Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Now batting for the home team: Batwoman

So now we know: Batwoman is a lesbian.

Truth to tell, I think it will come as a greater surprise to everyone — except hardcore comic book aficionados such as yours truly — that there actually is a Batwoman, and that she is not the same character as the more familiar Batgirl. (Even Batgirl isn't Batgirl any more. Barbara Gordon, the erstwhile Darknight Damsel, now goes by the code name Oracle. To the best of my knowledge, Babs/Batgirl/Oracle still swings from the opposite side of the plate.)

Batwoman, who has always been a relatively obscure character in the DC Comics superhero pantheon, goes by the name Kathy Kane when not wearing her cowl and tights. She's been around since the mid-1950s, but in a more or less subsidiary role. She became superfluous when Batgirl — popularized by the Batman television series — made her debut in the swinging '60s. So superfluous, in fact, that DC killed off Batwoman back in 1979.

Unlike many comic book characters, who exhibit a Lazarus-like penchant for returning from the grave, Kathy Kane remained a distant memory until DC decided to resurrect her — complete with updated orientation — for the currently running weekly comic serial 52.

Gay characters aren't exactly unknown to mainstream comics, though the phenomenon is still relatively recent. Northstar, a long-standing member of Marvel Comics' Canadian-based X-Men offshoot Alpha Flight, came out in 1992. But aside from the gay hero couple Apollo and Midnighter, key characters in the Wildstorm Comics series The Authority, there haven't been many who've made the kind of media splash that the revived Batwoman appears to be making. Probably the last to make this notable a "switch" was Marvel's Western hero the Rawhide Kid, who was portrayed as homosexual in an adult-targeted 2003 miniseries entitled Slap Leather. (Marvel pitched this series as an "alternate universe" story, however — the "original" Rawhide Kid is still straight, if my recollection is accurate.)

Of course, there's that whole Batman and Robin business. But let's not even go there, shall we?

"These are their stories..."

Law & Order holds a unique place in television history. It's one of the longest-running primetime dramas ever — only Gunsmoke and Bonanza, both of which hit the 20-year mark, hung around longer. It has also spawned a legion of spinoffs, some successful (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), others not so much (Law & Order: Trial By Jury, the just-cancelled Conviction).

But perhaps L&O's greatest feat has been its ability to maintain its popularity despite near-annual cast changes. It's been a rare season when the venerable detectives-and-district attorneys series hasn't swapped out at least one of its six continuing roles:
  • The Senior Cop: Originally George Dzundza as Max Greevey, followed briefly by Paul Sorvino as Phil Cerretta, then a lengthy stint by the late Jerry Orbach as the beloved Lennie Briscoe, and for the past two years Dennis Farina as Joe Fontana.

  • The Junior Cop: Chris Noth's Mike Logan (who currently is part of the L&O:CI team), then Benjamin Bratt as Reynaldo Curtis, and most recently Jesse L. Martin as Ed Green (plus a six-episode spotlight for The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli while Martin was away filming Rent).

  • The Boss Cop: Dann Florek's Don Cragen (now the Boss Cop on L&O:SVU) was replaced more than a dozen seasons ago by S. Epatha Merkerson's tough Anita Van Buren.

  • The Lead Prosecutor: One of the series' more stable roles, first held for five seasons by Michael Moriarty as Ben Stone (the same name, incidentally, as Michael J. Fox's character in Doc Hollywood), and ever since by Sam Waterston as the wily Jack McCoy.

  • The Assistant Prosecutor: A veritable revolving door, this role has experienced the highest degree of turnover since Richard Brooks (the only male actor to hold the spot thus far) was dismissed along with Florek in a gender-equity move by NBC after the show's third season. In the wake of Brooks's Paul Robinette came Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessey, now the star of Crossing Jordan), Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell, aka Mrs. Richard Gere), Abbie Carmichael (Angie Harmon, most recently in the short-lived Inconceivable), Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Rohm, whose character came out as a lesbian in her signoff episode), and the ill-fated Alexandra Borgia (Annie Parisse), who was killed off in the last episode of the season just concluded.

  • The District Attorney: Steven Hill's crusty Adam Schiff (does anyone else recall Hill as the original lead on Mission: Impossible, preceding Peter Graves?) gave way after a lengthy tenure to Dianne Wiest's pragmatic Nora Lewin, then to the former U.S. Senator from Tennessee, Fred Dalton Thompson, typecast as gruff conservative Arthur Branch.
Well, L&O fans, the wheels are spinning again. Dennis Farina won't be returning to the show next season, joining the aforementioned Annie Parisse in the unemployment line (albeit voluntarily in Farina's case — Parisse, whose character never seemed to develop a personality, was shown the door). In a first-ever move for the series, Jesse Martin's Ed Green will be promoted to Senior Cop, filling Farina's vacancy, with actress Milena Govich porting over from the late, unlamented Conviction as a new, as-yet-unnamed Junior Cop — the first female in that role in L&O history.

On L&O, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Verdict Is In: Cuban Blood (Dreaming of Julia)

One of the entertainment marketing tricks that really burns my bacon is the random retitling of a film for its DVD release. Take, for example, the charming little picture Dreaming of Julia. The title refers to the fantasies of the main character, a young Cuban boy coming of age during the time of the Castro rebellion. Our hero is befriended by — and develops a crush on — a beautiful American woman named Julia, who reminds him of the heroine of the Doris Day thriller Julie. The film is a gentle, warm-hearted slice of life, told in semiautobiographical fashion by first-time director Juan Gerard.

Some nudnik at Velocity Home Entertainment decided that more people would be likely to purchase Dreaming of Julia on DVD if the title were changed to Cuban Blood — a title that would be fine for a Miami gangster picture, but is wholly inappropriate for this film.

You'll get more of this rant in my review of Dreaming of Julia... I mean, Cuban Blood. But you'll also learn more about an unheralded cinematic treasure you just might enjoy. Please check it out if you're so inclined.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

An action plan for Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day. (At least, it's Monday Holiday Bill Memorial Day. The real thing is actually tomorrow. But you probably have to work then.)

To honor the contributions of the men and women who have sacrificed their lives to help ensure our continued freedom, go out and smack a Nazi.

It's what Captain America would do.

If you can't find a Nazi to smack in your neck of the woods, any of the following will suffice:
  • Donald Rumsfeld.
  • Jerry Falwell. Or Pat Robertson. (Unless they're the same guy. Which I think they might be.)
  • Rush Limbaugh. Or anyone who says "ditto."
  • Ann Coulter.
  • Any random member of the Fox News staff.
  • Pat Buchanan. Or Bay Buchanan. Or James Buchanan, except I think he's dead.
  • Ward Connerly.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Just be prepared to run. Remember what happened to James Earl Jones in the first Conan movie.)
  • Anyone with a Confederate flag on his truck. Or his belt buckle. Or his baseball cap. Or anywhere.
  • Charles Krauthammer, as long as you don't have a problem with smacking a guy in a wheelchair. If you do, I understand.
  • James Sensenbrenner.
  • Antonin Scalia. Or Clarence Thomas. (Unless they're the same guy, wearing different makeup.)
  • Anyone who quotes William F. Buckley, William Shockley, or Ayn Rand in casual conversation.
Mind you, I'm not implying that any of the people listed above are actually Nazis... just that they might benefit from a good smack, if you happen to run into them today.

It's what Captain America would do.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006


It was a long time in coming, but whoomp, there it is.

And I don't care what anyone says. I'm happy for the guy.
  1. Henry "Hammerin' Hank" Aaron, 755.
  2. Barry "U.S." Bonds, 715.
  3. George Herman "Babe" Ruth, 714.
Way to go, Barry.

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Alex Toth (1928-2006)

The field of comic art has lost a number of great talents over the past couple of years. Significant among them was Alex Toth, who passed away yesterday at the age of 77.

Unlike many legends of the field, Toth remains best known less for his work on the published comic book page (despite his prolific efforts on comics over four decades, especially during the 1950s) than for his pioneering contributions to the field of television animation. Working for Hanna-Barbera in the 1960s and 1970s, Toth designed the characters for such popular series as Jonny Quest, Space Ghost, Josie and the Pussycats, The Herculoids, Shazzan, Birdman, and SuperFriends. He was a master of clean, economical design that communicated volumes with just a handful of lines and shadows. Toth's sensibility was unmistakable — when he designed a cartoon, no other artist could have accomplished the task in the same way, or with the same inimitable flair.

The influence of Toth's creative vision pervades the work of such artists as Steve Rude, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Scott Rosema, and Mike Allred, as well as today's most acclaimed TV animation designer, Bruce Timm. In fact, it's fair to say that every comic artist who grew up watching the cartoons Toth helped create — which, I'm guessing, would include most American artists in their 30s and 40s — has been in some measure touched by Toth's spirit.

Toth was famously disappointed with the direction of the comic book field over the past couple of decades. His observation:
The ugly, mean, vile, banal, twisted, sick, bloody celebration of torture, rape, cruelty, filth, demonic and socio-political psycho-babble — and death — is disgusting stuff to me — and it's our youngest writers / cartoonists / editors cranking out this garbage! Which is sub-anti-human drek, devoid of original thought or of moral, ethical values — it is hopeless fatalism, nihilism, anarchy, pointy-headed anti-everything gibberish — and most of it dares to label itself "adult" -- "for mature readers" — which is nonsense!

Much more "adult and mature" are the stories no one can, or will, write about and illustrate: Joy, wonder, love honor, humor, wit, intelligence, invention, compassion, trust, respect, duty, character, sacrifice, sentiment, family, discovery, exploration, history, the myriad peoples, customs, and stories abounding out there in the world -- human stories!
A thousand amens to that.

I don't, unfortunately, have any examples of Toth's work in my collection. But if you follow this link, you can browse an extensive gallery of Alex Toth art. I'd suggest that you take the time — it'll open your eyes to what a few simple strokes of a pencil or pen can convey. There's also a terrific interview with the legend excerpted from Comic Book Artist magazine, here.

My condolences to Mr. Toth's family, and to the comic art community at large.


Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Verdict Is In: I Love Your Work

There's a classic Steely Dan song that includes the line:
Show business kids makin' movies 'bout themselves
You know they don't give a [expletive deleted] about anybody else...
I Love Your Work is the movie those kids made.

If you're into Hollywood angst melded with arthouse pretension, I Love Your Work may be your cup of cappucino. My review will help you decide.

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Friday, May 26, 2006

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Super-Con!

As mentioned on our previous Comic Art Friday, I whiled away last Saturday at Super-Con, a fine and fancy comic book convention held at the Oakland Convention Center. It was a terrific con — much more comfortable and leisurely than the always jam-packed WonderCon, held at San Francisco's Moscone Center in late winter. (In fact, Super-Con takes place in the venue WonderCon outgrew a few years ago.)

The one genuine bummer of the day was the fact that I forgot my camera. Otherwise, I'd have photos to share from the event. Alas, you'll have to make do with my rambling prose. And some comic art, of course, which we'll get to in a few paragraphs.

I arrived at the convention center shortly before the 10 a.m. starting time, early enough to be one of the first 250 attendees. This meant that my first bonus of the day was a limited-edition print by artist Chris Marrinan — a wicked cool black-and-white drawing featuring Wolverine, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and a couple of other superheroes. Alas, even such timely arrival proved insufficient to net me a spot on the sketch list of the enormously popular Adam Hughes, a list that had just closed moments before I reached the line. Adam and his boon companion Allison were, however, both gracious and apologetic. Next time, maybe I'll be luckier.

At WonderCon in February, I commissioned a Ms. Marvel drawing from the amazing artist known as Buzz. A couple of weeks ago, Buzz had advised me that he would deliver the completed art in person at Super-Con. The man held up his end of the bargain in sensational fashion, not only turning out a beautiful piece for me, but even supersizing it from 11" x 14" to 14" x 17" at no extra charge. Is that customer service, or what?

As we were exchanging e-mails about the Ms. Marvel commission, Buzz asked whether he could start another piece for me that he could finish at the con. That inquiry resulted in this dynamic pinup for my Black Panther collection. It was a kick stopping by Buzz's table periodically during the day to watch this drawing take form.

Not many comic artists ink with a brush these days, and Buzz's incredible technique gives his work a stylized, highly distinctive look. These two new pieces nicely complement the Vixen artwork Buzz did for me at WonderCon last year.

While Buzz finished my Panther, I sat in on two excellent panel discussions. Artist Thomas Yeates -- assisted on an impromptu basis by writer-artist Al Gordon -- gave a fascinating presentation called "From Script to Panel." Tom handed out a couple of pages of author Kurt Busiek's script from an issue of Dark Horse Comics' Conan series, on which Yeates had created basic layouts for the series' regular artist, Cary Nord, to finish. Then Tom walked us through the steps, drawing on an easel pad, of his process of translating Busiek's scene descriptions and dialogue into pictures. I learned a ton about sequential storytelling during that hour.

I also attended a panel about comic book cover art, conducted by artists Adam Hughes, Phil Noto, and Dan Brereton. For me, the most interesting facet of this lively discussion was the bit about iconic covers as opposed to what I think of as narrative or storytelling covers -- the kind I grew up on in the '60s and '70s, especially on Marvel Comics books. All three artists opined that their foremost job as cover artists is to make their book stand out from the dozens of choices on the comic shop wall. Their best way to do that is with a strong image, even when that image may not directly and specifically reflect an event that occurs inside the book. (All three, however, noted that their approach is to use that strong image to represent the interior content, but more by capturing the flavor of the story than by literally representing something that happens in it.)

The artists observed that back in the day, most comics were sold in spinner racks, so the reader only saw the cover after he or she had already made the decision -- based on the title -- to pull the book out of the rack. Narrative-focused covers made more sense then, because they were designed to appeal mostly to people who were interested in the book anyway. Today, every cover is usually fully visible on the wall of a comic shop, and more readers are captured by the image on the cover than by the title of the book. As Dan Brereton put it,
"Customers in the comic shop are faced with hundreds of covers, all screaming at them. As a cover artist, your job is to make your cover scream the loudest."
I had never really thought of the situation that way. I now better understand the philosophy behind iconic covers -- it's another reflection of how the industry has changed since my comics-reading heyday in the '60s, '70s, and early '80s.

One other artwork found its way into my collection during the day — this pinup of DC Comics' Mr. Terrific, drawn by one of my favorite artists, Ron Lim. Ron was excited to do this piece, because he hadn't drawn Mr. Terrific before. The piece turned out terrific. (Ron made that joke himself. I'm just repeating it.) Ron is a super-nice guy, and I enjoy talking with him almost as much as I enjoy his art. His style is very much a throwback to the classic artists of the '70s and '80s, so I dig what he does. Any opportunity to have Ron draw a new piece for me makes Uncle Swan a most happy fellow.

In between panels and waiting for my art to get finished, I chatted with a few of the artists I'd met before. Ernie Chan had for sale on his table a gorgeous piece that was a takeoff on the Storm/Beta Ray Bill Common Elements commission he did for me -- this one replaced Bill with Thor, and changed the perspective, but I recognized it immediately. I was tempted to buy it as a complement to my piece, but I'd spent enough cash already. I also rummaged through a few comic dealers' bargain bins looking for cheap back issues of Suicide Squad (I'm trying to complete my set of issues on which Geof Isherwood was the penciler) and Black Panther (from the run of issues written by Christopher Priest, and illustrated by the penciler/inker team of Sal Velluto and Bob Almond). Plus, I wandered around enjoying the often bizarre sights that always accompany a con.

Super-Con's the last convention in the Bay Area until WonderCon next March. I'll have ample time to plan my next assault on Artists' Alley, and to save up for it.

Sorry I couldn't take you all with me. But don't you sort of feel like you were there?


Thursday, May 25, 2006

American Idol '06: Does Taylor make you proud?

America voted... and Taylor Hicks, the spastic, gray-haired, blue-eyed-soul singer from Birmingham, Alabama is the new American Idol.

Don't you just know that the 19 Entertainment brain trust is sweating bullets this morning, trying to figure out how they're going to milk a hit CD out of a spastic, gray-haired, blue-eyed-soul singer from Birmingham, Alabama?

There was no surprise here, of course. As I noted earlier in the season, Taylor was far and away the most accomplished performer — if not necessarily the most talented vocalist — of this year's male competitors. And when the rubber hit the road, Taylor's cofinalist Katharine McPhee simply wasn't his equal when it came to making the leap from singer to sensation. Of her three songs in the last round, Kat sang two poorly, while Taylor continued to be as consistent as he'd been all season. He led the voting every week during the season, and he deserved to win.

The interminable two-hour season finale, stuffed to the gills with embarrassingly lame filler though it was, managed to spark a few observations:
  • The highlights of the evening for me were the guest appearances by two of my all-time favorite musical performers, Prince and Meat Loaf. The Loaf sang a duet with Kat that, as Idol judge Randy Jackson might put it, was just a'ight for me, dog. But the Purple One flat-out rocked the Kodak Theater with a sizzling two-song set that reminded the world why he's regarded as an unparalleled pop music genius despite his numerous eccentricities.

  • The Burt Bacharach medley, with this year's Idol cast members each contributing a snippet from Burt's legendary catalog, had its charms. Those charms did not include the cameo by the cadaverous Dionne Warwick, who couldn't get up to half her notes and needs to retire from the stage immediately.

  • Elliott Yamin's duet with Mary J. Blige was hot. If Elliott had won the title, it would have been hard to complain. It was often painful to watch him sing, but if you closed your eyes and listened, you knew he had the best voice in this year's cast.

  • Paris Bennett;s duet with Al Jarreau was likewise hot. That little lady has a stellar career ahead of her. Maybe even bigger than Taylor Hicks.

  • Taylor and Kat's duet on "The Time of My Life" was not hot — in any way, shape, or form. But then, that song sucks all kinds of swamp water.

  • Seeing Toni Braxton and Taylor Hicks singing together cracked me up, It would crack you up too, if you knew anything about obstetrics. Speaking of obstetrics, at certain points I wondered whether Toni was going to throw Taylor to the floor and impregnate herself by him right there on national television.

  • Taylor's single reeks. But not as badly as Kat's does. The hacks who wrote both of those songs are stealing money.

  • Clay Aiken, the ghost of John Lennon called. He wants his hair back.

  • Man, I had totally forgotten about the Brokenote Cowboys. And my mental health had been improving as a result.

  • I remembered why I was ecstatic when Kevin Covais and Kellie Pickler got booted from the lineup.

  • I remembered why I was disappointed when Mandisa was sent packing.
As Ryan the Wonder Clothes Horse used to say... SwanShadow out.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Putting the X in X-Men

The following item may very well define the expression "Too Much Information."

Hugh Jackman, who plays the razor-knuckled Wolverine in the X-Men films, claims that his wife likes for him to wear his superhero costume during intimate moments.

And Hugh thought the world needed to know that why?

Besides which, it seems like those claws would... well... never mind.

Let's hope this revelatory trend doesn't spread to the rest of the X-Men: The Last Stand cast. I really don't want to hear that Kelsey Grammer's wife is turned on by blue fur.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Another day, another 24...

All things considered, Day Five of 24 was pretty doggoned awesome.

Here's what I loved the best about this season:
  • Jack's back, baby. Day Five gave us plenty of vintage, hardcore Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). That's what we tune in every Monday night to see.

  • Chloe O'Brian: World's Hottest Super-Geek. Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) started the day getting jiggy with an honest-to-goodness boyfriend, and ended it arm-in-arm with an ex-husband we didn't even imagine she had. You go, nerd girl. (I'm still waiting for that Jack-Chloe hookup, though. Now that would be Must-See TV.)

  • The dead did not rise. The show where anything can happen did not find a way to resurrect either of its star villainesses from previous seasons, Nina Myers or Sherry Palmer. Let dead female dogs lie.

  • Laugh-a while you can, monkey-boy. Peter Weller, the erstwhile Buckaroo Banzai and Robocop, made a wicked cool turncoat bad guy. You just knew the moment would come when Jack would have to take him down, and he did. With extreme prejudice.

  • So long, Edgar. Chloe's perpetually pouty would-be suitor Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi) got the infamous silent countdown clock following his death. A fitting send-off for a character who had served his function.

  • No Kim, almost. The planet's most annoying offspring, Jack's daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), made only the briefest of appearances this season, and wasn't given the opportunity to make the usual nuisance of herself. If we never see that little bimbo again, it'll be too soon.

  • The ridiculous remained sublime. The show managed to avoid its usual penchant for stretching the boundaries of credulity beyond the breaking point. Almost every turn of events made sense (at least within the already fantastic context of the series) this year. Good job, writers.

  • New characters rock. Unlike last season, where several of the new additions to the primary cast wore out their welcome quickly, I enjoyed the character arcs of martyr-in-the-making Lynn McGill (Sean Astin), lead terrorist Vladimir Bierko (Julian Sands, who managed not to amputate anyone's limbs all season), Vice President Hal Gardner (Ray Wise), and especially Homeland Security honcho Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson) and her craven batman, the ambiguously gay Miles Papazian (Stephen Spinella). I really hope Karen returns next season, as I'd like to see how the relationship between her and CTU head Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) develops.

  • Cliffhangers! Nice way to wrap the season, with Bauer in the clutches of the Chinese secret service. "Tomorrow" should be a whale of a ride.
And now, for the handful of items that didn't work for me this season:
  • President Loser. Man, was Gregory Itzin's POTUS Charles Logan the most obnoxious character in the history of television, or what? And could we be any more obvious, casting department, in lining up an actor who is the spitting image of Richard Nixon? Thank goodness we won't have Logan to kick around next season.

  • First Lady sings the blues. Jean Smart is a talented actress, but I got nearly as sick of her drippy, mentally unbalanced Martha Logan as her husband did. And the seduction scene in the finale? Doctor, my eyes!

  • Jack's abominable taste in women. Either he goes for the hyperactive anorexic type (typified by Kim Raver's pointless Audrey Raines) or the hippie hausfrau type (typified by Connie Britton's Diane Huxley, the woman Jack lived with during his between-seasons disappearance). Can we hook the man up with a real woman, please? Fortunately, Raver is committed to another show in the fall (The Nine), so we won't be seeing much, if any, of her skinny butt around these parts next year.

  • Only the good die young. I was sorry to see three of my favorite regulars — former President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and husband-and-wife operatives Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) and Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth) go down in blazes of glory. Some smart producer should cast the fetching Aylesworth in another series, like, yesterday.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?

Those laugh-a-minute folks at PETA have named music superstar Prince and actress Kristen Bell, star of the TV series Veronica Mars, as the world's sexiest vegetarians.

Now there's an oxymoron for you:

Sexy vegetarians.

Insert your own meat-eating punch line here.

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What's Up With That? #31: Escape From Alcatraz (Elementary School Edition)

In local news today...

The big story is Braxton Bilbrey, the seven-year-old kid from Glendale, Arizona, who swam the 1.4 miles from Alcatraz to San Francisco this morning.

In icy-cold, shark-infested San Francisco Bay.

What were this kid's parents thinking? Are they that publicity-hungry that they would subject a second-grade child to that kind of dangerous stunt?

I guess it worked. Here I am, writing about it.


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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Question: Who is Michael Falk?

Congratulations to Michael Falk for winning this season's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. (In reality, this tournament covered the better part of two seasons' worth of contestants, due to the fact that 144 of my closest personal friends and I monopolized half of last season playing the Ultimate Tournament.)

Michael mounted an impressive charge in the second game of the two-game finals to overcome a seemingly insurmountable lead by fellow competitor Vik Vaz. Michael was also the only finalist to correctly solve the Final Jeopardy! clue. (Yes, I had that one.) For his efforts, he pocketed a cool $250,000.

Congratulations also to Vik and to Bill McDonald, Michael's co-finalists, who both played brilliantly. Mr. Falk was simply not to be denied.

This year's ToC yielded a number of significant surprises, at least for me. I would not have picked any of the three finalists out of the 15-player field. A couple of the players I expected to do quite well in the tournament didn't even advance out of the quarterfinals. So what do I know? I just played the game.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Wizardress of Weather

Yes, true believers, it's another Comic Art Friday.

Today, I'm eagerly looking forward to spending tomorrow at Super-Con, the second of our Bay Area comic book conventions this year. WonderCon, the giant San Francisco convention in February (actually, it's in March next year), has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years, but now Oakland's more intimate Super-Con (which used to be known as Golden State Con) is developing into a significant event in its own right. Adam Hughes, probably the industry's hottest cover artist, is the major headliner. I'm going to go hang out, pick up a new drawing or two, paw through some bargain bins, and basically just enjoy a day surrounded by my fellow comics geeks. If you behave, I'll bring back pictures to show you next Friday.

Speaking of next Friday, that's the day the third X-Men film, X-Men: The Last Stand, hits a cineplex near you. In anticipation of this milestone, I'm breaking out a couple of drawings of my favorite X-Man, Ororo Munroe, better known to the world as Storm. (Yes, I said X-Man, when I know full well that Storm is technically an X-Woman. Get over it.)

First, here's a stunningly detailed pencil piece by Tom Fleming, who's more familiar to comics readers as a painter of covers for such series as Elektra and Vampirella. He's also done a ton of illustration work for the World Wrestling Entertainment empire. Like Lucky Charms cereal, Fleming's take on Ororo can best be described as magically delicious.

Here in the 21st century, Storm is portrayed in films by an Academy Award-winning actress, and has recently been featured in two Marvel Comics miniseries — last year's Ororo: Before the Storm chronicled her childhood as a thief on the streets of Cairo, and the presently running Storm features the writing talents of best-selling novelist Eric Jerome Dickey. Ororo also figures prominently in the current Black Panther series, as she and the king of Wakanda are about to be married.

In light of all of the above, it's easy to forget that when she first appeared in the resurrected X-Men comic back in the mid-1970s, Storm was something of a novelty. There weren't any other prominent superheroines of color back then. (Come to think of it, there really aren't many now. There's Storm, and there's... well... Storm.)

The whole advent of the multinational, multicultural X-Men of today actually makes a rather humorous story. Marvel's executives wanted to expand the company's presence in foreign markets, and wanted a team of superheroes to whom readers in other countries could relate. Writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum were handed the assignment of repopulating the then-dormant X-Men with some heroes with international flavor. Imagine the publisher's shock when Wein and Cockrum filled the roster with a heroine from Kenya (Storm), heroes from half-Communist Germany (Nightcrawler) and still-Soviet Russia (Colossus), and an American Indian (Thunderbird, killed off in the first issue). Not exactly what they had in mind.

Anyway, back to Storm. Here's a very different take on the wizard princess of weather by the Brazilian artist Di Amorim, most familiar in this country for his work on the Lady Death comic. This Storm means business!

The Amorim piece I recently acquired via a trade with a fellow collector up in Washington state. I'd admired this artwork in his online gallery for a while, and we were able to negotiate a mutually beneficial swap that enabled me to add it to my collection. Thanks again, James!

Lastly, just because I love it, a piece you oldtimers have seen before. From my Common Elements series, here's a majestic Storm in traditional African attire, partnered with Michael Moorcock's albino swordsman Elric of Melniboné — a dynamic scenario envisioned and executed by the prodigiously talented Geof Isherwood.

That's your Comic Art Friday. If you see me wandering the exhibit floor at Super-Con tomorrow, stroll up and say "Hey." I don't bite. Hard.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

The CW: The initials stand for "Can't Watch"

In case you've been out of the pop culture loop over the past several months, The CW is the unlikely moniker for the new network cobbled together from the wreckage of the two mini-webs, UPN and The WB. The CW's newly announced fall schedule is mostly a patchwork of the better (or maybe just less wretched) programs left behind by each of its predecessors.

Fans of UPN's teetering-on-the-brink-of-extinction teen mystery series Veronica Mars will doubtless be ecstatic to learn that their favorite escaped the merger axe, and will be paired with The WB's Gilmore Girls on Tuesday nights. While it's uncertain whether anyone will be ecstatic, almost everyone will be surprised to learn that the long-running family drama 7th Heaven, which just ended its tenth season with a big, splashy signoff episode, isn't actually signing off at all, but will be resurrected for yet another year. (Two questions: Who watches 7th Heaven? And how can there possibly be enough of them to keep this tepid, flavorless program on the air for so long?)

Also among the survivors are The WB's Smallville and Supernatural (back to back on Thursday nights) and the horny-teenagers sudser One Tree Hill. Residents of trailer parks across America will continue to get their 'rasslin' fix, as UPN's WWE SmackDown! remains on Friday nights.

The CW's Sunday night schedule preserves UPN's paean to ethnic diversity by keeping together the most successful of its comedies targeted to the African American audience: Everybody Loves Chris, All of Us, and Girlfriends. Joining them will be a new Girlfriends spinoff entitled The Game, about the wives and girlfriends of the members of an NFL franchise.

And, since you can't very well have a network called The CW without at least a smattering of C&W, Reba has been picked up for another 13 episodes. Yee-hah.


Fox: What to watch while you're waiting for American Idol and 24 to come back

It's no secret to anyone by now that the Fox Network basically marks time in the fall. While the other webs are scrambling for viewers, Fox just hangs out, waiting until the January advent of its tentpole series, American Idol and 24.

But, since you've gotta do something with your chilly autumn evenings, Fox has announced a fall schedule that returns several favorites — the cranky medical drama House, the SoCal soap opera The O.C., CSI wannabe Bones, and the inexplicable Prison Break — alongside a sprinkling of new offerings that won't exactly help you forget Kiefer Sutherland and Ryan Seacrest.

Here's what's coming in off the Fox bench this season:
  • Vanished. Holding down 24's Monday night timeslot is another convoluted action drama, this one about a Senator's wife who mysteriously disappears, and the conspiracies and scandals turned up by the investigation that follows. This looks like another Prison Break in the making: What do they do with the show after the missing woman is found? Assuming it survives that long, that is.

  • Standoff. A drama about two FBI hostage negotiators who are also lovers. Standing Agency policy would prohibit them from working together, if it weren't for the fact that they're a perfectly matched and highly successful team. Fox describes this show as a cross between Moonlighting and 24. Sounds to me like the fast track to the scrap heap.

  • Justice. The latest product of the Jerry Bruckheimer hitmaking machine that brought you Without a Trace and the various iterations of CSI, this one's about a quartet of high-powered attorneys. Justice stars a couple of terrific actors, Victor Garber and Eamonn Walker, so it may have a shot. I'd just like to note for the record that TV dramas with "Justice" in the title — and there've been a veritable plethora of them, including Sweet Justice, Dark Justice, Sword of Justice, Equal Justice, Swift Justice, Blind Justice, Street Justice, and the recently canceled In Justice — have rarely enjoyed much success. Perhaps dispensing with the adjective will do the trick.

  • 'Til Death. Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher star as a bickering married couple whose new neighbors are starry-eyed young newlyweds. Garrett strikes me as the kind of comic actor who makes a more effective supporting player than headliner, and the constantly arguing couple angle has been done to death since The Honeymooners. Pass.

  • Happy Hour. Yet another derivative sitcom, this one's about a small-town guy who moves to the big city (Chicago, in this case, though the show will probably be filmed in Los Angeles like everything else). His new roommate is a slick womanizer who thinks he's the second coming of Dean Martin. Yeah, I want to watch that. Sure... and monkeys will fly out of my butt.

  • Duets. From the mind of American Idol's Simon Cowell comes this competitive reality show that sounds like an uneasy marriage of Idol and Dancing with the Stars. Amateur vocalists get paired up with established singing stars (we'll see what kind of "stars" want to subject themselves to this humiliation) to vie for the title of best duet. People eat this sort of thing up, so I'd guess this one has ratings potential.
Anything here strike your fancy? No? Well, take heart, bunkie — 24 and Idol resurface after New Year's for whole new seasons.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

CBS: It's good to be the king

When you're on top of the heap, you don't fiddle with success, as CBS's 2006-07 primetime schedule reaffirms.

The Eye Network, which boasts the top shows in almost every programming category these days, returns almost its entire smorgasbord of offerings for another season, debuting only four new series this fall. I can't recall the last time one of the major webs introduced that few new programs. Or needed to.

Here's what's fresh on the CBS menu:
  • The Class. The only new comedy for CBS this fall, it's about a bunch of good-looking twentysomethings (played by a motley assortment of unfamiliar names) who meet up two decades after they were all in the third grade together. Historically, TV series built around school reunions (What Really Happened to the Class of '65?, Reunion) have failed miserably. Just a thought.

  • Smith. Ray Liotta plays a master thief. Man, we've seen a ton of shows with this premise since the success of Ocean's Eleven and Twelve: Thief, Hustle, Heist, the new ABC show Let's Rob... You'd think the genre would have played out by now. A good cast here, though, with Jonny Lee Miller, Simon Baker, and the delightful Virginia Madsen on hand to support Liotta, who's always interesting to watch.

  • Jericho. Remember the seminal '80s TV movie The Day After, where a Kansas town is destroyed by a nuclear warhead? Now imagine they turned that into a series, and you'd have Jericho. Sounds depressing.

  • Shark. James Woods stars as a ruthless defense attorney who switches sides in mid-career. Jeri Ryan plays Woods's boss, adding at least two reasons to sample this. Spike Lee directed the pilot. CBS is awarding this show the catbird seat behind CSI on Thursday nights, with the popular Without a Trace moving to Sundays.


We can work it out... or not

It's one of those good news, bad news days for celebrity relationships.

First, the good news: Nicole Kidman is officially engaged to country singer Keith Urban.

At least, that's good news if you can stomach the thought of poor Nic having to listen to country music for the rest of her life.

Here's what I don't understand, though. Urban was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia. When did the Tasman Sea become a hotbed of country music? Aren't the Aussies and Kiwis more or less British in culture? You'd think their native musical artists would be Beatles imitators or something.

Speaking of Beatles, here's the bad news: Paul McCartney and his wife Heather Mills are separating after four years.

I've long suspected that Sir Macca's May-December romance with Little Miss Save-the-Whales (he's 63, she's 38 — you do the math) was about as stable as a three-legged table.

But saying so would probably be in poor taste.

Macca's worth about a billion and a half American. There's no prenuptial contract. You do the math there, too. Attorneys and accountants are no doubt already rubbing their hands together and singing "We Can Work It Out."

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

ABC: Everything old is gone again

ABC released its fall schedule today with one big surprise, and one complete non-surprise.

The surprise: ABC's most popular show, Grey's Anatomy, is moving to Thursdays at 9 p.m. to compete head-to-head again television's highest-rated drama, CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and NBC's most talked-about new series, Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. That's a strategy that will either succeed gloriously, or blow up in ABC's face. As my former chorus director used to say, choice number two is always right.

The non-surprise: All of the shows ABC debuted last season have been scrapped. There was a good reason why I dubbed ABC's Fall 2005 schedule "Already Been Canceled."

That means, of course, that ABC has space for a boatload of new product this fall. I'll leave it to you to decide whether any of these sound remotely promising:
  • Help Me Help You. Ted Danson and his toupee play a self-help guru who can't get his own life together. Danson is one of those TV personalities whose appeal escapes me entirely. People must like him, though, because he keeps getting work.

  • Men in Trees. Here's stunt casting for you: Anne Heche stars as a relationship counselor in Alaska. Yeah, I want Anne Heche giving me relationship advice.

  • Day Break. Apparently this is one of those "high-concept" shows: I've heard it described as The Fugitive meets Groundhog Day. I'm not sure what that will look like, but Taye Diggs stars in it, so those of you who admire inhumanly attractive men will at least have one reason to tune in.

  • Brothers and Sisters. A family drama featuring Calista Flockhart and Rachel Griffiths. I'm thinking that family dinners will not play a large role in the storyline.

  • The Nine. No, it's not about a baseball team from Mudville. (By the way, did you know that the "Mudville" in the familiar poem "Casey at the Bat" is Stockton, California? Just one of those little factoids that keeps you coming here.) It's a drama about a group of people who shared the experience of being hostages during a bank robbery.

  • Let's Rob.... In case the previously mentioned show doesn't quite fulfill your appetite for larceny, this comedy stars Donal Logue (if you've never seen him in the film The Tao of Steve, by all means rent it) as the leader of a band of thieves who target celebrities. Mick Jagger, one of the show's executive producers, is slated to be their first victim. Logue is a terrific actor, and the premise is certainly novel, but as we all know, I don't do sitcoms.

  • Betty the Ugly. I'm not 100 percent certain, but I believe this may be the first network television series to use the word "ugly" in its title. It's about a plain-looking, plus-sized woman who becomes a fashion model. Imagine you're an actress, and this is the job your agent lands for you. Are you happy to get the work, or crushed that someone thought you'd be perfect for the title role? (The actress in question is America Ferrera from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, whom I actually think is rather cute. Go figure.)
ABC remains the home of exploitative reality-based claptrap like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (isn't this show long overdue for retitling, given that the original Extreme Makeover left the airwaves a couple of years ago?), American Inventor, and Dancing with the Stars. That, and lousy ratings.


Monday, May 15, 2006

NBC: Fourth, and determined to stay there

Remember the good old days, when NBC stood for Never Been Caught (in the ratings, that is), and its lineup could rightly be touted as "Must-See TV"?

Man, that seems like a long time ago.

These days, the Peacock Network brings up the rear in the Nielsens — fourth in overall ratings for the past two seasons running — because we won't even count the steaming remains of UPN and The WB, which will merge into the new fifth web, The CW, beginning with the 2006-07 season.

Judging by the bill of fare NBC released today in the guise of its upcoming fall schedule, the Big Bird is looking at goose eggs yet again. Unless you're really itching to watch:
  • Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The early leader in the Most Awkward Series Title sweepstakes, this drama, created by The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, looks at life behind the camera at a sketch comedy series loosely based on NBC's own Saturday Night Live. That it's a drama about a comedy show should give one pause, but the early returns on this one say it's NBC's best hope for a hit. We'll be the judges of that.

  • 30 Rock. A comedy, created by Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey, looks at life behind the camera at a sketch comedy series loosely based on NBC's own Saturday Night Live. Wait a second... didn't I just write that? Oh, wait: This one's a comedy about a comedy. Never mind.

    Seriously — two shows with almost identical premises? That's how thin the creativity stream is running at NBC these days.

  • 20 Good Years. John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor play aging buddies in a show that smells a lot like The Odd Couple warmed over. Yawn. One hopes the title is not indicative of how much time the audience will feel they've wasted watching this.

  • Friday Night Lights. A sports-based soap opera about a high school football team. Despite the title, it will air on Tuesday nights. For at least a week or two. Before it's canceled.

  • Kidnapped. An attempt to Xerox the successes of Fox's 24 and Prison Break, this drama follows, in serialized fashion, the events of a high-profile (wait for it) kidnapping. Sounds like a one-trick pony, but the cast is decent: Dana Delany, Delroy Lindo, and Timothy Hutton are among the stars.

  • Heroes. Now this I might watch: A group of everyday folks discover that they have superpowers. This idea has been worked to death in the comics, but it might make an interesting TV show if done well.
For the second year in a row, Dick Wolf gets kicked in the teeth by his parent network, as one of his series takes the ax. Last year at this time, Law & Order: Trial By Jury bit the dust. This year, it's Wolf's Conviction (which doesn't wear the L&O brand, but is still a part of the franchise by virtue of sharing characters in common). Law & Order: Criminal Intent loses its Sunday night slot to NFL football, moving to 10 p.m. Fridays after Las Vegas.

And proving that any successful idea can be run into the ground, NBC will serve up the popular game show Deal Or No Deal twice a week (Monday and Friday evenings) this fall. "Ladies, please."


The little QB that could

Doug Flutie retired from professional football today, at the advanced age (for pro sports, anyway) of 43.

Although he never played for a team of which I was a fan, I've always rooted for Doug Flutie. Maybe it's because the Heisman-winning quarterback from Boston College and I are close in age (I'm just a year older than he), or maybe it's because we're close in height (the official stats always listed Flutie at five-foot-ten, but I saw him up close after an Oakland Invaders game back in the USFL's mid-'80s heyday, and he's no taller than my five-eight-and-change). Or maybe it's just that I liked his freewheeling aerial approach to the game. Whatever it was, I always got a kick out of seeing Flutie play, and these last few years when he really didn't play all that much, I always smiled at the knowledge that he was still drawing an NFL paycheck and holding down a roster spot.

Flutie enjoyed his greatest success in the Canadian Football League, where the more open style of play was best suited to his talents. His CFL teams won three league championships with Flutie under center, and he earned six Most Outstanding Player awards.

Relegated to a backup role with the New England Patriots last season, Flutie made the Sunday highlight reels when he converted the first drop kick for an extra point in the NFL since 1941. That's the kind of player Flutie was — he found unusual ways to overcome his limitations and make things happen.

I was always sorry that Flutie never had a chance to play for the 49ers during the glory years of the West Coast offense. It might have been his best avenue to the kind of NFL career that mostly eluded him. Joe Montana wasn't all that big a guy either.

Enjoy your retirement, Little General.


Friday, May 12, 2006

The hat squad

Today's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by Real California Cheese. Why? Because everything is better with cheese. Even comics.

Just one artwork for you this week, but it's a honey. More accurately, it's a couple of honeys, posing for artist Anthony Carpenter's lushly penciled entry in my Common Elements series. That's Lady Luck — Will Eisner's two-fisted female counterpart to The Spirit — on the left, and Zatanna — backward-speaking sorceress supreme — on the right.

One of the earliest masked superheroines in comics, Lady Luck is long overdue for a revival. Created by Will Eisner as a backup feature for the Spirit Sunday newspaper supplement in 1940, Lady Luck (also known as poor little rich girl Brenda Banks) appeared weekly alongside Eisner's better-known hero for seven years. During most of that time, her adventures were illustrated by Finnish-born Klaus Nordling, a brilliantly skilled artist who was also one of Eisner's ghosts on The Spirit during World War II.

A second-generation superhero, Zatanna was the daughter of Zatara the Magician, one of the many knockoffs of Mandrake the Magician, who pioneered the whole magician-as-action-hero genre. Zatara's offspring first appeared on the scene in 1964 and has been a mainstay of the DC Comics pantheon ever since. She's often described as the bane of comic artists due to the painstaking crosshatching required to render her trademark fishnet stockings.

The common element here? Both heroines wear hats, of course.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Dial W for Whoopi

Beginning July 31, women across America will wake up with Whoopi.

Let me put that another way.

Academy Award-winning actress, four-time Oscarcast mistress of ceremonies, and erstwhile center square Whoopi Goldberg has signed to host a nationally syndicated radio talk show in morning drivetime. The show, Wake Up With Whoopi, is targeted at the female audience that usually flocks to such crack-of-dawn television staples as Today, The View, and Good Morning America.

The Whoopster is no stranger to talk shows, having headlined her own yakfest on syndicated TV back in the early '90s. She definitely has the improv skills, wit, and personality to become a hit on radio, assuming the target audience finds her.

So, ladies (or gents — I'm certain that Ms. Goldberg doesn't discriminate), if you've always wanted to wake up with Whoopi, now's your chance.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Drink up, Hulkamaniacs!

Taste this, America...

A company known as Bliss Beverage is marketing an energy drink to be endorsed by professional 'rassler and reality TV star Hulk Hogan.

Hulk Energy, as the potent potable will be branded, is a spinoff of Socko, which sounds vaguely like something that might have been swirling in the punchbowl on an episode of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

According to the official press release:
"Hulk Energy powered by Socko" has been specifically designed to deliver an impact of energy fortified with Taurine, vitamins B12, B6 and Horny Goat Weed to help endurance while increasing mental awareness without unwanted carbohydrates.
I don't know about you, but I'm always worried that I'm not getting enough Horny Goat Weed in my diet. Nothing in the press release indicates what, if any, anabolic steroids will be included in the Hulk Energy recipe.

An interesting side note: One of the marketing geniuses who dreamed up Hulk Energy is Jason Hervey, a former child actor best remembered as Wayne Arnold, Fred Savage's older brother on The Wonder Years. Nice to see he grew up and made a success of himself...

...selling Hulk Hogan energy drinks.

Forget I said that.

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The Verdict Is In: Rumor Has It...

You've gotta admit, Rumor Has It... is a clever idea for a movie.

Suppose you (you being Jennifer Aniston, in this case) found out that a famous novel and Hollywood film (the novel and film being The Graduate, in this case) were based on events that occurred in the lives of your mother and grandmother (your grandmother being Shirley MacLaine, in this case) before you were born?

As I said, clever idea. Is the movie itself as intriguing as its premise? Go check out my review of Rumor Has It... at DVD Verdict and you'll find out.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Living in harmony

Saturday night, KJ and I attended — for the 14th consecutive year — the Harmony Sweepstakes National A Cappella Championships in San Rafael. (It was fourteen straight for me, anyway — as reported here at the time, KJ broke her streak last year due to a bout with the flu.)

Eight stellar vocal groups from around the country, representing a myriad of musical styles, sang their fannies off for the approval of about 2000 hopped-up a cappella-heads.

I look eagerly forward to the Sweeps every year, not only because I enjoy the music, but because it's one of the rare opportunities I have to connect with some of my longtime singing compatriots whom I don't otherwise see. I'm sorry you couldn't be there, but here's a recap of what you missed:
  • 'Round Midnight (New York region). A stylish barbershop-style male quartet, these guys delivered some of the evening's tightest harmonies. They weren't flashy, which probably cost them points with some of the judges, but they sang a wonderfully sweet set that included "Tonight," "Tin Roof Blues," and a novel arrangement of "Take the A Train." It's a distinct disadvantage to perform first at the Sweeps, though — I can't recall the last time a group that kicked off the contest actually won.

  • elmoTHUMM (Chicago region). A few years ago, the Sweeps finals would often consist almost entirely of all-male contemporary groups modeled after such legendary vocal bands as Rockapella and the House Jacks. These guys were a throwback to those not-always-thrilling days of yesteryear. I wasn't impressed with their set — their singing was ragged and raucous (their rendition of "America the Beautiful" never did come together), a couple of the individual voices were subpar, and they suffered from frequent tuning issues. They also used manual percussion instruments, which I thought (perhaps incorrectly) were disallowed in the Sweeps. But where else are you going to hear a cappella covers of the Monkees ("Last Train to Clarksville") and Bad Company ("Shooting Star") in the same 12-minute set?

  • Curious Gage (Denver region). The evening's first mixed-gender ensemble, this five-voice group (four men, one woman) mined some of the same general territory as the preceding act, but with somewhat greater success. Their female singer, Carleen Widhalm, did a nice lead vocal on "Any Way the Wind Blows," and I also liked their cover of one of my favorite Doobie Brothers tunes, "Long Train Runnin'." One of their singers, however, wandered in and out of tune almost the entire set, which distracted me from fully enjoying their performance.

  • Hi-Fidelity (Los Angeles region). When I heard that Hi-Fidelity made the finals, I knew immediately they'd be a front-runner. They're a talented barbershop quartet that specializes in comedy, and they performed their set costumed as the Addams Family (Gomez sings lead, Uncle Fester sings tenor, Cousin Itt sings baritone, and Lurch sings — what else? — bass). I've seen the act several times before — in fact, I've been the master of ceremonies on two previous shows when they've done it — but it never fails to bring down the house. All Hi-Fidelity had to do to finish in the medals was sing up to the level of their comedy. On this night, they did.

  • Regency (Mid-Atlantic region). This male quintet sings in the classic streetcorner doo-wop style, and after 20 years together, they do it awfully darn well. Regency last graced the Sweeps finals the time KJ and I attended, so it was a delight to see them again after all these years. Their energetic set included such standards as "Johnny B. Goode," "Jump, Jive and Wail" (accompanied by some fast and furious dance steps by the lead singer) and an unusual arrangement of "Only You."

  • Clockwork (Bay Area region). Local favorites Clockwork were back for their second shot at Sweeps glory — they were in the finals two years ago — with more of their customary polished vocal jazz stylings. Clockwork's five singers (four gents, plus the nonpareil Angie Doctor) are all incredibly skilled musicians, and their performance abilities have improved since I last saw them. Vocal jazz ensembles have a spotty history of success in the Sweeps, mainly because they seem a trifle staid opposite the more flamboyant pop-contemporary groups, but Clockwork acquitted themselves quite ably this year.

  • Tongue Tied A Cappella (Pacific Northwest region). Like many a cappella groups out of the Northwest, this youthful male quintet owes a stylistic debt to popular 1994 Sweeps champs the Coats (originally known as the Trenchcoats). And, like most of the Coats-inspired groups I've seen, they don't hold a candle to the original. It didn't help them any that the familiar songs they covered — "Sunglasses at Night" and "We Built This City" — are without question two of the cheesiest hit songs in pop-rock history. Entertaining enough, but not at the level of several of the other competitors.

  • Traces (Boston region). The sole returnees from last year's finals, Traces is a fine female gospel quintet, anchored by one of the most phenomenal female bass vocalists I've heard. Their set this year was tighter and smoother than I remembered them from the last contest. Like the vocal jazz groups, gospel performers tend to fare poorly at the Sweeps, but these ladies did a lovely job. (Even if KJ thought their all-white outfits were just a bit much.)
As the judges (including my good friend and vocal coach, Phil DeBar) tallied the scores, last year's champions Groove For Thought delivered a superb swan song performance. Hi-Fidelity won the Audience Favorite balloting, affording them the opportunity to sing the evening's only encore.

When the final results were announced, Hi-Fidelity emerged the victors, with Regency second and Clockwork third. Congrats to Craig (Uncle Fester), Tom (Gomez), Gregg (Cousin Itt, and Thing, too!), and Martin (Lurch) — good fellows all.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Free Comic Book Day is tomorrow!

Here's a Comic Art Friday public service announcement.

Tomorrow, May 6, is Free Comic Book Day. Comic book shops across the nation will be giving away free — yes, free — comics, just for the asking. Now, you can't just cruise in and pick up any book off the rack. The free comics are unique editions created especially for Free Comic Book Day by various comics publishers. Among the possible selections:
  • An X-Men and Runaways teamup saga from Marvel Comics.
  • Justice League Unlimited #1 from DC Comics.
  • A 65th Anniversary edition from Archie Comics.
  • A Donald Duck special from Disney Comics.
  • A Simpsons sampler from Bongo Comics.
  • A double-sided book featuring Star Wars and Conan stories from Dark Horse Comics.
  • Another flipbook, this one by IDW Publishing, includes stories from Transformers and Beast Wars.
  • A showcase book from Image Comics contains short scenes from such series as Spawn, Savage Dragon, and one of my current favorites, Invincible.
  • For manga lovers, Tokyopop will offer a 120-page, three-story sneak preview edition.
Several other publishers, large and small, are giving away special offerings also. You'll find something for every conceivable reader taste and age group.

Do yourself a favor and drop by your friendly neighborhood comics retailer tomorrow, and pick up a free comic. Take a kid with you, and introduce him or her to this amazing storytelling medium. Maybe you can even browse the racks and buy something while you're there. You'll be glad you did. Remember, as your Uncle Swan always says, "If it's free, it's for me."

Sad to say, original comic art rarely — all right, never — comes my way for free. Pretty much every artwork you see featured here at SSTOL cost me a fistful of hard-earned simoleons, which means you should (a) feel sorry for me and send me money to support my addiction, and (b) be relieved that I don't collect the really expensive stuff.

Fortunately for me — and, indirectly, for you — I keep happening upon supremely talented artists whose work I can acquire without auctioning off body parts. One such artist is pinup specialist Michael Dooney, whose work is beautifully represented in the three sterling examples seen below.

First, Dooney takes on the mutant weather goddess Storm (the character portrayed by Halle Berry in the X-Men films, for those of you more conversant with cinema than comics).

Next, Dooney's dignified portrait of the Valkyrie, that stalwart of everyone's favorite non-team, the Defenders. Note the fine detail on her scabbard, and on the paving stones beneath her feet.

Saving the most spectacular for last, here is Dooney's stellar envisioning of one of the great heroines in all of comics, Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. The artist truly outdid himself on this one.

Now, don't these gorgeous images make you want to run out tomorrow and glom onto some free comics? Then go, my little poppets, and enjoy. You can tell the staff at your local comics retailer that your Uncle Swan sent you. (That won't mean anything to them, but maybe they'll think you're feeble-minded, take pity on you, and give you an extra free comic. It couldn't hurt.)


Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bogart was wrong...

...we won't always have Paris.

Paris Bennett, that is. The brassy little belter with the helium-inflated speaking voice hit the highway last night, as American Idol zeroed in on its Final Four. From here on out, it's anyone's game.

So, who's still on the glory train?

Chris Daughtry. When the Top Ten were announced, I predicted a high finish for Chris. He's still one of the front-runners to win — and I believe he's the surviving contestant whom the show's producers would most like to have as the next Idol — but his scraping-the-vocal-cords alt-rock singing style is really taking a toll on his voice. He may be whispering his songs in another week or two if he isn't careful.

Elliott Yamin. That Elliott is still in the competition amazes me. He has a fine voice, but plenty of negatives to go with it: nervous stage presence; lack of vocal control, which produces an inordinate amount of vibrato; consistently baffling song selection; a face only the mother of Frodo Baggins could love. He should be the next contestant to cash out, but stranger things have happened.

Katharine McPhee. I've said all along that Katharine's main challenge is consistency. Now that the Idol contestants are performing two songs each week, that challenge is even more apparent — Katharine's first song on Tuesday night was all over the map, but her second was a great improvement. As the most Kelly Clarksonesque of the Final Four, I'm sure 19 Entertainment wouldn't mind having her as runner-up to Chris. There's nothing wrong with her singing that a good producer couldn't fix in the studio.

Taylor Hicks. I thought Taylor would last until the top three, but he's developed such a following that he could easily win the prize. That would be a nightmare for 19E, who would have zero clue how to market a spastic, 30-ish white guy who sings like Ray Charles's Caucasian cousin. Over the past several weeks, though, Taylor has thrown out some fairly lackluster performances on occasion. At this stage of the game, one really awful number could be all it takes to send him home.

The interesting dilemma for 19E is that none of the Final Four seem especially marketable as hitmaking talent. Chris's strong suit is the kind of grunge rock that ran its course half a decade ago. Elliott's best niche would probably be somewhere along the lines of Michael Bublé or Harry Connick Jr., but the pop charts won't accommodate more than one of those guys at a time. Katharine's talents may be better suited to musical theater than to a pop recording career. As for Taylor... well, like I said.

By the time sweeps are over, we'll know who the next American Idol will be. I know you're waiting with bated breath. Of course, that could be the sashimi you had for lunch.

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So much for sisterhood

Former bosom buddies Denise Richards and Heather Locklear are no longer friends.

Says Denise in an interview with People magazine, "I wish Heather well. Unfortunately, our friendship had to dissolve and I'm sad about that."

Yeah, funny how dating your best friend's husband tends to put a damper on the old friendship, eh, Denise?


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

One quarter of the Time 100

Time Magazine yesterday released its list of "100 people who shape our world." The list is divided into several subcategories: artists and entertainers, scientists and thinkers, leaders and revolutionaries, heroes and pioneers (several of whom, including Bono, Angelina Jolie, Wynton Marsalis, and Paul Simon, seem to be overflow from the "artists and entertainers" section), and something called "builders and titans," a catch-all that covers everyone from casino magnate Steve Wynn to the creators of the Web site

Since we here at SSTOL mostly deal in pop culture as our stock in trade, permit me to wax philosophical about Time's most influential artists and entertainers and the ways each of them has influenced me personally.
  1. J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias and Lost and director of Mission: Impossible III. I have to give the guy credit. Who thought he would ever amount to anything when he was bellowing "Dy-No-Mite!" on Good Times?

  2. George Clooney, actor and activist. Helped me forget the original Ocean's 11. Did not help me forget Adam West (or Michael Keaton, or even Val Kilmer) as Batman.

  3. Dixie Chicks, country music trio. Country singers may be the only adult women in America still referring to themselves as "chicks."

  4. Ellen DeGeneres, comedian and talk show host. The most overrated superstar of comedy since Jerry Lewis.

  5. Nicolas Ghesquiere, fashion designer. Is it possible for him to design clothing for women who actually eat once in a while?

  6. Wayne Gould, the New Zealander puzzle enthusiast who popularized sudoku. Once embarrassed me in my favorite Japanese restaurant, where I learned the hard way that sudoku does not mean "men's room."

  7. Philip Seymour Hoffman, film actor. Kept me awake nights, fearful that the ghost of Truman Capote would attack me in my sleep.

  8. Arianna Huffington, political blogger. What's she so huffy about?

  9. Ang Lee, film director. Had he gone for the gay cowboy angle one film earlier, Hulk would have been a very different — and potentially more entertaining — movie.

  10. Renzo Piano, architect. I didn't realize the guy who invented the instrument was still alive.

  11. Rain, Japanese pop star. Liked him better when he was a Beatles tribute band.

  12. Rachael Ray, cookbook author and Food Network star. Frustrates me, because I can't decide what I want to eat in 30 minutes, much less cook it.

  13. Jeff Skoll, motion picture producer and founding president of eBay. Indirectly responsible for a significant portion of my comic art collection.

  14. Kiki Smith, artist. I always confuse her with Kiki Dee. Or is it Kiki Vandeweghe?

  15. Will Smith, movie star and former hip-hop royalty. Old and busted: Fresh Prince of Bel Air. New hotness: Tonight, He Comes.

  16. Zadie Smith, novelist. You know what? There's too many doggoned Smiths on this list.

  17. Howard Stern, king of all media. Not as clever as he thinks he is. As though he cares what I think.

  18. Meryl Streep, film actor. A dingo ate her baby.

  19. Reese Witherspoon, movie star. Has the pointiest chin I've ever seen on a woman. Love her peanut better cups, though. And the little M&M things.

  20. Rob Pardo, creator of the video game World of Warcraft. What do I know? I could never keep my frog from getting run over by cars.

  21. Daddy Yankee, Latin music artist. Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. No, wait... that's Damn Yankees. Never mind.

  22. Tyra Banks, supermodel and reality show host. Easily the best-looking person on this list.

  23. Dane Cook, stand-up comic. He makes me laugh. These days, that's golden.

  24. Matt Drudge, cyberjournalist. As a former aspiring newshound myself, I both appreciate and abhor the Pandora's box he's opened. Appreciate that he makes the traditional media pursue tough stories they used to be able to conveniently ignore. Abhor that he does it with so little class, taste, or writing ability.

  25. Stephen Colbert, faux news anchor. I find him pretentious and irritating, but maybe that's just me. Any man who achieves success on television despite having the world's most lopsided head must be doing something right.

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The Verdict Is In: Fun With Dick And Jane

As a general rule...

I'm not fond of remakes, and I'm not fond of films starring Jim Carrey.

Neither of these is the reason I was not fond of Fun With Dick And Jane.

I was not fond of Fun With Dick And Jane because Fun With Dick And Jane is not funny.

Neither is the review, particularly. But at least it will help you avoid wasting your time and hard-earned cash on the DVD of a dreadfully mirthless comedy.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

Random thought

If vegetarians eat only vegetables... humanitarians eat only people?

And what do libertarians eat — Liberians?


Her kung fu is very strong

A would-be molester in suburban Denver got more than he bargained for when he attempted to grab a cute 14-year-old girl off the street.

Little did the miscreant know that innocent-looking Brittney Richardson possessed a brown belt in karate.

One kicked butt later, the attacker fled for the Rockies. He remains at large, though he can probably be identified by his numerous contusions and the humiliated expression on his face.

Says Brittney, "I'm the girl that's into boys, likes to talk on the phone, paints my nails." She left out the part about beating the living snot out of sexual predators.

You go, Supergirl!


The Verdict Is In: Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

What could be better than a movie about a girl, her dad, and the horse they both love? If you ask my daughter, not much.

As movies of this sort go, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story makes for two hours of fine family entertainment, with all the stuff you want and nothing you don't. The review I published today at DVD Verdict will give you all the skinny.

As I noted in the review, it's rare that a film can be described as predictable, derivative, simplistic, and saccharine, and also be described as a good movie. Dreamer is, however, one such film. My review of Dreamer isn't predictable, derivative, simplistic, or saccharine, but it's still a good article. Take a peek when you have a moment.

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