NFL GM that the latest reprint of The Peter Principle has his photo on the flyleaf, were any great shakes, but Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, and Tom Landry combined couldn't engineer a winning team with the parsimonious Dr. York clenching the pursestrings like a junkie gripping a nickel bag. The Texas State Armadillos with Scott Bakula at quarterback, Sinbad on the O-line, and Kathy Ireland kicking field goals would stand a better chance than the 49ers' current roster of non-talent cobbled together out of bargain-basement extras from North Dallas Forty.

When you consider that this is a franchise that won five Super Bowls in its glory years, but has had only two .500-plus seasons since Dr. York and his wife Denise, the sister of ousted former owner Eddie DeBartolo, seized the joystick in 1999, it's a pitiful situation. And it won't get any better until York — who I'm convinced learned everything he knows about the game from that old Andy Griffith comic monologue, "What It Was, Was Football" — hires a strong leadership team with decades of NFL experience (both Erickson and Donahue made their meager reputations in college, not pro, ball), gives them ample financial wherewithal to build a functional roster, and then takes an extended vacation in Morocco for the next dozen years or so.

Congratulations on the 2-14 season, Dr. York. Your once-vaunted football team is the laughingstock of the NFL. Scapegoat whomever you wish and throw the bums out, but in reality, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Justice is blind, but it can see Bill Gates in the dark

Bill Gates's Windows Media Center PC froze up on him during his keynote presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Now you know how the rest of us feel, Bill.

Don't Super-Size me, but don't mini-size my order either

You know, I try to be empathetic with the folks who work in fast food joints. I recognize that most of these people have few, if any, other career options, or they wouldn't be wearing a paper cap for a living. I totally respect that they are pursuing gainful, legitimate employment instead of leeching off the public dole, or heisting plasma TVs off the back of Best Buy delivery trucks, or something equally reprehensible. And, selfishly, I'm glad they're there, because I don't want to sling my own Filets-O-Fish or Nachos BellGrande, but I do like to eat them.


Our local Taco Bell franchise is a running joke at our house, because the staff there never gets our drive-through orders right. Every time we go, we have to burrow through the bag so we can report, "Hey, we ordered two Mexican Pizzas." I'm not exaggerating when I say "every time," either. We're working on a streak of six consecutive Taco Bell visits that have resulted in an initially errant order fulfillment. Usually they leave something out of the bag that was supposed to be included. The last time, though, they gave us everything we ordered plus four additional items — a Mexi-Melt, a Chicken Soft Taco, and two Burrito Supremes — we neither requested nor paid for.

Tonight was Mickey D's turn. The disinterested, visibly pregnant young woman staring misty-eyed at the cash register neglected to put one of my FOFs in the bag. Then she gave me the old stink-eye because I dared mention (politely, of course) the fact, and seek just remedy.

I know what you're thinking. If you didn't eat that junk, Shamu, you'd be better off anyway. Perhaps so. But when I do so choose, they should at least fill my order correctly.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

He's Evel, but not that kind of Evel

A federal appeals court in San Francisco today pitched Evel Knievel's lawsuit against ESPN, in which the aging motorcycle daredevil claimed the sports network had defamed him by jokingly referring to him as a "pimp" in a photo caption on its Web site.

I, for one, can't imagine why Evel would believe anyone would really think he was a pimp. I mean, pimps are noted for gaudy outfits, fancy walking sticks, cadres of adoring women, loudmouthed braggadocio, and an outrageous, ostentatious lifestyle.


Never mind.

Welcome to Cooperstown, Wade and Ryno

Congratulations to the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, longtime Red Sox and Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs and popular Cubs second sacker Ryne Sandberg.

No surprise in either case, other than the fact that it took Sandberg three years to be voted in (this was the first year of eligibility for Boggs). Both were among the premier players of their generation at their respective positions.

Boggs was easily a shoo-in: a career .328 average; 3010 total hits; five American League batting titles, four of which he won in years when he led both major leagues in batting. Sounds like a Hall of Famer to me. The only strike against Boggs was his long-term affair with a woman not his wife (like that never happens in professional sports), which became rather nasty when it came to public light.

Sandberg is a tougher call only because second baseman are primarily defensive players, with the odd exception of a Bill Madlock or Jeff Kent, and therefore must be evaluated on the basis of overall contribution rather than strictly on the numbers. Sandberg was for a while the best second baseman in the National League, winning nine Gold Gloves at the position, plus the NL Most Valuable Player Award in 1984. I'd have voted for him without qualm.

Of the other players on the HOF ballot this time around, I would also have thrown a vote to each of the following players, none of whom garnered enough support to gain election: Bruce Sutter, the superstar relief pitcher who helped create the "closer" role in modern baseball; Jim Rice, the great Red Sox outfielder; Rich "The Goose" Gossage, another stellar reliever who was even more imposing than Sutter; Andre "The Hawk" Dawson, the power-hitting, sure-fielding outfielder for the Expos and Cubs; and Jack Morris, the Tigers pitcher who was indisputably the American League's best starter during the 1980s.

Frankly, I continue to be baffled that all five of these worthy gentlemen remain outside the Hall looking in. It is far easier to make a case for each of them to be included than it is for any of them to be excluded, and I consider myself a tough grader when it comes to HOF nominees. Dawson, in particular, should have been a first-ballot lock. Rice continues to be denied mostly because he was an unpleasant guy who alternately snubbed and antagonized sportswriters — a stupid reason, in my view, but there you go.

Each year when the Hall of Fame balloting is announced, I'm always curious to see the bottom of the list, where reside the players who collected insufficient votes to remain on the ballot for another year. Usually, this group consists of players whom no self-respecting baseball writer should even consider checking off, but there is always a smattering of incomprehensible support for guys like Black Jack McDowell (four votes), Tom Candiotti (two), and Jeff Montgomery (two).

I was, however, pleased to see that Chili Davis picked up three votes. Chili doesn't belong in the Hall, but he was a much better player than he ever received credit for being. The numbers he put up during his 18-plus seasons with five teams (most prominently the Giants and Angels) prove it: 350 home runs, 1372 runs batted in, and a career slugging percentage of .451. Those aren't Hall of Fame totals, but they're extremely respectable. Chili has nothing to be embarrassed about when he shows his grandchildren his baseball card.

A sad day in Wildwood Cemetery

Will Eisner has died.

If you're not a comics fan, that name may not mean much to you. In fact, you could be a devoted fan of today's comics and not be familiar with the name. But trust me on this — if you've ever seen a comic book, or even newspaper comic strips, you've seen work that owed a debt to Will Eisner. It may very well be fair to call him the most influential artist in the history of the comics medium. And that's saying a mouthful.

Eisner was best known for The Spirit, a superhero (though he possessed no superhuman powers) who appeared originally not in comic books per se, but in a color supplement for newspapers. The Spirit was really a police detective named Denny Colt, who, when believed by the world to have been murdered by criminals, donned a domino mask and assumed a new identity as the crimefighting Spirit, setting up his base of operations in the suitably creepy Wildwood Cemetery. Assisted at times by his cab-driving sidekick Ebony White, the Spirit spent a good deal of his time watching out after his girlfriend Ellen Dolan, daughter of the local police commissioner, and fending off the advances of the slinky villainess P'Gell.

I don't know whether Eisner was the first comic artist to view sequential art cinematically, but he certainly brought to the paneled page a film director's eye and sensibilities. Reading The Spirit was like watching a seriocomic film noir unfold in still frames before your eyes. There had never been anything like it before — though Eisner borrowed from such characters as the Shadow, most of the Spirit's antecedents came from pulp fiction, not from the comics — and nothing entirely like it since, though the echoes of Eisner's innovative visual and storytelling techniques ring in the work of every sequential artist who followed him, most especially talents like Wally Wood, Neal Adams, Frank Miller, and Jim Steranko.

Of course, I was born nearly a decade after the Spirit supplements ceased in 1952. I discovered Eisner in the early 1970s when Warren Publications (the Famous Monsters of Filmland and Vampirella people) published a regular series of magazine-format reprints of the old Spirit strips. I was dazzled both by Eisner's art and by his powerful narrative ability. But it wasn't until I read Jules Feiffer's classic book of superhero lore, The Great Comic Book Heroes, that I understood fully what a giant Eisner was.

During the time when the Warren Spirit reprints were being published, Eisner came in for some criticism for the character Ebony White, who spoke in the stereotypical minstrel dialect emploed by most black characters in the mass media in the 1940s and '50s. But viewed in context, Eisner's depiction of Ebony was remarkably forward-thinking. Ebony was courageous and tough, not simpering and cowardly like the characters Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, and other African American actors portrayed in the films of the day. He was also street-smart, resourceful, and fiercely loyal to the Spirit, who in turn treated him with friendship and genuine respect. Did Ebony represent the best or most accurate portrayal of people of color? Certainly not, but there were plenty of characters in those days that were far worse, and if Eisner's presentation was perhaps unenlightened, I never found it hurtful or mean-spirited (no pun intended), unlike the radio version of Amos and Andy, to cite one example. In fact, Ebony got about as decent a shake as a black character got until the Marvel Comics of the '60s and '70s introduced such icons as the Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Gabriel Jones of the Howling Commandos and later of SHIELD.

Will Eisner worked actively right up until his death, and was still producing amazing art well into his 80s. It's no accident that the highest honor in the comics industry is called the Eisner Award. No one deserved it more. For his talent, his influence, and his nonpareil body of work, Eisner will be dearly missed.

Monday, January 03, 2005

This just in: Anaheim now part of Los Angeles

The baseball artists formerly known as the Anaheim Angels announced today that they are rechristening themselves the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels, who until 1997 were called the California Angels, were originally the Los Angeles Angels when they entered the American League in 1961. Of course, the team actually played in Los Angeles then, but they hied themselves out to the O.C. — as we TV buffs like to call it — way back in 1966, and have played in Anaheim ever since.

The idea of a sports franchise bearing a name of a city other than its physical address is not unprecedented. After all, both of the two NFL teams designated "New York," the Giants and the Jets, have resided at East Rutherford, New Jersey's Meadowlands complex for years.

And the Angels' hometown neighbors, the NHL's Mighty Ducks (you remember the NHL, don't you?), long ago pioneered the location-as-afterthought naming convention, being known officially as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, rather than as the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. No word yet on whether the Ducks will now change their name to the Mighty Ducks of Los Angeles in Anaheim. Then again, there's no word yet on whether we'll ever see NHL hockey again, period.

Whatever the Angels are called, they still will at best be a distant second in the Stupid Sport Team ID Sweepstakes. First place was nailed down long ago, by the Golden State Warriors.

But don't get me started on that one.

A best-seller preserved in Amber

Looks as though the first major book release of the new year will be the 214-page tome written by (okay, who are we kidding here? ghosted for) Scott Peterson's erstwhile mistress Amber Frey. Witness For the Prosecution of Scott Peterson — now there's a gripping title — reportedly contains such gems as Amber's revelation that she "still thinks about Scott from time to time," and wonders "if he thinks about me."

Clearly, this woman is a slow learner.

The book also includes chapters entitled "Oh My God! Laci's Baby is Due On My Birthday!" and "Isn't That a Little Twisted, Scott?" I suppose that, if the whole "massage therapy" industry takes a nosedive, Amber may well have a future composing headlines for supermarket tabloids. She does, after all, have considerable experience in that department.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

It's a Wonder that it's 2005

What better way to begin a new year, than with the Amazing Amazon in all her star-spangled glory?

In the coming year, may all your bullets meet your bracelets.