Friday, March 31, 2006

Blinded by the light

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to Sharon Stone, whose sequel Basic Instinct 2 opens in wide release today. Whether Ms. Stone does likewise, you'll have to pony up nine bucks to discover. Or wait for the DVD.

I haven't featured the work of Geof Isherwood, my 2005 Comic Art Friday Artist of the Year, lately, so it's high time. Geof has created several amazing additions for my Common Elements gallery (for any newbies present, Common Elements is a series of commissioned works pairing otherwise unrelated superheroes who share some feature in common). This amazing piece matches the Golden Age hero known as the Ray with Marvel's disco queen, Dazzler.

What I love about this drawing is the way it demonstrates Isherwood's mastery of anatomy. Too many artists in the comics field today learned their craft — such as it is — by aping the work of other artists. As a result, their figures look like bizarre caricatures of the human form rather than realistic representations of it. In Isherwood's work, we see the eye of an artist who has drawn from live models, studied the anatomy of the human body, and knows how the parts fit together. Look at the musculature of Isherwood's Ray — if you pulled out a copy of Gray's Anatomy (the reference book, not the television drama), you'd see that every sinew, every tendon, is biomechanically accurate. Geof's Dazzler has realistic proportions, a chest that falls naturally, hips with authentic curvature, and arms and legs formed like those of a real woman in top physical condition. You could count on the fingers of one hand the active comic artists who command that level of detail, and have the skills to put it on paper.

This particular Common Elements piece I conceived specifically with Isherwood in mind. One of my favorite comic artists of all time is Lou Fine, who worked out of Will Eisner's studio in the late 1930s and early 1940s (Fine was one of the artists who filled in on The Spirit Sunday supplements while Eisner was in the Army during World War II). Much of Fine's comic book work was created for Quality Comics, and the Ray was one of the handful of superheroes (the Black Condor and Doll Man were others) with whom he was most closely identified. I see a great deal of Lou Fine's expert draftsmanship and attention to accuracy in Geof Isherwood's art, so I thought it would be a capital idea to have him draw one of Fine's best-remembered characters.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, March 30, 2006

In search of the wild Metreon

I don't believe I've ever mentioned that, in addition to my semi-famous original comic pinup art collection — samples from which I foist upon you generous and tolerant readers every Friday — I also collect coffee mugs. Knowing as you do my slavish addiction to Mother Caffeine, this might not come as a surprise.

About 70 mugs or so hang on racks mounted on my office wall. A few dozen more take up cabinet space in our kitchen. Most are mementos of places I've been. Consequently, a lot of them comemmorate various tourist destinations and attractions. A few came from friends and family members who traveled somewhere and brought me back a mug. A handful I just spotted in a store somewhere and liked.

I keep a few favorite mugs in regular rotation for everyday use, not just for coffee, but for whatever beverage I happen to be drinking at a given moment. (I'm a teetotaler, so coffee's the strongest brew that ever touches them.) My favorites tend to be capacious, sturdy, and hold some special significance for me.

Today I'm drinking out of my Where the Wild Things Are mug. It's decorated with a familiar scene from Maurice Sendak's classic children's fantasy, with the story's boy hero Max leading a parade of monsters through the jungle of his imagination by the light of the full moon. The book's title is printed on the mug's handle. Reading Sendak's story over and over again was one of the delights of my early childhood.

Until recently, downtown San Francisco was home to a combination shopping mall/entertainment complex known as Metreon. Developed by Sony, Metreon was touted as the wave of the future when it first opened in 1999. Originally, Metreon's seven public levels housed a flashy collection of high-tech stores, including a Sony Style electronics showroom, a humongous Discovery Channel Store, and Microsoft's first (and, I believe, only) dedicated retail outlet. Cheek by jowl with the software and hardware stood an eclectic assortment of entertainment venues: a Loews Theatre multiplex; a multimedia presentation based on the educational books series The Way Things Work; a souped-up video game arcade called Airtight Garage, decorated in comic book graphics designed by the French artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud; and an entire floor devoted to a themed playground, restaurant, and gift shop based on Where the Wild Things Are. The latter was the source of my mug.

Metreon's Where the Wild Things Are attraction was a real kick. Wonderfully evocative and engaging in its interactivity, the playground offered kids (and the adults who loved them) an opportunity to step into a fantasy world and have a field day. New surprises lurked around every corner, all perfectly tied into the theme and graphic concept of the book. Even the little cafe, called In the Night Kitchen after another Sendak story, was creatively designed and fun to visit, even if the food was pricey and average in quality.

A failure almost from day one, due in large part to Sony's disinterest in marketing the concept properly, Metreon struggled along for more than six years before Sony finally gave up on the project last month. Westfield Group, a shopping center development company currently renovating the nearby San Francisco Centre, bought Metreon and plans to turn it into another multistory urban mall. Just what America needs.

It's too bad, really — Metreon was a brilliant notion that just needed to have been thought out a little better. The girls and I enjoyed several fun visits there. I'm sad that it didn't succeed.

The Where the Wild Things Are attraction, which operated only sporadically for the past couple of years, closed permanently last year.

My mug still drinks pretty well, though.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Stalk-Forrest Group: Heavy on the stalk

Over at The Watchtower of Destruction, The Ferrett linked to this bizarre tale of a 46-year-old Minnesota man named Kevin Kupferschmidt who met a woman in a café one night two years ago, danced with her, shared a couple of hugs and a kiss or two, and never saw her again...

...and is now convinced she's the love of his life.

Every week for the past two years, Kevin has placed an ad in the personals of the local independent newspaper in an attempt to contact his unknown objet d'amour. Kevin even went so far as to have the mystery woman's name — Denise, or at least that's the handle she gave him — tattooed on his arm.

Dude, it's called a life. You might look into getting one.

Kevin says he isn't a stalker, because he isn't actually in contact with "Denise." Yeah, and Hitler wasn't a mass murderer because he never actually flipped the gas switch at Dachau.

I once worked with a guy who was a stalker. I didn't know he was a stalker during the time we were acquainted. He always seemed like a normal enough individual. He and I even had lunch together on numerous occasions, and I never sensed anything the least bit sinister about him. It was only after our mutual employer dismissed him that I discovered that he had been systematically harassing one of our female coworkers over a period of several months, both in the office and at her home. When I learned this, I recalled how friendly this guy and I had been, and my blood ran cold.

I suppose the old saying is true: No one really knows anyone.

But I'm betting there's a woman out there in North America somewhere, whose name may or may not be Denise, who's awfully darned glad that she doesn't know Kevin Kupferschmidt.

And that he doesn't know where she lives.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Lyn Nofziger

I probably would not have paid much attention to today's news that longtime Republican insider Franklyn "Lyn" Nofziger had died, were it not for the fact that his path and mine once crossed — albeit briefly — about a quarter-century ago.

In the fall of 1980, I was a sophomore journalism student at Pepperdine University. Active at the campus radio station, I acquired — more because of my constant availability than any extraordinary talent on my part — a considerable number of behind-the-scenes responsibilities in addition to my on-air work as a disc jockey and sports announcer. Among my tasks was coproducing a public affairs program hosted by a fellow student whose father had been the longtime publisher of the Sentinel, a newspaper that served the Los Angeles black community.

With the '80 national election approaching, my coproducer put together a show featuring interviews with the various Presidential candidates. Well, not the candidates themselves for the most part (although we did manage a one-on-one with the Libertarian candidate, a dull-witted chap who kept referring to our alma mater as "Peppertone"), but their designated spokespeople. Lyn Nofziger, who was Ronald Reagan's press secretary at the time, spoke with us by telephone on behalf of the Reagan campaign. Nofziger was easily the most effective speaker of the folks we interviewed — clear on his message and engaging in style. He didn't convince me to vote for Reagan — it would have taken either a pistol to my temple, or a date with Erin Gray, to pull off that feat — but he seemed like a likable guy.

Nofziger will likely be remembered as the person whose job it was to tell the White House press corps that President Reagan (see? he didn't even need my vote) had been shot by John Hinckley. Shortly after that, Nofziger left the Reagan administration and returned to the campaign scene, in later years running campaigns for right-wingers Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes. (I said he seemed likable. I didn't say he seemed sensible.)

I'm sure that after all these years, Nofziger would not have recalled that one interview out of the hundreds he gave in the fall of 1980. But I do.

Speaking of dead Republicans, I see that Caspar Weinberger, HEW secretary under Richard Nixon and defense secretary under Ronald Reagan, also passed away today.

I'm sure that jokes about Caspar becoming a friendly ghost would be entirely inappropriate.

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The Verdict Is In: Stay

Today's new review at DVD Verdict takes a look at Stay, which didn't stay long in your local theater despite the presence of some heavyweight acting talent — including Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, and Bob Hoskins — and the director of the Oscar-winning Monster's Ball.

When a $50 million film languishes in the studio archives for a year before release, that generally means the marketing department has no idea of how to sell the picture to the moviegoing public. In the case of Stay, the final solution was to market it as a horror movie, which it isn't. The result? People who saw the film thinking it was a fright flick were disappointed, and people who might have enjoyed the dark psychological thriller it is stayed away in droves. That's how you turn $50 million into $4 million in six weeks.

Maybe Stay just isn't a good title for a movie. You'll enjoy the review, though.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Extreme Makeover: Exploitation Edition

So you've been wondering..."Why can't my family get a cool new house for free on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?"

Well, bunkie, you're probably not pathetic enough.

Those eagle-eyed muckrakers at The Smoking Gun turned up this memo from Charisse Simonian, the "family casting director" for EM:HE, outlining the kinds of families she's looking to build future episodes — and houses — around.

The healthy and well-adjusted need not apply.

Simonian says in her memo that the show is especially eager to find families in which one of the parents is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease or skin cancer, or in which one of the children has progeria (the condition that causes kids to age rapidly and prematurely), anhidrosis (a rare malady that renders the victim unable to feel pain) or muscular dystrophy. Simonian seeks families with multiple children with Down syndrome — apparently, if you only have one child with Down syndrome, you aren't suffering sufficiently. Families who have been victimized by hate crime ("The Klan burned a cross on your lawn? We'll build you a new house!") or a home invasion robbery are also appealing subjects for the show.

The request that seems most egregious is for a family who've had a child killed by a drunk driver. These people obviously have not grieved enough until they've had their sorrow plastered on television screens across America.

Ty Pennington, meet Jerry Springer. You two will have a lot to discuss.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Lara Flynn Oyl

Today is actress Lara Flynn Boyle's 36th birthday.

I'm guessing she's not having cake.

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World's Mightiest Girl

I'm dedicating today's Comic Art Friday to my daughter KM, who turns 17 tomorrow. A more kind, caring, sweet-spirited and wonderful young woman you will not find, search though you may. Happy birthday, Punkin.

If KM were going to be a superheroine, she'd probably be Supergirl. Or maybe Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But if I were casting her as a superheroine, I'd assign her the role of Mary Marvel. Mary had the knack of becoming superhuman without losing any of her native sweetness or youthful innocence. A rare feat, in comic books as in real life. It's a challenge I'd hope my daughter could master.

Mary's spunk and charm are captured beautifully in this marvelous drawing by one of my favorite pinup artists, Michael Dooney. Dooney's style deftly unites the long-past heyday of glamour illustration with a modern sensibility. His female characters always look fresh and joyful, and nothing at all like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Dooney is probably best known for drawing. I never tire of asking him to draw my favorite heroines. He did a masterful job with Mary.

Another brilliant portrayal of the World's Mightiest Girl is turned in here by the brilliant Brazilian artist Al Rio. Like Michael Dooney, Al Rio is renowned for his skill at drawing beautiful women. Rio's style, though, is slickly modern, influenced by great pinup artists including Vargas, and comic book stylists such as J. Scott Campbell and Art Adams.

What else can I say except... "SHAZAM!"


Thursday, March 23, 2006

American Idol '06: Top Ten

Last night, American Idol made its cut to 10 contestants — a significant milestone in the series each season, because the top 10 are the performers who participate in such potentially lucrative Idol spinoffs as the live summer tour and the compilation CD. (By "potentially lucrative," I mean for the folks at 19 Entertainment, the producers of the show, not for the singers themselves.)

For the record, I was dead on in predicting the final six female contestants. I didn't do quite so well guessing which of the guys would move on. So let's see how I do with who's left. In alphabetical order (by first name, 'cause we're all friends on this bus)...

Ace Young. When we first reviewed this season's cast a month ago, I thought Ace was the class of the male field, based upon what we had seen to that point. In subsequent weeks, he's revealed himself to be little more than a pretender — a good-looking guy with a dazzling smile who loves to make goo-goo eyes at the camera, but whose voice is average at best and whose stage presence lacks boldness. That Ace has already landed in the weekly "bottom three" once during the final round indicates that the voters are onto his fraud. Predicted finish: In the bottom half of the top ten.

Bucky Covington. I'm not surprised that Bucky has survived this far despite his underwhelming singing and performance abilities. Idol is big with the mobile home and smokeless tobacco crowd, and Bucky is really the only one of the guys who's playing to that audience. But he's the weakest singer left in the field, and his complete lack of charisma means he's not long for the show. Predicted finish: Gone in the next two weeks.

Chris Daughtry. Every week, the Idol judges praise Chris for his dogged determination to stick to his gravelly alt-rock wheelhouse. No doubt the kid can wail, but he sings everything with exactly the same stylistic inflection. When you make Stevie Wonder and Johnny Cash songs sound identical on successive weeks, that's not a good thing. Still, Chris has the vocal chops to keep things going for a while. Predicted finish: Definitely top five, maybe top three.

Elliott Yamin. I've liked Elliott's voice from the beginning, and his homely, trollish charm is growing on me. Elliott still isn't the most compelling performer in the cast, and he has the self-defeating tendency to choose the least familiar song every week — not realizing, apparently, that voters tend to favor the singers who choose songs the audience knows and likes. Predicted finish: Below the middle of the pack.

Katharine McPhee. America's got the McPheever. I like her voice very much, and there's no question but that she's one of the easier contestants on the eyes. But Katharine can blow hot and cold: a strong performance followed by one that just lacks a certain something. If she can upgrade her consistency, she has the looks and talent to win it all. Predicted finish: Easily in the upper half of the class; should be around close to the end.

Kellie Pickler. The future welfare mother becomes increasingly annoying every show. I understand that a lot of people — Simon Cowell among them — find her dumb blonde cornpone act cute. Me? She grates on my nerves. Worst of all, she's the poorest vocalist (by quite a stretch) among the remaining women. It's the trailer park vote that's keeping her alive. Predicted finish: Hopefully America will kick Pickler to the curb in the next three weeks.

Lisa Tucker. The youngest remaining competitor at 16, Lisa has all the voice anyone could ask for. Unfortunately, repeated competition has exposed her weaknesses: stiff, pageant-like stage presence; low energy; non-existent electricity on camera; a knack for selecting songs that don't suit her personality. She's as cute as a button, but she doesn't give anyone a motivating reason to vote for her. Predicted finish: Next to go home, if "next" isn't Bucky.

Mandisa. Still my personal favorite among the women, Mandisa keeps bringing the fire week after week. She's the strongest performer with the most powerful voice, plus she looks like a million bucks. I was enthralled the week she did her song barefoot — how many in the cast would have had the moxie to do that if their shoes started to pinch? Predicted finish: Would win if there were any justice, but should easily make the final four.

Paris Bennett. She's a female Jim Nabors — a dorky speaking voice coupled with a cannon of a singing pipe. The whole perky business irritates me, but she's a much better singer than I first believed. If she can avoid a major blowup, she should be around a while yet. Predicted finish: Top five.

Taylor Hicks. I love the Soul Patrol — spastic antics, geeky dance steps, and all. But Taylor has developed an annoying habit of choosing simplistic numbers that don't show his vocal range very well. Easily the most accomplished performer among the men, I'd like to see Taylor get back to the kind of bluesy singing that got him into the final round. Predicted finish: Top three.

Oh, and while we're talking Idol, how about the Us Weekly story that contends the producers of the show considered firing Paula Abdul earlier this season, and wanted to lure Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears to take her place? Given the way Paula looked and sounded on this week's performance show — I'm not saying she was pharmaceutically impaired, mind you, but no one would have been surprised if she were — I'm thinking her exit will arrive before next season.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Knife Guy cometh

Channel-surfing late at night in Reno last weekend, KJ and I stumbled upon the Knife Guy. We hadn't seen him on TV in a couple of years, and thought perhaps he had taken ill. Or dealt himself a fatal blow with a tactical folder. Or maybe just ran out of paranoid survivalists willing to shell out $200 for a lifetime supply of samurai swords.

The Knife Guy, whose real name is Tom O'Dell, formerly hawked his wares on Shop At Home TV — a low-rent kissin' cousin of HSN and QVC that appears even more narrowly targeted at the trailer park demographic than its competitors. Into the wee hours any weekend night, you could spin past Shop At Home and find Tom bellowing — at the top of his tobacco-dessicated lungs — the virtues of various bowie knives, katanas, and other aggressively lethal-looking cutlery, in a raspy Tennessee drawl thicker than blackstrap molasses on Rocky Top in January.

Then, suddenly, the Knife Guy and his "big'uns" (as Tom likes to call the largest blades in his arsenal — the kind one might employ for sport hunting, say, woolly mammoths) disappeared from the Shop At Home cablewaves. Weekend nights lost their anticipatory luster. But like televangelists, I Love Lucy reruns, and Tony Robbins, the Knife Guy couldn't be kept off the air forever. Or so it appears.

The Knife Guy's current cutlery extravaganza lacks even the basic local-PBS-station-on-pledge-night production values of his Knife Collectors Show on Shop At Home. In fact, the show we caught on Saturday evening looked like it was shot in Aunt Em and Uncle Henry's Kansas storm cellar under a 40-watt incandescent bulb, and recorded on a 20-year-old Betamax. But there was Tom — no longer accompanied by Shaun, the towheaded younger fellow whose job it was to lend a soupçon of frat-boy sex appeal to the old program — still raving about the insanely discounted deal one could score on a boatload of combat tactical specials.

I was so happy to see him I almost called up and ordered a Scottish claymore or an O'Dell's Royal Flush Bowie Collection my own self.

But I refrained.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

The turn of a friendly Nugget

KJ and I spent this past weekend hanging out with the quartet and a gaggle of other barbershop singers and enthusiasts at a regional convention in Reno, Nevada. (Technically, we were in Sparks, as the convention site was John Ascuaga's Nugget Hotel and Casino. But since you can pretty much hurl a spitwad into Reno from any location in Sparks, I doubt the distinction makes much difference to anyone other than the locals.)

We had big fun. As a foursome, we probably gave the best big-stage performance of our career on Saturday evening. We also got to hear quite a few amazing quartets, most of whom were far younger and immeasurably more talented and good-looking than the four of us. So we hated them. (Just kidding. Sort of.)

I always enjoy a trip to Reno, even at the tag end of winter when the weather is still dicey. (A number of years ago, KJ and I got snowed in at Circus Circus for an extra two days past my December birthday weekend.) Reno's like a friendlier, more intimate Vegas — less glitzy and adrenalized on the downside, less crowded and costly on the upside. And as mini-resorts go, you could fare a good deal worse than at John Ascuaga's Nugget. The accommodations are congenial, parking is both convenient and free of charge, and the restaurants serve tasty fare accompanied by solid service. (Even the buffet is reasonably decent, as casino buffets go — and anyone who's ever risked his or her intestinal tract choking down the toxic steam-table spread at Circus Reno can attest to the measure of compliment that is.)

I can't testify to the quality of gaming in the Nugget casino, because I've never played there. (People who know of my near-rabid fascination with Las Vegas and Reno are often surprised to learn that I'm not much of a gambler. I play a considerable amount of online poker, but mostly free games or low buy-in tournaments. And I garner more enjoyment playing my other game of choice, blackjack, solo on my computer in an environment where the air is unsullied by tobacco and alcohol and my tablemates are both sober and silent.)

KJ put three bucks into a quarter slot machine without positive return. She did, however, get to see the real live John Ascuaga wandering his casino floor. She thought briefly about telling him how much she enjoyed his Nugget. But she figured that might come out wrong.

For those not as enraptured by barbershop music as we, the featured headliner in the Nugget's Celebrity Showroom over the weekend was the Alan Parsons Project. The hotel was liberally festooned with placards advertising the show, all of which featured a photo of Alan Parsons looking as though he'd just come off a lengthy bender and wanted to be anywhere other than onstage at the Nugget. For what they were probably paying the guy, you'd figure he could at least smile for his picture. Then again, it's been 25 years since The Turn of a Friendly Card, which was the last time anyone gave a royal rip about Alan Parsons or his Project.

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The Verdict Is In: Separate Lies

What better way to celebrate the first day of spring than with a new film review by yours truly at DVD Verdict?

Okay, so you're thinking: A winning Powerball ticket would be better. So would a hot date with a sexy movie star. Or a letter from the Internal Revenue Service permanently exempting you from federal income tax.

In comparison with these things, my review of Separate Lies, a film written and directed by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gosford Park, and featuring the exceptional acting talents of noted British thespians Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, and Rupert Everett, doesn't seem like all that much.

But since you don't have that Powerball ticket, or that hot date, or that tax exemption letter, perhaps this review will be a tiny blossom of brightness in your otherwise mundane Monday.

You'll never know unless you go read it.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

The Irishman Without Fear

It's St. Patrick's Day here at SSTOL. None of my biological heritage is Irish so far as I'm aware, but on March 17, everyone has at least a touch of the Emerald Isle in 'em. Besides, you should hear me recite the entire script from an early '80s commercial for Killian's Irish Red in a pitch-perfect brogue. You'd swear I was a son of the old sod.

Plus, I've seen The Commitments about a dozen times. Say it loud: I'm Irish, and I'm proud.

Being that it's St. Paddy's, what more fitting way to celebrate than with a piece of comic art featuring an Irish-American superhero? Enter Daredevil, aka Matthew Murdock, the Man Without Fear, here depicted in action by the unmistakable pencil of artist Trevor Von Eeden.

Daredevil holds a special place in my heart, because he's one of only two superheroes I ever dressed up as for Halloween. My mother, a skilled seamstress in her day, hand-sewed my DD costume entirely from scratch (no pun intended), horned cowl and all. Originally she intended to attach a tail to the seat, not understanding that I wanted the costume to represent a comic book hero, and not the popular image of Satan himself. Mom never quite understood my fascination with comic books, and would have preferred that I not read them, thinking they would somehow corrupt my brain, infest my soul, and keep the Allies from winning the war. Or something.

(Another Halloween, I got to be Spider-Man. That costume, sadly, was one of those shiny store-bought jobs with the plastic face mask. But I digress.)

Daredevil was a favorite of mine because I saw him as something of an underdog. He was blind, for one thing. (Though not the first blind superhero in comics. Doctor Mid-Nite, a member of the Justice Society of America in the 1940s, had DD beat by a couple of decades.) Second, DD was portrayed in Marvel Comics as something of a low-rent Spider-Man, only without any of Spidey's powers other than his navigational "radar sense." (In case you were wondering how a blind superhero got around.) He swung from buildings like Spider-Man, only with a spring-loaded billy club containing a grappling hook. His costume looked suspiciously similar to Spider-Man's. (The most familiar version of DD's fighting suit was designed by the great Wally Wood.) And his rogues' gallery contained a lot of characters that seemed like also-rans in the Spidey villain sweepstakes.

For a while in the '70s, Daredevil endeared himself to me further by picking up a hot girlfriend who was also a superhero — Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, seen below in a pinup by Garry McKee — and moving to my favorite city, San Francisco. Alas, neither the relationship (which resulted in the retitling of DD's book temporarily, to Daredevil and the Black Widow) nor the move West turned out to be permanent.

In the late '70s and into the early '80s, artist and writer Frank Miller took DD in a dark new direction, presaging in many ways the path down with Miller would later take Batman. The grim, gritty DD never really appealed to me — the real world is grim and gritty enough, without my fantasy life having to follow that trend too — but it's the Miller styling of Daredevil that has endured in the comics and in popular culture via the film version starring Ben Affleck.

Along the way, Daredevil picked up a new girlfriend-slash-adversary, the assassin Elektra. She turned out to be one of the early avatars of the "bad girl" genre of comics, focusing on beautiful women with a darker edge. As a character, Elektra was beautifully designed by Miller and intriguingly conflicted. She continues to be popular today, despite the lackluster portrayal given her by Jennifer Garner in both the Daredevil film and its sequel Elektra. Here, the woman wielding the twin sais is given a minimalist treatment by the fantastically talented Brian Stelfreeze of Atlanta's Gaijin Studios.

Daredevil's perseverence despite long odds — his book hovered on the brink of cancellation for many years at Marvel — proves that Matt Murdock possesses the luck of the Irish. And on St. Patrick's Day, isn't that what we all hope for?


The Verdict Is In: You Stupid Man

When I tell you that my latest review for DVD Verdict covers a film entitled You Stupid Man, you might wonder whether the editorial team at the Verdict was trying to insinuate something about yours truly.

Not to worry. I requested the assignment. Mostly because I just had to see what kind of bizarre marketing strategy would name a romantic comedy You Stupid Man, which has to set some kind of record for the most off-putting title in the history of cinema. Next to I Spit On Your Grave, that is.

Besides, Denise Richards is in it. Who plays stupid better than Denise Richards? Or makes men act more stupid?

Anyway, check out the review, you stupid man. Or woman. Or whatever.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

SwanShadow breaks it all down for you

Things are poppin' in the pop culture universe. Fortunately, you have your intrepid SSTOL reporter on the scene to chop up these momentous happenings into tender bite-size morsels for your noshing enjoyment. Fasten your seat belts — it's going to be a bumpy post:
  • Future porn star Melissa McGhee became the first member of this season's American Idol Top 12 to take the Singout of Shame after she forgot the lyrics to Stevie Wonder's "Lately," not just once, but twice — in her solo coaching session with the music legend, and again onstage Tuesday night. How do you not go back and study up after suffering the embarrassment of screwing up the words to a song in the presence of the man who wrote it? Don't let the doorknob hit you, M'liss.

  • The Federal Communications Commission smacked CBS with a record-shattering $3.6 million indecency fine for a December 2004 Without a Trace episode depicting "teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy." I'm thinking the chances of that epi showing up in the rerun package just disappeared... well, you complete the punch line.

  • Will Ferrell wants the world to know that, despite rumors floating around the Internet, he isn't dead. Those rumors were likely touched off by people who saw Ferrell and Steve Carell in that deadly unfunny makeup skit at the Oscars and figured the real Will Ferrell would never have stooped to that level.

  • CBS newsman Mike Wallace announced that he is retiring from his anchor position at 60 Minutes, on his 88th birthday in May. Unlike Will Ferrell, Mike Wallace actually passed away several years ago.

  • Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford have, at long last, approved a script for the fourth Indiana Jones film. Despite the 63-year-old star's advancing age, there is apparently no truth the the persistent reports that the new Indy flick will be titled either Indiana Jones and the Enlarged Prostate or Indiana Jones and the Search for Metamucil.

  • One of my alma maters, Pepperdine University, dumped its head basketball coach Paul Westphal after an abysmal 7-20 season. Good riddance — the program has foundered under Westphal's tepid leadership for the past five years. Personal angle: When I was a communications major at Pep, I was the primary engineer for the basketball team's radio broadcasts. Over two seasons, I heard every minute of every hoops contest as I sat alone in a dark, cramped studio, twiddling knobs and punching in commercials. And they say broadcasting is a glamour profession.

  • It's a nice day for a Black wedding: Jack Black and his girlfriend Tanya Haden dashed off to Big Sur and got married recently. I care about this only because (a) Tanya's sister Petra released an entertaining CD a while back featuring a cappella covers of songs from the classic rock album The Who Sell Out (thanks for my copy, Unca Phil!), and (b) Black's longtime and now ex-main squeeze Laura Kightlinger appeared on a live comedy jam KJ and I attended many years ago, and was easily the funniest performer of the evening. That's all I've got.

  • Speaking of weddings, looks like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are tying the knot this weekend at Lake Como in Italy. Seems your Uncle Swan's invitation got lost in the mail. Not a problem — I have already have plans.

  • Kevin Federline, aka Mr. Britney Spears, says he'll become a male stripper if his rap career tanks. Hope your other assets are better developed than your musical talents, K-Fed.

  • Sad to hear about the passing of roller derby queen Ann Calvello. The longtime star of the San Francisco Bay Bombers was one of a kind. They don't make tough broads — and I use that term with sincere respect — like "Banana Nose" anymore.

  • Jessica Simpson backed out of a joint appearance with President Bush at a Republican benefit for Operation Smile, a program that pays for plastic surgery for poor kids with facial deformities. I think Jess was afraid she might actually have to be present for the surgery, and she's a little uncomfortable around sharp instruments. You know, like intellects.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I'm ready for my sex scene, Mr. DeMille

Europe's leading DVD rental service, Lovefilm (think Netflix with an accent), has released the results of its latest poll, in which film fans were asked to choose the sexiest scenes in film history.

As a public service — because he's civic-minded that way — your Uncle Swan counts down the top 10, along with his expert opinion on each of the finalists. (Expert on film, of course. What did you think I was an expert in?)

10. The Hunger. Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in what most likely is the most famous lesbian vampire make-out sequence in the history of the movies. Sarandon may well be Hollywood's sexiest major actress, and Deneuve one of Europe's all-time beauty queens. Vampire women aren't my cup of aphrodesiac, especially — how turned on can you be by someone who wants to drain the blood from your body and transform you into one of the undead? But if that's your kink, you couldn't go far wrong with these two.

9. Mulholland Drive. Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring steam up the screen. I'm beginning to detect a pattern here. Must be something about seeing two beautiful women getting jiggy that really ignites viewers' fantasies. Male viewers, I presume, though I may be wrong about that. Personally, I thought the film was overrated, but Watts and Harring (she of Lambada: The Forbidden Dance) are definitely memorable.

8. The Fabulous Baker Boys. Michelle Pfeiffer sings "Makin' Whoopie" while crawling on her belly like a reptile all over a grand piano. This one would be at or near the top of my personal list, despite the fact that I don't find Michelle Pfeiffer all that attractive. She wrings every ounce of seduction out of that song, though. And that red dress should be in the Smithsonian.

7. Rear Window. James Stewart is awakened by a passionate kiss from Grace Kelly. You wouldn't necessarily think of Hitchcock and sexy in the same sentence, but this scene does the job. Hitchcock had a legendary fetish for icy blondes, but there's very little frigid about the future Princess Grace here.

6. Wild Things. The infamous car-washing scene featuring Denise Richards and Neve Campbell. In the words of Austin Powers, "Yeah, baby!" If Denise Richards could act, she'd be dangerous. She can't, of course. But what if?

5. Cruel Intentions. More girl-on-girl smooching, this time with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Selma Blair. Cruel Intentions — a latter-day Brat Pack retooling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses — is the kind of film that makes you want to shower before you watch it, while you're watching it, and after you've watched it. The characters are so thoroughly reprehensible that finding any of them sexy overextends my tolerance for ickiness. And this from someone who enjoyed both Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons, which are based on the same material. Adults behaving like sexual vultures is one thing. With teenagers, it's altogether different.

4. Betty Blue. A scene starring French actress Beatrice Dalle. I must confess that I haven't seen this one. But then, I'm not much for Francophilia.

3. Out of Sight. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez locked together in a trunk. Another that would be on my list. It's not even a sex scene — it's literally two people talking as they're locked in a trunk. The way Clooney and J-Lo play it, though, it's smokin'. Out of Sight is, incidentally, a terrific film, and remains my favorite of Clooney's screen roles despite my fondness for Ocean's Eleven.

2. Brokeback Mountain. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal give the expression "cowboy up" a whole new twist. I haven't seen this yet, but I've seen plenty of other films starring either Ledger (I'm one of the rare film snobs who actually likes A Knight's Tale) and Gyllenhaal (who will always be Donnie Darko to me). Nothing in any of those movies makes me long to see these two guys engrossed in a liplock. But then, I'm funny that way. Or not. Depending on how you look at it.

1. Secretary. Speaking of Gyllenhaals, Jake's sister Maggie takes top honors getting her fanny spanked by James Spader. Brilliantly written, acted, and directed though it is, Secretary may be the most disturbed mainstream film (if indeed it can be called such) I've ever witnessed. What does it say about modern society that the scene considered the sexiest in cinematic history depicts a pathologically submissive woman being physically abused — albeit willingly — by a dominant male authority figure with sadistic tendencies? Wait... don't answer that. I probably don't want to know.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Previously on 24...

In case you haven't been paying attention, the current season of 24 rocks. Hard.

As contrived as the show's premise — each season's events encompass a single 24-hour day, which unfolds in more-or-less-real time over 24 hours (including commercial space) of programming — forces it to be, 24's writers manage to keep inventing new ways to yank viewers to the edge of the sofa and hold them there, trembling in anticipation.

One of the show's trump cards is the fact that no character — other than Jack Bauer, the tough-as-nails Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) agent played by Kiefer Sutherland — is safe from annihilation. This fifth season began with the assassinations of two of the show's most beloved figures, former President David Palmer (played with baritone gravitas in each of the first four seasons by Dennis Haysbert, now of The Unit) and agency administrator Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth). Then, just in the last two weeks, computer geek Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi) and new CTU boss Lynn McGill ("special guest star" Sean Astin, forever to be known around our house as "the fat hobbit") bought the farm. In the concluding seconds of last night's episode, longtime CTU stalwart Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) also appeared to get cashiered, but we'll have to wait until next Monday night to be certain. (At least, as certain as anything ever gets in the world of 24.)

When 24 premiered five seasons ago, I thought it was strictly a one-off. I frankly didn't believe the "real time" gimmick could work more than once. How mistaken I was. Despite the constant need, for dramatic purposes, to stretch the boundaries of "real time" beyond the point of credulity (characters on 24 routinely navigate significant distances in traffic-impacted Los Angeles within suspiciously brief timeframes, to cite one egregious and oft-repeated quibble), the production team does brilliant work keeping things fresh, fast-paced, and frenetically intense.

The only thing the show still needs: A love match between Jack and CTU's geeky technology guru, Chloe O'Brian (the one and only Mary Lynn Rajskub, who carefully treads that emphemeral space between eccentric-yet-endearing and disturbingly weird). I'd pay money to see that.

I can't imagine how a new viewer would step into the show in midseason and decipher all of the goings-on, but if you aren't already scheduling your Monday evenings around 24, now would be as good a time as any to start.


The Verdicts Are In: Blood and Wine and Irish Jam

Today at DVD Verdict, I'm premiering two — count 'em, two — new reviews.

The first examines a tasty modern noir thriller, Blood and Wine, which features three superlative cinematic talents: Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, and Jennifer Lopez's rear end.

The second takes a critical view of a genuinely lousy comedy called Irish Jam, which stars Eddie Griffin in a film he'll be pleased to have omitted from future filmographies. It'll remind you of rear end, but not in a good way.

In life, you've gotta take the bitter along with the sweet. Today at DVD Verdict, you can have both. Lucky for you, the reviews are succulent even when the films are nasty.

Why are you still here? Go check 'em out, already.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Thinking inking

Today's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by Almond Joy. You can have half, and still have a whole. What a concept.

Speaking of Almond Joy, I was chatting with noted comic book inker Bob Almond just the other day. Bob, as my fellow comic art collector Damon is fond of saying, is the man who puts the "king" in "inking." Truly one of the underappreciated talents of the industry, Bob is a splendidly skilled inker whose chameleonic style enables him to mesh seamlessly with almost any pencil artist. In fact, I have yet to see the penciler whose style Bob can't enhance, without altering the original's intent.

Take, for example, this commissioned piece from my Common Elements series, penciled by a superb artist from Brazil named Ron Adrian. Ron brings together one of my favorite heroines, the Scarlet Witch, and spacefaring man of mystery Adam Warlock in a spectacular scenario.

Pretty awesome drawing, yes? Hard to imagine what could possibly be done to make this look any better. (Some of you may be thinking, "You could color it." No. Original comic art is not colored. Comic books are colored. There's a difference.) I might have reached that same conclusion. But then I sent Adrian's pencil art off to the aforementioned Mr. Almond, who returned this fantastic finished artwork.

That thump you just felt was your jaw hitting your chest. Go ahead, pick it up before you drool all over yourself.

As Bob mentioned on his Web site, his first professional inking assignment in comics was a series featuring Adam Warlock, entitled Warlock and the Infinity Watch. Bob's affinity for character detail is evident here, as he catches an item or two -- such as the "soul gem" embedded in Warlock's forehead -- missing in the original pencil art. Bob and I share a fondness for Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, and he renders her with tender loving care here.

Readers unfamiliar with the comic art creation process may be surprised to learn that some artists actually specialize in embellishing in ink drawings that other artists begin in pencil. (To Comic Art Friday regulars, this is old hat. However, we've expanded our audience exponentially these past few months, so quite a few new folks have joined us. Hello, new folks!) Bob Almond is one of many such talented creators, and, in my humble opinion, one of the best.

Another inking specialist who's a favorite of mine is Josef Rubinstein. Joe has been in the business for more than three decades, starting when he was a teenager laboring under the legendary Neal Adams. Like Bob Almond, Joe's skill enables him to adapt to almost any pencil artist's technique — a good thing, because over the course of his career, Joe has inked over practically every prominent penciler who's been active during that 30-year period.

One such penciler is Mike Grell, who contributed this pencil pinup of Tamara D'Orsini, the female lead from his space opera sci-fi series Starslayer.

Now here's that same Grell pinup, completed in ink by Joe Rubinstein:

There goes that jaw again. You really ought to get that checked out.

If you look closely, you'll notice that even in this relatively clean and simple drawing, Joe brings out numerous tiny details that are either absent from or minimal in the pencil original — fine points of muscular structure and skin texture. It's that well-honed sensibility that makes the great inkers truly masters of their art. I'd classify Messrs. Rubinstein and Almond in that lofty category. I bow in their general direction.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

The few, the proud, the criminal

Time was, all the Marines were looking for was a few good men.

Up the road from us, in the Mendocino County city of Ukiah (known for its hot springs, vineyards, pear orchards, and marijuana farms), the hot story recently has been the lawsuit filed against the United States Marine Corps by two female high school students who were sexually assaulted, allegedly by two Marine sergeants manning the local recruitment office. Both recruiters involved have already been court-martialed and convicted for other sexually based offenses involving other recruits, and have left the corps — likely with combat boot imprints on the seats of their pants.

One of the two young women acknowledges that she was drunk at the time she was raped. That most certainly doesn't excuse the crime, but there's probably a lesson to be learned there: Don't get liquored up and hang out with Marines.

The second victim was raped three times by her recruiter, who repeatedly told her that she had to have sex with him in order to join the Marines. Again, this doesn't excuse this creep taking advantage of a teenage girl, robbing her of her virginity, and giving her chlamydia, but...

How gullible can you be?

If you're signing up for the Marines and the recruiting sergeant says, "You have to have sex with me first," wouldn't you say to yourself, "Wait a minute — I don't recall seeing that requirement in the brochure"? Wouldn't you glance through the application and think, "Hmm... must be 17 years of age... must be a legal U.S. resident... hey, there's nothing in here about 'must get jiggy with Sgt. Dunzweiler'"?

And if that is a requirement...

What were these two clowns doing with male recruits?

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Repairing Uncle Oscar

Over at The Watchtower of Destruction, that amazing blogging machine known as "The Ferrett" offers his suggestions for improving the Academy Awards telecast. I agree with a couple of Ferrett's ideas, such as expanding the Best Film category to include subgenres such as Best Drama and Best Comedy (as the Golden Globes does), and eliminating the film clip montages except for the "In Memoriam" segment.

Herewith, a few suggestions of my own for the Academy:
  • Find a decent host, and stick with him/her. I know Bob Hopes and Johnny Carsons are in severely limited supply these days, but there has to be a talented comic with world-class master of ceremonies skills who can pull off the Oscars. Identify that person, and give him or her a long-term contract to become the public face of the Oscarcast. Jon Stewart might even be that guy, if the Academy and the network would take the shackles off him and let him do his thing.

  • Spend more time on the nominees, and less on meaningless filler. Since the majority of people watching the show haven't seen most of the nominated films and performances, make more of an effort to showcase representative clips. Invite Roger Ebert and other top-level critics to record brief segments explaining why these films are significant, and why these achievements in acting, writing, directing, and so on are worthy of recognition.

  • Streamline the acceptances. This shouldn't be so hard. Seat all of the nominees where they can reach the stage quickly. (You can still put the big stars in the center, but have the other nominees close to the stage on the wings.) Limit the acceptors to one representative per award. Limit the speeches to a drop-dead 30 seconds, after which the microphone goes dead, the stage lights go down, the camera shuts off, and the director cues the host to keep the show rolling.

  • Only invite presenters who can do the job. That is to say, no one who can't read a cue card smoothly gives an award away. No matter how famous he or she might be.

  • Dispense with the presenter shtick. The presenters shouldn't have to do anything more elaborate than read the list of nominees and say, "The Oscar goes to..." Don't try to turn actors into stand-up comedians or narrators.

  • Make more extensive use of captions. Anytime someone is on camera, the audience should be told who he or she is. Not everyone reads People magazine. Pop-Up Video-style captions could also be employed to convey interesting facts about the nominees. And no film clip should ever be shown without (at the very least) identifying the motion picture from which it came.

  • Only award Best Song when there is a song worthy of the award. Only the winning song gets a production number — prerecorded and cued up for playback when the announcement is read.

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They say this cat Parks was a bad mother...

I have to echo the sentiments of my correspondent Janet from The Art of Getting By: What's up with all these well-known folks kicking the bucket during the past couple of weeks? It's like an epidemic out there.

Now film director, writer, and photographer Gordon Parks has passed on at the age of 93. Okay, so when a guy's 93, it's not exactly a shocker. But still.

Gordon Parks began his singular career as a photojournalist for Life magazine, where his stunning images of people — from impoverished African-Americans in the South to heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali — made lasting impressions on the American consciousness. He then exploded into cinema in 1969, writing, directing, and even scoring the film adaptation of his bestselling novel, The Learning Tree, becoming the first black artist to helm a major studio movie. Twenty years later, The Learning Tree became one of the first 25 motion pictures to be preserved by the National Film Registry.

Although he hated the term "blaxploitation," Parks became the founder of a new cinematic genre with his 1971 film Shaft and its sequel, Shaft's Big Score! He also directed a brilliant biopic entitled Leadbelly, about the life of folk and blues singer Huddie Ledbetter. Parks's son, Gordon Jr., directed the seminal urban thriller Superfly.

Gordon Parks was one cat who wouldn't cop out. And thus another legend departs.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

So long, Puck

I was sorry to hear just now that Kirby Puckett passed away.

The 45-year-old Hall of Fame outfielder for the Minnesota Twins suffered a massive stroke yesterday. When I heard this morning that he was undergoing brain surgery, I knew the prognosis must not be positive.

In the early 1980s, the city where I live hosted a minor league baseball team, an independent club in the Class A California League called the Redwood Pioneers. One of the Pioneers' frequent opponents was a team from Visalia, affiliated with the Twins' organization. Visalia featured such future stars as Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti, who later formed the core supporting cast around Puckett when he led the Twins to world championships in 1987 and 1991.

As for Puckett himself, he was one of the least likely superstars baseball ever saw: a short, stocky fire hydrant of a man who more resembled a football tailback than a major league center fielder. In 12 seasons with Minnesota, Puckett amassed 2,304 hits, 207 home runs, a .318 batting average, and a .477 slugging percentage. He led the American League in hits four times, in total bases twice, and in hitting and RBI once each, before glaucoma blinded his right eye and drove him prematurely from the game he loved so enthusiastically.

Puckett's personal life took something of a tailspin after his retirement, but he still sailed into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and was inducted in 2001. He becomes the second-youngest former player to die as a elected member of the Hall (Lou Gehrig was 37).

He leaves behind a daughter, a son, and a legion of adoring fans and respectful former teammates and opponents.

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It's hard out here for an Oscar viewer

Was it just me, or were the 78th Academy Awards the most ennui-inducing award ceremonies in the history of Hollywood? Where was the excitement? The intrigue? The humor? The outrageous fashion? You know... everything that usually makes the Oscarcast must-see TV?

Being a dutiful pop culture blogger, I propped my eyelids open with broken toothpicks long enough to record the following thoughts. For your consideration:
  • Jon Stewart as host? Maybe a B-. It really felt as though Stewart, who cheerfully rips into anyone and everyone on The Daily Show, was on a suffocatingly tight leash for the Oscars — likely due in part to the beautiful people's adverse reaction to Chris Rock's freewheeling performance last year. That doesn't work, though. The whole reason to hire a guy like Stewart is so that he can deliver what he does best — caustic, incisive, topical comedy. Either unchain him and accept the risk that he might offend someone, or play it safe and bring back the deadly dull Steve Martin.

  • My favorite recent Oscar host is still Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi gets great jabs in, keeps the show going, is adept at making things up on the fly, and has the credibility of being an Oscar winner herself. I know she rubs some viewers the wrong way, but there's no accounting for other people's lack of taste.

  • Speaking of tight leashes, did the Academy issue a warning memo to the fashion community this year? I can't recall ever seeing so many stars wearing straitlaced, plain-vanilla formalwear, except for the ceremonies that most closely followed 9/11. Half the fun of Oscar Night is seeing what people wear, but this year, it looked as though everyone shopped out of the same conservative closet.

  • The one humongous fashion faux pas of the evening: Charlize Theron in a bizarrely constructed gown that made her look as if she had a Siamese twin growing out of her left shoulder. She looked like Ray Milland and Rosey Grier in The Thing With Two Heads. Runner-up: Naomi Watts wearing a dress that appeared to have been ground up in a garbage disposal before she put it on.

  • Nice to see George Clooney pick up an acting award (Best Supporting Actor, for Syriana). I didn't realize that he had never even been nominated before. I think the guy is one of the most underrated talents in the current crop of stars, in part because his acting style isn't flashy like a Sean Penn. Great comment, too: "I guess I'm not winning Director."

  • Would it have killed somebody (pun intended) to squeeze Don Knotts, Darren McGavin, and Dennis Weaver into the "Dead People" segment? I know they all passed away just a week ago, but how much extra work would that have taken?

  • Didn't dig the song itself much, but I had to love seeing the Oscar go to a number entitled, "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp." No community in America appreciates big pimping more than Hollywood.

  • I don't generally care much for Jennifer Garner, but I thought she recovered gracefully after tripping over her hem as she walked out to present an award: "I do all my own stunts."

  • Could we possibly have done without the endless film clip montages? The show is tedious enough, people.

  • I'll admit it: I don't understand the appeal of Reese Witherspoon.

  • Someone whose appeal I do understand: Rachel Weisz. Of the several pregnant and recently pregnant stars, she was the most luminous.

  • As usual, I haven't seen most of the nominated films yet, but I was glad to see Crash take the big prize. A lot of terrific and talented people were involved with that film, not the least of whom is writer-director Paul Haggis, who deserves to be known for something other than as the creator of Walker: Texas Ranger. When in doubt, I always root for the guy named after a boiled sheep's stomach stuffed with oatmeal and suet.

  • I'm sure there were some nervous Academy bigwigs in the crowd when Robert Altman accepted his Lifetime Achievement award. But they need not have been — Altman was both gracious and grateful for the recognition the Academy has long denied him. And who would have guessed that he'd had a heart transplant?

  • What was up with the concept of having the orchestra playing during the acceptance speeches? I hate as much as anyone listening to folks prattling on, but that was simply rude. Give people their 30 seconds of glory, then drum them off the stage.

  • I can't remember a year when so many of the supposedly comedic bits fell flat. Ben Stiller pretending to be working in front of a greenscreen? Will Ferrell and Steve Carell in atrocious makeup to present the makeup award? The filmed pieces about pre-Oscar lobbying? Who wrote that stuff? And why didn't anyone tell them it wasn't funny?

  • I dig Philip Seymour Hoffman, but dude — get someone to help you with your presentation skills before your next acceptance speech.

  • Speaking of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I was disappointed that Felicity Huffman didn't win, so that they could have had David Letterman introduce the two big acting winners at the afterparty: "Hoffman, Huffman. Huffman, Hoffman."

  • When will they learn? If you're going to ask Jack Nicholson to present an award, keep him away from the liquor cabinet before the show.

  • Two words: Stuffed penguins.

  • Now, please, for the love of Liberace... leave the "Brokeback" jokes alone.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Blackbirds singing in the dead of night

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the San Francisco Giants' record-busting outfielder Barry Bonds. I don't know what could possibly be more comic — or more artful, in its own La Cage Aux Folles sort of way — than the home run king tricked out as Paula Abdul for a spring training American Idol spoof.

Speaking of American idols, the latest addition to my Common Elements series of art commissions is this striking pinup by the talented Rags Morales, best known for his work on the Identity Crisis and Wonder Woman series, and currently the penciler on Detective Comics, featuring Batman. Here Rags — whose real first name, I'm told, is Ralph; a name that fairly cries out for an alternative handle — pairs Captain America's longtime fighting partner, the Falcon, with the adventuring aviatrix known as Lady Blackhawk.

I can remember vividly in 1971 when the Falcon began sharing billing with Captain America in the Star-Spangled Avenger's comic book. At the time, a superhero of color having his nom de guerre actually incorporated into the logo of a comic was a rare and auspicious event. That the Falcon was being so honored right alongside one of the legendary icons of the Marvel Comics universe made the recognition all the more remarkable. Yes, he was ostensibly Cap's sidekick, but in 1971, we were taking whatever incremental advances we could lay our mitts on.

What I also remember about the Falcon was how unusual it was in that day and age for a black superhero not to actually have to incorporate the word "black" into his fighting name. Back in the day all the black superheroes were Black Something-Or-Other, like the Black Panther, and Black Lightning, and Black Goliath — as though if these character were not so denominated no one would figure out that they were black. I always rather suspected that the main reason the Falcon wasn't the Black Falcon was because Quality Comics, back in the 1940s, already had a character called the Black Condor, and he wasn't even black. Nor was the Black Canary of DC Comics, who was in fact blonde. But whatever the reason Marvel Comics had for making the leap, it meant a lot to many of us as young comics readers to simply have the Falcon be the Falcon, and not have to qualify himself in terms of his skin color.

The real problem with the Falcon at first was the way that comic book creators in that less-enlightened day and age, most of whom were of the Caucasian persuasion, found it convenient to characterize an individual as black. For one thing, every black character in comics in the '70s had to be somewhat outraged about racial matters. The Falcon was no exception to the "angry black guy" rule. White writers also insisted on making every black character speak with a rather bizarre version of street argot that didn't accurately represent the speech of anybody living on the planet, much less urban African-Americans. Again, the Falcon was no exception what I like to call the "Sweet Christmas!" rule, at least at first. The final indignity was the apparent nervousness in the comic book industry of portraying black characters who had genuine superpowers. As originally designed, the Falcon couldn't even fly, much less have any other kind of paranormal abilities. He was just a medallion-wearing black guy who could handle himself in a fistfight. It took a couple of years before Falc actually got a costume with wings that worked, so that he could live up to his name.

One step at a time, though. Little by slowly, the Falcon developed into a rather interesting character. Certain writers imposed some needless and silly backstory on him in later years, but most of this folderol has been ignored by the better scribes, such as Christopher Priest, who have handled the Falcon's adventures since. While the Falcon remains even now in the shadow of the great Captain America, he has matured into an integral part of the Marvel universe. (Albeit without his own comic title, but that's a gripe for another day.) There's something to be said for progress.

The Blackhawks, of which Lady Blackhawk was the lone female member (not to mention a latecomer to the party, having been added to the group nearly two decades after their introduction), were another set of comics heroes whose name included the word "black" even though the none of the members actually were. Originally, the Blackhawks were an international group of World War II fighter pilots, led by a Polish citizen using the code name Blackhawk. Over the course of time, many efforts were made to transform the Blackhawks into superheroes, but those efforts were rarely successful. Today, Lady Blackhawk is pretty much the only member of the Blackhawks one ever sees, though she now usually appears in association with the all-female fighting team Birds of Prey. One look at her costume design will tell you why the lovely lady aviator remains popular.

And that, my little blackbirds, is your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

That Pufnstuf will kill you

Jack Wild, the English actor known to my generation (because, as Pete Townshend once wrote, I'm talkin' 'bout my generation) as Jimmy, the boy with the talking flute, on the seminal Saturday morning TV series H.R. Pufnstuf, has died.

That cracking sound you heard was another chunk of my childhood breaking off.

Jack Wild first came to worldwide attention in 1968, when he portrayed the young thief nicknamed the Artful Dodger in the Academy Award-winning musical Oliver! Shortly thereafter, Canadian kidvid producers Sid and Marty Krofft cast the nascent star in Pufnstuf, a show that changed the face of children's television forever.

In a world filled with tame Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Romper Room, and Captain Kangaroo, Pufnstuf struck like a smack alongside the head from a psychedelic two-by-four. The Kroffts' view of children's fantasy resembled nothing less than The Wizard of Oz on mescaline.

For the Sixties-impaired among us, I'll summarize. Wild's character Jimmy is at a riverside park one day when a talking boat offers him and his magic flute, Freddie, a short sailing trip. Little does Jimmy know that the boat belongs to the flamboyantly evil Witchiepoo, who has designs on his flute. (You know this ain't no ordinary kids' show when the central plot involves a wicked witch who's chasing after a teenaged boy's flute.) But when the boat arrives on Living Island — a fantastical realm where all of the animals and the usually-inanimate objects are alive and can converse — Jimmy is snatched from Witchiepoo's clutches by the heroic H.R. Pufnstuf, a cowboy-boot-wearing dragon who serves as Living Island's mayor and chief of police. Mayhem and hilarity ensue.

Like any number of child actors one could name, Wild's career nosedived into alcoholism and dissipation as he matured into adulthood. Still, he occasionally popped up in a small character role. He played one of Sherwood Forest's Merry Men — Much the Miller's Son — in the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But in 2000, decades of chain-smoking resulted in mouth cancer, a series of aggressive treatments for which robbed Wild of his voice. The cancer now has taken his life at the age of 53.

Let this be a lesson to you kids. Put. The Pufnstuf. Down.

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