Saturday, December 31, 2005

Comic Art Saturday (yes, Saturday): Artist of the Year, 2005

It's Saturday, it's the last day of the year, and it's time to take an appreciative look back at some of the work of an artist whose incredible commissioned artworks graced SSTOL's Comic Art Fridays throughout 2005 (drum roll, s'il vous plait)...

Geof Isherwood, Montreal's favorite American comic-artist-in-residence.

Favorite Isherwood Common Elements Commission:
"Stormbringers" (Storm and Elric of Melniboné)

Geof's best-known work in mainstream comics is probably his stint as inker, and later penciler and inker, on Marvel's various Conan series in the late 1980s, including Conan the Barbarian and Conan the King. Geof's affinity for fantasy characters made him the perfect choice for this Common Elements teamup featuring Michael Moorcock's Elric, alongside the X-Men's Storm. It was Geof's inspiration to dress Storm in the garb of Barry Windsor-Smith's Adastra, due to the shared history of the two heroines. The result was this superb pencil artwork.

Favorite Isherwood Theme Gallery Commission, Heroes Division:
Black Panther

At Marvel, Geof worked on the Conan books with one of my favorite comics writers, Christopher J. Priest (then known as James Owsley). In one of Priest's other Marvel projects, his memorable revival of the Black Panther elevated this great hero to new heights of triumph. I have a feeling that Priest would dig Geof's rendering of the Panther almost as much as I do.

Favorite Isherwood Theme Gallery Commission, Heroines Division:
Wonder Woman

In typically amazing fashion, Geof put his unique stamp on my all-time favorite heroine. His take is a little bit Harry G. Peter (Wonder Woman's original artist), a little bit Ross Andru (the primary WW penciler of the Silver Age), and a whole lot of pure Isherwood.

Favorite Isherwood Solo Heroine Commission:
The Valkyrie

Drawing again on his love for fantasy and classic sword-and-sandal heroism, Geof created this gorgeous portrait of Marvel's modern-day Viking warrior, the Valkyrie, and her winged stallion Aragorn.

Favorite Isherwood Solo Hero Commission:
The Spirit

Shortly after Will Eisner's death earlier this year, Geof delivered this atmospheric and wonderfully Eisneresque scenario featuring Eisner's signature character, the Spirit. For the backgrounds, Geof drew inspiration from the waterfront of Montreal. Notice the Spirit's nemesis P'Gell observing from a second-story window.

Favorite Isherwood Co-Ed Portrait:
Suicide Squad

Geof's one significant project for DC Comics was Suicide Squad, the cult hit of the late 80's and early '90s. He and I talked for some time about his revisiting that series in a commissioned artwork. I chose my four favorite members of the Squad's amorphous lineup — the Vixen, the Bronze Tiger, Nightshade, and Deadshot — and Geof cast them in this tension-filled scene. It's a brilliant example of his deft tonal pencil work.

Favorite Isherwood Inking Makeover:
The Scarlet Witch and The Vision, inks by Geof Isherwood from a pencil sketch by Frank Brunner

Geof inked several other artists' pencil originals for me this year, the results of each more impressive than the last. But he outdid himself transforming a rough preliminary sketch by Frank Brunner (Dr. Strange, Howard the Duck) into this powerful tableau. Geof managed to retain the essence of Brunner's style, while adding layers of dimension not even suggested by the original drawing.

As astonishing as the works featured above are, it's even more astonishing to recognize that they represent less than half of the Isherwood art that entered my collection in 2005. I can't thank Geof enough for sharing his creative gifts with me, and through Comic Art Fridays, with all of you. He's truly a nonpareil talent.

And thanks to all of you for your humbling and gratifying support throughout 2005. Our daily readership has more than tripled since the beginning of the year, and I hope each of you will continue to find reason to point your browser here frequently during 2006. Your grateful Uncle Swan wishes you and yours the blessings of peace, prosperity, and joy in the coming year.

Now go boil up some hoppin' John, toast your health with some chilled sparkling cider, and for cryin' out loud, stay off the roads tonight.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Comic Art Friday: The best of 2005

Today's final Comic Art Friday of 2005 is dedicated to the king of New Year's Eve, Dick Clark. Hope to see you rockin' when the big ball drops in Times Square, Dickie baby. I know Ryan Seacrest, and he's no Dick Clark.

Choosing my favorite pieces from among all of the comic art I acquired in 2005 was incalculably more diffcult than I had anticipated. So many wonderful pieces of art found their way into my collection this year, and each artwork is special to me in its own way. Trying to elevate a few above all the others is akin to a father deciding which is his favorite child. (Okay, for me, that one's easy, because I only have one child. But I never let the biological facts get in the way of a good cliché.)

After hours of wrestling with this conundrum throughout the past week, I decided to hang the selection on two pivotal criteria. First, each of the artworks on this list thunderstruck me from the very first glance, whether when the artist e-mailed me a scan of the finished work, or when the package arrived in the mail, or -- in the case of the pieces that came to me preexistent -- when I first saw the piece offered for sale. These were the pieces that made me gasp, say "Whoa," or just grin like a hyena.

Second, each of these pieces still makes a powerful emotional, as well as visual, impact on me as I view it today.

One caveat I feel compelled to add. A wealth of lovely pieces narrowly missed the cut, many of which might well have been included if I'd written this post on a different day, when I was in a different frame of mind. So if you drew something really incredible for me this year, and you don't see it here, please rest assured that I still love both it and you. But I had to quit someplace.

Also, to ensure variety, in cases where I could choose multiple pieces featuring the same character, I forced myself to pick only one. That sucks for the artists looking for display time, but keeps you readers from looking at, say, five Mary Marvel drawings in a row. (Yes, I had that many Mary Marvels in contention. So thank your lucky stars.)

Favorite Common Elements Commission, Heroes Division (Pencils):
"War and Peace" (War Machine and Peacemaker), by Jean-Paul Mavinga

Jean-Paul showed me three preliminary scans of this artwork while it was in progress, and each time I saw what he had added to it, my jaw smacked onto my chest. Not only is Mavinga's pencil technique flawless, his sense of dynamism and perspective is a wonder to behold. You won't see a scene this awe-inspiring on any comic book cover published by the majors this month. I guarantee it.

Favorite Common Elements Commission, Heroes Division (Inks):
"Jetpack Jockeys" (The Rocketeer and Adam Strange), by Michael L. Peters

This piece hangs on the wall of my living room, and you can see why. Peters' eye for detail simply dazzles here, and his charmingly old-fashioned aesthetic perfectly suits these two classic heroes.

Favorite Common Elements Commission, Heroines Division:
"Danvers Dolls" (Ms. Marvel and Supergirl), by Christopher Rich-McKelvey

Yes, Bruce England, the ladies look as though they applied their eyeliner with a garden trowel. But Rich-McKelvey's economy and fluidity of line, vividly reminiscent of superstar cover artist Adam Hughes, knocks me flat every time I look at them.

Favorite Common Elements Commission, Co-Ed Division (Pencils):
"Fellowship of the Rings" (Golden Age Green Lantern and Saturn Girl), by Anthony Carpenter

Of all the artworks you're looking at today, this is the one I most desperately wish I could show you in person. Carpenter's amazing shading technique gives this piece an almost painterly, three-dimensional quality, even though it's all done with graphite pencil. Impeccably detailed, this one adorns my office wall for good reason.

Favorite Common Elements Commission, Co-Ed Division (Inks):
"Stormbreakers" (Storm and Beta Ray Bill), by Ernie Chan

This piece would astonish me even if I didn't know the amazing Chan had created it in a single day. But he did. Talk about exceeding expectations — this one did it in every possible way.

Favorite Wonder Woman Pinup:
Peter Krause

I didn't commission this artwork, but I couldn't be more pleased to own it if I had. Peter Krause drew this a decade or so ago for his good friend, former DC Comics colorist Buzz Setzer, who today represents art sales for artist Darryl Banks. I fell in love with this image the moment I saw it. Robert Browning could well have composed "My Last Duchess" while staring at this evocative portrait of a superheroine on her day off.

Favorite Black Panther Pinup:
Darryl Banks

Speaking of Darryl Banks... the co-creator of the newest Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, turned in this sharp action shot of the King of Wakanda. You can almost feel the vibranium throbbing when you look at this one.

Favorite Mary Marvel Pinup:
Cully Hamner

As noted above, I could have chosen any one of five Mary Marvel commissions for this spot, but Cully Hamner's dramatic white-on-black tableau just nails Mary's unique combination of pure innocence and thunderous power.

Favorite Ms. Marvel Pinup:
Michael McDaniel

This woman... this warrior... this gorgeous drawing by Michael McDaniel. A stellar artist masquerading as a mild-mannered loss prevention executive with a major retail chain, McDaniel delivers the goods with this bold pinup.

Favorite Scarlet Witch Pinup:
Michelangelo Almeida (pencils) and Bob Almond (inks)

Michelangelo's original pencil drawing was phenomenal. (So phenomenal, in fact, that another collector was displaying a scan of it in his gallery at Comic Art Fans as though he owned it.) Then, like a certain Louisiana-based chef of television fame, inker Bob Almond kicked it up about six notches. Bob was a true professional in working with me on this commission, implementing some specific requests I made, then going above and beyond, exercising his own powerful creative muscles.

Favorite Supergirl Pinup:
Al Rio (pencils) and Bob Almond (inks)

Okay, so old What's-his-Kryptonian-face is in there too — the Maid of Steel is the front-and-center star here. This piece fairly screams with emotion. Al Rio drew the pencil original as a preliminary concept for an artwork he was creating to sell, with the proceeds to be donated to tsunami victim relief. Bob Almond took Rio's rough sketch and ran to the moon with it. If you want to know why I dig Supergirl, here's one perfect example of why.

Favorite Solo Hero Pinup:
Doctor Mid-Nite, by James E. Lyle

Favorite Solo Heroine Pinup:
Black Canary, by James E. Lyle

A criminally underused talent, James E. Lyle's skill stunned me from the instant I first saw these two fantastic artworks. Both of these pieces show his ability to use black to add texture and drama. Most significantly, both characters look, not like idealized representations of mythic figures, but rather like real, honest-to-goodness human beings. Amazing work.

Favorite Co-ed Pinup:
Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson-Parker, by Bob McLeod

Bob McLeod and I talked about his doing a Spidey and MJ commission for me long before he found time in his schedule to take on the project. This swingin' valentine to one of comics' longest-enduring loves was well worth the wait.

Favorite Inking Makeover:
Daredevil, inks by Bob Almond over pencils by Michelangelo Almeida

If you ever wanted a crash course in the power of inking, here it is. Michelangelo's pencil original featured a dynamic pose, but a deadly dull, horribly clichéd backdrop. (If I never see another superhero pinup with a crater-pockmarked full moon in the background, I'll be a happy dude.) Bob Almond preserved and enhanced what worked in this picture, and replaced the rest with a wicked cool concept of his own — a star-flecked night sky over a spatter-splashed skyline, incorporating such Marvel landmarks as the Baxter Building and the Kingpin's tower penthouse, plus long-time Daredevil adversary Stilt-Man. Two words: Suh. Weet.

Now, I know what you Comic Art Friday regulars are thinking: Where's all the Geof Isherwood art? Hasn't Isherwood delivered stupendous works time after time, all throughout 2005? How can he not have landed several pieces on the retrospective celebration list? And what about... Naomi?

For the answer to these and other equally mind-bending questions, you're all invited back here tomorrow.

We've prepared a first-ever, special edition Comic Art Saturday — specifically devoted to the contributions of SSTOL's Outstanding Artist of the Year, Geof Isherwood. What better way to ring out the old year and ring in the new, than with a scintillating display of Isherwood art?

See you in 24.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What's Up With That? #28: David Letterman, cryptographic Casanova?

A woman in Santa Fe, New Mexico filed for a temporary restraining order against David Letterman, claiming that the host of Late Night has been directing secret code words toward her on his show for the past dozen years, in an attempt to seduce her over the airwaves.

As stupid as that sounds, this is even more ridiculous — a district court judge named Daniel Sanchez actually granted the restraining order.

Yo, Judge Sanchez: When someone tells you that a television talk show host whom she's never met is trying to hook up with her using secret code words... she's nuts, okay?

And yo, Colleen Nestler: It's called a remote control. Change the channel, psycho loser.

Fortunately, another judge with a lick of sense shredded the restraining order at the request of Letterman's lawyers.

As I've mentioned before, I met Letterman a couple of times 25 years ago, when I was broadcasting baseball games on the Pepperdine University campus radio station. To the best of my knowledge, Dave is not sending me any secret messages.

Jay Leno, on the other hand...


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Terminator strikes out

Suppose you were the sixth-leading relief ace in the history of Major League Baseball.

And suppose you robbed a jewelry store, and when caught, you blamed your actions on some medication you're taking.

But I repeat myself.

Jeff Reardon, who retired 11 years ago after notching 367 saves for six major league clubs — most notably the Montreal Expos, Minnesota Twins, and Boston Red Sox — walked into the Hamilton Jewelers shop in Palm Beach, Florida's Gardens Mall, handed the clerk a robbery note, and walked out with a bundle of cash. Then he went to a restaurant and had lunch.

According to Reardon's attorney, the former pitching star — whose nickname was "The Terminator" — had been taking antidepressants since losing his 20-year-old son to a drug overdose nearly two years ago. Reardon also recently underwent a cardiac angioplasty. A police spokesman said that Reardon told the arresting officers, "it was the medication that made him do it and that he was sorry."

This story is so bizarre that it's tough to know exactly what to make of it. If the medication angle pans out, you've got to feel badly for the guy.

At least Reardon won't have to worry about how this incident will affect his chances in the Hall of Fame balloting. He was eliminated from future HOF consideration when he garnered only 24 votes — a mere 4.8 percent of the total cast — in 2000, his first year of eligibility. Candidates need five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot each year.

If it means anything, I wouldn't have voted for him before.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Stating the painfully obvious, headline division

You know, headline writing just doesn't get any more redundant than this.

Courtesy of a copy editor at ABC News, we get this sterling example: "Virginia Man Who Killed Four Had Mental Problems."

Let's see...

Nathan W. Cheatham:

Killed his mother on Christmas Day, then...

Drove 10 miles to the home of some family friends, where he...

Fired 50 shots, killing three more people.

Mental problems...

You think?

No more Sanka for Mr. Vargas

Man, it's been a rough year on the celebrity deathwatch.

This morning, the world lost that unmistakable character actor Vincent Schiavelli, whose hangdog expression and wry wit graced such films as Ghost, Amadeus, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Schiavelli was 57 and suffered from lung cancer.

If you're a member of my rapidly aging generation, you remember Schiavelli as Hector Vargas, the ghoulish science teacher in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who enjoyed taking his classes on field trips to the county morgue. His students looked on in horror (or with glee, in the case of Sean's Penn's Jeff Spicoli, who stowed away on the outing) as Vargas dissected the cadavers of homeless men. (Mrs. Vargas, incidentally, was portrayed by Lana Clarkson, who spent a regrettable final evening on Earth at Phil Spector's house.)

And of course, Schiavelli appeared in one of the great cult films of all time, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, playing one of the alien Lectroid invaders, all of whom were named John (Schiavelli was John O'Connor). Schiavelli's classic line about Buckaroo and his Hong Kong Cavaliers: "They're only monkey-boys — we can crush them here on earth, Lord Whorfin!" Classic stuff.

A man of many talents, Schiavelli authored a couple of cookbooks about Italian cuisine, and even spent a season hosting Cucina Amore, the Italian cooking show on PBS.

SSTOL extends its condolences to Mr. Schiavelli's family and friends.

A tiger trap baited with a tuna fish sandwich

Every Christmas, the people who love me (and there are more of those than one might suppose, given my antisocial nature) always display generosity far in excess of what I deserve (several choice limps of the proverbial coal). This Christmas was no exception.

By far the weightiest gift I received this year — as well as the most welcome, after the shrine to my Jeopardy! career KJ built for me and my towering ego — is The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a three-volume compilation of every panel in the ten-year history of Bill Watterson's legendary comic strip. I'm perhaps one-tenth of the way through the first volume, and I have yet to hit on a page where at least one of the strips didn't make me laugh out loud.

The packaging of this long-awaited archival set leaves quite a bit to be desired, however. By limiting the set to three hardcover volumes — encompassing a total of 3,160 individual comic strips — Andrews McMeel Publishing guaranteed that the books would be massive, unwieldy, and inordinately complicated to simply sit and page through. Since the whole set, including the storage slipcase, checks in at a lumbering 23 pounds (and, due to the rock-hard covers, feels like twice that), each of the three volumes weighs in excess of seven pounds — quite a load for one's lap.

Would it really have been that much more involved to spread the set into seven or eight books, and make each volume a size the reader could more easily handle? For that matter, would it have cost that much more to actually print the cover illustrations on the covers, rather than using paper paste-ons that don't appear destined to withstand the test of time and handling?

These quibbles aside, the content of the set is simply glorious. The notoriously reticent Watterson penned a fresh, informative, and remarkably self-effacing new introduction that perfectly places Calvin and Hobbes in their appropriate cultural and historical setting. And the strips themselves, of course, are sheer genius. Only Walt Kelly (Pogo) and Charles Schulz (Peanuts) stand as equals to Watterson (not surprisingly, they're his two greatest influences), and both Kelly and Schulz gave themselves a lot longer to get it right (and, at least in Schulz's case, somewhat overstay their welcome).

According to Amazon, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes is already headed for a second printing, due out in April. Your local Costco, however, may still have a few copies of the first edition, at the bargain price of $85 (the MSRP is $150). If Santa didn't bring you your own set, it's well worth searching out.

Tell them Spaceman Spiff sent you.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Visit From St. SwanShadow (with apologies to Clement Moore)

'Twas the night before Christmas, and far from the crowd
SwanShadow sat musing, and thinking out loud.
He wished peace for blog princesses Janet and Lynda
Who could not be more magical if named Ozma and Glinda.
He sent cheer to his readers from SoCal to Wisconsin
And fine noble souls, like the one Real Sam Johnson.
"To those artists," he said, "who bring joy to my days
And create such neat pics for my Comic Art Fridays —
On Dooney, on Wilson, McDaniel and Jones,
On Lyle, Moy and Mannion, and all the Scott clones;
To Chan, Briz and Rio, I must offer thanks,
Without e'er forgetting Mavinga and Banks,
Geof Isherwood, he with great talent endowed,
Rubinstein and the two Bobs, Almond and McLeod."
To friends Damon and Donna fond greetings Swan gave
And to cute little Shelby, a fine feathery wave;
Although his performance in the Tourney was leopardy
Swan dug all the smart folks he met playing Jeopardy!
With well-deserved gratitude he thanked SwanShadow clients
For their patronage, then put in a good word for the Giants.
His colleagues at DVD Verdict he cheered
And promised sincerely to review more next year.
To all those newsmakers whose indulgence in shockery
Provided occasion for Swan's satire and mockery —
He hoped that they all would keep up their old tricks
And do more stupid stuff in two thousand and six
So he'd gain more blog fodder and fun things to scribble
Without resorting to memes and other such drivel.
To his wife and his daughter, and loved ones near and far
Swan offered warm snuggles, wherever they are...
And he said with a grin, at the last jingle's bell:
"Happy holidays, all, from SSTOL!"

Labels: , ,

Friday, December 23, 2005

I'll be old-school for Christmas

Today's Comic Art Friday is sponsored by America's retailers, who remind you that the stores are still open and eager to clean those final few Christmas simoleons out of your wallet.

I was the guy they had in mind when they coined the term "old-school."
  • When it comes to music, I'm old-school — I sing in a barbershop quartet, for crying out loud; music doesn't get more old-school than that. The only music station I ever turn on in my car is one that plays the "classic rock" of the '60s, '70s, and early '80s.

  • When it comes to movies, I'm old-school. I believe Citizen Kane remains the pinnacle of cinematic achievement. Double Indemnity and Casablanca are two of my ten favorite films of all time. I'd still rather spend two hours reliving The Maltese Falcon or North By Northwest than enduring ninety percent of today's Hollywood product.

  • When it comes to comics, I'm old-school. I like my heroes and heroines heroic, not antiheroic. I want to be able to tell the protagonists from the antagonists most of the time. I prefer to see heroes who look for reasons not to kill the villains, rather than excuses for cold-blooded murder.
Since the holidays are supposed to provide a season of joy and harmony, a time for reflection on the past and hope for the future, on this pre-Yuletide Comic Art Friday we're going to revel in some old-school art that reminds me of the way comics used to be, back in the day — when the good guys were truly good, or at least were trying to be, and when the bad guys merely wanted to rule the world, not sodomize the hero's teenage sidekick or rape and murder his wife.

If there's one creator in the comic world today whose stylistic vision epitomizes old-school, that creator is Steve Rude. "The Dude," as the Brobdingnagian artist is known to his fans, has perfected a simple yet muscular visual approach that recalls such giants of the Silver Age as Jack Kirby (cocreator of such icons as Captain America, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four) and Steve Ditko (cocreator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange). In fact, if a contemporary filmmaker wanted to make a biopic about Kirby, and needed an artist to create new illustrations modeled after Kirby's distinctive style, Rude would get the first call.

Although he has worked on a variety of projects for the major comics publishers, Rude is most closely associated with Nexus, a spacegoing superhero series he cocreated with writer Mike Baron, and which has been published intermittently by various comics companies since the early 1980s. Nexus owes at least a modicum of debt to Saturday morning television's Space Ghost, the Alex Toth-designed character of whom Rude is an avowed fan.

Faced with a rare opportunity to obtain a commissioned piece from Rude, I went as old-school as one could get: I asked him to draw that paragon of goodness and virtue, Mary Marvel. And did the Dude ever deliver! His motif of mighty Mary dodging a fusillade of retro-styled missiles is the stuff of pure genius.

Beginning in the late '70s and throughout the '80s, Ron Wilson emerged as one of Marvel Comics' most dependable "go-to" artists. Ron penciled covers for The Avengers, Captain America, Daredevil, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Power Man, among numerous other titles, and was the primary interior illustrator on Marvel Two-In-One, featuring the adventures of the ever-lovin', blue-eyed Thing and a parade of guest stars.

When I was approached recently with the chance to work with Ron on one of his first-ever commission assignments, I knew immediately which of my Common Elements concepts I wanted him to draw. Borrowing inspiration from a pair of his classic '80s Daredevil covers, I asked Ron to team The Man Without Fear with comics' original blind hero, Doctor Mid-Nite.

Showing that he hasn't lost a step from his heyday as a Marvel cover creator, Ron delivered this stunning scenario featuring the two sightless supermen, plus the good Doctor's owl companion, Hooty. Although he has been pursuing other career opportunities for the past decade or so, Ron has clearly kept his drawing reflexes razor-sharp.

See? Doesn't that feel good? Old-school comic art. Nothing grim, dark, or psychosexual. No bizarrely exaggerated anatomy or needless gore. Just talented artists depicting good guys and good girls in spandex costumes, defending truth, justice, and the superhero way.

Lord knows, we could use a lot more of that these days.

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Winning isn't everything

My heart aches for Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, whose 18-year-old son James was found in his apartment, dead of an apparent suicide, early this morning.

Dungy's Colts are 13-1 this season, and were undefeated before losing to the San Diego Chargers this past Sunday. Right now, they are far and away the best team in the NFL, heavy favorites to storm through the playoffs to the Super Bowl.

I'm certain that right now, none of the above means a darned thing to Tony Dungy. I don't know the man, but as a father, I'd wager he'd trade every victory for just one more day with his son.

Our sincere condolences to young James's family and friends.

Good things come to those who wait... forever

After years of pursuit, the San Francisco Giants finally landed star outfielder Steve Finley.

The G-Men have been chasing Finley for almost as long as I can remember. Well, not that long, really, but certainly for the past several seasons. They worked hard to sign him before the 2003 and 2005 campaigns, and have attempted to wangle a trade for him on more than one occasion the past three years. Yesterday, they acquired him from the Los Angeles (Don't Call Us Anaheim, Even Though That's Where We Play) Angels, in exchange for underperforming third baseman Edgardo "The Fonz" Alfonzo.

Of course, Finley's now over 40 — he'll turn 41 during spring training — so the acquisition may have come too late. Sort of like a little kid mowing lawns to save up for a tricycle, only to have outgrown the trike by the time there's enough money in the piggy bank to buy one. Finley struggled with a shoulder injury all last year that severely affected both his playing time and the results thereof.

Finley joins the established members of the Giants' AARP outfield, Barry Bonds (41) and Moises Alou (39). At least Randy Winn, SF's best player at the end of last season, is only 31.

Heck, I just turned 44 this week. Maybe I could still play for the Giants.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Law of the jungle, baby

Here's ironic justice for you:

A guy robbed a couple at knifepoint at a zoo in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Fleeing from the zoo's security guards, the mugger leapt over a fence into an animal enclosure.

The Bengal tiger enclosure, as it happens.

The tigers were not amused.

After a brief trial, the feline court pronounced the offender guilty, sentenced him to death by mauling, and carried out the execution without delay.

I'm thinking this fellow, in his last moments on earth, fervently wished this was merely an episode of Deal or No Deal.

That, or a short story by Frank R. Stockton.

What's the Dealio?

Most Tuesday evenings, my quartet rehearses at my house for three hours, so if it's on TV on Tuesday night, chances are that I don't see it. (The exception being 24, which I taped every week when it aired on Tuesdays.) During the holidays, however, the quartet takes a couple of weeks off after our last Christmas performance, so I managed to catch the second installment of the NBC game show event, Deal or No Deal.

My response? No Deal.

The problem with the show, much to my surprise, is not host Howie Mandel. Howie is one of those performers — like Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, and Pauly Shore — whose appearance triggers within my body a galvanic response that sends my right hand rocketing in the direction of the nearest remote control. But the shaven-pated Howie's actually not too bad on Deal or No Deal — he's likeable and enthusiastic without veering off into the eighth dimension of goofiness as he tends to do in other venues. I've seen worse game show hosts. (Yes, John McEnroe, Rolf Benirschke, and Michael Reilly, I'm talking about you.)

What I found frustrating about DOND is that it really isn't much of a game. And it's not much of a game for an entire hour.

For those of you who haven't yet tuned in, DOND involves a contestant selecting a briefcase from among 26 such cases carried onstage by a like number of slinky model-type women. (The models are addressed by Howie only by number and first name, which only compounds the confusion arising from the fact that they all look somewhat alike. Even the ostensibly ethnic ones.) The briefcases contain placards reflecting cash amounts ranging from one cent to one million dollars. Having chosen a case to defend, the contestant calls upon each model in turn to open her case and reveal the amount inside.

As possible outcomes are eliminated, a mysterious figure called "the Banker" (actually, the program's producer) periodically telephones Howie on the set to offer the contestant a sum of money, in exchange for which the contestant would relinquish claim to the amount in the chosen, but still unopened, briefcase. At each juncture, the contestant must decide whether to accept the Banker's offer, or play on for the amount in the chosen case: to say, in other words, "Deal" or "No Deal."

And that's all there is. No skill or knowledge involved. The contestant doesn't have to do anything except continue to say "Deal" or "No Deal" until he or she either takes the Banker's offer, or exhausts the supply of models with cases. No one answers any questions or solves any riddles or puzzles. A chimpanzee could be the contestant, and it wouldn't materially affect the game play whatsoever.

I suppose this sort of game appeals to people who might be intimidated by a quiz program such as Jeopardy! or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Watching it demands nothing of the audience. All that's required is to sit there and see what the contestant will do at each offer. There's no real way to play along, other than to root either for or against the contestant. (There is, apparently, some form of online version of the game to be played on the show's Web site, but I didn't check it out.) In this sense, Deal or No Deal is merely a flashy variation of baccarat, only with Howie Mandel and 26 models instead of a dealer in a tuxedo.

If this is as exciting a concept as the networks can concoct, I weep for the future of primetime game shows.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Leo has left the building

I know it's been a few days, but I still want to acknowledge with sadness the passing of John Spencer, who played White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing. A consummate actor who added thoughtful gravitas to a show that sometimes becomes a skosh overfond of its own wit, Spencer will be greatly missed.

The irony in Spencer's character's survival of a massive heart attack on the show is not lost on me. On occasion, life not only imitates art, but exceeds it.

I first remember Spencer as the rough-edged, morally flexible attorney Tommy Mullaney in the waning seasons of L.A. Law. The series had outlived its usefulness by the time Spencer arrived, but his grounded portrayal of a realistically grungy tough guy amid the parade of slick Hollywood lightweights almost made L.A. Law's last years worth watching. Almost.

It remains to be seen how The West Wing, in whose current season Democratic insider McGarry was running for the vice presidency, will negotiate around Spencer's death. Hopefully, the writers and producers will treat the matter with dignity.

The man who lent so much of that quality to the show deserves that.

They say it's your birthday. It's my birthday, too.

Today I have something in common with two San Francisco icons, Willie "Stretch" McCovey and "Dirty" Harry Callahan: the number 44.

I guess that means that either this coming year will be a towering home run, or it will blow my head clean off.

Do I feel lucky?

If you're still fretting over what to get me for this auspicious occasion, you could probably do worse than The Robert B. Parker Companion by Dean James and Elizabeth Foxwell, a newly published guide to the works of my favorite mystery novelist, or any recent volume (Volumes 12-17) of the 17-volume (so far) Spirit Archives, which reprint in glorious color the legendary newspaper strips of comic art's greatest innovator and storyteller, Will Eisner. (Eisner was in the Army during World War II, and Volumes 3 through 11 of the series contain the work of the writers and artists who filled in during Eisner's absence. Historically interesting, but little more than that. Anything from Volume 12 forward, however, is pure Eisner at the peak of his powers.)

That, or a personal birthday greeting from Diane Lane.

Labels: ,

Friday, December 16, 2005

A couple of dames named Danvers

Before we get into this week's Comic Art Friday, you get to listen to me gripe about one of the things that really irritates me about comics these days. (Only one thing, though. I promise.)

Crossover storylines — involving continuing plots that travel not just from one issue of a particular title to the next, but from an issue of one title to the next issue of a completely different series — are evil.

Right now, three of Marvel's interminable number of Spider-Man titles are two-thirds of the way through an extended story arc entitled "The Other: Evolve or Die." In order to make heads or tails of the plotline in the one Spidey title I normally read (the original Spidey book, The Amazing Spider-Man), I not only have had to add a new series to my shopping list, but also an existing series that I otherwise would have no interest in reading. The new series (Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man) doesn't trouble me too much, because it currently features the art of a penciler (Mike Wieringo) whose work I very much enjoy, and for whom I would likely have added the book anyway. But having to pick up the appalling Marvel Knights Spider-Man, which is drawn by an artist (Pat Lee) whose grotesque stylings make my eyeballs bleed, just so I can figure out what's happening in the other two series, chaps my hide. Grrrr.

Rant over. On with the art.

Previously on Comic Art Friday
, we extolled the virtues of one of my all-time favorite superheroines, Ms. Marvel. Today, we feature the Divine Ms. M. in conjunction with another heroine with whom she shares a number of intriguing similarities: Supergirl. Our two dazzling damsels of derring-do are pictured together here in a gorgeous portrait commissioned from artist Christopher Rich-McKelvey.

Although Supergirl's origin predates Ms. Marvel's by almost 20 years, and the two characters developed independently into rather different types, the parallels are striking...
  • Both Supergirl and Ms. Marvel were spinoffs from existing male heroes: Supergirl from Superman, of course; Ms. Marvel from the Marvel Comics version of Captain Marvel (not to be confused with the original superhero by that name, the one associated with the magic word "Shazam!").

  • Both originally wore costumes that were merely feminine versions of their male counterparts' fighting togs. Supergirl has changed outfits numerous times over the years, but has always retained some variation of the blue-and-red Superman color scheme and red "S" shield logo. Ms. Marvel's current wardrobe — a dark blue or black (depending on the colorist's predilections) bodysuit with a stylized lightning bolt arcing down its front — bears little resemblance to that of Captain Marvel, or to her own debut attire.

  • Both are portrayed as attractive blondes, though Supergirl has generally been depicted as a teenager, while Ms. Marvel has always been a late-twenties to early-thirties adult.

  • Ms. Marvel and Supergirl shared, in their original incarnations, the surname Danvers. Supergirl has long since shed her adopted Linda Lee Danvers persona (her Kryptonian name is Kara Zor-El), but Ms. Marvel's real name (the last time I checked, and you know how quickly these things can change in the comic book universe) is still Carol Danvers.

  • The two heroines have essentially similar superpowers, most notably incredible strength, limited invulnerability, and the ability to fly.

  • Both characters are closely associated with longtime comic artist Jim Mooney. Although he was not involved in the creation of either heroine, Mooney drew the adventures of each for an extended period — he was Supergirl's regular artist for nearly a decade beginning in the early 1960s, and drew most of the issues of Ms. Marvel's self-titled comic in the late 1970s. Mooney worked on numerous other characters during his lengthy career, but remains best known for his Supergirl and Ms. Marvel stints.

  • Speaking of creators, an interesting side note: Supergirl was created by veteran science fiction writer Otto Binder, who is probably most familiar to comics fans as the primary scripter behind the original Captain Marvel.

The picture above is an original pen and ink drawing by the legendary Jim Mooney, created about a year ago. "Gentleman Jim" is now in his mid-80s, and recently suffered the loss of his wife. But he's still actively drawing, and often markets his original art and prints on eBay. Mooney has drawn this specific scene a number of times — it's a reimagining of the cover of Action Comics #252 (shown below), in which Supergirl made her debut — so other versions of this artwork exist, but I'm delighted to own this one.

That's your Comic Art Friday. Remember... just eight more shopping days until Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

An Amish fool and his money are soon... well, you know

This sounds like the beginning of a joke, but apparently it isn't...

A 75-year-old Amish man seeks professional services from a woman of rentable virtue. The hooker blackmails the Amish gent out of $67 large by threatening to post photos of the two of them together on the Internet. He, fearing discovery by — and ostracism from — his Amish brethren, forked over the loot.

Fortunately, the old fellow's bank tipped his son to Papa's usually large withdrawal, whereupon Sonny persuaded Dad to 'fess up. Son calls the cops, the cops bust the hooker, her boyfriend-slash-pimp, and a couple of accomplices in the scam. Justice is served, and all's well that ends well.

But here's what I don't understand.

Amish guy. Threatened with blackmail via Internet porn. Fears other Amish guys will find out.


They don't have Internet access, dude. They're Amish. No computers. No electricity, for pity's sake.

How would they ever have known?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I wonder as I wander

Goings-on in today's world that leave me with unanswered questions:
  • Former President Gerald Ford returned to work today after a brief health setback earlier in the week sent him to the hospital.

    Work? What kind of work does a 92-year-old former President do?

  • I haven't seen it yet, but...

    Did Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong really need to be 188 minutes long?

  • Actor Lillo Brancato Jr., who used to play mobster Matt Bevilacqua on The Sopranos, faces murder charges in the death of a New York City police officer.

    Did Lillo not get the memo that it's just a TV show?

  • Bob Dylan just signed to work as a DJ on XM Satellite Radio.

    Hey, Bob: How does it feel?

    Hey, XM: Are you going to provide online subtitles, so listeners have a clue what Dylan is saying?

  • Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the other day that he doesn't believe the Holocaust actually occurred; that the murder of six million by Nazi Germany is a "myth" constructed by the Western world to justify the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East in 1948.

    A myth? Hasn't he ever seen the opening scene of X-Men?

Welcome to the party, pal

Today's words of wisdom from POTUS, regarding Iraq:
It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong.
Well, duh. You think?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A list in Time saves nine... I mean, 100

People love lists. Which is why people keep compiling them.

In the latest paean to list-o-mania, Time Magazine's film critics, Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss (note to self: change name to "Richard" if you ever apply to be a film critic for Time), have released their list of the 100 greatest movies of all... well... Time.

You can review Corliss and Schickel's Hot 100 for yourself here.

The fun of such lists, of course, can be summarized in two questions: What were they thinking when they put [insert name of despised film here] on the list? and Why isn't [insert name of beloved film here] on the list? Below is a selection of films I would have inserted in the blanks in each of the above questions.

What were they thinking when they put [insert name of despised film here] on the list?
  • Charade. Don't get me wrong; I love Stanley Donen's stylish, seriocomic take on Hitchcock. I actually bought the DVD release of the execrable Mark Wahlberg/Thandie Newton remake, The Truth About Charlie, just because a DVD of Charade was included as an extra. But one of the best 100 films of all time? Yikes.
  • Drunken Master II. Corliss and Schickel must have been drunk when they chose this. As Jackie Chan's flicks go, it's a decent one, but I can name a half-dozen Asian action films more worthy.
  • Finding Nemo. This isn't even Pixar's best film to date — Toy Story 2 is. Cute and cuddly (okay, squishy) do not a great film make.
  • The Fly. Corliss says Schickel called his colleague's inclusion of David Cronenberg's gross-out horror flick "despicable." I concur.
  • A Hard Day's Night. Richard Lester's slapdash musical comedy starring the Beatles was certainly influential. But inspiring someone to create the Monkees is not what I have in mind when I think of cinematic achievement.
  • Miller's Crossing. If you have to have a Coen Brothers film on the list, it has to be Fargo.
  • The Singing Detective. My argument here is less with the content of this BBC television miniseries — which, by the way, is brilliant — but with its inclusion on a list of great films. If this, why not Roots?
  • Star Wars. Once again, Schickel and Corliss confuse influential and popular with great. Without doubt, one of the most imitated motion pictures of all time (usually badly — and five times now, badly imitated by its own director), but also horribly written, dreadfully (over)acted, derivative to the point of near-plagiarism, and directed with fists of ham. Not even a really good film, much less a truly great one.
  • Talk to Her. Obviously, I'm not "her," because whatever Pedro Almodóvar was saying when he made this weird little picture, I didn't understand it. Or appreciate it.
Why isn't [insert name of beloved film here] on the list?
  • Dark City. I agree with Roger Ebert, who touts Alex Proyas's freakish fever dream as one of the great films of the 1990s. Anyone who's seen it knows what Uncle Roger and I mean. Dark City was The Matrix before The Matrix.
  • Fargo. See my comment about Miller's Crossing above. There's a reason why Fargo made two of the AFI's top 100 lists: great thrillers, and great comedies. It's two great films in one.
  • The Maltese Falcon. Defined film noir as much as any other film that made the list.
  • The Miracle of Morgan's Creek or Sullivan's Travels. Any list of 100 greatest films that doesn't have either of Preston Sturges's classic satires on it comes up short.
  • Raise the Red Lantern. I rarely learn as much from a film as I learned from Zhang Yimou's spectacular vision. Gong Li delivers one of the finest performances ever by an actress in one of the loveliest films to behold.
  • Seven Samurai. Kurosawa. Most frequently remade film ever. Hello? A film that belongs, not just in the top 100, but the top five.
  • Spirited Away. If you can shoehorn Finding Nemo onto the list, there's no excuse for not including Hayao Miyazaki's poignant animated masterpiece.
  • The Usual Suspects. Best American movie of the last decade, hands down.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Morris (disambiguation)

All right, people, I'm only going to go through this once.

Morris the cat:

Morris the Giants' new right-handed starting pitcher

Let's keep 'em straight.

If we get the Morris who started last season by winning his first eight decisions for the Cardinals, cool.

If we get the Morris who ended last season by losing his last five decisions, not cool.

If we get Morris the cat, really not cool.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

For a small fee, I will set you free, nearer thy God to thee

If you've had him on your "Dead Pool" list for the past 20 years, you might well be saying, "It's about time."

I somehow think Richard Pryor would get a laugh out of that. He spent a lifetime confounding people's expectations and sensibilities, and getting them to enjoy it. He always found the greatest humor in skewering for public consumption his own foibles, frailties, and self-destructive tendencies.

Now, the world's most important comedian is forever silenced.

Walk into any gathering of standup comedians and ask them who most influenced them, and all of them — without exception — will mention Richard Pryor. Anyone who didn't would be lying. Pryor changed the face and voice of American comedy in a way no one else did, or could. There's ample reason why, when Comedy Central asked a selection of comedy pros to choose the 100 greatest standup comedians of all time, Richard Pryor's name landed at #1.

Pryor wasn't the first comic to use scatological language onstage — Redd Foxx had already built a cottage industry out of his racy "party records" when Pryor was still an unknown. (As is true of his contemporary George Carlin, Pryor's act wasn't always blue. When he first began appearing on the TV variety show circuit in the early 1960s, Pryor's material showed flashes of his later brilliance, but in non-threatening, censor-friendly ways.) He wasn't the first African American standup to exploit the possibilities of race — Dick Gregory got there first. But by the time he released his landmark album, That Nigger's Crazy, in 1974, Pryor had synthesized his uniquely profane and incisive vision into a style that would permanently alter comedy — not just the manner in which comedy was presented, but the way audiences would think about and accept it.

Unlike many of his imitators, Pryor never confused the use of crude street language with the notion that such language is, in and of itself, inherently funny. The way Pryor spoke came directly from the environment in which his comic sensibility was developed, growing up in a brothel as the son of a prostitute. If his speech was vulgar, it was because he saw the world in which he lived as a vulgar, though not irredeemable, place. If he sounded angry, he was — at himself as often as anything or anyone else.

Trying to capture my favorite Richard Pryor memories would make this post far longer than it needs to be. But I have a few:
  • As well-known as he was as a performer, Pryor was underrated as a comedy writer. He lent his talents to the success of Flip Wilson's sketch comedy show, and to a series of Lily Tomlin specials in the early '70s. And of course, Pryor cowrote what I believe is the funniest movie ever made, Blazing Saddles, with Mel Brooks and others. Many of the film's most memorable lines are attributed to him. (Originally, Pryor was supposed to play the lead role in the film, but the comic's mercurial nature led Brooks to cast Cleavon Little instead.)

  • To my parents' consternation, I loved Pryor's short-lived primetime TV series, The Richard Pryor Show. My favorite moment from the show was Richard's spoof of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin: "My name is Idi Amin Dada. That's one N, three D's, and one gun."

  • A few years after his much-publicized meltdown in the early '80s, Pryor returned to television in the least likely of venues — as the host of a Saturday morning children's show called Pryor's Place. The show was produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, famous for such kidvid fare as H.R. Pufnstuf and Land of the Lost. Easily the best thing on TV for kids at the time, Pryor's Place was eye-openingly sweet-spirited, thoughtful, and profanity-free.

  • The three live concert albums Pryor recorded at the peak of his career — Wanted, Live on the Sunset Strip, and Here and Now — remain the most powerful and hilarious standup performances ever set to vinyl. My sides still ache a quarter-century later, from laughing at those records.

  • If I stumble upon the movie Car Wash during a channel-surfing session, I never miss the chance to catch Pryor's cameo appearance as televangelist Daddy Rich. Pryor's righteous indignation when militant Abdullah (Bill Duke) calls him a pimp is priceless.

  • Even when he didn't entirely overcome his past, Pryor showed the remarkable ability to learn from it. His elimination of the N-pejorative from his act after an enlightening trip to Africa in the late '70s, despite having built his career to date on the use of that word, demonstrates his keen understanding of concept transcending language.

  • My favorite Pryor comedy bit is his poignant little tale of the death of his pet monkeys. As Richard sits on the front steps of his house grieving his loss, his neighbor's vicious dog — who made sport of chasing Pryor every time he saw him — comes over to console him. After dispensing a string of post-mortem platitudes — "try not to take it too hard" and so forth — the dog returns to his own yard, parting with the words, "You know I'm going to be chasing you again tomorrow."
That vignette, I believe, sums up Richard Pryor's world view. Life may offer you a brief moment of comfort now and then, but it will be chomping at your heels again before you know it.

In Pryor's case, the dog finally caught up.

Friday, December 09, 2005

This woman, this warrior

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of the late actor Jack Colvin (1934-2005), who passed away earlier this month at the age of 71.

Colvin played investigative reporter Jack McGee on the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk. Each week, he was the target of Bill Bixby's famous line in the show's opening sequence:
Mr. McGee, don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.
Mr. Colvin, should you and Mr. Bixby encounter each other in the hereafter, remember that may still be good advice.

Regular readers of Comic Art Friday know by now that one of my favorite superheroines is Ms. Marvel. I've been surprised to discover how many other closet Ms. Marvel fanatics lurk among us — at least two of my favorite artists for commission projects, Bob Almond and Michael Dooney, have owned up to being fanciers of Marvel Comics' mightiest heroine. There's also an extensive fan site, This Woman, This Warrior, that's replete with great images of Ms. Marvel in her various incarnations (she has also gone by the names Binary and Warbird at times during her nearly 30-year career).

In those heady days of the '70s, Marvel Comics attempted to market Ms. Marvel as a feminist icon, much as Wonder Woman had been envisioned by her creator, William Moulton Marston. And, in fact, Ms. Marvel was one of the first heroines in the Marvel pantheon with the level of physical power usually associated with male characters. Until her advent, Marvel's female supertypes tended to possess the kind of superpowers (the Wasp's super-shrinking, the Invisible Girl's force fields, the Scarlet Witch's hex bolts, Jean Grey's telekinesis) that relieved them of the need to engage in hand-to-hand combat. Ms. Marvel was one of the first Marvel heroines who actually threw punches on a regular basis — and won.

Marvel recently announced that Ms. Marvel is being featured in a new solo series, debuting in February. In celebration of this auspicious news, we're pleased to feature a couple of gorgeous artworks from our collection of images of the Female Fury.

First up is this dazzling pinup by the tremendously talented Michael McDaniel.

Michael McDaniel, in my not-so-humble estimation, is one of the greatest little-known artists in the comics field right now. With a beautifully lush pencil line, and a design sensibility that recalls such artists as Dave Stevens (The Rocketeer) and the pinup master Alberto Vargas, Michael's figure work equals that of some of the most popular talents in the industry. (Note the anatomically accurate muscularity and proportion in the drawing above.)

And he's much more than just a "good girl" artist — I've seen some amazing pieces of Michael's work featuring such characters as Green Lantern and Batman. If there's a reason why he isn't drawing covers for the major comics publishers, I don't know what it is.

Next, Brazilian artist Alex Lei gives us his take on our beloved scarf-wearing superwoman.

Alex Lei is probably most familiar to current comics readers as the inking partner of star penciler Ed Benes on such DC Comics series as Supergirl and, presently, Birds of Prey. Lei's own work exhibits a ton of Benes's influence, especially the sleek lines for which Benes is renowned.

By the way, the bubbling black background effect Lei employs here is known to comics aficionados as "Kirby crackle," after its originator, the legendary artist Jack "King" Kirby (cocreator of such characters as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and the original X-Men). Kirby crackle became one of the signature features of Kirby's work, especially in Fantastic Four and spacegoing series such as New Gods.

In next week's Comic Art Friday, we'll explore some of the intriguing parallels between Ms. Marvel and another of my favorite heroines, Supergirl.

Until then, don't make me angry. Because you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

R.I.P., Vanilla Coke — it's now a Blak thing

Why is it that anytime a new consumer product debuts that I enjoy, the suits in charge dump it before I even know it's going away?

Case in point: Vanilla Coke.

Recently, the Coca-Cola Company announced that it was axing the greatest innovation in the modern history of soft drink technology, Vanilla Coke.

Never mind the fact that I loved Vanilla Coke and its calorie-conscious sibling, Diet Vanilla Coke.

Never mind that Vanilla Coke brought back memories of my adolescent youth, when I used to take girlfriends on dates to the Swensen's ice cream parlor in downtown Santa Rosa to quaff hand-mixed vanilla Cokes, long before the commercial product was a glimmer in the eye of some marketing genius in Atlanta. (The old Swensen's is long gone, its former habitat most recently occupied by an Internet café, but that's hardly the point, now, is it?)

Never mind that, in a world of superficially similar colas, accommodation had finally been made for us long-ignored fanciers of the skinny brown bean, who can't get a decent cream soda from the major bottling outfits to save our lives.

No, some chowderhead at Coke Central decided that my tastes don't matter, and pulled the plug on Vanilla Coke.

And now that I know why, I'm even more incensed.

Apparently, Vanilla Coke was cast onto the scrap heap of ill-fated consumer products past — alongside some noteworthy failures as Crystal Pepsi, Earring Magic Ken, and the Chevy Vega — to make room on store shelves for a coffee-flavored drink dubbed Coca-Cola Blak (sic).

Setting aside for a moment the fact that original Coca-Cola itself is, if not black, at least a respectably dark brown, does the American public really need another form of caffeine-concentrated beverage? For crying out loud, Coke people, haven't Starbucks and Jolt and Red Bull and Mrs. Olsen knows what else already saturated the potable stimulant market? Do people in this helter-skelter society need to be any more hopped-up than they already are? How many incidents of road rage and Wal-Mart Christmas shopping frenzy do we need before the carnage ends?

Oh, the humanity...!

By the way, what exactly is the name Coca-Cola Blak meant to imply? Is Coke trying to snatch a lion's share of the African American marketplace back from PepsiCo? Are going to see Billy Dee Williams hawking the new Coke variety on TV? "Coca-Cola Blak...don't let the smooth taste fool you."

And why in the name of J.C. Pemberton is the word "Blak" both misspelled, and saddled with an erroneous diacritical mark over the "A" that implies that the name should be pronounced "Coca-Cola Blake"?


I resign myself to going back to doctoring my own Cokes with vanilla syrup when I get the hankering.

Another defeat for the the common man.

Snow long for now, J.T.

It's a bittersweet day in Giants fandom: Veteran first baseman J.T. Snow isn't being asked back by the Orange and Black.

That's the bitter news.

The sweet is that starting pitcher Brett Tomko won't return in '06 either.

Snow, who's been the Giants' first sacker since 1997, has never been the offensive gun the G-Men hoped he'd become, but he's had a decent nine years in San Francisco — especially on defense, where he's still one of the aces in the National League at age 38. Among the current Giants, only Barry Bonds has been with the team longer. Among first basemen in the team's San Francisco era, only Hall of Famer Willie McCovey equals Snow's nine consecutive Opening Day starts.

Despite his occasional ups and downs at the plate, Snow could always be depended upon for some clutch hitting down the stretch. Two seasons ago, he was the hottest batsman in the league the second half of the year. He ranks fifth all-time in San Francisco history in on-base percentage, despite being one of the slowest-running non-catchers I've seen in nearly 40 years of watching baseball. I'm a fat, middle-aged guy with short, stubby legs, and if J.T. beat me in a dash to first base, it wouldn't be by more than an eyelash.

And who will ever forget J.T. snatching then-manager Dusty Baker's son Darren out of harm's way when the little tyke, aggressively pursuing his duties as a Giants batboy, ran onto the field in mid-play during Game Five of the 2002 World Series?

As importantly as his on-field talents, J.T. was a popular guy in the clubhouse and with the fans, and always had an air of class about him. I hope he recalls his years as a Giant fondly, because that word describes how most San Francisco fans will remember J.T. Snow.

Brett Tomko, on the other hand...

Don't let the clubhouse door clip you in the butt on the way out, Brett — you and your 8-15 record and 4.48 ERA in a pitcher's ballpark. Whatever we paid you last season, it was too much.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Excuses, excuses

Sorry for the paucity of posts the last couple of days, kids. Uncle Swan's a mite under the weather. We'll keep drowning him in Ny-Quil (aka Skid Row Schnapps) and hot oatmeal, and hopefully we can chain him to the keyboard again by tomorrow.

While Uncle Swan's down for the count, you kids better be good, or Nick Fury will come to your house and punch your lights out.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Doug Murphy

What a shock, to hear about the death of longtime Bay Area news anchor Doug Murphy. On the rare occasion that I watch a local newscast these days, it's usually KPIX — the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, where Murphy worked from 1982 until beginning a medical leave in April of this year.

Doug Murphy's face and voice, like those of so many of television personalities, were part of the background scenery of our lives. To learn that he had died night in a fire that destroyed his home was sad indeed.

My empathies to Murphy's two children, his loved ones and colleagues.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

They're not Bigg on diversity in Utah... that's any surprise.

Bigg Homes, a residential developer in Eagle Mountain, Utah, drew attention when its Web site promoted as a virtue of its new housing community the fact that the place has a "black race population significantly below" the state average. (As you can see from the screen capture below, the boldface text is in the original.)

"Significantly below" the average for Utah? One of the most uniformly Caucasian expanses in the United States? (Only 1.3 percent of the population of Utah is African American, according to 2004 census data.)

If you feel the need to live in a place that's even whiter than most of Utah, you're not just racist — you're mentally ill.

But then, I repeat myself.

For the record, the owner of Bigg Homes — who, much to my disappointment, is not named Mr. Bigg, but David Adams — claims that he ordered the offensive statement removed from the Web site when it was brought to his attention two months ago. The contracted Web designer, however, did not make the requested alteration until after news reports about the site began to circulate.

Here's an interesting note from the Salt Lake Tribune story:
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP branch in Salt Lake City, described the information as "subtle discrimination," meant to encourage white people and discourage black people from buying in the area.
Two puzzling questions spring immediately to mind:

1. There's an NAACP chapter in Salt Lake City? What's their tagline — "An Army of One"?

2. There are black people who need to be discouraged from living in Utah?

Friday, December 02, 2005

Common Elements, redux

Today's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by Folgers Coffee. Most mornings, so am I.

Previously on Comic Art Friday, we looked at a couple of entries in my "Common Elements" series of commissioned artworks. This week, I have a couple of brand-spankin'-new additions to that series to show you.

Let's start with the artwork whose "common element" is easier to identify. Engaging in heated confrontation below are a pair of bionically enhanced superheroes. The guy with the upper hand in the duel to this point is Deathlok the Demolisher, a second-string staple of the Marvel Comics universe for the past 30 years. The guy looking for a little help is Cyborg, a member of DC Comics' Teen Titans. The guy wielding the magic pencil is the dynamic Arvell Jones.

Deathlok and Cyborg are such similar characters (in every aspect except deportment) that, when Cyborg first popped up in the revamped Titans in the early '80s, I thought he was a lawsuit just waiting to happen. I was apparently mistaken about that. I now chalk this up as another instance of two independently developed comic book heroes possessing a remarkable array of similarities — like Superman and the original Captain Marvel, or Aquaman and the Sub-Mariner.

Deathlok debuted in 1974, a crucial year in comics history as I view it. He was one of several characters who first appeared that year — Wolverine and the Punisher being two others — that began the blurring of the line between superhero and supervillain, or at least between hero and antihero. Five years later, writer/artist Frank Miller would take an existing character, Daredevil, down this same dark road (in another five years, Miller would repeat the process with Batman) — and most of the rest of the superhero field would follow.

Another interesting fact about Deathlok is that over the years, he's been several different people. The original Deathlok was a U.S. Army colonel named Luther Manning. But there have been at least three other Deathloks — the best-known of whom was a black man named Michael Collins (it's he who's depicted here, according to the artist) — in the character's three-decade history.

It was a treat to have the opportunity to commission Arvell Jones to draw this Common Elements piece, as Arvell was one of many artists who worked on Deathlok back in the day. Arvell and Deathlok's creator, artist Rich Buckler, were two members of a sizable contingent of comics creators who emerged from Detroit in the 1970s — a group that included such future stars as Jim Starlin, Terry Austin, Keith Pollard, and Al Milgrom. According to Arvell, Buckler originally gave the name "Gideon Blade" to the character who eventually became Deathlok.

Arvell Jones is notable also as one of the relative handful of African American artists who've been prominent in the field of superhero comics. He was a friend and mentor to many other comics creators, including the aforementioned Keith Pollard, Mike Netzer, and Denys Cowan. Since the early 1980s, Arvell has focused his creative energies in other areas, advertising in particular. But when I heard that he was interested in taking on some comic art projects again, I leapt at the chance to include his work in my collection.

Here's another Common Elements scenario where it helps to know something about the characters in order to figure out the linkage between them. The Viking warrior woman brandishing the sword is the Valkyrie, a key component of Marvel's '70s superteam the Defenders. Her odd-looking companion brandishing the tail is Nightcrawler, one of the most popular members of the X-Men and their European-based offshoot, Excalibur. The two heroes are being confronted by some nameless, unseen terror that exists only in the mind of artist Dave Ross.

Aside from the fact that both characters are more familiar as members of teams than as solo adventurers (although Nightcrawler currently appears in his own series as well as in the various X-titles), they share a more esoteric common element. Nightcrawler's real name is Kurt Wagner, the last name given the German pronunciation (VOG-ner) because the character is himself German. And, of course, German composer Richard Wagner gave the musical world the opera entitled — wait for it — The Valkyrie. (Or Die Walküre, if you prefer the original language.)

Dave Ross (the comic book artist, not the radio commentator) is probably best known for his work on such Marvel titles as West Coast Avengers, Daredevil, Excalibur, and Alpha Flight — the latter being especially appropriate, given that both artist and characters are Canadian.

By the way, both Arvell Jones and Dave Ross are represented for their commission projects by super-nice gentlemen — Jeff Jaworski and Tom Fleming, respectively. Good art reps are worth their weight in pizza. That's high praise, coming from me.

And with that, we conclude Comic Art Friday for another week. Go share some of your own common elements with the people you care about this weekend.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

We'll miss Wendie Jo

KJ and I were sorry to hear that comedienne and actress Wendie Jo Sperber lost her eight-year battle with breast cancer. Sources disagree as to her age, but she was in her mid-40s.

Sperber was ubiquitous on TV and in films during the 1980s, in a lot of what might be stereotypically referred to as "funny fat girl" roles. She was probably best known as one of the female housemates in Bosom Buddies, the sitcom that launched Tom Hanks's career, and as Michael J. Fox's sister in the Back to the Future trilogy. My favorite of her roles was as Hanks's straitlaced physician sister who finally cuts loose in Bachelor Party.

Wendie Jo became a relentless crusader against breast cancer after her diagnosis in 1997. She helped found the weSPARK Cancer Support Center, which provides an array of free services to women with breast cancer and their families. Her personal struggle with the disease —which she survived far longer than her original prognosis indicated — was inspirational to countless women fighting the same battle.

Our hearts go out to Wendie Jo's family and friends.

Let's find a cure for this doggoned thing. Soon.