Friday, July 29, 2005

Good guys wear black (ink)

Today's Comic Art Friday comes your way courtesy of Sue Bee Honey, because you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. Why you'd want to catch flies in the first place is your business. You don't ridicule my hobbies, so I won't ridicule yours.

Since I began collecting comic art, and commissioned art in particular — art created specifically for me by an artist whose talents I've hired — I've met quite a number of people in the hobby, both in person and — more frequently — online. As is true of most arenas in life, comic art offers a diverse array of personalities. But most of the people with whom I've interfaced have been genuinely pleasant, and united by their passion for a narrowly defined and relatively obscure form of popular art. I can honestly say that I can count the negative experiences I've had with comic artists as a collector on one hand, and still play "London Bridge" on the piano.

Now and again, I run into people in the comic art field who are even more enjoyable to deal with than most. "The good guys," I like to call them.

Some good guys are fellow collectors. My friend Damon in Houston, for example, who regularly shares his art, his insights, and his contacts with me to a degree that far exceeds the call of duty.

Some good guys are art dealers and representatives. Since my collection consists of lower-value pieces (I only own a couple of commissioned works for which I paid as much as $300, and the bulk of my pieces cost a fraction of that), I'm not a cash cow for big-time dealers, and thus not worthy of the time of some. But I've always had excellent service from — among many others, and these mentions aren't intended to be exhaustive — Scott Kress at Catskill Comics, who has arranged commissions for me with such artists as Scott Rosema and Steve Mannion; Buzz Setzer at CNV Toys, who represents Darryl Banks; and Steve Morger at Big Wow Art, who coordinated two remarkable commissions with the legendary Ernie Chan.

A lot of artists are good guys, far more than get credit for being such. There's a reason why I do the amount of repeat business that I do with such artists as Geof Isherwood, James E. Lyle, Darryl Banks, and Michael Dooney — I love their work, certainly, but they're also extremely enjoyable people to deal with.

One of the real good guys in the industry is Bob Almond, a supremely talented inker known for his work on such titles as Marvel's Black Panther and Warlock and the Infinity Watch, Bloodshot from Acclaim Comics, and Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril for Penny-Farthing Press.

(Side note: If you love superhero adventure comics in the classic mode of the Silver Age, you should rush to your local comics retailer today and pick up the six issues of the current Captain Gravity miniseries. And if your comic shop doesn't have them, order them directly from Penny-Farthing. And no, Bob's not giving me perks for plugging his book.)

Below are a couple of inking projects Bob recently completed for me. Aside from being excellent examples of Bob's work, these drawings have something else in common: Both were originally penciled by artists who are good guys, just like Bob.

First up, this striking action pinup pitting Ms. Marvel against a sometime-villainess called Moonstone, with Bob Almond inks over the pencils of Scott Rosema.

It turns out that Bob and I are both Ms. Marvel fans, although he prefers this, her more recent costume, while I'm partial to her original red-and-blue battle togs. (We both agree that changing her fighting name to Warbird was a lame idea, however.) Bob's clean ink lines make Ms. M. leap off the page here. Of course, Scott Rosema's original composition is wonderfully dynamic, and gave Bob plenty of great visuals to work with. (Scott remains the only artist who ever drew a commissioned piece for me who telephoned me afterward to discuss the result with me personally. Now that's a good guy.)

Since it would hardly be Comic Art Friday without showcasing something from Geof Isherwood, here's Bob's finish over Geof's pencil drawing of the mighty Thor.

This was the first piece of Geof's art I ever purchased, and was the beginning of a long and productive working relationship with an artist who has become one of my all-time favorites, and certainly the artist I have commissioned most frequently. Because of that — and because Geof's original pencil work was just so doggoned awesome — I was extremely hesitant to allow an inker to touch it. (Several other inkers had inquired about this piece before I agreed to allow Bob to work his mojo on it.) I couldn't be more pleased with the end result.

My sincere thanks to Bob Almond for lending his incredible ink mastery to these beautiful artworks, and to Scott Rosema and Geof Isherwood for creating them originally.

As for you, go spend the rest of your Comic Art Friday doing something nice for someone, thus becoming a good guy ("guy" is gender-generic in this context, so ladies, this includes you too) your own self.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Redefining the phrase "expert legal counsel"

This just in from Pocatello, Idaho, the fun capital of the Rocky Mountain states:

A mistrial had to be declared in a case before Idaho's Sixth District Court when the judge discovered that the defense attorney's license to practice law had been suspended by the Idaho State Bar.

The offense: The attorney — one Curtis Holmes, Esquire — coerced a female client, whose divorce he was handling, into posing for nude photos in lieu of his fee. Nude photos taken, mind you, while the woman's two small children waited in the adjoining room.

To compound the irony, in the trial at hand, Holmes was defending a man charged with lewd conduct.

I can just imagine the initial conference: "Why, yes, I can take your lewd conduct case to trial. I know that particular field inside and out."

Speaking of bad writing...

...and we were, just yesterday...

Here's the winning entry in this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, sponsored annually by the English department of San Jose State University. The idea, for the two or three of you who may be unfamiliar with this exercise, is to create the absolute worst possible opening sentence for an imaginary novel. The contest is named in honor of the legendary Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who once began a novel with this now infamous passage:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Your 2005 champion Bulwer-Lytton imitator is Dan McKay of Fargo, North Dakota, who penned this florid gem:
As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.
Nice to see several local folks among the runners-up, including Mark Hawthorne of my own fair city of Rohnert Park, whose entry came in second in the Historical Fiction category:
A column of five hundred Roman foot soldiers - a column held together by the plaster of courage -- advanced on a teeming sea of rebellious slaves -- slaves who had, ironically, built most of Rome's columns, although they actually used lime and not plaster to cement the structures, and though it is perhaps more historically precise to describe the soldiers' column as bound by the lime of courage, that doesn't really have the same adventurous ring to it.
One of these years, I'm going to remember ahead of time to submit an entry, and I'm going to win this crazy contest. I can write badly with the best of them.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Real women need real copywriters

Now here's one of those instances from American advertising where you just have to wonder: Did no one with a brain review this?

You've probably seen the new Dove soap ad campaign, featuring six "real women with real curves" standing around in their underwear hawking America's favorite beauty bar. Our local shopping mall is even displaying life-size posters featuring these women, and I'd guess your local shopping mall is too, shopping malls being the trend-sniffing beasts that they are.

Now take a gander at this screenshot from the Dove Web site.

Note the instructions:
Meet the women, read their stories and see their beautiful curves.
Okay so far, right? But check out the next line:
Roll over each woman to see more.
To which I can only say:
Oh, my.
One other observation. The point of this ad campaign is supposed to be that women of all shapes and sizes are beautiful, even if they don't fit into a size 2 dress. As the Flash animation on the Dove Web site ponderously intones:
For too long, beauty has been defined by narrow, stifling stereotypes. You've told us it's time to change all that. We agree.
But take a look at the women the Dove folks (or, more accurately, their ad agency) chose for the "Campaign for Real Beauty." All of these women are attractive by any reasonable standard. Most of them aren't waifs, exactly, but not one is either heavy or plain, unless your personal barometer of heaviness or plainness is seriously out of whack. If Dove really wanted to prove a point, why not use women with size 18 figures whose faces don't look like they came off the cover of Modern Bride?

For that matter, doesn't it sort of defeat the purpose of the ad to put the skinny, fair-skinned blonde girl front and center?

Narrow, stifling stereotypes, indeed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Go, Discovery!

We're keeping positive thoughts flying for the seven-member crew of STS-114 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.

As a lifelong proponent of the space program, I'm thrilled that America is back in space. I'm hopeful that we'll stay on course for the President's proposed return to the moon and ultimate manned landing on Mars within the next 30 years. That we haven't sent explorers to the moon in more than three decades is pitiable, in my humble opinion. There's no calculating the number of scientific advancements we've missed during the time that the space shuttle has been the sole focus of our space effort.

But for now, let's wish mission commander Eileen Collins — the only woman ever to command a U.S. space mission, making her second flight in the main chair and fourth overall — and her team safe travels and an uneventful landing a week from now.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Mr. Smith goes to Washington Mutual

The first player chosen in this year's National Football League draft, Utah quarterback Alex Smith, inks a six-year, $57 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers.

And in Salt Lake City, there was much rejoicing.

Considering that the 49ers were 2-14 last season, one wonders whether one handsomely compensated rookie QB is going to provide enough firepower to rescue the once-mighty franchise from the doldrums.

On the other hand, I recall another 49ers team that went 2-14 in consecutive years in the late 1970s before blossoming into a Super Bowl champion and perennial powerhouse just two seasons later. That miraculous turnaround required a new coach named Walsh and a horde of players with names like Lott and Clark and Hicks and Craig to materialize, in addition to a pretty fair signal-caller by the name of Montana.

Is Alex Smith the new Montana? Better than the old Utah, I suppose.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Fer de Lance

Congratulations to supercyclist Lance Armstrong on his seventh consecutive — and reportedly final — victory in the 92nd Tour de France.

I'm thinking that, with Lance's seven wins coming on the heels (so to speak) of Greg LeMond's three victories in the 1986, 1989, and 1990 Tours, maybe it's time to change the name of the event to the Tour of America.

Just what we need — another reason for the French to hate us. If we keep this up, they'll want all the fries, toast, and kisses back.

Speaking of names, why is America's greatest cyclist Lance Armstrong? Wouldn't it make more sense for him to be Lance Legstrong? Or perhaps Lance Heartstrong... though Kiki Richard, the wife he unceremoniously dumped in favor of songstress Sheryl Crow, might take issue with that appellation.

And do they ever wash that yellow jersey?

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Thank heaven for that last birthday

Faced with rapidly declining enlistment — and apparently without a clue as to why — the Pentagon is asking Congress to raise the maximum age for military recruits from 35 years to 42.

Allow me to speak here for myself and every other 43-year-old American male:

Go ahead. Make my day.

You can never be too stupid, or too cheap

This just off the "Moronic Criminals" newswire:

An off-duty police officer was arrested in Milwaukee this week for offering a woman he believed to be a prostitute $15 to perform a particular act of carnal gratification. The woman turned out to be an undercover member of the Milwaukee P.D. vice squad. The offending officer has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

Now, I'm asking the same two questions you're asking. (That's why you have your Uncle Swan — to ask the tough questions you'd love to be asking yourself, but have way too much common sense to ask out loud.)

First, how dumb can a cop be to solicit a hooker, knowing — as I'm sure he must have — that the vice squad runs decoys in the very neighborhood where he was trolling?

And second...

Fifteen dollars?

Friday, July 22, 2005

If called by a Panther, don't anther

Today's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by the Tourist Bureau of Wakanda, which says, "Come feel our vibranium! You know you want to."

One of the comics I've been checking out lately is the new run of Black Panther, written by Hollywood screenwriter and director Reginald Hudlin and penciled by John Romita, Jr. I was a mite skeptical when this book was announced, for three reasons:
  1. I wasn't sure how the cinematic sensibility of Reggie Hudlin — who's best known for the House Party comedies featuring rappers Kid 'n' Play — would translate to a serious superhero character;
  2. Despite his enormous popularity in fan circles, I've never been a fan of JRJR's artwork, which to my eye embodies many of the sketchy excesses of the style pioneered by the Image Comics gang in the '90s;
  3. Marvel has had a track record of treating the Panther rather shabbily when he's had his own book, beginning with the classic Jungle Action series of the early '70s penned by Don McGregor, and continuing through the more recent Black Panther book scripted by Christopher Priest, with artwork by the team of Sal Velluto and Bob Almond. None of the Panther's previous series have been well supported by the higher-ups at Marvel, and I hated the thought of them using the Panther for a cheap stunt like a continuity-busting reboot by a comics outsider and a dreadful fan-fave artist.
Thus far, I've been pleasantly surprised. Hudlin has done a creditable job writing the new Panther book — though I sometimes find his dialogue appalling — and Romita Jr. has contributed some decent, nicely controlled art — though the visuals still fall immeasurably short of the gorgeous Velluto/Almond creations of the prior series. Overall, the new book shows great respect for the title character — despite the fact that Hudlin has tinkered with the Panther's history in some ways that don't make me happy — and is a welcome addition to my comics bag once a month.

All that said, I was surprised to realize this morning that neither of my two recent Panther commissions had yet found a home on Comic Art Friday. So let's rectify this injustice, shall we? First, a spectacular portrait of the King of Wakanda standing majestically in front of his palace, as illustrated by the incomparable Geof Isherwood.

Next, James E. Lyle's latest contribution to my "Common Elements" theme series, with a stylishly retro creation teaming the Panther with Kitten Kane of the much-revered '60s series T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.

Not to change the subject, but T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is a series that definitely deserves a serious revival. Created by the legendary Wally Wood for Tower Comics in the mid-'60s, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents were a group of superheroes in the employ of the United Nations. They had interesting powers -- Dynamo's superhuman strength came from his power belt, which he could only use for 30 minutes at a time; NoMan lived in a series of android bodies, several of which were destroyed in almost every story; Lightning was Wood's take on such superspeed heroes as the Flash -- and were portrayed with a wonderfully subtle sense of self-mockery (for example, Dynamo, the ostensible lead Agent, was not the sharpest blade in the knife drawer). Kitten was a member of an auxiliary team of non-powered Agents known as the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad, who all had colorful nicknames like Dynamite, Weed, and, well, Kitten (whose real first name was Kathryn, a precursor to Katherine "Kitty" Pryde of the X-Men).

That's your Comic Art Friday. As Stan Lee once said, "Excelsior!"

Happy birthday, Alex, and thanks for all the money

Please join the SSTOL crew in wishing Alex Trebek, the host of America's favorite quiz show for the past 21 years, a happy 65th birthday today.

I wish I could say that Alex and I are close personal friends, but despite our sharing a stage eleven times beginning in March 1988, I can't really say I know the man all that well. If you've been watching Jeopardy! all these years, you've seen the entirety of our relationship right there on your television screen.

Well, almost.

In 1998, ten years after my original five-game run, the good folks at Jeopardy! invited me to play in a special one-game event called the Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains. Two other former champions, who like myself were Bay Area residents (specifically, Leslie Frates and Dr. Beverly Spurs, along with alternate Steve Chernicoff), joined me at Zellerbach Hall on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley for an evening of fun and frolic. (Okay, it was fun. We really didn't frolic all that much. We Jeopardy! champions have too much dignity to frolic overmuch in public. All right, I won the game, so I might have frolicked just a tad.)

After the show was taped, the contestants and families were invited to a gala reception hosted by Jeopardy! and the Bay Area chapter of the American Red Cross (the game was a benefit for disaster relief, and all the prize money went to the Red Cross). Alex actually took a few moments to chat with my daughter KM, who was nine years old at the time, and to autograph her souvenir Battle of the Bay Area Brains T-shirt. It was a kind gesture that made a huge impression on a starstruck little girl.

So happy 65th, Alex. If Bob Barker can still be going strong in his 80s, there's no reason why you can't too.

And just in case you guys decide to mount another mega-reunion tournament someday, keep my number handy.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Maybe he was already drunk when he got dressed

Submitted for your approval, courtesy of the world's greatest muckrakers at The Smoking Gun, is Jon Matteson of Hillsborough County, Florida, who should be named (at least) first runner-up in the Worst T-Shirt to Be Wearing When Busted for Driving Under the Influence:

A few questions that I would love to pose to the unfortunate Mr. Matteson:
  • Do you really love midget porn? And if so, where did your childhood tragically derail?

  • Assuming for the sake of discussion that you actually do love midget porn, is this a predilection that ought to be trumpeted to the world? I mean, let's say you were in a bar — and since you were nailed for driving drunk, that seems a reasonable thing to say — will publicizing your affection for midget porn help you pick up women? (Women who aren't midgets, that is.)

  • Were you not aware that most persons of substandard stature find the designation "midget" offensive, prefering the less derogatory "little person"? Or did "I (heart) little people porn" simply not fit on a T-shirt?

  • If one were so inclined, where would one go to purchase an "I (heart) midget porn" T-shirt?

  • For that matter, where would one go to purchase midget porn?

  • Does midget porn actually exist? Who's watching it besides you? Do those people live anywhere near me?
Youth wants to know.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Scotty beams up

I was sorry, though not surprised, to hear that actor James Doohan, Scotty from Star Trek: The Original Series, had passed away at age 85. He had been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease for the past few years, and had had to withdraw from the public spotlight.

Back in the day, when I was a rabid Star Trek geek, I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Doohan in person on a couple of occasions at Trek conventions. I even got to exchange hellos with him face to face at one such event.

You never really know a person in those situations, of course, but it was my observation that Mr. Doohan seemed like a pretty nice guy. He always appeared genuinely pleased that fans came out to meet him and hear him speak. Unlike some members of the original Trek cast about whom I could tell stories, I never saw him cop an attitude with a fan, or ignore a request for an autograph, or behave rudely or imperiously. More than once, I heard him say to a fan who addressed him as "Mr. Doohan," "Call me Jimmy." When asked by fans how his unfamiliar last name was supposed to be pronounced, he would invariably reply, "It's Doohan, as in How ya doin'?" Everyone I ever met in Trek fandom spoke of him in glowingly complimentary terms.

And yes, even though I knew well beforehand that Doohan was actually Canadian, I was a tiny bit disappointed when I first heard him speak in person that he didn't really talk with that familiar Scottish burr all the time.

I'm sure that his career suffered from his being typecast as Scotty from Star Trek. But there are a lot worse things for which one could be famous.

Engines ahead full, Mr. Scott.

Runaway rant

Now this is just ridiculous.

I didn't complain so much when she became the first actress to command $20 million per film. You take what they give you, I figured.

I gritted my teeth when she won three Golden Globes and an Oscar, despite the fact that she can't act worth a buffalo nickel. She has that indefinable something that people like, I reasoned.

I kept silent over her string of busted relationships with guys like Keifer Sutherland, Benjamin Bratt, and the inexplicable Lyle Lovett. Things happen between people, I said.

I even was willing to overlook her popping up in one of my favorite films of recent years, Ocean's Eleven, and its sequel. It's all box office, baby, I told myself.

But now my tolerance is exhausted. I've had all I can stand, and I can't stand any more.

A Supreme Court nomination?

Sure, she played Erin Brockovich, but that doesn't make her qualified to sit on the nation's highest bench. The decisions she authors will have the potential to impact this country for decades. And since she's only 37, she could conceivably hold that seat for the next 40 years or more. What the devil is the President thinking?

We can't allow this to happen. E-mail your Senator. Call your Congressperson. Fax the White House. Demand a response. Demand answers. Demand...


Oh...John Roberts is Bush's nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Not Julia Roberts.

Never mind.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A giant lays down his pencil

I'm very sorry to hear of the passing this morning of longtime DC Comics artist Jim Aparo, at the age of 72.

I was always much more a Marvelite than a DC partisan, but one of my favorite comics of the 1970s — by either publisher — was The Brave and the Bold, the Batman teamup series. Jim Aparo illustrated nearly every issue of B&B beginning in 1971 through the end of the series.

After B&B was canceled in the early '80s, Aparo became one of the key artists for DC's other Batman titles (Batman and Detective Comics). He is credited as co-creator of the series Batman and the Outsiders. He also was noted for his work drawing such superheroes as Aquaman, the Phantom Stranger, and the Spectre.

Aparo's drawings were always clean, smoothly delineated, and expressive. He coupled the sturdy classicism that typified the DC house style with the sleek, modern realism of such artists as Neal Adams and John Buscema. He was also a rarity in that for much of his career, he both inked and lettered his own pencil art — a trifecta few mainstream artists have tackled even briefly, much less for as many years as Aparo did.

Although he was rarely lauded as one of the superstars in the comic art pantheon (despite a lengthy and incredibly prolific career), many fans — myself included — consider Jim Aparo the definitive Batman artist of the Bronze Age. He was truly one of the giants, and his loss will be tragically felt.

Our condolences to Jim's wife, children, grandchildren, and many friends.

Monday, July 18, 2005

I wish that I had Jesse's girl

Does it seem right to you that Sandra Bullock just married the creepy, tattoo-laden motorcycle mechanic from Monster Garage?

Me either. As Elton John once sang, "I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford."

I'm not exactly sure what the charming and attractive Ms. Bullock sees in Jesse James, aside from the fact that he's named after a famous bank robber (to whom the latter-day Jesse claims to be distantly related). Yet, there they are, husband and wife.

But then, I never understood Heather Locklear and Tommy Lee. Or Valerie Bertinelli and Eddie Van Halen. Or Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton. (No, wait, I understand that one — they're both mad as hatters.)

The original Jesse James, incidentally, had this to say upon the occasion of his April 1874 marriage to his cousin Zerelda Amanda Mimms:
We had been engaged for nine years, and not withstanding the lies told upon me and the crimes laid at my door, her devotion to me has never wavered for a moment. You can say that both of us married for love, and there cannot be any sort of doubt about our marriage being a happy one.
May it ever be so for Jesse II and his Miss Congeniality.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Potter-free blogging

I am here to announce with pride that I did not run to my local bookstore this weekend to purchase a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

In fact, although my 16-year-old daughter has read every book in the series, I have never inserted my nose between the covers of any volume in the Harry Potter oeuvre. I've only sat through one of the films (Chamber of Secrets) from beginning to end, even though all of the DVDs released to date occupy space on my DVD rack. Sorry, just not interested in the whole Potter thing.

In the interest of hail-fellow-well-met among writers, however, I would like to offer J.K. Rowling my suggestions for the title of the seventh and final Harry book. Seeing as I'm not contributing my fair share to the author's coffers, it's the least I can do.
  • Harry Potter and the Vermicious Knids
  • Harry Potter and the Godfather of Soul
  • Harry Potter and the Bikini Machine
  • Harry Potter and the Tossed Salad Man
  • Harry Potter and the Mothership Connection
  • Harry Potter and the Lacy Undergarments
  • Harry Potter and the Red-Headed Step-Child
  • Harry Potter and the Search for More Money
  • Harry Potter and the Embarrassing Odor
  • Harry Potter and the Cure for Hogwarts
  • Harry Potter and the Infinity Gauntlet
  • Harry Potter and the Inappropriately Friendly Next-Door Neighbor
  • Harry Potter and the Way to San Jose
  • Harry Potter and the Night of the Lepus
and finally...
  • Harry Potter and the Empty Wallet
Any of these, I'm convinced, would be a surefire best-seller.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Australian crowned new king of poker

"Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oy! Oy! Oy!"

That was the cry that rang out early this morning as Melbourne, Australia's Joseph Hachem elminated his final opponent, Steve Dannenmann of Severn, Maryland, to win the Main Event of the 2005 World Series of Poker.

Hachem, a former chiropractor who now plays poker professionally, won in his first-ever appearance at the WSOP.

Here's how the final table shook out, with placements and prize payouts:
  1. Joseph Hachem, Melbourne, Australia ($7,500,000)
  2. Steve Dannenmann, Severn, Maryland ($4,250,000)
  3. John "Tex" Barch, McKinney, Texas ($2,500,000)
  4. Aaron Kanter, Elk Grove, California ($2,000,000)
  5. Andrew Black, Dublin, Ireland ($1,750,000)
  6. Scott Lazar, Studio City, California ($1,500,000)
  7. Daniel Bergsdorf, Umea, Sweden ($1,300,000)
  8. Brad Kondracki, Kingston, Pennsylvania ($1,150,000)
  9. Mike "the Mouth" Matusow, Las Vegas, Nevada ($1,000,000)
Congratulations to Mr. Hachem, and to the rest of the players who made the million-dollar cut. This was an interesting championship round, with only one "big name" player seated at the final table, and that player (Mike Matusow) being the first one eliminated from the nine.

I have to admit that I was rooting for Dubliner Andrew Black to win, if only to give me an excuse for quoting Jimmy Rabbitte's classic speech from The Commitments:
The Irish are the blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it loud — I'm black and I'm proud.
But since Black finished fifth, I guess I don't get to use that. Or the great headline I wrote: "Poker: It's a Black thing." I'm sure there's some equally cool way to tie together "Hachem" and "Melbourne," but I don't know what it is.

I hate it when the facts get in the way of a really clever blog post.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Let's introduce this guy to a Jason Schmidt fastball

A youth league T-ball coach in Pennsylvania stands accused of paying one of his players $25 to hit a mentally disabled eight-year-old teammate in the head with a baseball so that the boy wouldn't be able to play.

The coach, 27-year-old Mark Downs (no relation, apparently, to the sale items of the same name), reportedly feared losing if he was forced to play the handicapped kid. The league's rules require every available player to participate in a minimum of three innings per game.

If this allegation proves true, I think someone should whack Mr. Downs in the head with a baseball. Repeatedly.

YMCA: Yesteryear's Musicians' Crack Association

Former Village People frontman Victor Willis, who co-wrote the group's hit "YMCA," is discovering a place where you can get yourself clean, and you can have a good meal, but you can't exactly do whatever you feel: San Mateo County Jail.

Willis, the original "police officer" in the flamboyant, gay-themed disco act, was busted earlier this week with a loaded firearm and some crack cocaine, after being pulled over on an outstanding warrant for narcotics possession. He was arraigned on suspicion of six felony counts.

According to an interview he gave to the San Francisco Chronicle some years ago, Willis — married at the time — got thrown overboard by his "In the Navy" compadres in 1980, when other members of the group decided to come out about their sexual orientation. Ray Simpson, brother of Valerie Simpson of the R&B duo Ashford and Simpson, donned the cop's uniform and remains the lead vocalist of the Village People to this day. (For what it's worth, Ray Simpson isn't gay either, so there's some question as to how much water Willis's account holds.)

This tsunami of nostalgia almost makes me want to go watch the Village People's camp classic film, Can't Stop the Music, costarring Steve Guttenberg and a pre-plastic surgery Bruce Jenner.



Today's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by the Weather Channel. They tell me we're in for another day for scorching heat here in beautiful Wine Country.

Speaking of beautiful, feast your eyes on this spectacular artwork by the King of Commissions (I stole that title from my friend Damon, but I'm certain he won't mind), Geof Isherwood. For Father's Day this year, KJ and KM gave me a gift certificate to commission a new piece of art. I knew immediately what I had in mind, and I didn't think twice before asking Geof to create a scenario featuring Storm of the X-Men and Michael Moorcock's fantasy adventurer Elric of Melniboné. The connection? Elric's mystic black sword is named Stormbringer.

For those of you thinking that Elric isn't exactly a superhero, that's true enough in the strictest sense. The character does, however, have a lengthy history in comics, dating back at least to the early 1980s, when both First Comics and Marvel introduced the albino swordsman to the sequential graphics medium. More recently, Elric returned to the four-color page last year in a DC series scripted by Moorcock himself, with illustrations by the equally legendary Walter Simonson.

I first discovered Elric in Moorcock's original novels back in the '70s, when I went through a lengthy period reading every sword-and-sorcery book I could get my fingers on. Although I read voraciously in the genre, Elric was always my favorite heroic fantasy character, along with Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Elric was appealing in that, as an albino, he wasn't physically powerful — the real strength was in the runeblade Stormbringer — and that he was always rather ambivalent about the whole hero business. He was dour and conflicted and often didn't emerge victorious — traits with which a teenaged kid could definitely relate. These qualities were intentionally built into Moorcock's concept, as his intention was to use Elric to stand the conventions of heroic fantasy on their collective ear.

The Elric novels were but one component of a sprawling fantasy cycle concocted by author Moorcock, known as the Eternal Champion saga. The Eternal Champion, which represented the never-ending struggle between good and evil, also appeared in Moorcock's comedic Dancers at the End of Time stories and science fiction novels about superspy Jerry Cornelius.

Moorcock also earned serious cred with me by writing several songs for one of my favorite rock bands during my adolescent years, Blue Öyster Cult. (I know what you're thinking: How did you progress from listening to Blue Öyster Cult albums to singing in a barbershop quartet? Hey, I am nothing if not diverse.) One of Moorcock's BÖC numbers, "Black Blade" (from the album gloriously entitled Cultosaurus Erectus), is specifically about Elric and Stormbringer.

It's been 20 years or more since I last picked up an Elric novel. But Geof Isherwood's dazzling take on the character sure brings the memories home.

A comment about Storm's unusual costume in this artwork. When I proposed this scenario to Geof, he asked if I would mind him using a character design for Storm based on Barry Windsor-Smith's graphic novel Adastra in Africa. Windsor-Smith (whose stylish art first gained recognition in the early '70s on Marvel's adaptation of Robert E. Howard's heroic fantasy character, Conan the Barbarian) originally created the Adastra story as a miniseries vehicle for Storm. The Powers That Be at Marvel, however, were uncomfortable with some of the ideas BWS incorporated (specifically, Marvel's editors thought the storyline glorified suicide) and put the kibosh on the deal, as Ben Grimm might put it. Windsor-Smith changed the lead character from Storm to a new heroine called Adastra and published the book at Fantagraphics, to wide acclaim.

Knowing that Geof is a great admirer of Windsor-Smith's work, I was delighted with his suggestion, knowing that he'd come up with something truly special. And he did. His artwork certainly has hints and whispers of Barry Windsor-Smith, but the realization is pure Isherwood.

So ends Comic Art Friday for this week. Watch out for lightning.

WSOP down to the final table

Here's your final table for today's championship round of the World Series of Poker, including chip counts and seat numbers as reported by
1. Aaron Kanter - $10,700,000 (seat 6)
2. Tex Barch - $9,330,000 (seat 3)
3. Andrew Black - $8,140,000 (seat 2)
4. Mike "the Mouth" Matusow - $7,410,000 (seat 5)
5. Steve Dannenmann - $5,460,000 (seat 8)
6. Joseph Hachem - $5,420,000 (seat 1)
7. Daniel Bergsdorf - $5,270,000 (seat 4)
8. Scott Lazar - $3,370,000 (seat 9)
9. Brad Kondracki - $1,180,000 (seat 7)
Final round action begins at 4 p.m. PDT this afternoon. Each of the nine players currently left standing (from a starting field of 5619 earlier this week) is already guaranteed a cool million dollars, with the winner walking away with $7.5 million.

Good luck, gentlemen.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Fightin' the system like two modern-day Robin Hoods

Ben Jones, the erstwhile actor and Georgia Congressman who played mechanic Cooter Davenport on TV's The Dukes of Hazzard, done got hisself all riled up about the new feature-film version of that late '70s / early '80s monument to redneckism. (Or is it redneckery? Redneckiana?)

"Basically, they trashed our show," says Jones, who now runs a Dukes memorabilia shop called "Cooter's Place."

Trashed? The Dukes of Hazzard? You've gotta be kidding me, Cooter.

How can you "trash" something that was trash from its inception? That's tantamount to a Scotsman telling his wife, "Honey, you ruined the haggis." It's haggis, for pity's sake — it was ruined the day they wrote the recipe. The Dukes of Hazzard represented everything that was wretched and pandering about television in the '80s. How can you trash that?

Jones goes on to say, "From all I have seen and heard, the Dukes movie is a sleazy insult to all of us who have cared about The Dukes of Hazzard for so long."

Wait a dadburned second, there, Cooter. You're upset because the remake of The Dukes of Hazzard is sleazy? Holy buckets, man, were you on Seconal all the years you were on that show? What could be sleazier than Catherine Bach parading in front of the camera every week in midriff-and-cleavage-baring tops and ultra-abbreviated cutoffs? Do you not know that people still refer to glute-exposing shorts as "Daisy Dukes"? She wasn't wearing those bad boys because they handed 'em out in Sunday school, Cooter.

And speaking of "Cooter," I don't know what that word means in Hazzard County, but where I come from, it means a part of the female anatomy one doesn't openly discuss in polite company. That word popped up 15 times a week on Dukes. If that isn't sleazy, I don't know what is. (Oh, disengage your e-mail client, already. I know that in the South, "cooter" means "turtle." Don't interrupt me when I'm on a roll.)

Is it just me, or is it a sad commentary on 21st-century America that we even give a flying fig about the opinion of the guy who played Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard? Thank goodness he's no longer in Congress — there are plenty enough nitwits in there already.

As if Cooter's umbrage weren't enough, a conservative political group is up in arms about the scanty bikini pop diva Jessica Simpson wears in the Dukes film (she plays Daisy — but she ain't no Catherine Bach, my friend) and in her associated video hyping her cover of "These Boots Were Made For Walkin'."

Says John Connor, spokeman for The Resistance, "She took a classic like The Dukes of Hazzard, and Daisy Duke, and turned her into a slutty stripper with a fetish for old men."

John-Boy — did you ever actually watch the darned show? That's what the character was about, you self-righteous pogue -- a slutty nymphet in skin-flashing garb who flung herself in the faces of older men like Boss Hogg and Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane. You know, I'm sorry the Terminator ever rescued your mom.

Why isn't anyone asking the real question: What in the wide, wide world of sports is a studio doing wasting millions on a theatrical remake of The Dukes of Hazzard? Especially a remake starring Johnny Knoxville (the first syllable of his ersatz last name is the same as the one in "noxious," and for good reason) and the pneumatic-but-intellectually-impaired Ms. Simpson?

Talk about robbing the poor trailer-park denizens and giving to the rich Hollywood fatcats. Modern-day Robin Hoods, indeed.

Who you calling a Bastille?

Happy Bastille Day to all our SSTOL fans in France.

Actually, so far as I know, there are no SSTOL fans in France. There are, however, a few in French-speaking Quebec, so we share the amour wherever we can.

Besides, I think the French are still incensed that we Yanks have taken their greatest national sporting event and made it our showcase, thanks first to Greg LeMond and currently to Lance Armstrong.

C'est la vie, as they say.

(Speaking of the Tour de France, do they ever wash that yellow jersey before passing it along? Or is the penalty for losing each stage having to ride behind the guy who's wearing that funky thing?)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Poker in the rear

Butt's out.

James Butt, that is — eliminated in 54th place in the World Series of Poker Main Event, currently under way at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

The field of 5619 card sharks who began play this past weekend has, at this writing, been winnowed to 48, meaning that the aforementioned Mr. Butt is far from alone on the streets of Bright Light City.

Most of the recognizable names — recognizable, at least, to those of us who watch the ever-expanding list of televised poker tournaments on cable TV — have long since exited the fray. Still in the hunt, however, are last year's WSOP champion, Greg "Fossilman" Raymer, and my personal poker hero, Phil Ivey. Both Phil and the Fossilman are maintaining big chip stacks and are looking good to make the final table. Mike "the Mouth" Matusow is currently your chip leader.

By the way, if you're ever at the Rio, check out Penn and Teller. You'll never be the same again. If you're bucks up and hungry, the food at the rooftop VooDoo Café is excellent. If you're on your last Jackson, the Rio's buffet is pretty darned good too. Tell 'em your Uncle Swan sent you.

And in Canada, there was much rejoicing

After a year-long lockout that erased the entire 2004-05 season, the owners and players of the National Hockey League agreed to terms on a new six-year labor contract.


That was the ice thing with sticks, right?

I haven't been this excited about a sports story since last night's baseball All-Star Game. That snoring you hear is me.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Today is Bill Cosby's birthday.

That seems, at first blush, like a rather obscure fact for me to know — but then, I am a veritable warehouse of obscure facts. Few of these, however, are dates, and even fewer are birthdays of people I've never met. So it's strange that I recall Bill Cosby's birthday so vividly.

The reason? "Revenge."

"Revenge" was the title of a Cosby stand-up routine that appeared on one of his hit comedy albums of the 1960s — an album entitled, not coincidentally, Revenge. Like most of Cosby's bits, "Revenge" wasn't a joke or even a series of jokes. It was a story drawn from his life experience — in this case, his childhood in Philadelphia.

I'll summarize the narrative briefly. One snowy winter's day, the young Cosby had been struck in the head with an icy snowball hurled by the neighborhood bully, one Junior Barnes. Adding insult to injury, Junior Barnes had laughed at Bill for his stunned reaction to the assault.

Bill wanted revenge.

On his way home, Bill made a snowball — "so round and so perfect" — and tucked it away in his family's freezer, to await the day when it could be used as the instrument of vengeance against Junior Barnes.

Over the succeeding months, Bill curried the friendship of Junior Barnes. He laughed at Junior's jokes. He shared his prized possessions with Junior. Bill even let Junior drink from his orange soda bottle without even wiping it off. With cunning calculation, Bill lulled Junior Barnes into complacency.

Bill wanted revenge.

It was July 12th. Bill Cosby's birthday. It was 104 degrees in the shade. Not a snowball in sight. As Junior Barnes waited on the Cosbys' front stoop, Bill entered the house, ostensibly to get a treat to share with his pal. Bill went to the kitchen. He opened the freezer...

"...and my mother had thrown the snowball away."

So he went back outside and spat on Junior Barnes instead.

All right, it's much funnier when Cosby tells it. But that's why I remember that July 12th is Bill Cosby's birthday. Have a happy 68th, Bill, wherever you are.

Monday, July 11, 2005

SSTOL: Year One (well, it worked for Batman)

Hippo birdie two ewes.

One year ago today, SwanShadow Thinks Out Loud first carved out its happy little space on the World Wide Web.

And to think, they all laughed.

Thanks to each one of you for enjoying Uncle Swan's Wild Ride so far. Rest assured, I have no intention of hanging up my keyboard anytime soon. I have a considerable amount of thinking out loud yet to do.

Sometimes the question comes to me: "What is your blog about?"

It's a telling question, since it offers conclusive proof that no one can tell that my blog is actually about anything. As if having it be about something were the point, really.

SSTOL is definitely not a diary or journal. I very rarely post here about things that go on in my personal life. In fact, if I were writing here about the goings-on in my personal life right at this moment, you'd be either shocked or amazed, depending on your point of view. Trust me on this. But see? That's all you get.

This isn't a political blog, although I occasionally write about things that reflect or reveal my political perspective. Which isn't really a political perspective. Politics as such don't interest me all that much. The things politics show us about human nature interest me quite a bit.

This isn't a comics blog, even though I have Comic Art Fridays (and occasionally holidays) and touch on other comics-related subjects from time to time. Comics and comic art interest me, but I'm interested in many other things also.

(But speaking of comic art, it just wouldn't do to have an SSTOL anniversary celebration without a little comic art, now would it? So here's my newest Mary Marvel, drawn with flair by a rising young star in the comics firmament, Brian Shearer, creator of GravyBoy. Shazam!)

Most directory sites and blogrolls list SSTOL as a pop culture blog. It's that as much as it's anything, I suppose. When I have to choose a pigeonhole for it, that's the pigeonhole I most often choose. Most of my posts latch onto something that's in the American public consciousness and worry it to death like a puppy with a rawhide toy. I don't know that I'm often terribly insightful or analytical — I just have a peculiar way of looking at things sometimes. Some people respond favorably to that, others most likely don't.

Mostly, SSTOL is exactly as advertised: the random musings of my mercurial mind. I doubt it will ever be anything else. You either enjoy the soup I'm slinging here, or you don't.

In the year I've been blogging, I've met (virtually, of course) dozens of fascinating folks. I was invited to speak to a college communications class about the blogging phenomenon, as if I knew what I was talking about. I've read tons of blogs in an attempt to figure out what I'm doing here, and finally decided that I'm just going to keep doing this voodoo that I do, and you'll either keep reading or won't, as the case may be.

I hope you will.

Thanks for all the support. (E-mail and comments are fantastic. Cash is good too.) I'll do what I can to make SSTOL: Year Two at least as interesting as Year One. In the words of sports-talk maven Jim Rome, I'll keep having a take that does not suck.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Kings of harmony

Congratulations to Realtime, the newly crowned world champions of barbershop quartet singing!

The youthful foursome from the Pacific Northwest outpaced the competition by a surprisingly wide margin at the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Convention in Salt Lake City. Realtime finished seventh last year, and I frankly didn't expect to see them in the gold-medal position for another couple of years yet. But they took the stage with fire and polish in all three rounds of this week's contest, and led in the scoring from beginning to end. I was particularly impressed with their performance in Friday's semifinal round — a tasty set opened with a Rat Pack-inspired rendition of "Come Fly With Me" and concluded with a super-smooth "Birth of the Blues."

Kudos also to my California homeboys Metropolis and O.C. Times, who finished third and fifth respectively in the 50-quartet field. O.C. Times, four hotshots from SoCal, leapt from 18th place one year ago into the Top Five this week — an awesome achievement at this level of competition.

The Masters of Harmony, the perennial juggernaut from the greater Los Angeles area, won the International chorus title in typically dominant style.

My good friend and vocal coach Phil DeBar hosted the International webcasts with his customary aplomb throughout the week. Way to go, Phil!

Bear necessities

The animal scientists at the Oakland Zoo are concerned because their pair of sun bears, Spike and Kaika, have mated literally hundreds of times without producing offspring. Zookeepers are now making plans to move the procreational proceedings along via artificial insemination.

I think they're going to be in for a rude awakening when they discover that bear-sized diaphragm in Kaika's cage.

This oddity of animal husbandry reminds me of the time then-President Calvin Coolidge and his wife visited a government-subsidized chicken farm. Managers of the facility took the President and the First Lady on separate tours of the physical plant, explaining the operation of the farm along the way.

When Mrs. Coolidge and her entourage arrived at the breeding station, the fellow in charge advised the First Lady that it was the sole job of the rooster to fertilize the hen population.

"And how many times a day does he do this?" asked Mrs. Coolidge.

"Oh, dozens of times," said the tour guide.

"Please be sure to tell that to the President when he stops by here," the First Lady replied.

Before long, President Coolidge and his party arrived at the breeding station. The dutiful guide remembered the First Lady's instructions, so he made it a point of explaining to the Commander-in-Chief that the rooster performed his roosterly duty dozens of times each day.

"All with the same hen?" asked the incredulous Coolidge.

"Oh, no, Mr. President," responded the guide. "With a different hen each time."

To which Coolidge replied:

"Please be sure to tell that to the First Lady when she stops by here."

Video killed the headless scientist

So I was watching 40 Most Awesomely Bad Break-Up Songs Ever on VH1 (oh, come on — you know you love those 40 Most Awesomely Bad Whatever shows, because you've made all of the same vicious comments as the comics do, but you didn't get to make them on TV) when I saw something that creeped me out big-time.

Did you ever notice that Richard Page, the lead singer for Mr. Mister — you remember, the '80s pop band who recorded that ubiquitous example of sappy aural torture, "Broken Wings" — in that video looked eerily like Jeffrey Combs, the actor who played the wacked-out Frankenstein wannabe in Re-Animator?
So take
These broken wings
I'll cut a guy's head off
And bring it back to life
He'll lick you
All over with it...
Man, I'll never be able to hear that song the same old way again.

By the way, Re-Animator still holds the distinction, in my not-so-humble opinion, for having the best tagline of any film in the history of cinema marketing:
Dr. Herbert West has a good head on his shoulders... and another in a dish on his desk.
They don't write 'em like that anymore.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Today's Comic Art Friday comes to you in the name of peace. Goodness knows we could use some right about now.

Comic Art Friday fans are familiar with my "Common Elements" series of artworks, wherein I invite artists to team otherwise unrelated superheroes who share some particular feature. One of the first Common Elements concepts I came up with was a "War and Peace" theme featuring Marvel Comics' War Machine and a Silver Age Charlton Comics hero, the Peacemaker. That concept lingered on my to-do list for months, waiting for the right artist to come along.

Then recently, my friend and fellow collector Damon introduced me to the amazing talents of artist Jean-Paul Mavinga. When I read Jean-Paul's biography on his Web site, I immediately knew that the "War and Peace" theme would resonate with him. With Damon's kind assistance, I contacted Jean-Paul and arranged this commission. In the wee small hours of this morning, Mr. Mavinga e-mailed me this scan of the completed artwork. I'm still picking myself up from the floor.

The Peacemaker was one of a handful of "Action Heroes" published by Charlton in the mid-1960s, right around the time I first began reading comics. The novel concept of the Peacemaker was that of a man so devoted to the ideal of peace that he would willingly use force to achieve it. Using non-lethal weaponry and technology, the Peacemaker battled tyranny and injustice around the globe, until the Charlton folks ditched their superhero titles for such funny-animal animated characters as Underdog, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Yogi Bear.

Years later, DC Comics acquired the trademarks to Charlton's Action Heroes (which also included Steve Ditko's the Question and Blue Beetle, and a character called Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt) and made half-hearted attempts at integrating them into its existing universe. When noted comics scribe Alan Moore developed the concept for a graphic novel entitled Watchmen, his original intent was to resurrect the Charlton heroes and to use them to deconstruct the superhero mythology. DC's editorial staff greenlighted the Watchmen idea, but insisted (in order to preserve existing DC Universe continuity) that Moore create his own characters for the series, which he did — using the Charlton heroes as templates. The Watchmen character known as the Comedian is based on the Peacemaker.

James "Rhodey" Rhodes, the man inside War Machine's armor, began his life in comics as the close friend and personal pilot of Tony Stark, better known as the invincible Iron Man. Rhodes was one of several individuals who at various times assumed the Iron Man identity temporarily, either because of some incapacity on Stark's part (as during his lengthy battle with alcoholism) or simply to further the illusion that Stark and Iron Man were not the same person.

Eventually, Rhodes received his own tricked-out battle armor from Stark Enterprises, and adopted the new identity of War Machine (an allusion to the fact that Stark's primary industry was military weaponry). As War Machine, Rhodes fought evil as a member of the Avengers' West Coast spinoff (later called Force Works), and eventually on his own.

To my way of thinking, these two characters — Peacemaker and War Machine — symbolize the essential dichotomy of the superhero: good men and women seeking peace, yet compelled to utilize combative means to foster it.

Jean-Paul Mavinga's depiction of these two great heroes displays his brilliant sense of dynamic composition, as well as a shading technique as subtle and skillful as that of any comics artist I've seen. His style reminds me somewhat of Mike Grell, although with much greater smoothness and fluidity than is typical of Grell's usual work. Jean-Paul is another of those unsung artists in the industry who ought to be working regularly for one of the major comics publishers, but whose talents are — at least to date — being seriously underused. As you can see from the scan above, he creates outstanding art that perfectly balances beauty and power. JP's also a fellow blogger, whose insightful, often poignant, posts are well worth reading.

That's your Comic Art Friday. All we are saying is, "Give peace a chance."

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Terrorists suck...

...not that I'm telling you anything you didn't already know.

Those who were injured or lost loved ones in today's bombings in London are in our thoughts and prayers.

Sometimes I marvel — and not in a good way — at the capacity of human beings to be vicious and cruel to one another. You have to really be consumed with hatred to destroy the lives of people you don't even know, and who have never had occasion to wrong you personally.

But then, that's human beings for you.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Yes, I speak government

SSTOL regulars will recall that I spent two days last week on jury duty. Law-abiding citizen that I am, I'd had no occasion to visit the Sonoma County judicial offices in many years, though I've been to the sheriff's station across the street on business (to interview officers for a marketing project) fairly recently. For this reason, I hadn't seen the new signage in the administrative complex parking lot.

The main directional sign points the way to the following: "Hall of Justice (Courthouse)" and "M.A.D.F. (Jail)." For the benefit of the acronymically impaired, "M.A.D.F." stands for Main Adult Detention Facility.

Here's my question: If you know the terms "Hall of Justice" and "M.A.D.F." are sufficiently vague and/or confusing that you're going to have to append clearer parenthetical language to explain them, why not save everyone some grief and simply call the courthouse "Courthouse" and the jail "Jail"?

Why? Because this is civil government, after all. Nothing is ever that simple.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Dark Knight returns

While the rest of the country yesterday celebrated the birth of a nation, KJ and I witnessed the birth of a superhero. We dropped into our local multiplex and checked out Batman Begins.

I was surprised to discover that the film was not only better than I expected, but that it was indeed one of the best films in any genre I've seen recently. (This from a guy who just this afternoon sat through the torture and tedium that is Troy.) It far exceeds any of the previous attempts to bring the Darknight Detective to the silver screen, beginning with Tim Burton's depressing and garish 1989 picture that launched the franchise.

Christopher Nolan, whose previous films Memento and Insomnia I absolutely loved (Memento was quite possibly the last truly great film of the 20th century), seemed a peculiar choice to direct a superhero movie, but he flat-out nailed Batman Begins. The first few minutes of the film felt needlessly chaotic to me, but Nolan's narrative soon develops a compelling momentum that doesn't feel at all rushed. The story penned by Nolan and coscripter David S. Goyer (who wrote one of my favorite films of the 1990s, Dark City) is packed to the gills with plotlines and characters (maybe a few too many of both), but for the most part corrals the plethora of disparate elements into a cohesive and entertaining whole.

I'm not really a Batman fan — he and Superman are probably my two least favorite major comics characters — and I don't usually care much for Christian Bale, but here the role and the actor are a match made in... well... the Batcave, I guess. Bale excels in the one element his immediate predecessors Val Kilmer and George Clooney forgot — he makes Batman believably human when he's not strapped into the Batsuit. (Kilmer was a stiff and smug Bruce Wayne; Clooney was simply overwhelmed.) Only Tim Burton's first Batman, Michael Keaton, managed a similar balance, and even Keaton's portrayal hinged a little too much on Wayne's weirdness. Bale convinces us of the torturous path Bruce Wayne has taken to become Batman, and of the inner demons that drove him to it, but enables us to believe that he hasn't totally abandoned his sanity in the process. He even smiles on occasion. (Did Val Kilmer's Wayne ever smile?)

You won't find a stronger supporting cast in any film made this year. In Batman's faithful manservant Alfred, Michael Caine finally finds a role that he doesn't want to sleepwalk through on his way to the bank. Each of the numerous villains — Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson, and Cillian Murphy — finds a way to make his character distinct from each of the others (though this really felt like a party of one bad guy too many) and capture his own key moments of screen time. Morgan Freeman, who can be in every movie Hollywood makes as far as I'm concerned, gets too little screen time playing Q to Bale's Bat-clad Bond, but shines in every frame in which he appears. I kept waiting for Gary Oldman (as detective Jim Gordon) and Rutger Hauer (as the would-be usurper of Wayne Enterprises) to overact, but neither of them did. Only Katie Holmes seemed out of place as Bruce's painfully underwritten childhood sweetheart turned reluctant ally — she's a cute girl, and a decent actress in less demanding fare, but amid this crowd of cinematic heavyweights she was definitely the odd woman out.

Not surprisingly, there were aspects of the film that just plain didn't make sense — the pivotal murder of Bruce's parents was handled rather clumsily for so important a plot point — but any quibbles are minor. Batman Begins is without question the best superhero film since Spider-Man 2, and deserves to make people forget all of the Bat-films that came before.

And, on a personal note, I loved Nolan's sly recreation of my favorite moment from the first Batman flick, wherein a cornered hoodlum with trembling lips asks the masked creature of the night, "Wh-h-h-what are you?" only to be told through clenched teeth: "I'm Batman."

Your Uncle Swan gives Batman Begins four big fat shakes of the tail feather. Go enjoy it on the big screen. You'll thank me later.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Sweet land of Liberty

Happy Independence Day to all my fellow Americans. I hope you're enjoying a safe and pleasant July 4th.

In honor of our nation's 229th birthday, I selected from my art collection a drawing by the artist known as Shade (aka Scott Jones) that combines everything that has made America great: powerfully iconic imagery, comic book superheroes, and good-looking babes.

From the left, the ladies are:
  • Liberty Enlightening the World, or, less formally, the Statue of Liberty. A centennial gift from our perennial allies (snicker) in France in 1886 (ten years late, but then, that's the French for you), Lady Liberty was designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi; engineers Gustave Eiffel and Maurice Koechlin created her interior structure. Easily the world's most famous giant green woman, with apologies to She-Hulk.

  • Liberty, the American Girl (real name: Jesse Lynn Wells). The "Platinum Patriot," as she's known, was created in the late 1990s by Alan Brzozoski as the lead character in a 3D comic published on the Internet. (Unfortunately, Brzozoski recently disabled Liberty's Web site, so her online presence is diminshed for the time being.) When not battling the forces of evil, Liberty is a student at UCLA — probably as good a place as any to look for evil forces.

  • Liberty Belle (real name: Elizabeth "Libby" Lawrence). A classic heroine from comics' Golden Age, Liberty Belle made her first appearance in 1942. She was featured in Star-Spangled Comics for the next five years. More recently, she turned up as a member of DC Comics' All-Star Squadron. Liberty Belle holds the unique distinction of being the wife of a superhero (Johnny Quick) and the mother of another (Jesse Quick) while maintaining her own career as a costumed adventurer.
Let freedom ring, baby. Play safely with the fireworks tonight, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

When is a lobster not a lobster? When it's a langostino

"First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." — Dick the Butcher, Henry VI, Part II, IV, ii.

Some contingency-mad attorney in southern California named Ray E. Gallo (not to be confused with Jerry Gallo, or Jerry Callo, one of whom is dead, the other of whom looks suspiciously like Joe Pesci) has filed a lawsuit against Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill (home of the fish taco) because the Rubio's lobster burrito is made with langostino, not lobster. For those of you innocent of the ways of exotic seafood, langostino is a tiny shrimp-like crustacean common in the waters off the South American coast. (Basically, it's what you and I might call a prawn.) Tasty, yes; lobster, no.

It just so happens that Rubio's is one of my favorite places to nosh, and that the "lobster" burrito is my usual order there. I knew there wasn't any lobster in the "lobster" burrito the first time I ate one. I didn't care and still don't; whatever it's called, it's one of the most scrumptious morsels of quick-serve fare you'll find anywhere. Pair one of these beauties with a patented Rubio's fish taco and a side of refried beans, and you're in for some bueno eating, mi amigo.

Of course, now that some ambulance chaser is stirring the legal pot with his money-grubbing mitts, Rubio's will probably quit serving the darned thing. With the Food and Drug Administration's blessing, they've already changed the name of the dish to "langostino lobster burrito," which only muddies the water, given that while the Rubio's folks are now 'fessing up to the fact that they're stuffing the tortilla with langostino, they aren't putting any more actual, honest-to-Pedro lobster in it than they were before the change in nomenclature.

I couldn't care less if they call the beast a langostino, a lobster, or a leprechaun. Just keep the legal beagles away from my plate.

I bite.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

She's got it, yeah baby, she's got it

Congratulations to Venus Williams for a solid win in the women's finals at Wimbledon today.

This was Venus's first Grand Slam title in four years, during which time she has been pretty well eclipsed by her sister Serena and today's opponent, fellow American Lindsay Davenport. Nice to see Venus back on top for a change.

And kudos also to Lindsay for mounting a valiant battle. This final match was the longest in Wimbledon history — two hours and 45 minutes — and Lindsay never gave an inch. To beat Lindsay, Venus had to become the first woman in 70 years to win the Wimbledon singles after facing an opponent's match point. That fact speaks volumes for both competitors.

Now if only American men's tennis didn't totally suck swamp water these days.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Can I get a truckload of hush puppies with that?

Fishermen in Thailand caught what's believed to be the world's largest freshwater fish: a Mekong giant catfish weighing 646 pounds.

I wonder how much cornmeal and hot oil my good friends at Terry's Southern Style Fish and BBQ would have needed to fry up this bad boy. I'll have to ask Terry next time I'm in the house.

One thing's for certain: You'd need a vat of tartar sauce on the side.

First Barry White, now this

Aw, man...

Luther Vandross is gone.

Every sexually active person within the sound of this blog has, at one time or another, made love with Luther Vandross singing in the background. You know you have. Don't go getting all innocent on me now. (Well, maybe not Luther himself, but one of his recordings. Although, if you ever did make love while Luther actually sang right there in the room, feel welcome to send the National Enquirer an e-mail with the 411.)

Luther's legacy of smooth soulful ballads reads like an all-time list of great R&B classics: "Here and Now." "Power of Love/Love Power." "Never Too Much." "Don't Want to Be a Fool." "Your Secret Love." "Dance With My Father." And tons of awesome covers: "Superstar." "Always and Forever." "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." "Endless Love" (with Mariah Carey). "The Closer I Get to You" (with Beyoncé Knowles).

Luther suffered a stroke in 2003 and never fully recovered his health. He was 54 years old when he passed away today.

His music will always be ageless.

Sometimes, I Wanda

Today's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by Canada. Today is, of course, Canada Day, and we salute our co-continentalists to the north as they celebrate the 138th anniversary of the British North America Act, the Canadian equivalent of our Declaration of Independence. We stand on guard for thee.

In honor of our friends above the border, we present for your viewing pleasure this fine portrait of one of my favorite superheroines — Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch — as imagined by Montreal resident Geof Isherwood. (As Geof is often quick to remind me, he's an American citizen, born in Virginia, though he has lived in Canada for many years. But he's the best I can do for Canada Day, folks. You make do with what you have sometimes.)

There's an interesting backstory to this artwork. At the time I acquired it, Geof had only recently finished another Scarlet Witch drawing for me on commission — this one:

When I saw Geof's second Wanda among his weekly eBay auctions, I fell in love with her instantly, and knew she had to join her counterpart in my Scarlet Witch gallery. There was, however, a problem. Geof had drawn Wanda in her more recent Gypsy-inspired costume with a lace-up bustier, and he had given her — how shall I put this? — more ample feminine attributes (ahem) and a less ample bustier than I felt comfortable displaying in my collection.

I addressed this dilemma to the artist. Mr. Isherwood, accommodating fellow that he is, immediately proposed a solution: If I won the auction for the artwork, he would alter Wanda's form and costuming to better align with my sensibilities. I did, and he did, and you can see the sensational results for yourselves. I own several beautiful depictions of the Scarlet Witch — she's one of a small handful of characters whose images I collect specifically — but Geof's two creations are among my favorites.

Another favorite in my Scarlet Witch gallery is this recent convention sketch, stylishly drawn by the Chicago-based artist who calls himself Franchesco! (with an exclamation point, as in Jeopardy!).

Speaking of interesting backstories — and we were — the Franchesco! Wanda came to me as a purchase from the collector who originally obtained the sketch from the artist at the Wizard World comics convention in Philadelphia. After I posted a scan of the sketch to my Comic Art Fans gallery, I received a very cordial note from Franchesco!, who at first thought I was the person for whom he had drawn the picture. I quickly corrected that misapprehension, but told the artist how delighted I was that the original owner had decided to part with the piece, because I'm thrilled to have it in my collection. In response, I received another very cordial note from Franchesco! along with these two photos that were taken at Wizard World Philly on the day he drew the sketch.

If you look closely, you'll see that the art-in-progress on the table in front of Franchesco (he's the one in the middle) is my Scarlet Witch sketch.

And here is (I presume) the original owner of the drawing with the finished masterpiece:

As Franchesco! noted during our e-mail exchange, the Scarlet Witch is the central figure in Marvel Comics' current blockbuster event House of M, in which the Marvel Universe is turned inside out by Wanda's mutant power to alter the laws of probability. The "M" in House of M stands for Magneto, one of Marvel's key supervillains and the father of Wanda and her brother Pietro (better known as Quicksilver). Wanda's key role is the primary reason I just added House of M and a couple of its related titles to my must-read list.

So much for Comic Art Friday on this lovely Canada Day 2005. If you have the opportunity today, kiss a Canadian.

Punch and jury

Sorry for the paucity of posts of late, SSTOL fans. I'm serving my sentence — that is, my proud civic responsibility — on jury duty this week. I was finally assigned to a courtroom yesterday, and will know more about my status for the next few days later today.

Hang in there — good stuff coming.