Monday, February 28, 2005

Happy birthday , Abby!

This is my personal assistant, Abby. She's four years old today, in people years. (That's roughly 30 for a dog her size.)

She's neither the best trained nor the most compliant dog you ever met, but she's friendly and fiercely loyal. Chances are, whenever I'm blogging here, she's lying at my feet or somewhere nearby, waiting for me to drop a pretzel or tortilla chip.

If you want to send her a gift, she likes books about film and television, contemporary a cappella CDs, and original comic book art.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Swan goes to the Oscars (Björk not included)

Nice to see the good guys clean up at the Academy Awards tonight.

Everyone knew ahead of time that Jamie Foxx would win for Ray, but I was pleased for Cate Blanchett (one of the most underrated talents in the film industry, despite a previous Oscar nomination for Elizabeth), Hilary Swank (is she Julia Roberts's little sister, or what?), and the great Morgan Freeman, who ought to have a mantelpiece full of gold statuettes by now. (Hang in there, Don Cheadle and Imelda Staunton. You'll each get your chance.)

Congratulations to Clint Eastwood for winning both Best Director and Best Picture, because (a) Clint is The Man, and (b) nothing with Leonardo DiCaprio in it should ever win anything but awards for his costars (Cate Blanchett, for one) forced to play alongside his smug, self-focused performances. Clint sealed his legacy as the greatest actor-director in the history of motion pictures, and deservedly so.

I was delighted that Brad Bird won for The Incredibles, because there wasn't a Best Animated Feature award when The Iron Giant, one of the best films of 1999 in any genre, was released.

How on earth did they talk Prince into presenting an award? He was pretty smooth, too, until he had to pronounce the name of the Spanish number that won Best Original Song.

Not smooth in the least: Dustin Hoffman. I don't know what the D-Man had been imbibing, but the barkeep cut him off a couple of servings too late. Let's hope he came with a designated driver.

And a tip of the web-shooter to John Dykstra, whose team won Best Visual Effects for Spider-Man 2, for the line of the night: "I'm just lucky there wasn't a fourth episode of The Lord of the Rings." Dykstra hasn't won the Oscar since 'way back in 1978 for the original Star Wars, despite three nominations since (the first Star Trek film, Stuart Little, and the original Spider-Man). Of course, Dykstra was the visual effects guy on both of Joel Schumacher's atrocious Batman sequels, so he had a ton of bad karma to negate.

I missed Chris Rock's opening monologue, but I was impressed with the way he kept the show moving without feeling compelled to insert a joke every time he introduced the next presenter. In fact, this was the breeziest Oscarcast I can recall in many a moon — they were rolling credits well before 9 p.m. PST. East Coasters will actually get to bed at a decent hour tonight. I still miss Whoopi — easily the best Oscar host since Carson, she grew into the role after a so-so first stint — but Chris is welcome back next year if I have a vote. Which I don't.

And now, Uncle Swan plays Mr. Blackwell:
  • Oprah: The orange lipstick has got to go, girl.

  • Hilary Swank: Your seamstress called — she found the back of your dress.

  • For a dorky chick, Maggie Gyllenhaal cleans up pretty well.

  • For a dorky chick, Renée Zellweger cleans up to look a lot like a dorky chick with a bad haircut, wearing an air conditioning duct two sizes smaller than the Grinch's heart.

  • Charlize Theron: Wedding gowns are for weddings. Unless you're marrying Oscar, no trains allowed.

  • Thank you, Kate Winslet, for again reminding the world that a beautiful woman doesn't have to be a size 1.

  • For a guy who usually dresses like a nuclear meltdown in an Edwardian haberdashery, Prince was nicely turned out.

  • Judging by his outlandish getup, Johnny Depp apparently thought he was Prince.

  • Glad to see a lot of the men have stuck with the dark suits with long neckties that first surfaced in 2002. It's a classy look.

  • Kirsten Dunst? Kirsten, don't.

  • Beyoncé and fiancé Jay-Z make a very attractive couple. Plus, I just like saying "Beyoncé and fiancé."

  • Helen Mirren radiated old-fashioned star quality. Younger ladies, take a page from her book.

  • P. Diddy: That Temptations tribute act from Vegas called — they need the suit back.

  • I see George Lucas turned Natalie Portman loose in the Princess Leia, Slave Girl wardrobe trailer again.

  • Was that Ethan Hawke, or Shaggy from Scooby-Doo?

  • Was that Robin Williams, or the chauffeur for the Village People?

  • Even if she never makes a film in English, Catalina Sandino Moreno should be invited to sit up front at the Oscars every year. Please.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

What's Up With That? #13: A Hitch in complexion means no screen connection

According to an interview Will Smith gave to a British newspaper while on a publicity tour for his new film, Hitch, Latina actress Eva Mendes was cast as Smith's love interest in the film because casting either a black or white actress would have hurt the picture's box office.

Here's what Big Willie Style told the Birmingham Post:
"There's sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don't want to see it. We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up — that'll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S."
How bizarre is it that we're still reading this sort of story nearly half a decade into the 21st century?

The apparent distaste in foreign markets for all-black casting...well, not much we can do there. There are vast portions of Europe and the Far East where folks of African ancestry aren't part of everyday life, so we can chalk up their limited world view to basic ignorance.

But here in the United States, humanity's melting pot, the land of the free and home of the colorblind, where all men (and, at least in the subtext, women) are created equal, we still can't get over our cultural horror that folks of varying melanin content do, in fact, find it possible to love one another.



Deeply, even.

And that it's okay. Really.

Perhaps it's because I, myself, am of biracial parentage that I have always been baffled by racism in general, and man's fear of man gettin' jiggy wit' woman of variant pigmentation in particular. As the product of a assignation that occurred 44 years ago between two members of the U.S. Armed Forces — a woman of Scandinavian extraction and a man of African descent — I am living proof that the biology works. Differently colored folks can mate and produce fine, well adjusted, morally upstanding model citizens (though my adoptive parents deserve the lion's share of the credit for the latter). Fully functional. Capable of rational, even intellectual, thought (want to see my Jeopardy! tapes?). Equipped with the complete complement of fingers, toes, and other accoutrements. Without horns, tails, hooved feet, or other marks of genetic mutation or defect. (Although, having been a lifelong reader of X-Men comics, I can name a few mutations I would dearly enjoy having.)

And it's okay. Really.

What's even more bizarre is that, while the onscreen union of black and white still bears the stamp of taboo, it's perfectly all right for black or white to hook up with people inhabiting the color wheel somewhere in between. Hence, while apparently some folks would take umbrage with seeing Will Smith romancing, say, Téa Leoni or Linda Fiorentino (female actors of the Causasian persuasion who have costarred with — but not played romantic scenes with — the erstwhile Fresh Prince), these same people would hand over their cash to buy tickets to see Will nuzzling with, say, a señorita linda such as Eva Mendes, who as an American of Cuban heritage is not dark enough to be "black" yet not fair enough to be "white."


And lest anyone suppose that this is merely a problem on the part of our melanin-challenged citizenry, it isn't. Plenty of African-Americans harbor equally passionate displeasure with "miscegenation," to use an archaic term. It's an open secret in Hollywood that one of our most highly regarded and honored actors — yes, Denzel Washington, I'm talking about you — declines to perform love scenes with Caucasian costars for fear of alienating his fan base in the black community. (I'm told there were sequences shot for Man on Fire featuring Denzel and Radha Mitchell that Mr. Washington personally requested to have edited out of the theatrical cut.) So stupidity isn't the exclusive province of any ethnic group.

Perhaps one day, the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will be a reality in our private lives as well as in our public venues, including the motion picture screen: that we will learn to judge one another entirely by the content of our character rather than by the color of our skins. I'm not holding my breath, but it's nice to dream.

And it would be okay. Really.


Friday, February 25, 2005

Kindred spirits

Today's comic art moment is brought to you by the letter "S."

This charming scene pairs two generations of superheroes: The Spirit, the late Will Eisner's seminal character from the Sunday newspaper supplements of the 1940s, and Shadowcat, the youthful costar of such Marvel series as X-Men and Excalibur. (I've written at length about the Spirit previously — check out this post if you missed it.)

Shadowcat — whose "real" name is Katherine Pryde but is universally referred to as "Kitty" by her peers — has always been one of my favorite characters in the latter-day X-Men, because her playful nature harkens back to a more innocent time when superhero comics weren't so grim as they are today. Introduced early in the run of the "new" X-Men in the 1970s, Kitty started out as something of a "little sister" to the rest of the X-Men (she was only 13 when she first appeared) — rather like an updated version of Mary Marvel, another favorite of mine. As the character matured, she usually retained a good deal of her adolescent exuberance (depending on the writer handling her adventures). She even adopted a pet dragon named Lockheed, reminiscent of the super-pets that populated the Superboy/Supergirl stories of the '50s and '60s.

For those of you who only know the X-Men from the movies, Kitty is the "little girl who can walk through walls" Professor Xavier mentions to the President near the end of X2: X-Men United. We see her exercise her powers briefly in both films, though she's played by a different young actress in each picture: Sumela Kay in the original X-Men, and Katie Stuart (who starred in the TV miniseries A Wrinkle in Time) in X2.

Why these two characters together? The common elements here are a bit subtle. In her early years in the X-Men, Kitty changed code names and costumes practically every other issue. For a brief while, she called herself "Sprite," a word which (you're way ahead of me) is derived from the same root as "Spirit."

Also, Kitty and the Spirit are two of the surprisingly few Jewish characters in mainstream comics — surprising because many, even most, of the prominent creative forces in the Golden and Silver Ages of comics were Jewish. Kitty Pryde openly declared her heritage some years ago, and even sports a Mogen David occasionally when not in costume. Will Eisner always said he never thought of the Spirit as Jewish specifically, but I'll accept the testimony of comics writer and historian Jules Feiffer, who assisted Eisner on The Spirit for many years. Feiffer says he always identified the Spirit as Jewish: "His name may have been Denny Colt, but you knew it had been Cohen at some point."

For this marvelous piece of art, I'm grateful to the talented Brian Douglas Ahern, who signs his work "Briz." For several years, Briz wrote and drew the monthly calendar feature in Wizard, the bible of the comics industry, as well as a popular cartoon, "The Adventures of Bumpkin Buzz," which appeared in the Comics Buyers Guide.

Briz's lighthearted cartooning style is perfectly suited to these two heroes, and he did a delightful job in bringing this scene to life. He even incorporated Eisner's famous trope of working the name of his hero into the landscape of his opening panels — you can see "Spirit" spelled out in the swirling litter in the background, and "Kitty" etched like graffiti into the brick wall. Trés cool.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Workin' it like His Samness

We don't often do the meme thing here at SSTOL. In fact, I believe we've done all of one meme in the august history of this blog. But if it gets a few people over to In Honor of Sam Johnson to learn about, and hopefully donate a few bucks to, Sam's effort to raise funds for his upcoming kidney transplant, I'm down with it, because Sam is one of the good guys.

Therefore, without further ado, here is the SSTOL response to Sam Johnson's Meme.

What's your favorite kind of cookie? White chocolate macadamia. Preferably warm from the oven at the local Mrs. Fields. Debra's Specials (kind of an oatmeal-raisin affair) are pretty tasty too. I haven't had either in eons, but I'm hankering for them as I type.

Who is America's most overrated actor? I can't believe critics are actually considering Adam Sandler an actor these days, but there you go. Jim Carrey is hot on his heels. (Speaking of Jim Carrey, who on earth is paying their hard-earned simoleons to see Son of the Mask? This is a Jim Carrey movie so awful Jim Carrey wouldn't even appear in it. Send the nine dollars to Sam Johnson's kidney fund instead.)

Name a guilty pleasure. Watching Cheaters on Saturday nights. It's train-wreck television. If the show runs long enough, every couple in every low-rent apartment complex in the Dallas metropolitan area will be on it.

Scrubs or Everybody Loves Raymond? Neither. I haven't watched sitcoms since The Cosby Show was in its heyday. But every time I see a commercial for Everybody Loves Raymond, I chuckle at the thought that I have on my bookshelf a copy of Danny Peary's book Cult Movie Stars which states that Peter Boyle died in 1990. He looks just fine in the ads.

Name two things you can't live without. DSL and a cappella music.

Using your first pet's name and your mother's maiden name, come up with your porn star name. Mandy Todd, which isn't all that porn star-ish, really. My dogs have always had rather prosaic names. Right, Abby?

What song are you listening to right now? At the moment, I'm listening to Iron Chef. Does the theme from Backdraft count?

Name your celebrity crush. Diane Lane. But I haven't entirely given up on Martha Quinn.

Favorite punchline from a joke. "It's the butcher!" (You Welcome Back, Kotter fans will recall the joke.)

Who do you want to pass this meme off to? Anyone and everyone who'll help Sam get his kidney. And that's the truth, Ruth.

Men of Tomorrow

Today I picked up Gerard Jones's new book, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. I'd stopped by Borders a couple of weeks ago looking for it, and they didn't have a copy in stock. This time, bingo.

I've heard terrific things about this book, and have been looking forward to reading it. Gerard Jones is a longtime comics scribe who has worked on practically every major title at both Marvel and DC at one time or another. He's also the co-author (with Will Jacobs) of one of my favorite books ever, The Comic Book Heroes — now sadly out of print, but the most fascinating study of the stories behind the stories during the modern era of comics, beginning in the mid-1950s and continuing into the early '90s. It's the one book that never leaves my bathroom, which is high praise indeed.

When I've finished Men of Tomorrow, I'll give you a thorough review.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Arena Football: the other white meat

NBC today announced a new two-year contract to continue its broadcasts of the Arena Football League.

Umm...Arena Football? Is that still on?

Seriously — do you know anyone who watches Arena Football? Can you name two teams in the Arena Football League? Can you name three cities with an Arena Football franchise?

That's what I thought.

NBC has been desperate for football since they lost their piece of the NFL pie a few years back. That desperation led to the misbegotten XFL — a collaboration between NBC and World Wrestling Entertainment, with all the intellectual gravity that implies — which lasted one season and barely survived that long. After the XFL collapsed, NBC hitched its gridiron wagon to the star of a sport so obscure few Americans even know it exists, much less are able to describe how it's played. (Think football in a hockey rink with Astroturf over the ice. Sounds thrilling, doesn't it?)

You can usually gauge the quality of a sports league by the names of its teams — the more franchises in the league with silly or downright stupid names, the worse the product on the field. Arena Football includes such stalwarts as the Grand Rapids Rampage (whose logo is a rhinoceros, like you see plenty of those in western Michigan), the Georgia Force (as in, you couldn't force me to live in Georgia), the Dallas Desperadoes (I'm thinking the halftime show features Eagles ballads), and the Philadelphia Soul (this one has some interesting marketing possibilities — instead of jerseys, dashikis with numbers on the back, and platform Nikes).

Another sure sign of sports league creative bankruptcy is teams with nearly identical names. Remember when the Canadian Football League had the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders, two teams whose names were distinguishable only in print? Arena Football has the Rush and the Crush (Chicago and Colorado, respectively) and the Kats and the SaberCats (Nashville and San Jose — and what in the world is a "Kat," anyway? Do people in Tennessee really spell that poorly?).

On the other hand, you've gotta give the Las Vegas team credit for naming itself the Gladiators, when they play Arena Football. What would really be cool is having gladiator-sounding names on the backs of all the players' jerseys: Spartacus, Lattisimus Dorsi, Miles Gloriosus, and Gluteus Maximus. Even better — have the team play its home games at Caesars Palace.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dr. Gene passes his last collection plate

I see in the news that Dr. Gene Scott, the televangelist, died yesterday.

Dr. Gene was a major league crackpot in a field of endeavor that seems to attract fractured terra cotta like trailer parks attract tornados. But at a time when his peers-slash-competitors like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Garner Ted Armstrong have largely faded from public view, Dr. Gene was still plugging along at age 75.

Back in the early '80s when I was studying broadcast communications at San Francisco State University, I wrote my senior thesis on televangelism, and I'm certain that I devoted at least a paragraph or two to Dr. Gene. Outrageous fundraising methods are part and parcel of the televangelism trade — who can forget Oral Roberts telling his devoted viewers that God was going to "call him home" if they didn't pony up? But Dr. Gene went after the holy greenback with a fervor matched only by the legendary Frederick Eikerenkoetter, better known as "Reverend Ike," who preached his flock "out of the ghetto and into the get-mo." (Ike used to run ads in local newspapers' TV listings that read, "If you want pie in the sky by and by when you die, then Reverend Ike is not your man...but if you want your pie now with ice cream on it, watch Reverend Ike Sunday morning at 7:30.")

Dr. Gene used to stare wild-eyed into the camera lens and scream at viewers of his TV program to call in donations. He often did it using language one might find more appropriate to a longshoremen's union hall than to a religious broadcast. I remember one classic show in the '70s in which Dr. Gene became so incensed that the pledge lines weren't lighting up that he sat down in a chair in front of the camera and simply read the newspaper, refusing to preach until the phones were ringing off the hook. Before long, they were.

I last saw Dr. Gene on the tube just a couple of weekends ago. I was working at the computer late one Saturday night, with the TV on for background noise. And suddenly, there was Dr. Gene, scribbling on his whiteboard in his familiar arcane chicken-scratch handwriting, pontificating about some point of grammar in koine Greek (the language in which most of the New Testament was written). I suppose I thought after all these years he might well go on forever.

I suppose I was mistaken.

Takes one garden implement to know another

So Cher thinks Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez are "hoes," as she told a concert audience in Auckland, New Zealand.

Reminds me of some old saw about stones and glass houses.

Barry bites back

Whether you love him or hate him, you've got to admit there's no one in all of sports like Barry Bonds.

Today the San Francisco Giants' slugger, the subject of intense speculation about steroid use thanks to his ties to the BALCO investigation, kicked off spring training with a jousting match...that is, a press conference. The man with 703 career home runs ripped the media — never his biggest supporters, and his reference to reporters as "liars" isn't likely to win him any more Hall of Fame votes from the Baseball Writers of America — as well as whistle-blower and erstwhile Madonna boytoy Jose Canseco, who in recent weeks has attempted to out several major league stars as steroid users.

Although he was as impassioned and eloquent as we're ever likely to see Bonds, he managed to keep a smile on his face through most of the proceedings, while avoiding any direct, specific response to the swirling rumors. Anyone who doubts that Barry is one smart cookie didn't see him on stage today.

We may never know the undisputed truth about Bonds and his adventures in modern pharmacology. But one thing I did notice as I watched his press conference today. Several of the other active players at the center of the steroid story, including Jason Giambi and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, showed up for camp noticeably more svelte than we've seen them in recent seasons — a sign some have interpreted to mean that these players have dumped muscle mass since stopping the dope. Bonds, however — at least from what I could see on television — looked every bit the chiseled specimen we've come to know in his later years.

Maybe it really is iron he's pumping, rather than hormones.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Death flops a set

The old line is that celebrities always die in clusters of three. Rarely, though, do we lose three on the same day. Quick epitaphs follow.

John Raitt.

If all he'd done in life was contribute DNA to the conception of the soulful mistress of the slide guitar, Bonnie Raitt, he'd have done enough. But he actually accomplished quite a bit as a singer and actor on stage (most notably in the original Broadway production of Carousel) and film (opposite Doris Day in The Pajama Game).

Sandra Dee.

You can say you've really made it in show business when people start writing songs with your name in the title. (Former MTV VJ Martha Quinn, heroine of a certain Mojo Nixon ditty, may beg to differ.) Anyone who's ever seen (and will admit to seeing) Grease remembers Stockard Channing as Rizzo belting out, "Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee." But there was only one, the original Gidget and the second (after Debbie Reynolds) Tammy, and she proved she could act (well, sort of) in Douglas Sirk's 1959 remake of Imitation of Life. She came a long way, did little Alexandra Zuck from Bayonne.

Hunter S. Thompson.

This isn't going to make me all that popular with my fellow students from journalism school days — or with everyone else who today is singing his praises as a pioneer of the Fourth Estate — but Hunter Thompson was an overrated hack, in my humble opinion.

He had, I think, the talent to be great, and without question he had a unique way with words. But he committed the cardinal sin of journalism: He made the stories about himself, rather than about the subject matter, opening the floodgates to such monumental wastes of oxygen as Geraldo Rivera and Rush Limbaugh. He coasted on outrage and daring for far too many years when he could have been contributing something cogent (I'd have settled for coherent) to the public debate.

Thompson was never as good as he thought he was, but he was so volatile people were afraid to proclaim that the emperor had long ago left his clothes in the bottom of the medicine cabinet. He got away with being sloppy simply because people were afraid of him, which is pathetic in the extreme. No one deserves that degree of slack.

I'm sorry Uncle Duke's gone, and even sorrier that he took his own life, because every needless death is tragic. But I'm mostly sorry that he squandered what might have been (though we'll never really know) a titanic talent, and that the work for which he'll be remembered would probably pale in comparison with the work he might have done if he'd settled for being good instead of legendary.

Now we know what the "W" stands for

Oh, sure, it's just my immaturity showing. But the thing I like most about the story in which then-Texas Governor Bush revealed to an author in a taped interview that he'd smoked marijuana?

The author's name is Doug Wead.

As for the allegations themselves...look, we already know George W. used to be a heavy drinker in his boyhood days, and we're pretty sure (bolstered by his own comments on the aforementioned tapes) that he at least dabbled in cocaine. It should therefore come as a shock to absolutely no one that he might have blazed up a little doobage now and then. But come on, that was a lifetime ago. I wouldn't be eager to publicly air everything I did when I was young and stupid (okay, stupider, you wisenheimer), either.

I'm a lot more concerned with what the Prez was smoking two years ago when he ordered the invasion of Iraq.

Friday, February 18, 2005

I've seen the WonderCon and the damage done (to my wallet)

Since Fridays mean Comic Art here at SSTOL, it's only fitting that I spent my Friday afternoon at WonderCon, the largest comics and related media convention in the Bay Area.

We'd survived a stormy night and early morning, but the weather cleared up by mid-morning, just long enough for a dry 40-mile drive to San Francisco (The City, as we call it in this jurisdiction). I didn't get there quite by noon when the convention doors opened, but I was on site before 12:30.

I could tell it had been a long time since my last comics con experience (more than 20 years). A lot has changed in the intervening period — except for the ubiquitous comics dealers, this was a radically different experience from what I remembered. I can't recall artists doing commission work on site back in the day — just quickie head sketches mostly, and autographing comics. Of course, practically no one sold original art back then — now, even most of the artists have their published art pages stacked up for sale at their tables. (I was appalled to see than many of them just stack the pages naked, without a portfolio or even plastic sleeves, as people with grubby fingers flip through them. Egad.)

And I was startled to see that several female porn stars had tables and were signing autographs and getting photos taken — clothed, thankfully — with drooling fanboys. Not sure about the connection between these starlets and comics, but whatever. I was pressed by an overeager publicist into a grudging handshake with a certain "Adriana Sage." Lord only knows where that hand had been before I shook it.

For my art collection, I scored four terrific pieces. From a dealer, I picked up a Scarlet Witch pencil sketch by Bob McLeod, who drew my Black Panther commission. From the signature, I'm guessing Bob drew it at a convention back in '92. In the same transaction, I purchased a gorgeous Batgirl drawing by Joyce Chin, with a sweet preliminary version of another "good girl" sketch on the back. Twice the art, same low price — works for me.

I also collected these two new commissioned artworks, drawn on the spot by two outstanding talents. The artist who calls himself Buzz (even his business cards read, "Just Buzz") drew, then inked, this awesome pinup of the Vixen, DC Comics' first black superheroine. Buzz's drawing (which is colossal, by the way — a huge 14" by 17", and Buzz apologized for not having any smaller art board, as though that were a problem!) also has a prelim sketch on the back, a different pose the artist considered before settling on the finished version. (I think he made the best choice.)

Ron Lim (Marvel's Spider-Man and Captain America) drew this dynamic team-up of Cap and his one-time usurper, the U.S. Agent. The two-shot was Ron's idea — when I asked him to draw the Agent for me, he said, "How about if I put Cap in there too?" Both artworks are spectacular representations of their respective creators' styles.

I watched both Adam Hughes (the acclaimed Wonder Woman cover artist) and Matthew Clark (DC's Adventures of Superman) draw for a while — modern masters at work — and finally met in person Adam's girlfriend, with whom I've corresponded a few times via ComicArt-L. (So far, having a cordial acquaintance with Adam Hughes's girlfriend has not netted me any Adam Hughes art, a record that remained unbroken today. But you never know. Plus, she's a talented artist in her own right, and I'd love to have one of her drawings in my collection, too.)

Highlight of the day: Scribe, sage, and blogger supreme Mark Evanier conducted a marvelous interview by with veteran comics writer Arnold Drake (co-creator of Doom Patrol, Deadman, and Stanley and His Monster, and longtime scripter of the Little Lulu comic book), who basically just needed to be sat in front of a microphone and off he went. Great talker the grand old gentleman is, and with wonderful stories. One of the first topics Mr. Drake discussed was his acquaintance with Matt Baker, the first African-American artist and art director in mainstream comics, and the general subject of racism in the comics industry. Drake's talk alone was worth the twelve bucks admission and the drive home in a nasty monsoon.

So there's my day at WonderCon. Whew! Now I'm going to go crash.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Beauty is in the paw of the beholder

Those of you who mock my comic art collection may take comfort in this:

Someone spent nearly $600,000 on two century-old paintings of dogs playing poker.

All right, I'll confess (not to buying the paintings, which, had you seen my bank statement, you'd know was impossible): I actually like C.M. Coolidge's "Dogs Playing Poker" series. There's just something oddly whimsical in them that tickles my funny bone. I wouldn't spend $600K to take them home with me, mind you, but I'd hang a print in my office if I had a crack in the wall that was too big to spackle.

On the other hand, a long-hidden cache of original Fiction House comic covers by Matt Baker would be another story...

From the clippings file

I've been meaning to post this for a couple of days, but my desk has simply been a disaster this week. (Hence also the relative paucity of new SSTOL posts.)

Here's the writeup on my Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions Round One game from over at Steve Beverly's You'll see a couple of common errors — the writer identifies me by the inappropriate title of "Reverend" (God is reverend; I'm just a guy who works for Him), refers to my "pastoring" the church (we have pastors, or elders, but I'm not one of them — "minister," "evangelist," or "preacher" would be an accurate descriptive noun for the service I perform), and makes a joke about tithing (we don't, in the sense that word is properly used). But almost everyone makes those mistakes. He does refer to me as "affable," which I don't believe anyone has ever accused me of being, so I suppose that's a make-good.

If you're into game shows, Steve's site is an outstanding one-stop compendium of the latest and greatest from every program in the genre. His daily coverage of the UTOC is de rigueur for any J! fan who's following the tournament. I especially like the UTOC statistical analysis that's updated daily after every game...mostly because, right now, I'm mentioned on it three times (highest final score, highest score after Double Jeopardy!, largest winning margin). Of course, I wouldn't expect any of those marks to hold up for the entire first round. A truckload of awesome J! talent has yet to play.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A little less conversation, a little merger action, please

When KJ and I were in Las Vegas last month, the talk of the town was the impending Federal Trade Commission ruling on the proposed merger between two colossal gaming companies: MGM Mirage, which owns the MGM Grand and Mirage hotels (but of course, you had already sussed that out) as well as the Bellagio and Treasure Island (the latter is, incomprehensibly in my opinion, attempting to persuade visitors to call it simply "TI," which the last I knew was a drink with jam and bread); and Mandalay Resort Group, which owns the Mandalay Bay (no credit for guessing that one), Luxor, Excalibur, and Monte Carlo hotels, in addition to the venerable Circus Circus properties (love the one in Reno, as long as you don't make me eat there; hate the one in Vegas, which has absolutely nothing to recommend it).

Today, the FTC approved the merger.

No surprise to me, really. Las Vegas still has another couple of huge industry players — the Caesars/Harrah's conglomerate, which is still awaiting the FTC's blessing, and Station Casinos, which operates a number of Vegas resorts catering mostly to the local crowd, including Green Valley Ranch, the star of Discovery Channel's documentary series American Casino — in addition to an abundance of smaller gaming outfits. Not to mention the fact that heavy hitter Steve Wynn, who built the Bellagio, Mirage, and the erstwhile Treasure Island before selling out a few years back, is about to open a new megaresort modestly named Wynn Las Vegas.

But it's amazing to think that one company will soon control half the hotel rooms on the Vegas Strip, including three of the four largest hotels in the world (MGM Grand is #1, Luxor #3, Excalibur #4), and about 40 percent of the Strip's slot machines. Those figures give a whole new meaning to the phrase "a chunk of change."

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Say good night, Dick

When I was growing up, televised bowling was a Saturday afternoon ritual. Often it followed Saturday morning bowling in person, because I bowled in Saturday morning youth leagues for years. I was never good enough that anyone ever thought I might turn pro, but it was fun to pretend.

Those ABC broadcasts were like comfort food for the eyes. Chris Schenkel, the play-by-play man, would speak in measured tones like a golf announcer and say pleasant things about all the bowlers. The color commentator — originally Billy Welu, then after Welu died, it was Nelson "Bo" Burton Jr. — was always a knowledgeable pro with a good sense of humor, though Burton was more urbane and earnest than the colorful Welu. Then there were the bowlers: Earl Anthony, with his crew cut and machine-like accuracy; Johnny Petraglia, he of the shaggy locks and Fu Manchu moustache; Ernie Schlegel, who owned enough ugly polyester shirts to clothe the patrons of every sleazy discotheque in America; burly and powerful Mark Roth; burly and comical Steve Cook; scrappy little Marshall Holman; and dozens of other memorable names.

Then there was Dick Weber. Weber was like the gentleman uncle of pro bowling. A slightly built and unassuming man with a polite manner and perfectly coiffured hair, he was the one the others all looked up to. Weber wasn't a flamethrower like Roth or scarily mechanical like Anthony or goofy like Petraglia. He just picked up his ball, took the approach, and made pins fall down with his deceptively graceful technique. There's an athlete in every sport who makes the game look far too easy, and in bowling, Dick Weber was that athlete.

Years later, when Dick's son Pete started on the tour, it was nearly unfathomable to believe the two were related, much less pere and fils. Where Dick was easygoing and well-mannered, Pete was brash and boisterous. Where Dick's style was smooth as butter, Pete flailed at the pins. And where Dick was the paragon of virtue and the inassailable idol of millions of bowling fans, Pete was the wild child who got into trouble with booze and drugs, forcing the PBA to suspend him from the tour more than once while he got his act together. (After a long period of struggle, he finally did, and became an even greater bowler than his father had been.)

When I read today that Dick Weber had died at age 75, I felt a piece of my childhood pass away with him. I haven't picked up a bowling ball in years — mine is somewhere in the garage, accumulating cobwebs — but I still recall those Saturday afternoons in front of the television, and the nice little man who rolled all those strikes without ever breaking a sweat.

Monday, February 14, 2005

My funny Valentine

The quartet and I spent the day delivering Singing Valentines around the area. Great fun and gratifying work — who doesn't love having people who can actually sing pretty well sing a song or two just for them?

It's also excellent experience for us in performing in an eclectic variety of circumstances. Today's venues included:
  • The lobby of a physician's office — an annual treat from a grateful patient. We serenaded this same doctor and his staff last Valentine's Day. It's safe to say we're significantly better now than we were then.
  • The home of a woman who just learned that her beloved dog has cancer.
  • A convalescent home, where some of the patients eagerly sang along to the best of their memory and ability, and where others just wished we would hurry up and finish so they could get back to watching TV.
  • A hospital surgical ward, where we entertained a roomful of people getting ready for surgery, and the clinical staff caring for them.
  • The business office of another hospital.
  • The county's volunteer center, one of whose benefactors offered our services as a special kind of "donation."
  • KJ's company's lobby. She was the talk of the building for the rest of the day because her husband and his friends came and sang for her.
  • A car on the freeway. One woman, stuck in traffic, didn't arrive home in time for us to serenade her in person. Her husband called her on her cell phone and we beamed her a couple of songs via wireless telecom as she sat in rush hour traffic.
Such a small thing, it seems, to share a soupçon of one's ability to bring a few folks a little cheer on a cold, rainy February Monday. But when you see the smiles on faces and the gleaming in eyes...well, that's a valentine in itself.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

See me in the funny papers

My latest televised exploits garnered mention in the local daily (it's owned by the New York Times, so we're not quite that provincial here).

You have to scroll three-quarters down the page — a humbling commentary on my relative importance. I came in third to an animal-rights protest and a family whose Christmas lights are still operational in February.

At least I'm not in the obituary column.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Top Ten Valentine's Day Hits

So you're getting ready for Valentine's Day, and you need a touch of mood music to convince the object of your affection that your adoration is the real McCoy. The following ten tunes are 100% guaranteed to get you in like Flynn. Infinitely more effective than Side One of Led Zeppelin IV, in case you're still working that angle.

Words and Music: Irving Berlin
Definitive Recording: Josephine Baker, 1926

Simply the greatest love song ever written. Period. End of story.

"Bring It On Home to Me"
Words and Music: Sam Cooke
Definitive Recording: Sam Cooke, 1962

A ton of choice love songs in the Cooke repertoire: "You Send Me," "Wonderful World," and "Cupid," among others. But none is more more achingly heartfelt than this one.

"Change in My Life"
Words and Music: Billy Straus
Definitive Recording: Angels of Mercy, 1992

Often performed by religious artists with a gospel interpretation, a straight reading of the lyrics make a powerful paean to the transformative power of love. Best known as performed by the a cappella group Rockapella, the gospel-choir rendition on the soundtrack of the Steve Martin film Leap of Faith is simply electric.

"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"
Words and Music: Ewan MacColl
Definitive Recording: Roberta Flack, 1972

If this song doesn't move you to tears, see the undertaker immediately.

"I Will"
Words and Music: John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Definitive Recording: The Beatles, 1968

Not as well-remembered as many of the Beatles' ballads, it's still the most gently eloquent love song the band ever recorded.

"Let's Stay Together"
Words and Music: Al Green, Willie Mitchell, and Al Jackson
Definitive Recording: Al Green, 1972

Wherein Mr. Green's sinuous tenor wraps itself around your heart and doesn't let go.

Words: Johnny Burke; Music: Erroll Garner
Definitive Recording: Johnny Mathis, 1959

Great enough to inspire the title of a Clint Eastwood film. Not reason enough for you? Get off my back, Evelyn.

"Open Arms"
Words and Music: Steve Perry and Jonathan Cain
Definitive Recording: Journey, 1981

Once saved my relationship with the girl I would eventually marry, and appears on the soundtrack of Heavy Metal. You don't get many two-fers like that in life.

"Unchained Melody"
Words: Hy Zaret; Music: Alex North
Definitive Recording: The Righteous Brothers, 1965

Yeah, it reminds me of that sappy Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore flick, too. Doesn't make it not a great song.

Words and Music: Irving Gordon
Definitive Recording: Nat "King" Cole, 1951

Nat "King" Cole: the Monarch of Mack Daddies. It's all in the voice, baby.

"Oh Bwunnhiwda, you're so wuvwy..."

For today's comic art Friday, I've a real doozy for you.

(Most people think the term "doozy," meaning something special or remarkable, is a reference to the Duesenberg automobiles of the 1930s. The word actually predates the car by a decade or two, and more likely is derived from "daisy," as in the flower. Just a little linguistic tidbit from your Uncle Swan.)

This inspiring drawing by the enormously talented Geof Isherwood depicts one of my favorite Marvel Comics heroines of the 1970s, the Valkyrie, alongside her trusty winged steed Aragorn. (Apparently, Val is a Tolkienista.) Never a major star in her own right, Val was a key member of that fondly recalled '70s superteam, the Defenders. The Defenders' gimmick was that the team was comprised of the last characters in the Marvel Universe you'd expect to team up with anyone. The three charter members were chronic loners Dr. Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk. Later additions, such as Valkyrie, the Silver Surfer, Hellcat, and Nighthawk were cut from the same bolt of iconoclastic cloth.

I always liked the Valkyrie because to me, she was Marvel Comics' Wonder Woman — a no-nonsense female warrior whose roots lay in an ancient culture. Like Princess Diana's original incarnation, Val's only superpower was her tremendous strength (Wonder Woman didn't pick up the ability to fly until later). Instead of metahuman abilities, Val relied on her cunning, her warrior instincts, and the fact that she could swing a mean sword (hers was named Dragonfang) and chuck a mean spear (which had no name that I can recall). Despite the fact that she dressed as though she might break out in a Wagnerian aria at any moment, Val was a worthy addition to the Defenders, often taking the lead when Dr. Strange wasn't around.

When I commissioned this artwork from Geof, I gave him only two instructions: I wanted to see both of Val's signature weapons in her hands, and I wanted her hair to fall across one eye (the "Veronica Lake Effect," as I like to call it) as artists such as Sal Buscema typically drew her in The Defenders. It was Geof's idea to add Aragorn into the picture — one of the reference scans I provided Geof showed Val riding her fabled mount, and Geof became inspired. His meticulously detailed and anatomically perfect rendering of this beautiful animal is nothing short of magnificent.

His Valkyrie's not half-bad, either.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

UTOC: Onward and upward

So, now you know. And if you don't know, you can go find out here, then come right back.

That was a difficult game, far more difficult than a quick glance at the final scoring summary might suggest. Rachael Schwartz is an outstanding player. Rachael was one of the folks in my returnees group I least wanted to face, because (a) she's a former Tournament of Champions winner, so she's beaten some fine players before; (b) she competed in the Million Dollar Masters tournament just a couple of years ago, so her most recent live Jeopardy! experience was much nearer in the past than mine; and (c) she was inscrutable in the green room before taping started, so I had no real sense of her as a person. The devil you can read is always better than the devil you can't, in Jeopardy! as in poker.

On the other hand, it was a rather typical game for me.
  • I was beaten to the buzzer a fair amount — there's a wholly different timing (later, not earlier) to the lockout mechanism now than I'd been accustomed to in my previous appearances, so I sometimes struggled to ring in at the appropriate time. (Hopefully, now that I know the rhythm, I'll be better prepared in Round Two. Hopefully.)
  • I made one of my usual stupid errors that will have me kicking myself for weeks — the "What is Baghdad?" response ("What is Kabul?" was the correct answer) was simply a matter of my not reading the question closely. (D'oh!)
  • I experienced some serendipity — the "Who is Tchaikovsky?" answer on the first-round Daily Double was a sheer gut-level hipshot, then I drew a Daily Double in the second round that was ridiculously easy ("What is quartz?").
  • And Rachael made a couple of key mistakes from which I benefited, both because of the score and because they frustrated her just enough to disrupt her timing. It happens. It's happened to me, most notably in my Super Jeopardy! game.
It's interesting to watch the game unfold on TV, because it whizzes by so fast when the cameras are rolling and adrenaline has the blood thundering in your ears. There are always moments on the tape that I don't recall happening, or that I recall differently from the reality.

I feel badly for John Genova. I liked him very much from the short time I had to get to know him, and I'm certain he would have liked to have made a more representative showing.

Believe it or don't, but I feel badly for Rachael, too. I had the sense, especially afterward, that she felt she had a lot of honor to uphold. Of all of the competitors who didn't win their matches, she seemed to take the loss the hardest. But as I told her, Melissa Seal, and Leslie Frates as we were waiting for our rides back to the hotel, just by being invited to participate in the UTOC, we're members of an exclusive club with only 145 members on a planet of 6.5 billion. Not many people will have that kind of distinction in an entire lifetime. Rachael played a whale of a game, and on another day, with another set of categories on the board, the outcome might very well have been reversed. (As it was, she got in with more correct questions than I did, as the game summary at J! Archive shows.)

Big fun. I can appreciate it better with the remove of an audience member than I could as a participant. It's always that way.

I'm looking forward to Round Two. I'll let you know when I can. The invitations won't go out until the first round finishes taping, and that's at least a couple of weeks away.

SwanShadow in your living room TONIGHT: Now that's Must-See TV

It's the moment you've been awaiting with bated breath (which sounds like you've been eating sushi, and maybe you have — did you bring enough unagi and ebi for everyone?): My appearance in the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions airs tonight. (Check your local listings for the Bat-time and Bat-channel.)

In addition to yours truly, you'll have the opportunity to witness the triviamongering talents of two legends of the game: Rachael Schwartz, the first person of the feminine persuasion ever to win the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, and John Genova, the first player in modern Jeopardy! history to win $50,000 in five games. (Both of them neat and classy people, too, by the way. John and I shared quite a few laughs in the green room before taping began.)

Have your Doritos and cream soda handy, and a fresh tape in the VCR. (You know you're going to want to replay that opening shot of me, seventeen years ago when I was young and good-lookin', over and over again...or not.) After you've seen the game, drop by and let me know what you thought.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament begins tonight

Given that you're already spending far too much time staring blankly at a screen — why else would you be reading this? — don't forget to check out the start of the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions tonight. (Refer to your local listings for time and station.)

You'll see three superlative players — Leslie Frates, Michael Galvin, and Eric Terzuolo — face off this evening in the kickoff match. And, oh'll probably see a plug for my appearance in tomorrow night's clash.

You already have the VCR set for that one, right? Of course you do.

Good news day at SBC Park

Good News Item #1: The Giants have been chosen to host the All-Star Game in 2007. This rumor has been wafting about since last year's World Series — Major League Baseball has been champing at the bit to bring the midsummer classic to the game's most spectacular ballpark, and now they will.

Think it's a coincidence that this happens the year after Barry Bonds's contract expires? Not a chance.

Good News Item #2: The Giants announce that they've extended general manager Brian Sabean's contract through 2006, with a series of options thereafter.

Although his moves occasionally mystify me, Sabean tends to be right on target in his player assessments, and no GM in baseball works harder or smarter than he does. He's had a phenomenally active offseason, bringing in a star reliever in Armando Benitez, a new starting catcher in Mike Matheny to replace clubhouse cancer A.J. Pierzynski, a supreme defensive shortstop in Omar Vizquel, and the powerful bat of Moises Alou.

Congrats to the G-Men on both counts.

Takes un to know un

You've gotta love show folk.

Comedian (and I use that term advisedly) Rob Schneider took out a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter to lambaste L.A. Times film critic Patrick Goldstein for ripping Schneider's movies. In the ad, Schneider calls Goldstein "unfunny."

"Unfunny." Hmm.

"Unfunny," from the guy who milked a Saturday Night Live sketch that was humorous the first dozen times you saw it into an entire career.

"Unfunny," from the guy who played comic foil to that noted thespian Sly Stallone in Judge Dredd.

"Unfunny," from the guy who made two movies about Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo.

"Unfunny," from the guy with, like, nine Adam Sandler flicks on his curriculum vitae.

"Unfunny," from the guy whose film The Animal stank so wretchedly Columbia Pictures had to invent a critic named David Manning to give it positive reviews.

I guess if anyone in Hollywood knows "unfunny," Rob Schneider is that man.

Hey, Rob: You should be thanking your lucky stars that anyone in the entertainment press still remembers that you exist, never mind actually bothers to write about you and your dubious cinematic oeuvre. That you're still getting acting gigs while people with genuine talent are bussing tables at Spago — now that's unfunny.

Take out an ad about that, why don't you.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Logan's new Run

According to this Associated Press story on MSNBC, Chris Noth is resurrecting his Mike Logan character next season as a regular on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, splitting time as series lead with current L&O:CI star Vincent D'Onofrio. The current plan is for each actor to appear in 11 of the season's 22 episodes beginning in the fall.

When I first heard this as a rumor weeks ago in the L&O Usenet group, I thought it was totally bogus. Shows what I know. Apparently D'Onofrio's recent hospitalization for exhaustion has producer Dick Wolf hedging his bets by bringing in backup.

How much do you want to wager that by the time next season is over — maybe even by the time it starts — D'Onofrio will be out altogether and Noth will be solo star on CI?

What's Up With That? #12: Parents without a clue

This afternoon it was quiet in the office, so I switched on the TV for a little background noise. The set happened to be set to the station airing the Jane Pauley show, wherein Jane was doing a program about teenagers and steroids.

Here was the comment of the father of a teenaged son who died as a result of steroid use, describing his and his wife's reaction when their other son told them his brother was using 'roids:
"We were concerned...but I can't say we panicked about it."
Excuse me?

Your son tells you that his brother is ingesting illegal, biologically destructive drugs, and you aren't panicked about it? That's akin to someone finding an armed nuclear warhead in his backyard, and saying, "We're concerned...but I can't say we're panicked about it." What would it take for you to panic, mister? Al-Qaeda operatives in your living room, molesting your family at riflepoint?

As the father of a teenaged daughter, let me tell this you with certainty: If I even had reason to suspect that my child was using harmful and illegal substances, or engaging in any other activity that put her life and health at genuine peril, panic would set in so fast, the air would electrify around my body. Professional athletes can do what they will — they're adults, and if they sow the wind, they'll reap the whirlwind and be responsible for so doing. But my child is my child, and when it comes to her well-being, I panic.

I can't understand the mindset of a parent who wouldn't feel the same.


Mardi Gras

For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

And for the dry-skinned and lotion-averse, every Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.

Monday, February 07, 2005

My fifteen minutes of fame add a few extra seconds

At last, I can divulge part of the Big Secret to which I’ve alluded a time or two.

If you follow this blog regularly, one of the facts you know about me is that a long, long time ago, in a television studio far, far away, I was a five-day champion on Jeopardy! (Five consecutive victories was as many as the show used to allow, until a rules change a couple of seasons ago.) And if you follow J! (as we insiders call it) even a little, you’ve probably heard about the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions (or “The Quest for Ken,” as some have termed it) — if you haven’t, go read the official press release on the J! site, then rush right back.

So anyway, now you know that I’m one of the army of former J! champs — 144 strong — brought in by the show’s producers to duke it out for the right to challenge the nonpareil Ken Jennings for a $2 million grand prize. (See? I have an official bio and everything.) That’s where I was last Monday — at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City (the old MGM lot) with 14 other legends of J! (plus two alternates, who will play later in the tourney), taping the first five games of the tournament’s first round.

As you can see on the J! site, I’m playing in Thursday’s game. So go right now and set your Tivo for the appropriate time and channel in your broadcast market. If you don’t have a Tivo, slap a Post-It on the TV to remind yourself to watch.

Due to a voluminous confidentiality agreement I signed, I’m not at liberty to tell you how any of the games in my taping session — including the one in which I played — turned out. But come on, people, you only have to wait a couple of days. In the meantime, since the lid’s off the pot and you already know who the other competitors in the first week of the tournament are, please allow me to introduce you to these 14 fantastic Jeopardy! superstars. I’ll list them — just for the sake of variety — in order of their original appearances on the show. (And no, nothing you’re about to read will even so much as hint at the outcomes of any of the five games in Week One. Just watch the show, willya?)

John Genova (Season 1, $ 50,595 in original winnings; lost in the quarterfinals of TOC #1)

John, if I’m not mistaken, was J!’s first $50K winner. He’s a sixth-grade teacher from the L.A. area. He and I spent a fair amount of time chatting, and I found him a delightful fellow. As the old-timer in our group — both in terms of age and distance from his first J! appearances — he voiced a touch of concern about the mechanics of the competition. But he seemed genuinely glad to be invited, and was a friendly, jovial character in the green room. I enjoyed meeting John and talking with him.

Michael Galvin (Season 3, J!’s first Teen Tournament champion; a wild card in the quarterfinals in TOC #3, he lost to the great Eugene Finerman in the semis)

I remember Michael very well from his 1987 Teen Tourney victory. It’s fair to say that of all the champions in our group, he’s changed the most since his original J! experience — the bushy, shoulder-length hair he sported at 17 has largely abandoned him in his mid-30s. But he still possesses the same quiet confidence that made him a champion. He’s also a remarkably nice guy — I think he’s some kind of marketing consultant in civilian life — and one of the people I most enjoyed getting to know this round. KJ sat next to his father in the audience, and found him quite pleasant also.

Dave Traini (Season 3, $54,502 in original winnings; finished second to Bob Verini in TOC #3; finished third behind Bruce Seymour and Verini in Super J!)

Dave is one of my all-time favorite J! players, and is also one of my favorites among the people I’ve met in my various playing flights. He is perhaps as intense about the game as anyone I’ve ever seen, but he’s also very warm and friendly. Although we never played against each other, Dave and I were in the same flight during Super J! This time, he recognized and greeted me immediately. It was terrific to see him again. As usual, he was extremely focused and a bundle of nervous energy before his game, but we had a very nice conversation after he played.

Tom Cubbage (Season 5, the first College Tournament champion to win a TOC; lost in the Super J! quarterfinals)

A tall lanky guy with an aw-shucks demeanor, Tom was the one person — other than Dave Traini — who made me a trifle nervous when I saw that he was among my potential competitors. I remembered Tom as a dominating player in both his College tourney and TOC, in which he’d beaten a couple of good players named Rich Lerner and Brian Wangsgard in the finals. A true gentleman, though, as I discovered when I chatted with him briefly. He’s now a lawyer in Oklahoma.

Eric Terzuolo (Season 6, $ 64,302 in original winnings; lost in the semifinals of TOC #6)

Although I remembered Eric as a J! champion when I saw him, I couldn’t recall what kind of player he’d been — a pretty darn good one, actually. I had a chance to get to know him a bit in the green room, and found him a fascinating study. Now a retired diplomat, he’d been a professor at a college in the Netherlands until fairly recently, and is preparing to retire to Rome. He’d definitely traveled farther than anyone else present. He’s a Stanford alum, so we swapped a few Bay Area memories.

Leslie Frates (Season 7, $ 56,099 in original winnings; lost in the semifinals of TOC #7, in which she was a favorite going in; third behind Frank Spangenberg and Tom Nosek in the 10th Anniversary Tournament; lost to eventual winner Brad Rutter in the semis of the Million Dollar Masters tournament)

Aside from Dave Traini, Leslie was the other player in my flight whom I already knew, and the only person present I’d played against — in Battle of the Bay Area Brains in 1998. As I’ve written previously, Leslie was the toughest opponent I’d ever faced because of her lightning proficiency with the signaling device. She’s a real J! legend, not just for her great game play, but also because she’s a real personality and effervesces on camera. Leslie is the kind of character you usually see on other game shows, but with colossal J! talent.

Frank Epstein (Season 8, $73,400 in original winnings; got steamrolled by the unstoppable Leszek Pawlowicz in the quarters of TOC #8)

Frank Epstein is a funny guy. From his hangdog expression, gravelly bass voice, and LAPD badge, you wouldn’t think so, but he is. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with Frank. He’s another of those people who might lull you into thinking he’s not much of a player because of all the one-liners, but as his cash total shows, he’s one sharp cookie. For whatever reason, I kept thinking during the course of the pre-taping shenanigans that we’d end up playing each other. We didn’t. So much for my career in prophecy.

Rachael Schwartz (Season 10, $37,499 in original winnings; in TOC #10, she overcame a loss to the favored John Cuthbertson in her quarterfinal game to become the first woman to win a TOC; eliminated by Bob Harris in the quarters of Million Dollar Masters)

Rachael was probably the toughest read in a green room full of tough reads. Her cool demeanor and laser focus made her difficult to approach for conversation. (She definitely would have won a fashion contest among the 15 of us, however, had we staged one.) As a TOC winner, you knew she was an outstanding player; she’d been a real dark horse in a tournament field that included several excellent players (Cuthbertson, Amy Fine, Jean Grewe and Brian Moore had all won over $60,000 each) and emerged victorious.

Arthur Phillips (Season 13, $ 63,003 in original winnings; eliminated in the quarters of TOC #13)

Like Rachael, a tough read. Inscrutable, even. Now a best-selling novelist, Arthur seemed reserved and perhaps even a little shy. I didn’t remember seeing him play — he came in during a period when I wasn't watching the show all that scrupulously — so he was a complete cipher to me.

Bob Harris (Season 14, $ 58,000 in original winnings; finished a distant third behind Dan Melia in TOC #13; lost to Eric Newhouse in the semis of Million Dollar Masters)

Probably one of the more memorable characters in J! history, most people probably think of Bob, a one-time stand-up comic, as one of the show’s class clowns. He’s that, but he’s also an exceptional player, as his record attests. J! seems to attract a disproportionate number of actors and other entertainment types — the champion I unseated to win my first game was an actor named Jack Koenig — and Bob is definitely part of that proud tradition.

Melissa Sexstone Seal (Season 15, Teen Tournament champion in 1999; eliminated in the quarters in TOC #15)

Another of my favorite people in this flight. Former teen champ turned married law student Melissa was heavily pregnant with a baby that threatened to dwarf her tiny frame. Despite her obvious discomfort, she maintained a sunny disposition, and truly was a delight to talk with. Everyone — contestants and J! staffers both — hovered over her making certain she was doing okay throughout the long taping day.

Janet Wong (Season 16, College Tournament champion in 2000; eliminated by Eddie Timanus in the quarters of TOC #15)

A veteran of the same TOC class as Melissa, Janet was accompanied to the taping by a small army of family members and friends. I’m fairly certain she had a larger personal cheering section than the other fourteen of us combined. A pleasant young woman, rather quiet and more than a little awestruck by the proceedings. Very sweet, very charming.

Babu Srinivasan (Season 17, $ 75,100 in original winnings; eliminated by India Cooper in the quarters of Million Dollar Masters)

A history professor from a college in Texas, Babu was another champ I didn’t look forward to playing against. Soft-spoken but funny and immensely likable, Babu is a favorite of many J! fans, myself included. It was a genuine treat to meet him at last. KJ enjoyed getting to know his family in the audience.

Alan Bailey (Season 17, $ 61,501 in original winnings; lost in the semis of TOC#19 to eventual champion Mark Dawson)

The amazing thing about Alan’s J! career is that he probably waited longer to play in a TOC than any other champion. He won in a year when Sony was moving the TOC from one sweeps period to another, so he qualified before one TOC (in which he was an alternate) but didn’t actually compete until the next year’s TOC rolled around. Interesting guy — a playwright and director, there’s a markedly theatrical air about Alan. Unfailingly courtly and charming to everyone — and not in a phony way — and runaway winner of the Best Dressed Award, Masculine Division.

This collection of competitors proved once again something I've discovered time and again over the years of my J! experience — most of the folks who've been successful on Jeopardy! are not only brilliant, but nice too. Go figure.

So enjoy the Ultimate Tournament, and be sure to drop by and comment after Thursday's show.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

It's a Bunny world after all

Imagine, if you will, that you and the young person(s) in your life are vacationing at Walt Disney World, basking in the Florida sunshine and the giddy ambience of the Magic Kingdom, East Coast Division.

As you're strolling toward your next attraction, you spy an elderly gentleman surrounded by a quartet of nubile and buxom peroxide blondes. The old fellow looks vaguely familiar.

Then a voice rings out from somewhere: "Hey, look — it's Hugh Hefner."

And your young person looks up at you with bewildered eyes and asks, "Who's Hugh Hefner?"

Hef is about the last person I'd expect to see at a Disney park. But according to CNN, there he was.

You've gotta love this quote from the Hefmeister: "There are two 'Happiest Places on Earth': One is Disney, and the other is the Playboy Mansion." Now there's a connection I'd never have made on my own. It does, however, spawn this list...

Top Five Disney Babes Hef Would Pay a Million Dollars to Pose for Playboy

5. Belle, from Beauty and the Beast

4. Pocahontas, from the eponymous film

3. Jasmine, from Aladdin

2. Ariel, from The Little Mermaid

1. Esmeralda, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Friday, February 04, 2005

"Agents of Fortune"

Friday means comic art here at SSTOL — this week, I really wrestled with a number of choices. I have scans in hand of about a half-dozen commissioned pieces that are completed and on their way to me, and trust me, I'll have some fantastic drawings to share with you shortly. But I decided instead to show you something that arrived this week.

This dynamic (pun intended) artwork is the latest of my "Common Elements" pieces that team otherwise unrelated superheroes who share some link in common. Here, former Green Lantern artist Darryl Banks (who also created my Doc and Pat Savage piece) unites Dynamo, from the Tower Comics series T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, with Marvel's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It's a beautiful piece that far outstripped my expectations — thanks, Darryl!

Both T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. were children of the Cold War 1960s, when James Bond 007 was inspiring imitators right and left, from Matt Helm to I Spy to Our Man Flint to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (which was actually about two men, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin — I could never understand why the title was singular).

The two series shared similarities beyond their acronymic names. Both were closely associated with a superstar artist: Wallace Wood was the mastermind behind T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents; Jim Steranko's distinctive style gained attention for S.H.I.E.L.D. Both flashed onto the scene quickly and faded nearly as fast. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, despite the allure of its name, was really more about superheroes than espionage and intrigue; Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., though more of a Bond pastiche, remained firmly rooted in the Marvel Universe of superheroes, even though its title character had no superpowers.

Wally Wood is one of the more tragic stories in comics. A phenomenally talented artist, he was mostly known for his work in science fiction magazines published by EC Comics. Later, after EC had been run out of town, metaphorically speaking, by Senator Estes Kefauver's anti-comics crusade, Wood moved on to the last surviving bastion of William M. Gaines's EC empire, Mad Magazine. Wood wasn't especially fond of superhero comics, and he didn't draw many of them, but at Tower Comics he was given free rein to do them as he pleased. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its various spinoff series (Dynamo, NoMan) were the result.

Unfortunately, Tower's finances were shaky, and the company collapsed after about a year and a half. Wood, a man prone to dissolute habits, knocked about the industry for a short while, and eventually committed suicide. His T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents continue to be fondly remembered by those of us who were reading comics in the '60s. Every now and again a small independent publisher acquires the rights to the characters and revives them for a brief time. Later this year, TwoMorrows Publishing will release what looks like a spectacular and definitive book about T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.

Unlike Dynamo and the rest of his T.H.U.N.D.E.R. cohorts, the character of Nick Fury predated the spy fad. For several years prior to the initiation of the S.H.I.E.L.D. series, Nick Fury had starred in Marvel's only successful war comic, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, set in the various theaters of World War II. The Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. was older than his wartime incarnation, but no less tough or vigorous. Two of Fury's former Howlers, "Dum Dum" Dugan and Gabriel Jones, joined the Sarge — now promoted to Colonel — in his spy-busting adventures.

The man behind S.H.I.E.L.D. was Jim Steranko, a fascinating artist whose resume also included stints as a musician and an illusionist-escape artist. Steranko's style was like no one else's: bold and surreal, perfectly suited to the psychedelic '60s. Although his figure anatomy sometimes suggested that his characters had wandered out of a Salvador Dali painting, Steranko's innovative use of page and panel design and non-traditional effects made his work leap off the newsstand. Too mercurial for the stultifying life of the comic artist, Steranko soon moved on to a successful career in advertising illustration and publishing, and a considerable reputation as a comics historian.

As you can tell, this drawing evokes a horde of powerful memories. Art does that sometimes.

A true man of honor: Ossie Davis (1917-2005)

Most show business people are merely that — show business people. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

But Raiford Chatman "Ossie" Davis and his wife of 56 years, Ruby Dee, have always been more than just "show folk."

Ossie Davis has been an accomplished and honored actor, playwright, screenwriter, and director, but he has also been at the forefront of the civil rights movement since before most people knew such a movement was going on. He and Ms. Dee campaigned both publicly and behind the scenes, not only for racial equality, but against social injustice of every manner and kind.

A man of deep principle, Mr. Davis stood up for the accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and for the often-scorned actor and singer Paul Robeson, yet avoided the McCarthy-era blacklist. He delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X, and reprised it in Spike Lee's biopic of Malcolm's life. He was also one of the speakers at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee stood together in a place of unique honor in the American entertainment community, as witnessed last year when they were honored jointly at the Kennedy Center.

Now Ossie Davis is gone, at age 87.

The world — not just the entertainment world, but the world as a whole — is diminished by his passing.

Move along, folks — nothing to see here

According to this news report from the London Daily Mail, former star of The Practice and erstwhile Jack Nicholson main squeeze Lara Flynn Boyle dropped her top and flashed the crew on a transatlantic British Airways flight earlier this week.

Given the skeletal physique sported by the emaciated Ms. Boyle, crew members not equipped with optical magnifiers may well have missed the show entirely.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Nothing lasts forever, except maybe Donald Rumsfeld

News: The current Star Trek series, Star Trek: Enterprise, is cancelled.

Comment: Enterprise? Is that still on? (Sorry, DL.)

News: Commissioner Gary Bettman prepares to cancel the long-delayed NHL season.

Comment: Hockey? Is that still on? (Sorry, Canada.)

News: NFL great Emmitt Smith retires as a Dallas Cowboy.

Comment: Emmitt Smith? Is he still on? (Sorry, Texas.)

News: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claims he tried to resign twice, but the President wouldn't let him.

Comment: Rumsfeld? Is he still on? (Sorry, America.)

"Wormer? He's a dead man!"

Sorry to hear about the death of John Vernon.

The imposing actor with the thunderous voice and sinister glare played dozens of roles — usually villainous — in the movies, but will likely be remembered most by the current generation of film fans as the authoritarian Dean Vernon Wormer, the head of Faber College and nemesis of Delta Tau Xi fraternity, in National Lampoon's Animal House and its watered-down TV series sequel, Delta House.

Vernon's was one of those voices that you immediately recognized, even if you couldn't quite place the actor's face. In addition to his successful film career, Vernon parlayed his booming baritone into a long and healthy run in commercial and animation voice work. He was the voice of both Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner in the fondly remembered Marvel Super-Heroes TV series of the mid-'60s, as well as the Prosecuting Attorney in the "Captain Sternn" segment of Heavy Metal.

Today might be a good day to tell someone, "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

Or, "The time has come for someone to put his foot down. And that foot is me."

Or, "As of now they're on Double-Secret Probation."

Or even, "I hate those guys."

Sign your name across my heart

If you were touched by my recent post about comics creator William Messner-Loebs and his spate of hard times, you might consider signing this online petition encouraging the major comics publishers to slide some work Bill's way.

Frankly, I don't know that this sort of thing does much good. But it certainly can't do any harm. And the fact that someone has, at this writing, nearly a thousand people interested enough in his welfare to take a few minutes to affix their names to this document should count for something.

No one thinks comics publishers should be charities. On the other hand, in an industry notorious for treating its talent pool shabbily — especially the post-age-40 members of said pool — a little compassion would go a long way.

And no one thinks that anyone, including Bill Loebs, should get a free ride on the comic book gravy train. What's sad, though, is that talented people who still have enormous ability to create and contribute are cast aside merely because they aren't the flavor of the week. A guy with Bill's talent should have publishers vaulting over one another to acquire his services. So should artists like Geof Isherwood, Trevor Von Eeden, Mark Bright, Darryl Banks, Bob McLeod, Al Rio, and several dozen others I could name. If people like these were still creating comics, I'd still be buying them.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Those who can't, get invited to guest-lecture

Last evening, I spent half an hour with a roomful of dazed-looking college kids talking about blogs.

In case you're wondering why yours truly would be in such a position, please rest assured that yours truly is wondering right along with you. The Friday before we left for our recent junket, a gentleman I did not know telephoned me. He introduced himself as Michael Dougan, a professor at the College of Marin, and invited me to be the guest speaker for his Tuesday evening Mass Communications class. He was teaching a unit on the Internet and wanted to address the blogging phenomenon. He'd stumbled across my blog somehow — you loyal readers know that's as apt a description as any — liked what he read, and thought that with my communications background I'd make a competent, even interesting, expert on blogging.

To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn't want to belong to any body of expertise that would have me as a member. The fact that I own a blog no more qualifies me as an expert on blogging than the fact that I own a dog qualifies me as an expert on veterinary medicine. But the prof seemed pleasant enough, so I consented and went.

Knowing neither what to expect nor what exactly was expected of me, I felt a mite like Eddie Murphy's character, Billy Ray Valentine, in Trading Places. On Valentine's first day of employment as a commodities broker at Duke and Duke, the former street hustler asks his faithful butler, Coleman (Denholm Elliott), "What if I can't do it?" To which the sagacious Coleman replies, "Just be yourself, sir. Whatever happens, they can't take that away from you."

So that's what I did. I didn't try to present myself as "the Blog Guru" (mostly because I can't get into a lotus position). More than anything, I wanted to supply enough of the nuts and bolts that someone who had no clue what a blog was would learn something, and those who already knew or didn't care would be subjected to a minimal level of bloviation. I endeavored to communicate my enthusiasm for this odd little exhibitionist hobby without gushing. I tried to be friendly and engaging without pandering. I think I succeeded.

I remembered to ask whether any of the students in the class were bloggers. Three (in a class of about 25) were. One young man uses his blog to promote his band and as a personal journal; a young woman does likewise. The professor invited the three to share their blogs with the class (doubtless the students had wearied of staring at my plain-vanilla barren landscape — although they got to see a couple of nice portraits of Wonder Woman, which should have been worth the price of admission). These two grudgingly complied; a third student was so nervous she "couldn't remember" her password. (I suspect that she had items posted on her blog she preferred that her fellow students did not associate with her.)

The young woman whose passion for music is the focus of her blog deserves a special mention for two reasons: (1) her name was simple and alliterative, so I remembered it without having to write it down; and (2) when I told her I was a barbershop singer, she opined that I was a "real musician." She was mistaken, naturally, but for her kindness, I'll send all of you to peek at her blog and marvel. And if her eponymous band, Sabrina Stewart, is playing at a coffeehouse or club near you, go give her music a listen, then come tell me all about it.

Eat your sausage — it's Ground Hog Day

Yes, I've returned, despite all your fervent hopes to the contrary.

Sorry I've been out of touch for the last few days, but I had to dash out of town and haven't had access to the 'Net. I can't tell you until next week where I went or why, but trust me on this — there's a story in it that you'll want to hear. Drop around on Monday for the first juicy tidbit.

In the meantime, we'll have plenty to ramble about the rest of this week, just as soon as I get my ducks back in a row. (The fact that ducks refuse to stay in a row when so ordered is proof that waterfowl are basically anarchist. That, and they're more than a little miffed about the whole foie gras thing.) More posts coming later today.

If you're looking for some light reading while I shuffle things about, one of my favorite bloggers — the ineffably cool Janet, whose blog The Art of Getting By (not to be confused with The Art of Getting Some, which I don't think is a blog, but perhaps should be) satisfies my Recommended Daily Allowance for thoughtful humor between two slices of wry, and always makes me crave kippers for breakfast — wrote charming things about us recently. So go show Janet some love, already. Tell her your Uncle Swan sent you.

Then hurry back. I'll have whipped those mallards into shape by then.