Thursday, March 31, 2005

Caution: Luddite at work

You'll have to excuse my dust.

This is my first post from my brand spanking new computer, and your technophobic Uncle Swan is having a slow go of getting up to speed on the snazzy new box. So please give me a day or two to catch up, and I'll have plenty of new effluvia to post through the weekend.

Closing the book

I've avoided discussing the Terri Schiavo matter before now, largely because I think far too much has been said and written already. I'm not going to add a bushel of keystrokes to the debate even now.

My primary thought is this: As much as I empathize with all of the family members involved, we're talking here about one person whose functional life effectively ended fifteen years ago. None of the screaming protests, irate radio talk callers, high-minded newspaper editorials, or political pontificating of the last few weeks could change this fact. What good might have been done in the world if all of that energy and umbrage had been directed toward helping some of the millions of people in the world who could actually be helped, people whose tragic circumstances could actually be changed with a bit of effort and attention?

Was anyone's life saved by all the Terri Schiavo sturm und drang? Sadly, no. Was anyone's life made better? Again, sadly, no. And more importantly, did anyone learn that something beyond, and more important than, physical life exists? No, and that's what's peculiar to me. Most of the folks making the great amount of noise over this poor woman are supposed to believe in life after death. From all the argumentation, you'd suppose that once Terri Schiavo's body ceased its last function, her person would cease to be. Talk about "you of little faith"...

I wouldn't want to be starved to death. I don't want to see anyone else starved to death either. On the other hand, I wouldn't care to simply exist in a condition in which I can no longer offer value to the world — when I can't write, can't teach, can't sing, can't do any of the things that make me the person I am. I do believe that were I still alive in such a condition, there must be a purpose for my continued existence. But apparently unlike so many involved in the debate, I have confidence that this isn't all there is, and if I go, then I go.

Now let's move on. Nothing more to see here.

And tomorrow, there will still be people in need of help, whom help will actually benefit. Let's try not to waste our opportunities.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

McArthur was right

I have returned, after a three-day sojourn to the L.A. area for reasons you SSTOL regulars can likely guess.

Much to blog about, but it will have to wait until tomorrow, when I hope to be rested and more coherent. (Right now, thanks to exhaustion, my typing stinks.)

Monday, March 28, 2005

Off doing that voodoo that I do

I'll be offline the next few days. Those of you who are SSTOL regulars can guess why. If all goes according to Hoyle, I'll check back in with you on Wednesday evening.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

What's Up With That? #16: Hootie and the King

And you thought the spongmonkeys were creepy...

Has there ever been a weirder commercial than that Burger King spot with Darius Rucker, the lead vocalist of Hootie and the Blowfish, singing the praises of the King's new chicken sandwich (the Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch) while duded up like the love child of Cowboy Curtis from Pee Wee's Playhouse and the Cowboy from the Village People?

That's the stuff nightmares are made of.

The first time I saw this monstrosity, I felt as though I'd stepped into that scene in Undercover Brother in which the staff of The Brotherhood watches the offensive fried chicken commercial starring the Colin Powellesque character played by Billy Dee Williams. You remember that reaction shot where their jaws are hanging agape in disbelief? That was me, watching Darius Rucker croon about "(presumably chicken) breasts that grow on trees" and "a train of ladies comin' with a nice caboose."

Oh, my.

Working as I do in the advertising industry, I understand that a major part of the job is getting people's attention. Usually, though, it's helpful to get people's attention in a way that will make them want to buy your client's product or service, not stare at the screen in horror.

There are really only three ways the colorful singing cowboy bit works:
  1. You're the ghost of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry.
  2. You're one of the Riders in the Sky.
  3. You really are Cowboy Curtis from Pee Wee's Playhouse, or the Cowboy from the Village People.
If you're the frontman for a (once-)popular rock band, it ain't happenin', dawg.

I rarely dine at Burger King anyway — maybe once or twice a year I'll cruise through for a BK Fish sandwich. But just the thought of Darius Rucker in rhinestone rodeo garb perverting the lyrics of "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" will keep my foot on the accelerator the next time I get the urge.


Friday, March 25, 2005

Canary in a coal mine

Some call it Good Friday, some call it Comic Art Friday. To me, any Friday that offers you some new beautiful comic art to admire, that's a good Friday.

Take, for example, this exquisite portrait of DC Comics' venerable heroine, the Black Canary, drawn by artist extraordinaire James E. Lyle. I consider myself a tough audience and not easily impressed, but the moment I saw this drawing, I was hooked.

For me, James captures an ineffable emotional quality in his subject — a bittersweet mixture of triumph and wistful sadness. I envision this picture of the Canary being taken as she's returned home from a long evening of battling the forces of evil and slumped wearily into a chair. The Mona Lisa smile suggests her satisfaction in whatever little victory she won tonight, but the wan, distant cast of her eyes reveals the high personal price she has paid in surrendering her life to the service of others. Anyone who thinks comic art is just about fisticuffs and bombshells should see this picture and marvel.

James Lyle told me that his inspiration for this portrait came by way of the old Police tune, "Canary in a Coal Mine." Thinking as only an artist would think, he wondered what it would be like to picture the Black Canary in a setting not unlike a coal mine, using as much black in the background as he could without losing the subject's outline or obscuring his own style. The result, I'm sure you'll agree, is masterful.

James's depiction of the Canary also spurred a conversation between us regarding the way female heroes are often represented in modern comics. You'll observe that the Canary here is a natural-appearing, substantial woman, not a stick-thin runway model with custom-installed pneumatic chest upholstery — and that, in my not-so-humble opinion, is as it should be. How many fistfights is a superheroine going to win if she's built like Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton? Not many. Lyle's Canary looks solid enough to acquit herself with aplomb when the going gets rough.

All right, I hear you saying, Lyle can do the "good girl" thing. But can he draw an equally impressive male hero? Oh, my, yes. Here's his stunning interpretation of one of my favorite Golden Age heroes, Dr. Mid-Nite, who was a blind superhero two decades before Daredevil made being a blind superhero fashionable.

As with his Black Canary drawing, Lyle's technique here is incredible. Inking large expanses of black is one of the most difficult skills for a comic artist to master — it's easy to just slap the ink on the page, because the brushstrokes won't show in the published copy — but Lyle displays a veteran's mastery here. I wish you could see the actual artwork so I could show you what I mean. The stippling technique he uses here to create the billows of smoke has to be examined up close to be fully appreciated. As it is, you'll just have to take my word for how brilliantly it's done.

In correspondence and conversation, James Lyle identifies himself as "Doodle." Listen, even I can doodle. But I can't draw or ink like this talented artist can.

And that's your Comic Art Friday, kids. Good, wasn't it?

Happy 16th, KM!

My one and only daughter turns 16 today.

(You're right — I couldn't possibly be old enough to be the father of a 16-year-old. Call me precocious.)

In an age when parents constantly fret about the wellbeing of their offspring — and rightly so — we're blessed with a daughter who's never been a lick of serious trouble. Yes, she occasionally has to be prodded to clean her room, and unload and load the dishwasher, and clean up after the dog and the rabbit. Any teenager who doesn't have to be so prodded is probably headed for a lifetime of psychotherapy. But KM is a good student who works hard even at the classes that challenge her ability (read: math), excels at her extracurricular job at a pony ranch, chooses her friends and activities wisely, and is universally praised by the adults who know her as polite, helpful, generous, and kind. She's also one of the funniest kids you'll ever meet.

Written through the lens of a proud and doting father? Sure. But there's no shame in that, and I don't apologize for it. I'm as proud of my daughter as I'd want her to be of her dad. And I pray neither of us will ever have reason to feel otherwise.

Happy birthday, Punkin.

As for birthday the immortal words of Ben Curtis: Dude, you're getting a Dell.

KM would want you to know that she shares her birthday with the following celebs:
  • Music superstar Elton John
  • Former Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker
  • Desperate Housewife Marcia Cross
  • Talented thespians Lisa Gay Hamilton (The Practice) and Bonnie Bedelia (Bruce Willis's wife in the Die Hard films, and Best Actress Oscar nominee for Heart Like a Wheel)
  • Smokin' blues guitarist Jeff Healey (the sightless performer in the Patrick Swayze cheese classic Road House)
  • New Dallas Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson (okay, she wouldn't care about that, but I do)

A shout-out to my Peeps


Now, you can make your own Peeps at home. How awesome is that? I'm getting a sugar rush just thinking about it.

You see, I'm mature enough to admit it: I love Peeps. Those gelatinous, glutinous, glucose-encrusted little chick-shaped wonders: Love 'em. Love, love, love 'em. Peeps are like a fifth major food group all by themselves.

And you know you love 'em too.

Oh sure, you glare disdainfully down your nose when they appear on the supermarket shelves every March. You scoff at the idea that any reasoning human being would willingly ingest such a emptily caloric potpourri of sugar, chemicals and air. And you openly mock any adult who would dare acknowledge entertaining even the slightest temptation.

But there you are, in the wee hours of the morning when all the world is asleep, carefully and quietly slitting the cellophane on the rectangular Just Born package, and greedily filling your face with puffy little poultry simulacra until you're giddy with childlike glee.

I know you are. I've seen you.

Never mind how.

Now, through the marvels of 21st-century technology, brought to glorious life by the good people at Wham-O — home of the Frisbee and the Shoop-Shoop Hula Hoop — you'll be able to manufacture your own homegrown stash of Peeps all year 'round.

Go ahead. You know you want to.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Neanderthals weigh in

FHM Magazine — the initials of which appear to stand for Fomenting Hormonal Madness, judging by the inordinate amount of attention paid to the physical attributes of female celebrities and porn stars on its Web site — has unveiled its list of the sexiest women in the world.

The list, determined by a poll taken from among 15 million testosterone-crazed Joe Lunchbuckets worldwide, is yet another testament to the bankruptcy of taste in modern society.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course. And I readily admit that my criteria for evaluating attractiveness do not always — or often, even — hew closely to the prevailing norm. But this list is, in my frank and earnest opinion ("In Detroit I'm Frank, in Chicago I'm Ernest" — Samuel L. Jackson, The Long Kiss Goodnight), pathetic. Let's run down the top ten, shall we?

1. Angelina Jolie. If this is the sexiest woman in the world, I'm Denzel Washington. Ms. Jolie is a fine actress — better, I think, than she's often given credit for being — and she has a certain je ne sais quoi that's appealing. But I can think of several hundred women I'd consider more attractive than she is. Plus, she's weird, which knocks points off my raw score. Anyone who would tattoo Billy Bob Thornton's name on herself has a screw loose somewhere.

2. Jennifer Garner. I have no idea what people see in her. She has squarish, vaguely masculine features, and can't act her way out of a wet Daredevil movie.

3. Paris Hilton. Please. The word for this woman starts with the same sound as skunk and rhymes with tank. Scrawny, homely, and brain-dead.

4. Charlize Theron. Okay, I'll concede this one. Unless she's made up to look like Aileen Wuornos.

5. Halle Berry. No argument. Should be close to the top on any such list, even though I find her rather pretentious and annoying in interviews.

6. Alyssa Milano. Feh. Her only engaging quality is sharing my birthday.

7. Teri Hatcher. Yeesh. Wasn't attractive back when she was Lois Lane, is even less so now. Needs to leap off the plastic surgery train pronto.

8. Pamela Anderson. I'm not even going to dignify this one with a response.

9. Scarlett Johansson. Really? Excellent actress — seriously major talent, with a winning screen presence. But who finds her sexy? She looks like your best friend's dweeby little sister who thought she was Harriet the Spy.

10. Lindsay Lohan. She's a kid, for crying out loud. Anyone over 21 who voted for her ought to be ashamed of himself. Yes, that includes you, Bruce Willis, you deve.

So that's what happened to Dave Thomas...

A woman dining on chili at a Wendy's restaurant in San Jose discovered that her bowl of red arrived con a little more carne than she anticipated: She found a portion of a human finger bobbing amid the beans and sauce.

The digit, which came equipped with a well-manicured fingernail, didn't belong to any of the employees of the fast food joint. Police checked everyone's fingers, and all were present and accounted for. Investigators therefore surmise that the amputative mishap occurred at the factory where the chili was manufactured.

How do you not know you got one of your fingers hacked off at work? "Honey, I'm home." "Where's your finger, dear?" "Huh? Aw, man, I must have lost that in the chili kettle."

There is no truth to the rumor that the Wendy's chain will soon change its company name to Alferd Packer's.

The Diva Report

Keeping up with the latest 411 on those lovely ladies of song:
  • To quote from Paula Abdul's '80s smash hit: "Straight up, now tell me, do you really wanna love me forever, or am I caught in a hit and run?"
    Now we know, Paula: It's Option #2.

  • Whitney Houston's back in drug rehab. More and more, it's starting to appear that when Whitney sang "I Will Always Love You," she was singing to her narcotics connection.

  • Even though she's facing three to seven years in the slammer for perjury and conspiracy, the apostrophically challenged rapper Lil' Kim is hard at work on her next album. Among the working titles for the upcoming CD are Funky in the Exercise Yard, Get My Lawyer on the Phone, and Hey, That's My Soap!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

That's Incredibles!

I finally made time today to watch The Incredibles. It was every inch as excellent as people had told me it was, though it surprised me in a number of ways.

Understand this: I'm not a great lover of computer-generated animation. I often find it difficult, even unpleasant to look at -- I left the theater with a screaming diz-buster of a headache after viewing the original Toy Story way back when. (I've since come to admire the film very much, though I believe its sequel is lightyears -- no pun intended -- better.) I also find CGI rather cold and artificial, lacking the warmth and humanity of traditional hand-drawn, ink-and-paint animation.

The Incredibles won me over almost instantly. I loved the device of opening the picture with aged-looking interview footage featuring the main characters, and pretty much everything that followed. I wasn't enamored with the character designs -- to me, they looked like the CGI equivalent of Gerry Anderson's Marionation puppets, and that's not intended as a compliment. But what director Brad Bird did with these characters charmed me unfailingly, and more than made up for the awkwardness of their appearance.

Having enjoyed and admired Bird's The Iron Giant, I expected The Incredibles to be both mature in its intelligence and childlike in its sense of fun, and it is. What surprised me a little was the film's rambunctious energy. The Iron Giant is a brilliant motion picture, but its pacing is deliberate and measured. The Incredibles, though about a half-hour longer than Giant, zips right along. It takes plenty of opportunity for intimate moments and thoughtful conversation (both rarities in American animation), but always without slamming the forward pressure of the narrative into a brick wall.

I was also surprised at the film's obvious antecedents. I expected a superhero film, and I got one -- one remarkably knowledgeable about and faithful to its source genre, unlike many other superhero movies that make one wonder whether anyone involved in the production ever actually read a comic book -- but I also got an animated retooling of Spy Kids, another film I deeply admire. (My admiration ends with Spy Kids 2, which is decent but lacks the freshness and wonder of the original, and leaves the building with Spy Kids 3-D, an agonizingly bad film made unwatchable by a dull script and a scenery-scarfing Sly Stallone.) The similarity between the two films is so striking it cannot have been accidental.

Most of all, I appreciated Bird's depiction of a family in which, despite their unique superpowers, none of the members is an idiot of a freak. Bob and Helen Parr (alias Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) are a genuinely loving couple brimming with affection for one another and their children that they express in heartfelt, non-cloying ways. Their two older children, Dash and Violet, behave like bright kids would in their situation and at their respective ages. None of the characters is perfect, but their quirks resonate with authenticity and their expression of them seems plausible.

I got a kick out of Frozone, the family friend and fellow superhero voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, and Syndrome, the geeky grownup fanboy who's the villain of the piece. And I found Edna, The Incredibles' version of James Bond's Q, absolutely hilarious -- she's voiced by Bird himself in a bizarre accent that blends equal parts Peter Lorre, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and every pretentious, self-important fashion designer you've ever seen.

When I first heard, years ago, that Brad Bird was directing a film for Pixar, I was concerned. I feared that John Lasseter and company -- amazing though they are -- would try to shoehorn Bird's unique vision into the standard Pixar parameters. I'm pleasantly surprised to see that The Incredibles, though 100 percent Pixar, is also 100 percent Brad Bird.

If you've not seen The Incredibles, you owe yourself this treat. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is just a kiddie flick -- it's a mature, lovingly developed film that will appeal to smart viewers of all ages. And if you love comics, or Spy Kids, or Bond films, or all three, you'll be making a new best friend.

I remain curious, though, how Disney and Pixar pulled off using the name of an actual comic book superhero. The original Elasti-Girl first appeared in the classic Doom Patrol series in the '60s. Her superpower, however, was not stretching -- Elasti-Girl I simply grew to gigantic size. Also, her last name was Farr (only one letter different from the surname of the heroic family in the film). Food for thought.

The new three-strikes rule: Free coffee

The baristas at the local Starbucks drive-through, usually a dependable lot, required three stabs at my order this morning before they got it right.

I ordered exactly what I always order — a venti vanilla latte. After an inordinately lengthy wait, the smiling young woman behind the sliding glass handed me a venti mocha latte.

"Um, it's supposed to be vanilla," I said.

She did a perfect Alex Trebek "Oooh, sorry..." and whisked the offending cup away. I could see her having a frank discussion with her compatriot manning (or, in this case, womanning) the coffee dispensers, who promptly began work on another drink.

Only this one was now a size too small.

Again the inaccurately dispensed beverage vanished, to the tune of profuse and polite apologies. The third time was the charm, as at long last the appropriate combination of ingredients and cup size converged.

I got a coupon for a freebie for my saintly patience.

The Bondsman bailing out?

Barry Bonds out for the season, just as he's poised to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home runs list?

I'll believe it when I see it.

Barry has a lengthy history of making brash, peevish statements like this one on one occasion, then heading in a completely different direction the next time he chats with the sportswriters. I have a hunch that, after a week in which he underwent a second surgery on his troublesome knee, had an old girlfriend pop up out of the woodwork with the manuscript for a scathing new expose in hand, and saw the Congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball reignite the speculation about "what did Barry use, and what did he know when he used it," the Bondsman just rolled out of bed a mite grumpy yesterday. Give him a few days, and we may hear a whole other perspective from Barry.

The fact is, he wants to pass Ruth and Aaron a great deal more than he lets on in front of cameras and microphones. And unless he completely falls apart physically, he'll find a way to get back on the field and swat those last few dingers.

You know the Giants are sweating, though, with Barry's $18 million contract guaranteed for the next two seasons. That's a chunk of change in anyone's economy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

12 Actual Spider-Man Villains Who Won't Be Played By Thomas Haden Church in Spider-Man 3

Sony Pictures announced today that Thomas Haden Church, whom I still think of as the mentally deranged airplane mechanic on Wings, will portray the villain in the third Spider-Man film. But they're not telling which baddie in Spidey's sizable rogues' gallery Church will play.

Here's an even dozen actual Spider-Man villains, straight from the pages of Marvel Comics, that I can guarantee will never appear in a major motion picture:

1. The Trapster. Weapon of choice: Glue gun. Seriously. Originally, this guy called himself Paste-Pot Pete, without question the stupidest supervillain name in the history of comics. How scary is a villain who might suddenly start doing crafts in the middle of a fight?

2. The Crime Master. Weapon of choice: A nerve gas gun, which he probably stole from the Green Hornet. If you really are a "crime master," you don't usually have to tell people.

3. The Beetle. Weapon of choice: A flying bug suit with suction cups on the fingertips. I kept expecting him to break out in a cover rendition of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."

4. The Big Wheel. Weapon of choice: A giant wheel that he rode around in. Dude -- you named yourself after a tricycle. What were you thinking?

5. The Gibbon. Weapon of choice: Monkey fu. Not to be confused with Ewell Gibbons, who used to be the spokesperson for Grape-Nuts cereal, or with Leeza Gibbons, who's been the spokesperson for tons of stuff. Easily pacified with bananas.

6. The Grizzly. Weapon of choice: Bear suit. Remember that old David Letterman bit, "Can a guy in a bear suit get a hug from a stranger?" This was that guy. I'll take a rain check on the hug.

7. The Rose. Weapon of choice: Standard-issue firearms. When choosing a name that will strike fear into the hearts of superheroes, try to avoid names of flowers and Bette Midler songs, or both.

8. The Rocket Racer. Weapon of choice: Rocket-powered skateboard. This was really a silly idea for a supervillain. Almost as silly an idea as a man on a flying surfboard that...oh, wait...never mind.

9. The Owl. Weapon of choice: None, but had a weird haircut that gave him the appearance of an owl. Someone at Marvel Comics must have been snockered on happy juice the day this one was invented.

10. The Kangaroo. Weapon of choice: Jumping boots. You know, you really can work the animal angle to death.

11. Man-Mountain Marko. Weapon of choice: Convulsing his foes with laughter at the very mention of his ludicrous name.

12. The Mindworm. Weapon of choice: His big brain. His real name, however, was William, not Brett. Cried when Spider-Man defeated him. What kind of wimpy supervillain cries?

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

Monday, March 21, 2005

Everything old is new again

Someone — I believe it was Rod Stewart — once said, "Every picture tells a story, don't it?" I don't know whether that's true of every picture, but it's certainly the case with this one.

I picked up this pencil sketch of the Scarlet Witch from an art dealer at WonderCon last month. Drawn in 1992 according to the signature — and signatures never lie — it's the work of the great Bob McLeod, who created the very first piece of custom art I ever commissioned, a gorgeous pinup of one of my favorite characters, the Black Panther.

Bob McLeod is best known in the sequential art trade as an inker. For the benefit of those in the audience who aren't yet comic art aficionados (you comic mavens are welcome to skip the following primer), published comic art is more often than not the work of multiple artists, each of whom specializes in a particular facet of the creative process. The basic structure of the page is laid out in pencil by one artist, referred to as the penciler for reasons I trust are obvious. Then a second artist, called (you're way ahead of me) the inker, finishes the page in India ink, adding camera-friendly contrast to the pictures while at the same time adding depth, dimension, and detail. Captions and color are added by the letterer and colorist, respectively — in modern comics production, both of these steps are done virtually by computer and not imposed on the actual original art itself.

Although some pencilers prefer to ink their own work, deadline pressure usually dictates that another artist handle this task. Bob McLeod is one of the finest inkers in the business, in part because he's also a terrific pencil artist. But because McLeod is most closely associated with inking, one doesn't see very much of his raw pencil art. That's one reason I was so excited to find this sketch, which shows Bob's fine grasp of expression and anatomy to perfect, unvarnished advantage. The other reason was that I thought it would be fun to have Bob revisit and complete the drawing thirteen years after he began it.

So, a few days after I purchased it, I packed the sketch off to Bob. Below, you see the finished art, vintage 2005.

Dramatic, huh? Yes, believe it or not, both of these pictures are the exact same piece of art, scanned (about four weeks apart) at two stages of its development. Not only can you see the amazing change a comic art drawing undergoes from its pencil origins to camera-ready inks, but you can also get a sense of the way one artist's personal style evolves over the course of several years.

In comparing the two versions, Bob joked that the Scarlet Witch appears to have shed about 30 pounds between 1992 and 2005. I wish it were that easy to lose a few, by means of a handful of brush strokes and a strategically applied eraser!

Better baseball through chemistry

Acute acne? Shriveled equipment? Sociopathic mood swings? 50 home runs a year? Bring it on.

As I blasted down Interstate 5 on Thursday afternoon listening to Mark McGwire's non-testimony before Congress, I couldn't get this visual out of my head: José Canseco jabbing a syringe full of testosterone cocktail into McGwire's bloated, pasty glutes as the former Bash Brother and Madonna boytoy describes in his recently released tell-all tome.

That picture was only slightly more disgusting than McGwire's repetitively pathetic "I'm not here to talk about the past." Okay, Big Mac, so what are you here to talk about — your March Madness brackets? At least be man enough to say, "You know what? I juiced up. I pumped my body to anabolic humongousity with every muscle-inflating substance known to modern medicine. It was stupid, and I'm a loser for doing it. Kids, don't try this at home." Wouldn't make you not lame, but at least you could face your lameness with a kind of wilted pride. All the denials just make you look lame and cowardly at the same time.


Equally lame are all the self-righteous calls for asterisked records and amended history. Get real, people. You can't undo what's been done. If you start fiddling with the record book, where do you stop?
  • Do you asterisk Ted Williams' .406 batting average in 1941, or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak that same season, because neither of them had to face many of the best pitchers in professional baseball who were banished to the Negro Leagues?
  • Do you asterisk the no-hitter Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates allegedly pitched under the influence of LSD in 1970, or the untold home runs Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle crushed out of Yankee Stadium when they were swacked out of their gourds on booze?
  • Do you asterisk every victory tallied by the Cincinnati Reds from 1984 to 1989, when Pete Rose was managing the team and betting on it at the same time?
  • Do you asterisk Gaylord Perry's 314 career wins, knowing that Perry probably won all of those games by smearing everything from Vaseline to bodily secretions on the baseballs he pitched?
The simple answer: No.

It is what it is.

Did McGwire shatter Roger Maris's seemingly unbreakable single-season homer record with chemical help? Who knows? But if he did, it is what it is. Did Barry Bonds retire McGwire's stats with the same kind of added assistance? Who knows? But if he did, it is what it is. You can't go back and fix everything someone thinks may be suspect in the entire history of the sport. If you try, how do you decide what stays and what goes?

I'm certainly not suggesting that those who took unfair advantage aren't dastardly scalawags for doing so. The needle is not justified by the rear end it penetrates. I'm only saying you can't fix the problem retroactively.

Then again, this is baseball we're talking about.

They can't fix their own problems in real time, much less after the fact.

I'm your worst nightmare: a barbershop singer with a blog

Pipe down. Uncle Swan's back in the house.

Sorry for the radio silence the past few days, sports fans. I was in not-so-sunny Southern California with the quartet for a competition, our second in less than a week.

All in all, things went swimmingly, no weather pun intended. We delivered our best-ever public performance on Friday evening — not quite good enough to crack the Top Ten in an awesomely tough field, but sufficient to net us the eleventh-place honor of opening the contest finals on Saturday night. That placement was infinitely better than we had even dreamed going into the contest — we honestly expected to finish dead last in a 20-horse field — so we were as giddy as schoolgirls on prom night.

The reason for the contest cramming? Unbeatable stage experience in preparation for the contest that really matters to us — our Division finals on April 9. Buoyed by a modicum of success and three shots in front of the biggest audiences we've ever faced, we'll be better prepared to throw down our best next month.

But enough of this frivolity. Let's get back to blogging, shall we?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Diana Prince, Vampire Slayer

Hold onto your bullets and bracelets, fanboys and fangirls.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon just inked a pact to write and direct the new Wonder Woman film for Warner Bros. I can't envision a better man for the job.

But wouldn't it be cool to see the world's greatest heroine brought to the silver screen by a female director? I'd bet Kari Skogland (Liberty Stands Still), Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker, Deep Impact), or Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Blue Steel) would do a bang-up job.

Oh, who am I kidding? This whole post is just an excuse to show off this gorgeous pinup of everyone's favorite Amazon, stylishly rendered by Brazilian artist Alex Miranda.

I'll predict now that the first guy in line to design the movie poster will be Eisner Award-winning cover artist Adam Hughes, who probably draws the sweetest Diana this side of Paradise Island. You heard it from your Uncle Swan first.

Two roads diverged in a courtroom

One down, one out. One did it, one didn't, at least not according to a preponderance of the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt.

Scott Peterson was sentenced to death today
. The family of his late wife had some bitter and angry things to say, and I don't suppose I blame them. If a man killed my daughter, I'd utter a few choice words myself. That doesn't make the words right. But I understand why they were said. Laci and Conner Peterson didn't deserve to be turned into human bait. Almost no one does.

I don't understand the Robert Blake verdict. I wasn't in the courtroom every day, and the evidence I did see and hear was a mere fraction of everything that was presented during Blake's lengthy trial, but I thought I saw and heard enough to convict the man of murdering his wife. Unlike Laci Peterson, Bonny Lee Bakley was apparently no one's angel. But she was a human being, and the mother of a child. Whatever indiscretions she'd committed or confidence schemes she'd pulled, Bonny Lee Bakley didn't deserve to be gunned down in an alley. Almost no one does.

Tonight, Scott Peterson heads for San Quentin's Death Row, where he'll spend at least the next decade while an interminable series of appeals plays out. Robert Blake is probably headed for the nearest Italian restaurant, where this time perhaps he'll be smart enough not to leave his gun on the table.

Back in the days when he played detective Tony Baretta on television, Blake frequently uttered the line, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time." Scott Peterson did the crime and will do the time, and quite possibly more than just the time. Robert Blake won't have to.

And that's the name of that tune.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

What's Up With That? #15: Things that make you go "Ewwww!"

So Steven Spielberg is seriously considering matching the craggy and decrepit sexagenarian Harrison Ford with fresh-faced 20-year-old Scarlett Johanssen in the next Indiana Jones movie (which I believe has a working title of Indiana Jones and the Race to the Bathroom).

This news comes on the heels of speculation that Demi Moore — who's almost my age, for crying out loud — is carrying the love child of her 15-years-junior boytoy Ashton Kutcher, and reports that Demi's ex Bruce Willis — who recently qualified for AARP membership — has been spotted swapping oral bacteria with 18-year-old Lindsay Lohan, who can't legally drink or gamble for another three years.

In the immortal words of Mr. Hand: "What are you people? On dope?"

That's just...icky.

Speaking of Ashton Kutcher, he's essaying the Sidney Poitier role in the upcoming remake of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Oh yeah. That'll work. What, Pauly Shore was busy that week?

Sidney Poitier must be turning over in his grave. I know you're thinking, "Sidney Poitier isn't dead." Trust me — he'll keel over from apoplexy just as soon as he finds out that a no-talent pretty boy was cast in one of his best-known roles.

Next up, Andy Dick stars in the remake of They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)


There she is...Miss "You're Fired"

Donald Trump, who already owns a fifty percent stake in both the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, reportedly wants to buy the Miss America contest too.

I hope The Donald understands that the girls aren't included in the purchase agreement.

Apparently, Trump has some yet-to-be-revealed (no pun intended) ideas about making the venerable pose-off more "watchable." I presume these ideas do not include sending the pageant contestants to Trump's own hairstylist.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Get me to the iglesia on time

My friend JK eloped.

Somehow, I'm not sure it qualifies as elopement if you bring along several members of your family, including your mother, sister, and aunt. But if it adds to the romantic mystique for JK to call it eloping, then who am I to argue?

Anyway, JK and her beau dashed off to sunny Mexico and tied the knot. (For his sake, I hope it's Gordian.)

Wish the happy couple good luck. The bridegroom will need it. (But I kid. I'm a kidder. Aren't I?)

Oh, and I have to start referring to her as JM now. Sigh. Like I'm going to get that right after all these years.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Don't nobody leave this place without watching Adventures in Babysitting

A question spurred by last night's channel-surfing:

Is Adventures in Babysitting the only Chris Columbus film I've ever enjoyed?



Columbus is one of those filmmakers who, when I see his name attached to a film a director, I immediately give up hope that the project will interest me. He's not a bad director, and the success of his films proves that he at least has a talent that many people appreciate, but his movies do nothing for me. I can appreciate the first two Harry Potter films as brilliant technical achievements, but I have no burning desire to see either one again.

Adventures in Babysitting, Columbus's directorial debut, is a whole other story.

Why that film? For me, most of the appeal lies with the actors. Elisabeth Shue has that wonderful likability television executives call "Q factor" -- just seeing her onscreen makes you smile. In fact, I'm not sure why some savvy programming exec hasn't offered Shue a bucket of bucks to star in a lighthearted dramedy for the small screen -- something along the lines of Gilmore Girls, say. She'd probably become a bigger star in that venue than she's ever been in films, along the lines of the similarly talented Lea Thompson. (This sort of role would also help mask the fact that, as appealing as she is, Shue is basically a one-note actress. The well-deserved plaudits she received for Leaving Las Vegas aside, she usually looks a little lost in a serious or demanding role. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with just being fresh-faced and likeable. Ask Mary Tyler Moore. Or Patty Duke. Or Sally Field. Need I go on?)

Shue's supporting cast is led by three young actors who avoid the usual pitfalls of kids in movies. They seem less like "kid actors" and more like real kids than most other collections of kids in similar films. Keith Coogan, as Shue's oldest charge, and Anthony Rapp as his best friend, speak and behave like real teenaged boys, unlike the kids in most teen comedies who don't act or talk like any teenagers I ever knew, but rather appear to be aliens from another planet imitating human adolescents after using the Porky's trilogy as training media. And Maia Brewton's imp in a Mighty Thor helmet seems a lot like kids that age really are -- the script makes her precocious, but not unrealistically so, and she embodies that awkward blend of innocent boldness and childlike fear that real kids often have.

Adventures in Babysitting is also one of those old movies (can you believe this was 18 years ago?) that frequently surprises you with the number of now-familiar faces who've gone on to bigger (if not always better) projects. Penelope Ann Miller (ironically, the contemporary actress most similar to Elizabeth Shue in terms of appeal and range) is Shue's trouble-plagued best friend. George Newbern, one of those actors who pops up frequently in guest roles on television but whose name you can never remember (he's also been the voice of Superman on the animated series Justice League and Static Shock), is the kindly stranger who tries to help Shue (though not entirely without ulterior motive). Vincent D'Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) is the imposing garage mechanic who just may, in fact, be the God of Thunder. Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) is Shue's insufferable boyfriend. Lolita Davidovich (another one of those talented actresses who isn't as big a star as she ought to be) and Clark Johnson (formerly a costar on Homicide: Life on the Street, now an acclaimed television director) turn up in small roles.

And, as hokey as it is, I always get a kick out of the scene where the four WASPy kids from the 'burbs wind up on stage with the legendary Albert "The Icepick" Collins in a Chicago blues club. Just hearing the Master of the Telecaster snarl, "Don't nobody leave this place without singing the blues," is worth the price of admission all by itself. I had the privilege on a couple of occasions of seeing Collins perform live (both in the early '80s, before this film was made), and I know I didn't dare leave without singing the blues.

Can I be forgiven for hoping that Shue's character would hook up with Calvin Levels's car thief with a heart of gold at the end of the picture? Now that would be an adventure.

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

Friday, March 11, 2005

"So shines a good deed in a weary world"

Today's Comic Art Friday, boys and girls, is a testament to the power of the Internet to enlighten our lives, expand our horizons, bring distant people together, and, I believe, foster harmony and brotherhood between us and our fellow man, woman, and metahuman.

Before I get to those lofty sentiments, though, feast your work-week-weary gaze upon this striking portrait:

The grinning gent with the lead-spitting .45 is not — contrary to what your initial impulse may have led you to believe — the Shadow of "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" fame, nor the Spirit, Will Eisner's cemetery-dwelling masked detective, despite his passing resemblance to those two worthy crimebusters. No, friends, this is the Crimson Avenger, who holds a hallowed place in comics history as the first masked superhero published by the company then known as National Periodicals, today more familiarly called DC Comics (a division of Time-Warner Communications, Inc.).

Although supplanted in popularity by his later-arriving stablemate, the upstart Batman, the Crimson Avenger was indeed DC's first foray into the masked-hero sweepstakes. (Superman, DC's premier property and initiator of the superhero comics boom, wears no mask. But then, he doesn't need one, because he lives in an alternate universe where people — even your lovers and closest friends — do not recognize you when you put on eyeglasses.) The Crimson Avenger made his first appearance in October 1938, more than six months before Bruce Wayne donned his cape and cowl. C.A. never rose to the heights of stardom of Supes and Bats — maybe because he was suspiciously reminiscent of too many other characters, such as the aforementioned Shadow and the Green Hornet, but he cut a dramatic figure. And besides, being first always counts for something. Unless you're Native American. But I digress.

The artist who created this bullet-blazing representation is Mike Grell, most familiar to longtime comics fans for his lengthy runs on the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series in the '70s, and as the creator of such characters as sword-and-sandal stalwart Travis Morgan, aka the Warlord, and the mysterious Jon Sable, Freelance. Grell is one of the few pencilers still active in comics today whose style is so distinctive that his work can almost never be mistaken for that of another artist. This Crimson Avenger (which, by the way, was stylishly inked by artist Terry Staats) is the second Grell entry in my collection — I also own a sharp Green Arrow pinup veteran SSTOL readers have seen before.

But the real story of this picture is the manner in which it came to me — as a surprise gift from a fellow collector I met through this blog. One of the joys of any hobby is connecting with others who share your interest. (This is always a challenge in the face of the 99.9 percent of humans you know who couldn't give less of a rip about this weird thing for which you have developed an all-consuming passion.)

Some time back, I received an e-mail from a guy in the Houston area who had found his way, by the power of high-speed Internet, to this humble weblog. That e-mail initiated a conversation that continues to this day. As it turns out, Damon also is a comic art collector, which was the drawing card for him coming to SSTOL originally. Like mine, his collection focuses on commissioned pinup art instead of published page or cover art, which makes us fellows in a microscopic subregion of an already microcosmic hobby. Beyond that, we share a number of other interests and experiences in common.

Due to an odd series of circumstances only Damon himself could relate, this drawing was languishing in the nether regions of his art collection. When I recently mentioned that an upcoming commission project of mine would feature the Crimson Avenger, Damon thought I would give his Grell C.A. a good home, and he — unbeknownst to me — shipped it off to me. When it arrived today, I was dumbfounded that someone who knows me only as an unseen typist halfway across the continent would show me such a kindness. But that's been the nature of our friendship -- a word I don't use casually, but that I use unreservedly in reference to Damon.

I will, of course, have to plot a way to return the favor. But that will be a story for another time.

By the way, there is another, more recent character in the DC Comics universe named the Crimson Avenger. Like the original C.A., the modern Crimson Avenger packs a mean pair of pistols. Unlike the original, the new C.A. is female. And young. And African American. And wears a costume with a bare midriff. Just in case that's whom you envisioned when you heard the name, and were confused by the picture above.

As for the title of this post, Willy Wonka said that. Not the Crimson Avenger. Either one.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Law of Creativity (Title Division)

Tonight I saw a TV spot for The Ring Two.

If there were justice in Hollywood, there would be a law stating the following:

"If a film studio is so creatively bankrupt that the only way it can release a new film is to rehash one it's already made, it must at the very least show a modicum of originality by coming up with a title that does not follow the pattern [title of previously released cash cow] [numeral]. The use of alternate spellings or Roman numerals shall not be construed as satisfying this requirement."

That is, if there were justice in Hollywood.

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament update

For reasons both contractual and prudent, I haven't been offering any commentary on the continuing saga of the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions, in which yours truly is humbled to be a participant. (You can catch up on the background here and here.)

But to answer a fistful of questions that have been e-mailed to me repeatedly:
  1. Yes, I am watching the UTOC with great interest. In fact, I'm taping each game for later review. Given that at least one, and possibly two, of the returning champions currently playing in Round One of the UTOC will be my competition in Round Two — and given that I have absolutely no way of knowing at this point whom that will be — it's definitely in my best interest to know as much about everyone who's moving on in the tournament as I can glean by watching them play.

    Besides, I'm a huge fan of Jeopardy! beyond my own small piece of its history. It's an absolute treat to see all of these great players return to compete against one another. It's been especially fun to see again people I've met over the years in other tournaments, and to cheer them on. I can't applaud the Jeopardy! folks enough for putting this event together, and I'd be saying that even had I not qualified to participate.

  2. Yes, I'm impressed with the quality of the competition thus far. Most of the games have been close between at least two of the players, so with a couple of exceptions we've seen intensely tight matches that have hinged on the answering and wagering strategies in Final Jeopardy! I'm running at about 70 percent correct in guessing who will win each game. Without exception, all of the folks who have won thus far would be formidable opponents in the next round.

  3. No, I haven't played my Round Two game yet. At this writing, I don't know exactly when I will, other than that it will be one of four dates later this month. The last of the Round One games taped on Tuesday of this week, so I expect a call from the J! staff about my Round Two schedule any time now.

  4. Round Two begins airing on Tax Day — Wednesday, April 15. (Some irony there, yes?) My Round Two game will air sometime between then and the first week of May. As soon as I (a) know the air date and (b) am at liberty to report it, I'll announce it here.

  5. No, I don't yet have any definite plans for the $31,601 I won in Round One, aside from paying whopping chunks to Uncle W and Uncle Ahnold in my quarterlies over the next year. (It was nice to know the amount before my accountant worked up my taxes this year, so he could plan accordingly.) It's safe to say that, with a daughter beginning college in two and one-half years, I'm going to tuck away a sizable portion toward her education fund. (Lucky for her self-employed and far-from-wealthy Dad, she's already decided that she wants to start at the local junior college.)

  6. Yes, I'm aware of the discussion board at the official Jeopardy! site. I've been following the conversations over there during the UTOC, but have thought it best to refrain from participating as long as I'm still alive in the tournament. I know that some of the board members stop in here at SSTOL on occasion, and if you're one of them, howdy! I'll plan to join you there once the UTOC (or at least my part therein) has concluded. (Which won't be too soon, I hope!)
Last night's game was a little tough for me to watch. One of the players was Mark Lowenthal, who won the Tournament of Champions the year I participated. In fact, Mark advanced to the TOC finals by defeating me in a hotly-contested semifinal match that I led going into Final Jeopardy! He correctly solved the Civil War question, and I didn't. (Which makes a lot of sense, because Mark is a historian by training, and I — for whatever other skills I possess — am definitely not.) After his TOC victory, Mark teamed up with Chuck Forrest, the Trebek era's first truly great player (and one of the so-called "Nifty Nine," the upper echelon of players with automatic bids into Round Two of the UTOC) to write the book Secrets of the Jeopardy! Champions, which is still one of the key study references for aspiring (and returning -- trust me on this) J! players.

I was really pulling for Mark to do well in his match, both because I've played opposite him and know him to be a delightful and charming fellow (and a gracious victor), and because thus far in the UTOC there haven't been too many success stories from the early years of the Trebek era. Of the winners in the UTOC so far, only one — Dave Traini, a phenomenal J! player from Season Three whom I met in 1990 during Super Jeopardy! and was in my UTOC contestant group — played his or her original games longer ago than I did (I played during Season Four, in 1988). Alas, Mark ran into the buzzsaw of two excellent (and younger) players, and didn't fare as well as I'm sure he would have hoped. I felt badly for him — and for me, because I'd hoped we'd perhaps have a chance to renew our acquaintance in a future round.

Mark, if you're listening, your old comrade from the Class of '88 says hello, and wishes you well in life's pursuits. (Mark works for the CIA — no joke — so it probably pays to stay in his good graces.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Liberty stands still and blows out 45 candles

Today is Linda Fiorentino's birthday.

I considered mailing myself to her as a gift, but I was over the weight limit for overnight delivery, and I didn't think I could spend more than 24 hours in that cramped little cardboard envelope.

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Flogging the blog, DVD Verdict style

Over at DVD Verdict — which is, as you doubtless know, the premier pit stop for DVD reviews and critique on the entire Information Superhighway, and I'm not just saying that because I'm one of the associate editorsChief Justice Mike Jackson (not to be confused with Mr. I-Sleep-With-Kids-and-It's-Perfectly-Normal, now appearing in a courtroom near you) recently installed blogs for the Verdict's review staff. I'm planning to use mine (which you can view with pride here) for cross-posting some of the film- and television-related items that pop up here at SSTOL, so you regulars here (and you know who you are) need not feel as though you're missing anything.

However, I'd like to seize this opportunity to flack for the all-staff blog at the Verdict. There you'll be able to surf the randomly scattered thoughts of my 30-plus writing and editing colleagues, who comprise — in my never-all-that-humble opinion — the finest collection of film writers ever assembled under a single banner.

When you're done ogling the staff blog, you can feast your eyes and gray matter on a few of the 6,352 (and ever increasing) in-depth reviews the Verdict judges have adjudicated for your entertainment and edification.

So what are you sitting here for? Go grab some of that wholesome and tasty DVD Verdict goodness. You'll thank yourself in the morning.

So long, Charlie

To many filmgoers today, the name Teresa Wright probably doesn't mean much, and that's a shame. Wright, who died this week at age 86, was that rare actress whose career spanned a lifetime. She appeared in her first film, The Little Foxes, when she was in her early 20s; her last, The Rainmaker, was released when she was in her late 70s.

Even more remarkable, Wright remains the only actor ever nominated for an Academy Award for each of her first three film roles (The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver -- for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar -- and The Pride of the Yankees) -- a record that's likely to endure for quite some time. She's also one of only ten actors nominated for both leading and supporting roles in the same Academy year.

But the role for which I'll best remember Teresa Wright is the one that broke her Oscar nomination streak -- her fourth film, Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt -- in which she plays a young woman who is both the niece and namesake of a serial murderer. Wright's strong-willed Charlie Newton was another award-worthy performance opposite veteran Joseph Cotten. Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock's favorite of his films, and, after Psycho, it's my favorite too. (That it was filmed in and around the area I now call home doesn't hurt, either.) Wright makes Hitchcock's smartest and most capable heroine, and is (not coincidentally, I believe) one of his few non-blondes.

Known for her strong personality off-camera -- she once stood up to the mighty Samuel Goldwyn, and lost her studio contract for doing so -- Teresa Wright was truly one of Hollywood's great talents.

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

Girls' day out

Today is International Women's Day. Show your appreciation. Hug a woman. (With her permission, of course.)

I will confess that, until I saw the logo on Google today while looking up something or other, I did not know that today was International Women's Day. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I did not know there was an International Women's Day. I have known women pretty much all my life — and in several nations, I hasten to add — and not one of them had mentioned this observance to me before.

Was it supposed to be a secret? Is this what women are covertly planning when they all get up and go to the washroom together? Is there something I'm supposed to be doing today to demonstrate that I, although certifiably not a woman, am down with the sisters? Is there an appropriate International Women's Day gift? (Perhaps a donation to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation — an organization that I, as the husband of a breast cancer survivor, heartily endorse — would be in order.)

If you, as I, wonder what the whole business is about (though I presume that our female readers probably know this already, having been in on the planning), there's a detailed explanation at Wikipedia.

Whatever the case, today, we at SSTOL salute women everywhere. Many — indeed, most — of our favorite people are women. And we love you all.

You go, girls. We hear you roar.

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Monday, March 07, 2005

"Her work was her life"

I was sorry to hear about the passing of filmmaker Debra Hill at the relatively youthful age of 54, following a lengthy bout with the Big C.

If the name isn't familiar to you, the movies surely are. With director John Carpenter, Debra Hill cowrote the first two Halloween films, The Fog, and the classic Escape From New York. As a producer, she had a hand in developing an eclectic variety of motion pictures, everything from Adventures in Babysitting to Big Top Pee-Wee, from the Oscar-winning The Fisher King to Clue (the latter being one of my favorite underrated treasures).

Hill never married or had children — "her work was her life," said a friend. I'll have to spin a couple of her films in the next few days, in memory of that life.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

On a mission from God

I've used the phrase "train-wreck television" here before. By that I mean a television program, or a movie being broadcast on television, which — like a train wreck — compels you to watch, no matter how awful it may be.

One such movie is on American Movie Classics as I type: John Landis's monument to music and mayhem, The Blues Brothers.

Judged critically, The Blues Brothers is not a good movie. It is loud, crass, ridiculously silly, clumsily written, illogically frenetic, and improbable in the extreme. No one in the film can act, with the exception of the two leads, John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, who here are only required to play cardboard caricatures — we only know they can act because we've seen them in other films where they proved they could. The rest of the performances are uniformly embarrassing. The editor appears to have used a chainsaw to cut the film together. The cinematographer appears never to have placed a camera before, given the inordinate number of badly framed shots. Landis directs the proceedings as if he had a plane to catch and thus had to move things along in double-time.

And yet, there's something about the darn thing that sucks you in.

Part of it is the music: rousing R&B production numbers by such luminaries as James Brown, Ray Charles, the immortal Cab Calloway, and — in the film's best scene — Aretha Franklin yowling (in laughable lip-synch) "Think" in a greasy spoon diner, wearing an apron and fuzzy pink slippers. Aretha also gets off the best line of the film: When Ackroyd as Elwood Blues utters the film's tagline, "We're on a mission from God," the Queen of Soul jabs a stern finger in his face and warns, "Don't you blaspheme in here!"

Part of it is the movie's cheerfully relentless energy; just about the time you think it's about to grind to a thudding halt, it leaps up and barrels off again.

Part of it is just the opportunity to witness the late, great Belushi in action, and imagine what might have been. My guess? He'd have gradually wandered from the broad slapstick that made him famous into more serious fare. Belushi's last two films — the romantic comedy Continental Divide (a surprisingly charming picture costarring the underrated Blair Brown) and the dark, creepy Neighbors — were tentative steps in this direction.

Anyway, back to the movie. I have to see whether Jake can persuade Princess Leia not to pump him and his brother full of hot lead.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Initial take: Law & Order: Trial By Jury

My first impressions of the newest entry in Dick Wolf's Law & Order television empire:
  • It's about time someone built a TV drama around Bebe Neuwirth. In fairness to Dick Wolf, he's cast Neuwirth in a series before — the short-lived newspaper drama Deadline five years ago — but there her character was a minor member of an ensemble that featured Oliver Platt in the lead role. On L&O:TBJ, she'll get a chance to shine. And she did, in this opening episode.

  • I'm less impressed with Amy Carlson, who plays Neuwirth's copilot at the DA's office. But then, I expected to be — I didn't think much of Carlson on Third Watch, either. Of course, like the parade of actresses who've played second chair to Sam Waterston over on the original L&O, Carlson's main purpose is just to keep Neuwirth's character from talking to herself.

  • The device of having recurring guest stars as the defense attorneys and judges will be interesting. Peter Coyote's slick, media-grabbing lawyer will be back, as will Candice Bergen's judge (though less than originally planned, now that Bergen has a regular gig on Boston Legal). We also caught a glimpse of returnee Carey Lowell, whose former L&O ADA Jamie Ross is now a judge, and will handle some of the caseload on TBJ.

  • I'm glad Wolf and company have found yet another way to present the inner workings of the criminal justice system, but the scattered POV of this series may get tiring after a while. The story keeps bouncing around from the ADAs to the defense to the judges to the jury. I'd much rather they made Neuwirth and Carlson the clear focus of the show, and minimized the multiple-viewpoint folderol.

  • Wonder why Fred Dalton Thompson, who plays DA Arthur Branch on L&O and is also a regular cast member here, ditched the "Dalton" for the new credit sequence. Maybe he wanted people to think it's a different actor on the other show.

  • For all the people wringing their hands over the fact that TBJ makes the fourth iteration of Law & Order currently on the air: Get over it. The four shows, despite a common universe and intersecting characters, bear only surface resemblance to each other beyond this. The mothership series has a rigidly defined structure — half the episode follows the police investigation, half the prosecution of the crime — from which it rarely diverges. L&O: Special Victims Unit is a standard police procedural with a little legal action tossed in for variety. L&O: Criminal Intent plays like the old Mystery Movie series — Columbo, McCloud, McMillan and Wife, and their cohorts — an old-fashioned inverted mystery where the emphasis is not on the whodunit but rather on the howtheycatchem. L&O:TBJ is just a more elaborate courtroom drama. Take the prefix out of the titles, and you'd hardly be inclined to think of them as parts of a whole.

  • How cool is it that both main protagonists of this series are women well on the high side of 30? (Bebe Neuwirth is 46, Amy Carlson is 36.) Though I am surprised, given Dick Wolf's predilection, that neither of the lead characters is named Alexandra.

  • Finally, how sad to watch the late Jerry Orbach playing out his last few onscreen moments as a wan, bewigged, badly pancaked shell of his familiar self. When I heard his voice cut to a ragged whisper in his final scene in this episode, I almost had to brush away a tear.

Truth and Beauty: All ye need to know

It's Friday, and you know what that means. (And if you didn't know that Friday is Comic Art Day at SSTOL, you need to drop around more often.)

Today's modern masterpiece hasn't yet arrived in "the flesh," so to speak. It's in the mail, though, and will likely show up here tomorrow. It's the latest in my series of commissioned artworks I call "Common Elements," and it's a beaut, courtesy of the powerful pencil of Montreal's Geof Isherwood. The gentleman above is Mister Miracle, one of the heroes of Jack "King" Kirby's Fourth World (or New Gods, if you prefer) saga, the cornerstone of Kirby's stint at DC Comics in the early 1970s. The lady below is Cathy Webster, better known as Free Spirit, a short-lived heroine from Marvel Comics' abortive Heroes Reborn story cycle from a few years ago.

It's only been in my adult years that I've truly been able to appreciate the genius of Jack Kirby. When I was a snot-nosed comics-reading fanboy in my callow youth, I thought Kirby's art was dull, blocky, and hideously crude, especially as compared with the smoothly heroic stylings of his Marvel stablemates John Buscema, whose figures embodied all the power of Kirby's but without Jack's annoying eccentricities, and John Romita Sr., whose years of drawing romance comics made him proficient at creating gorgeous women and handsome men, unlike the craggy-faced folk who populated Kirby's work. The more I've studied comic art, however, the more I've come to understand how amazing Kirby was.

Yes, he occasionally — okay, often — ignored the niceties of accurate anatomical rendering and focal perspective. Yes, his people all had hands with square-tipped fingers, and faces like the Presidents on Mount Rushmore. But almost everything modern comic book artists have learned about action, dynamic figure drawing, and exciting visual narrative they learned from Jack Kirby, or from artists who themselves learned from Kirby.

Not to mention the fact that he co-created with Stan Lee (and let's not get into the tired old argument over who contributed what, or how much) most of Marvel's iconic characters of the Silver Age: the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, Captain America (whose origins actually date back further, to the early 1940s), Iron Man (although Shellhead's familiar red-and-gold armor came, I'm told on good authority, from Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko), the Avengers, and the original X-Men. (Kirby often took credit for Spider-Man, too, though the fact that Kirby couldn't draw the Web-Slinger decently to save his life is proof enough in my book that Spidey was all Ditko.)

As a Marvel fan, even if not a big Kirby backer in those days, I was crushed when the King ran off to the Dastardly Competition. And I was one of those readers who found most of Kirby's Fourth World comics impenetrable — both New Gods and Forever People left me cold. (As incredible an artist and visual storyteller as Kirby was, he couldn't write realistic dialogue or narration for all the vibranium in Wakanda.) But I loved what Jack did with the weakest of DC's Superman series, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, turning it into a hilarious joyride of an adventure featuring a group of scrappy kids called the Newsboy Legion. I especially loved Mister Miracle, which, though it was integrally tied into the Fourth World saga, read a lot more like a superhero comic — specifically, a Marvel superhero comic.

When I proposed the concept for this drawing to Geof Isherwood, I was delighted to learn that he too was a Mister Miracle fan. I think Geof's affection for the character shines through in the image he created. It's a fantastic, arresting piece of art. (The ring of fire motif, incidentally, was all Geof's idea. In the comics, Mister Miracle in civilian life is a circus escape artist named Scott Free. Which is why I paired him with Free Spirit, see? Okay, it sounded cool when I first thought of it.)

I don't think Geof will mind my sharing with you a little of what he wrote to me in an e-mail this evening. I'd written him earlier today to compliment his unique drawing style, which places a great deal of emphasis on anatomy and what I call a classical approach to figure art, in contrast to many of today's comics artists. Geof's reply was illuminating, setting straight some of my preconceptions:
Your statement on anatomy has gotten me to respond. In a documentary on Marvel, John Romita Sr. was talking about Kirby. He said that even though you could pick on Jack's incorrect proportions, or a hand that was odd, the impact of Jack's art was what mattered, and is what set him apart. (Todd) McFarlane found a creepy, spidery look for Webhead, and fans responded. His anatomy didn't matter as much. And that is kind of the secret to comics.

I, on the other hand, keep being drawn to a sense of realism, which requires more observation of real life. And I am constantly trying to push myself in the direction of the fantastic, to create that hyper-reality that the best fantasy art exudes. There's a mental tug-of-war constantly being waged. But my reason for that use of anatomy and perspective is to try and draw the viewer into the picture, and get them to feel what I felt when the image first flashed into my head. It's a non-verbal thing. Drawing is a slippery ridge to traverse: on one side is being too careful, and the drawing becomes static and boring, the other is drawing too sloppily, where the looseness becomes a mess.
Thanks, Geof, for the brief course in Art Analysis 101. I learned a new truth today, thanks to you, about something I thought I already knew pretty well. I gained a renewed appreciation for the breathtaking beauty of your work as well.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
— John Keats, from "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Thursday, March 03, 2005

SwanShadow's Master Plan for saving the comics industry

Marvel Comics honchos Peter Cuneo and Avi Arad announced this week that the company has struck a deal with 7-11 to sell Marvel's merry mags in the ubiquitous convenience stores.

Anything that makes comics — which in recent years have largely been relegated to comics-focused retailers, with the result that only the people already reading comics ever see a comic book — more visible to more potential purchasers is good for the industry. Whether the 7-11 gambit will produce a huge boost in sales for Marvel remains to be seen, but it's a nice start. It's a partial return to the days when spinner racks filled with comics stood in practically every supermarket in America, where kids had easy access to them. My very first comics almost all came from the twin racks at Snider's IGA Market in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where my mother bought groceries when I was six years old.

No one asked me, of course, but allow me to suggest a simple four-point plan the major comics publishers could enact if they really wanted to dig their foundering business out of its rapidly deepening grave:
  1. Make comics more visible by putting them in places where kids congregate. Here's one idea: Practically every shopping mall in America rents kiosks in its open spaces, where exposure-dependent impulse items like costume jewelry, sunglasses, license plate frames and such like are sold. Rather than having comic book shops hidden away in the darkest corners of urban downtowns, why not support retailers in selling comics from brightly colored, visually striking, user-friendly kiosks near the food courts of shopping malls?

  2. Get comics back to their roots. Superhero and adventure comics have become so insular in recent decades that it's practically impossible for new readers to develop an interest in them. Catering to the fanboy crowd has resulted in much darker, less pleasant fare dominating the industry. I'm not saying abandon that core audience, but comics publishers ought to try putting out more books in the lighter, more engaging style of comics' boom times. What might happen is that parents and grandparents who grew up in comics' Silver and Bronze Ages (the '60s through early '80s) might be more readily inclined to put in the hands of kids the style of comics they themselves grew up reading. When my daughter was learning to read in the early '90s, I wouldn't have dared tried to interest her in the sort of gritty, graphic comics then available. But had there been more "fun" comics around, I'd have probably given her a few — even read them with her — and maybe she'd be reading comics today.

  3. Make better use of the success of comics-derived films. When a new Spider-Man, Batman, or Tomb Raider movie hits the multiplex, the company publishing the source material should have huge racks of comics featuring the film's characters right there in the lobby. Heck, give 'em away with the purchase of a ticket. Put Spider-Man comics in video stores and give 'em to everyone who buys or rents the Spider-Man DVD. Leverage the huge audiences for these films into promotion for the comics on which they're based.

  4. Seize the educational market. When I was a kid, we had Weekly Reader, a mini-newspaper for kids that was distributed in schools. Why not develop a system of using small-format comic books to present current events and school subjects, and make them available as adjuncts to the core curriculum? This could be accomplished so inexpensively that every family could afford to subscribe — maybe a dollar a week, just enough to cover production costs. You could put hordes of currently unemployed comic artists and writers to work developing the books, and at the same time expose millions of schoolchildren to the wonders of sequential art and storytelling.
I'm sure more brilliant heads than mine could come up with a dozen other ideas, if they simply dedicated some brainstorming time. But this would make a nice start.

Today's nominee for the "Don't Hold Your Breath" Award the government of North Korea, which is demanding an apology from the United States for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's reference to their country as "an outpost of tyranny."

Yeah, like that's going to happen.

The only apology Kim Jong Il is likely to receive from Washington would be something along these lines: "We're sorry we haven't blasted your pathetic little backwater fiefdom into oblivion long before now." Or words to that effect.

Kim can get in line for his apology right behind Saddam Hussein, who's still waiting for President Bush to send him a card reading, "Sorry about the kids."

What's Up With That? #14: Your tax kroner at work

At last: positive proof that ours is not the most insanely spendthrift government on the planet.

The government of Norway funded a study at the University of Oslo to determine whether lobsters experience pain when boiled.


Lobsters are giant bugs that live in water. Bugs, I say. Arthropods. Multilegged crawly things. That we cook and eat what are essentially humongous aquatic insects is far creepier, and infinitely more worthy of study, than the issue of whether the giant bugs are capable of the higher-level nervous system function necessary to process pain, and whether on this basis the critters might object to our practice.

The answer, by the way, was "no."

Glad that's settled.

Still, I smell a scam here. (Or maybe that's just the lobsters.) How many lobsters do you suppose the scientists at the University of Oslo had to boil in the service of their research? And surely, once the creatures were boiled, it would have been wasteful — perhaps even disrespectful — to simply throw the remains away, wouldn't it?

Pass the drawn butter and lemon, there, Olaf.

I am currently writing a grant request to the Norwegian government, seeking funds to study whether human consumption of freshly harvested coconut causes pain to coconut palm trees. I anticipate the research for this project will require me to travel to, and spend inordinately lengthy amounts of time in, tropical and subtropical locales wherein coconut palms thrive. I'm compiling a list of destinations for the finance minister's review.

Wish me luck.


Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Funny old world

Yes, now that you mention it, it does strike me as bizarre that we live at a moment in history when:
  • Bill Gates becomes a Knight Commander of the British Empire. I thought "Knight Commander" was a video game. Apparently, it's a Microsoft product.

  • The headline on one of the biggest news stories of the day contains the phrase "crack whore." And doesn't even mention Courtney Love or Whitney Houston.

  • A stripper is selling her size 69HH breast implants on eBay. That's bigger than Shaquille O'Neal's shoe, for crying out loud.

  • Kobe Bryant buys off the woman who accused him of rape, and his attorney manages to say with a straight face that the matter has been resolved "to the satisfaction of both parties." I'm thinking there had to be a better way of putting that.

  • New CIA chief Porter Goss complains, "The jobs I'm being asked to do, the five hats that I wear, are too much for this mortal." What did you think, Porter? The head of Central Intelligence spent the day sucking down cappucino and surfing the 'Net?

  • Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards file for divorce...and anyone is surprised. This is a man who spent a half-million bucks (that we know about) on Heidi Fleiss's hookers, and has his own designated parking space at the Playboy Mansion. Not exactly marital material.

  • The Republican Party is courting (in a manner of speaking) gay conservatives. There are gay conservatives?

  • The mayor of Las Vegas tells a fourth grade class that drinking is one of his hobbies, and that, if marooned on a desert island, the one thing he'd want with him is a bottle of gin. Whew — for a minute there, I was afraid he was going to promote gambling to the little tykes.

  • A New York Times/CBS News poll finds that "Americans say President Bush does not share the priorities of most of the country on either domestic or foreign issues, are increasingly resistant to his proposal to revamp Social Security and say they are uneasy with Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decisions about the retirement program." Color me shocked.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Allez cuisine, and please pass the cuttlefish

Tonight on Iron Chef, it's Battle Cuttlefish.

See, this is why Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto is seriously disadvantaged on the new Iron Chef America. Morimoto knows what to do with a cuttlefish. His culinary skills were honed on cuttlefish, cod roe, sea urchin, natto, and the other uniquely Japanese fare that frequently appeared as the theme ingredients on the original Iron Chef. The new Americanized series, however, features a judging panel which in all the episodes to date has been overwhelmingly — if not, indeed, exclusively — comprised of North American Anglos, most of whom wouldn't know a cuttlefish if it attached itself to their faces like in the first Alien movie.

Myself, I understand cuttlefish. Having spend a goodly portion of my formative years in Hawaii and the Philippines, I have a deep appreciation for the vagaries of authentic Pacific Rim cuisine. Many's the time when I, as a mere cygnet, snacked gleefully on dried cuttlefish, shrimp, and seaweed rice crackers from the Asian aisle at the supermarket. Morimoto and I speak the same culinary language.

But he's not going to win many matches on Iron Chef America unless they start seeding the tasting panel with some Japanese folks. Or me. I'd be delighted to volunteer.

This, for the benefit of you sheltered lifelong mainlanders, is a cuttlefish.

No, it's not a fish. It's a cephalopod, related to the squids and octopi. And it's "cuttle," not "cuddle" — the cuttle is the rigid bonelike shell on the inside of the creature's body, like a squid's pen. If you want to cuddle one, be my guest. I prefer not to play with my food.