Friday, June 30, 2006

Out of the inkwell, part one

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to Blue Diamond Growers, the makers of those tasty Smokehouse Almonds. I wish I had a can right here, right now.

Speaking of almonds, the work of inking specialist Bob "Smokehouse" Almond (so dubbed by yours truly, because everything he does is smokin') will already be familiar to those of you who drop by regularly for Comic Art Fridays. In previous CAF installments, we've presented several scintillating before-and-after studies showing Bob's domination of the embellisher's craft, taking simple pencil drawings and transforming them into fully rendered masterpieces.

Lucky for all of us, Bob recently completed a fresh batch of inking commissions. We'll admire two of these today, and two next Friday. Bob's a busy guy, in constant demand both from publishers and collectors, so I'm excited that he was able to fit these projects into his schedule. I think you'll agree the results are well worth the wait.

Let's look first at this scrumptious pencil sketch by one of our perennial Comic Art Friday favorites, Michael Dooney of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame. Mike's subject is Mantis, an unusual character who figured prominently in Marvel's Avengers during the '70s.

A unique blend of the ubiquitous Asian martial artist heroes who arose in the wake of the Bruce Lee phenomenon (Mantis was Vietnamese by birth, if I recall correctly) and the telepathic/empathic heroines (Saturn Girl, Jean Grey, et al) who've always made popular comics fodder, Mantis went through this bizarre story arc where, at one point, she was revealed as the Celestial Madonna (not to be confused with the pop singer who came later), mother-to-be of "The One," deliverer of the universe. She also provided the third leg (ahem) of a love triangle between the Scarlet Witch and the Vision — a challenge Wanda eventually fended off handily.

My favorite factoid about Mantis, the one that endeared her to me more than any other, is the fact that she hung around with a race of intelligent plant people from outer space (hey, it's a comic book) called the Cotati — who just happen to share their name with the town next door to mine. I've never seen any plant people in Cotati — mostly just aging hippies and other bohemian types — but I keep looking. (For the record, I've never seen Mantis there either. Again, I keep looking.)

Now here's Dooney's Mantis, after the tender ministrations of Mr. Almond's pen and brush.

I'm advised by Mr. Dooney himself that Bob's approach to inking this piece very much resembles what his own might have looked like. For that reason, he's quite pleased with the results. Considering that pencilers often dread seeing how an inker will interpret their work, I think Mike pays Bob one of the highest professional compliments possible.

Speaking of the Scarlet Witch — and I was, wasn't I? — here's a pencil sketch of Wanda by Greg LaRocque, a prolific artist whose work was inescapable in comics from the mid-'80s through the '90s. Greg illustrated several Marvel titles ranging from Web of Spider-Man to Power Man/Iron Fist, though he's probably best known for his work on DC's The Flash.

As you can see, LaRocque's original pencil drawing was rather unrefined. So much so that I thought at one point about selling it, as it just didn't seem to fit with the quality of the other art in my Scarlet Witch collection. (No negative reflection on Greg's work intended, by the way. This was probably just a quick sketch he dashed off in a few minutes at a convention, and was never supposed to accurately represent his finished art.)

Bob Almond, however, asked to take a shot at rehabilitating the piece. I was hesitant at first, but given that Bob's fondness for Wanda equals my own, I knew he'd try his best to make something of her portrait. Here's the final result. Amazing, yes?

In contrast to the Dooney Mantis, where Bob's primary task is to faithfully mirror and enhance the quality of a clean, finished drawing, here the inker has to take a rough outline and bring forward the completed, fully dimensional image LaRocque probably envisioned as he sketched. The transformation is phenomenal — a perfect example of how a skilled inker can totally transform unfinished pencils. Now I have an artwork, the product of two great talents, that I'll be proud to display.

Next week on Comic Art Friday, the big boys take over. Stop by in seven and check out how Almond delivers the goods embellishing a trio of muscular heroes. And an owl. (You'll just have to come back and see.)

Until then, unless you're the Human Torch, keep your fireworks safe and sane.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Towering infernal

Architects in New York City have revealed the latest design iteration for the Freedom Tower, the 1,776-foot-tall structure to be built on the site of the late, lamented World Trade Center.

There are three certainties in life:
  • Death.
  • Taxes.
  • The Freedom Tower will be completely redesigned a few more times before they get around to building the darned thing.
It's clear that NYC's Powers That Be are trying to please everyone with the tower's design. And we all know how successful that approach usually is.

I'm no architect, but it seems to me that this new design is far more... umm... prosaic (translated: boring) than earlier versions. But that's what you get when, as in the case of the proverbial camel, you attempt to design a horse by committee.

I'm reminded of the furor over architect Maya Lin's concept for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. When Lin's design was first unveiled, the public howled. But the backers of the project stuck to their guns, and built the memorial the way Lin envisioned it. Today, of course, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the most revered and beloved icons in the nation's capital.

If only the bigwigs in New York had cojones that size.

As a side note, there appears to be no validity to the oft-repeated rumor that the original plans called for the building to be dubbed the French Tower. In case you were wondering.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

No Star to block your View

It's a catfight on the set of the TV talkfest The View.

Cohost Star Jones — all right, Star Jones Reynolds — rocked her colleagues and the audience earlier this week when she announced on the air that she would not be returning to the show in the fall. Afterward, Star told People Magazine:
I feel like I was fired.
The show's creator and lead host, the venerable Barbara Walters, blasted back on The View the following day — after Star's name had been excised from the opening credits — saying:
It is becoming uncomfortable for us to pretend that everything is the same at this table. Therefore, regrettably, Star will no longer be on this program.

In other words, Star baby, don't let the door hit you in your newly svelte fanny on your way to the parking lot.

Apparently, the bad blood began brewing when The View hired Rosie O'Donnell to replace the departed Meredith Vieira, who took Katie Couric's seat on Today. Rosie and Star have exchanged barbs publicly on several occasions, and doubtless no one at The View was eagerly anticipating watching these two outspoken women struggle to share screen time.

According to Baba Wawa, another factor was that research showed that The View's audience never forgave Star for spending months pimping various companies on the show in exchange for their contributions to her headline-grabbing wedding two years ago.

It will be interesting to see who Walters and her production staff hire to replace the brassy, bombastic former attorney.

I wonder what Marla Gibbs is up to these days.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Gammons hospitalized

Sad news — sportswriter and commentator Peter Gammons is in intensive care after being stricken with a brain aneurysm this morning.

Gammons is one of the finest baseball writers ever to finger a keyboard and a member of the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here's hoping for a complete recovery.


Talent on loan from God, erectile function on loan from Pfizer

So Rush Limbaugh got caught with his pants down, so to speak — held for three hours at the Palm Beach, Florida, airport for possession of Viagra apparently prescribed to someone else.

The outrage here is not that Limbaugh may have, once again, involved himself in questionable activity regarding prescription drugs.

It's not even that Limbaugh was nailed with his bottle of little blue helpers while returning from the Dominican Republic, a well-known haven for prostitution.

No, the real outrage is that somewhere out there is someone who's been doing the horizontal mambo with Rush Limbaugh.

All together now: Eeeeeewwwww.


Monday, June 26, 2006

In the ghetto

In the July issue of Elle Magazine, teen queen turned pop diva Hilary Duff described her boyfriend Joel Madden, lead singer of the rock band Good Charlotte, thusly:
He's very real, like, he's from a pretty ghetto place in Maryland... I like that.
The "ghetto" locale of which the Duffster speaks is Waldorf, Maryland, a suburban community with a median household income of around $70,000 annually, a 30% college-educated adult population, and an unemployment rate of 3%. Yeah, that's ghetto, all right.

Of course, Madden is a 27-year-old man who's been dating a girl who's now 18 for the past two years, meaning that when they first hooked up, he was 25 and she was 16.

Now that's ghetto.


How can we miss you if you won't go away?

Kevin Richardson, at age 33 the oldest of the Backstreet Boys, has announced his retirement from the once-popular boy band.

Am I the only person in America who didn't realize that the Backstreet Boys still existed?

In other entertainment news, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has signed on to appear in the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise as the father of Captain Jack Sparrow, the character played by Johnny Depp.

Am I the only person in America who didn't realize that Keith Richards was still alive?

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

No mushroom, but a fun guy nonetheless

They say you never know what you've got until it's gone. These words were never more truly spoken than when it comes to the life of one Warren L. Simmons, who died over the hill in Napa last week.

Simmons is probably best known in the Bay Area for being the mastermind and motivating force behind Pier 39, one of San Francisco's premier tourist attractions. He also founded the Blue and Gold Fleet ferry service, which provides the only transportation to Alcatraz, the former federal prison located on an island in the middle of the bay.

But until I read his obituary, I had no idea that Mr. Simmons also started the Chevys restaurant chain.

I love me some Chevys.

As franchise restaurants go, Chevys is about as good as it gets in the field of Americanized Mexican cuisine. The chain's tagline is "Fresh Mex," and they live up to the slogan, serving food created with fresh ingredients actually prepared in their restaurant kitchens rather than prefabricated. ("No cans in our kitchen!" proclaims the menu.) Chevys makes its own excellent salsa, guacamole, and tortillas right on the premises. In fact, as you await your order you can watch the tortillas springing to life on a giant Rube Goldbergesque contraption called "El Machino," located smack-dab in the middle of the dining room.

You will not be served better chips and salsa in any restaurant north of the Baja Peninsula than you'll get at your local Chevys. The combination of hot, thin, lightly crispy chips and fresh, tangy salsa can be so tempting that you're likely to fill up before your entree arrives, unless you have either a bottomless gullet or willpower like a monk in a harem.

I highly recommend the fuego-seasoned shrimp fajitas. If you order some, save me a doggie bag.

Ironically, there isn't a Chevys on Pier 39. Warren Simmons sold the waterfront complex of shops and restaurants five years before he opened the first Chevys. (He later sold the restaurants too. Chevys today is owned by the Pepsi-Cola Company. Don't even think about trying to order a Coke.) There is, however, a Hard Rock Cafe, assuming you enjoy that sort of thing, as well as a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company that serves some of the most lackluster, insanely overpriced seafood on the planet. If you decide to eat at the Pier — and if you're on a budget, or just hate paying for outrageously expensive meals, I suggest you dine elsewhere — try Neptune's Palace instead. (The most consistently enjoyable and affordable restaurants Pier 39 ever housed, the quirky Alcatraz Bar and Grill and an outlet of the local Chinese eatery Yet Wah, both closed years ago, I'm sad to report.)

Thanks for all the good times, Mr. Simmons. The next time I go to visit the sea lions at Pier 39, or scarf a Super Chevys combo plate, I'll raise my Diet Pepsi to you.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

It's too darn hot

I don't know what the weather's like in your corner of the planet on this Comic Art Friday, but here in northern California's Wine Country — also known as God's garden spot, courtesy of local legend Luther Burbank — it's hot.

As Matthew Broderick put it in Biloxi Blues, it's like Africa hot.

We've broken into triple digits Fahrenheit each of the last two days, and might well do likewise today. That's just too darn hot.

If I could fly, I'd soar skyward to find an altitude where the air is cooler. That's what Supergirl does, according to this fun scenario by Dennis Crisostomo. (Dennis, a member of the ever-growing cadre of talented young artists from the Philippines, is best known here in the States for his work as an inker, especially over the pencils of Carlo Pagulayan on Marvel's Emma Frost series.)

But since I can't fly, I'll probably just kick back with my boots off and chill as best I can. That's how my girl Mary Marvel rolls after a long, scorching day battling the forces of evil, in this tranquil portrait by up-and-coming artist Charles Hall.

I'm especially fond of Charles's deft use of cross-hatching, a skill that has fallen out of favor in modern comic art. I think Bernie Wrightson, best known for his seminal work on DC's Swamp Thing, was the last of the great cross-hatch specialists in mainstream comics.

Another Charles Hall masterwork below — a reflective moment with Ms. Marvel, who's probably wondering why it's so all-fired hot already when it's only two days into summer.

That's your Comic Art Friday. Time for my date with an electric fan and a tall, frosty mug of sweet iced tea. Y'all be cool.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Idol chatter: Taylor blows up, Kat throws up

Just when you thought it was safe to return to your television set, American Idol is back in your face today with two big news stories:
  1. This year's Idol winner, Taylor Hicks, landed his first single, "Do I Make You Proud," at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart published today.

  2. This year's Idol runner-up, Katharine McPhee, announced publicly that she has battled bulemia for years.
So far as we can determine, these two stories are otherwise unrelated.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Today's Recommended Daily Allowance of irony, courtesy of Chuck E. Cheese

A Chuck E. Cheese Pizza in Brooklyn has been shut down by health inspectors, after they discovered mouse droppings in the kitchen.

Given that Chuck E. is roughly the size of the average teenage girl, I'm glad I wasn't the one who found the droppings.

I always thought it was one of the world's most bizarre marketing faux pas to have a giant rat as the corporate mascot of a restaurant chain. It appears that I was prescient.

Truth to tell, KJ and I whiled away many hours at our local Chuck E. Cheese Pizza in our dating days in the early 1980s. Back then, though, Chuck E.'s was really more of a video game arcade — complete with animatronic singing animals — that just happened to serve pizza. (Barely edible pizza, at that.)

The original Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre chain was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, the man behind Atari Games. (Remember PONG? If you don't, you're not old enough to hang out here, kid.) Bushnell's original restaurant franchises went bankrupt as coin-operated video arcades began fading before the onslaught of Intellivision, Nintendo and other home video game consoles. The dying chain sold out to a competitor in 1984, and the new regime is the one that operates under the Chuck E. Cheese name to this day.

Our local outlet used to feature an animatronic lion called The King, who warbled bad imitations of Elvis imitations while you attempted to choke down the cardboard crust and rancid toppings of your Chuck E. Cheese pizza. We also had a character named Dolli Dimples, an Ethel Mermanesque hippo with — I kid you not — gigantic heaving bosoms that bobbed up and down as she belted out show tunes. (Now that's entertainment for the small fry!)

The old Chuck E. Cheese we frequented in downtown Santa Rosa is long since departed, but the successor chain has an outlet right here in our happy little burg. I haven't been in there since KM was a tyke.

If you've never dined at a Chuck E. Cheese Pizza, surrounded by crooning mice, dogs, chickens, and assorted other barnyard creatures, plus a hundred shrieking toddlers with pizza sauce and birthday cake smeared across their cherubic faces, you haven't lived, mon ami.

Just make sure those black olives on your combo pizza are really olives.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A run in my Nylons

I was just reading over on A Cappella News, producer/promoter John Neal's clearinghouse for all things a cappella, that Arnold Robinson, the nonpareil bass of The Nylons, has hung up his microphone after 26 years of anchoring one of the world's best-known, best-loved vocal bands.

Most familiar to American audiences for their popular, oft-imitated covers of Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)," the Turtles' "Happy Together," and the Tokens' "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the Toronto-based Nylons were a major force in contemporizing a cappella for the general public. As a longtime fan, I've covered hundreds of highway miles with Claude Morrison's soaring tenor and Arnold Robinson's booming bass cascading from my car stereo speakers.

The Nylons were also one of the first mainsteam musical acts at the forefront of AIDS awareness. In 1991, the group's lead singer, Marc Connors, succumbed to the disease.

Enjoy your retirement years, Arnold. Long may you run!


Take me out to the Corporate Sponsorship Naming Rights ballpark

Being that yesterday was my half-birthday (43 and a half, Nosey Parker), KJ took me to AT&T (until recently SBC, née Pacific Bell) Park last evening to see my beloved San Francisco Giants take on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (easily the most ludicrous locational moniker since the local NBA franchise moved from San Francisco to Oakland and became the Golden State Warriors).

Thanks to Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain, it was a whale of a game. Cain held Los Angeles-slash-Anaheim hitless until two outs deep into the eighth inning, at which point the Angels' Chone Figgins (who inexplicably pronounces his given name "Shawn") smacked a single to left-center field to break up the no-hitter. Fortunately, the G-Men scored two runs in the first inning — thanks to an RBI double by Barry Bonds and a run-scoring groundout by Steve Finley — that held up for the victory.

Random goodness occasioned by our evening at the old ballyard...
  • Good to be here: For those of you living in parts of the world where you can't easily drive to take in a game at the Giants' gorgeous home field, now dubbed AT&T Park, I pity you. Don't move here, mind you — Lord knows the Bay Area is crowded enough. I'm just telling you what you're missing.

  • Good eats, San Francisco style: Gordon Biersch garlic fries are the eighth wonder of the culinary world, and moving up fast.

  • Good help is hard to find: On my journey to the concession stand to purchase my Louisiana hot links and Diet Coke, I waited several minutes for the counterpeople to finish yakking before a supervisor prodded them to take my order. That's not characteristic of AT&T Park, where the guest services are usually excellent. Both the links and I got a little steamed.

  • Good fun: The guy who plays the Giants' mascot, Lou Seal, deserves a pat on the flipper. I'm not a big costumed-mascot fan, but Lou (who goes by the name Joel Zimei when not dressed like an upright pinniped) gives the fans a great show without getting in the way of the main attraction.

  • Good grief, that's expensive: Paying $25 to park your car at the ballpark sucks. I'm just saying.

  • Good to know he's still alive: On our way to our seats, we saw veteran Giants broadcaster Lon Simmons heading for the press box. I think Lon called the first baseball game Abner Doubleday ever staged.

  • Good job on the mike: Renel Brooks-Moon, the Giants' public address announcer (one of the few women in the country so employed), always lends an air of freshness and class to the ballpark experience. You go, Renel.

  • Good hands: When Jose Vizcaino (second base), Omar Vizquel (shortstop), and Pedro Feliz (third base) are playing together, the Giants may have the most quietly brilliant defensive infield in baseball.

  • Good newz: When rookie catcher Eliezer Alfonzo joins three aforementioned gentlemen in the lineup, the Giants also field the highest quotient of "Guys Whose Names Include a Z" in baseball history.

  • Good advice: Alfonzo needs to stop trying to throw runners out at second base. His scattergun arm, which accounted for the Angels' only run of the game, sucks worse than $25 parking.

  • Good idea, well executed: The Giants' new online system that allows season ticketholders to sell their unused ducats on the team's Web site earns a gold star. KJ and I picked up spectacular seats for a reasonable cost just the day before the game. We were also able to avoid the lines at the Will Call window simply by downloading and printing our tickets at home. Sweet.

  • Good for the neighborhood: There's now a wonderfully appointed, clean and well-lighted Borders bookstore right across the street from AT&T Park, just in case you ever arrive at the yard early and have some time to occupy.

  • Good memories: The new statue of Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal outside the ballpark's south gate looks spectacular. And what a thrill it is to look out over the right field arcade and see the sweet swing of Willie "Big Stretch" McCovey across McCovey Cove.

  • Good that she has something to fall back on: The young Latina woman hawking Ben & Jerry's ice cream bars in our section had the least lucrative vendor assignment in the park. Selling frozen anything in the upper deck on a San Francisco evening is a lost cause. Not for nothing did Mark Twain once opine, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." At least this particular vendor was kind of cute. Not that I noticed. Or bought any ice cream as a result.

  • Good time: Was had by all. Including yours truly.

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It's alive!

Sorry to have been incommunicado for the past couple of days, sports fans, but I've been battling connectivity problems. After numerous phone calls to the corporate monolith that services (snicker) our area, I finally managed to get a technician out to investigate the situation today. One new DSL modem and $120 for parts and labor later, we're back up and running.

Additional posts to follow later today, so feel welcome to check back.


Friday, June 16, 2006


The other day, my daughter KM and I ventured to our local multiplex and took in the latest installment of the X-Men film series, X-Men: The Last Stand.

Surprise: I didn't hate it.

I had almost expected to find the movie vile beyond tolerance, given that it was directed by Brett Ratner, a filmmaker who had previously not made a single film I enjoyed, and who had in fact made a couple (Rush Hour, one of the worst action comedies of all time, and Red Dragon, a pointless and ugly remake of a pretty decent picture called Manhunter) that I positively loathed.

X-M:TLS, on the other hand, was entertaining, in its own helter-skelter way. It suffers from bombastic overload — Ratner has either never heard the phrase "Less Is More," or, having heard it, immediately forgot — and a veritable tsunami of characters all clamoring for screen time. Consequently, the film is far busier and noisier than it needs to be, which leads to a lack of opportunity for the audience to connect with the personnel. The end result is a movie with all the emotional depth of a potato chip. When you can kill off three major characters and not generate a damp eye or tugged heartstring anywhere in the house, you've gone horribly awry. And yet, the whole enterprise is so much fun — phone-directory cast and all — that I enjoyed myself anyway.

I can understand why some latter-day fans of the X-Men comics would be put off by what Ratner and his screenwriters, Simon Kinberg (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) and Zak Penn (Elektra), did to a couple of their beloved heroes. Speaking as a guy who read his first X-Men story three years before Brett Ratner was born, I had a blast. I'll look forward to the DVD.

But it's Friday, isn't it? Silly me.

Let's look at some comic art, shall we?

One of the characters more prominently featured in X-M:TLS is my favorite of the latter-day X-Men: Kitty Pryde, known variously over her career by the code names Ariel, Sprite, and Shadowcat, but more often simply by her own name. Artist Christopher Rich-McKelvey gives Kitty a sultry touch in the pencil artwork above.

Kitty appeared briefly in the first two X-films — in X-Men, she had a couple of brief onscreen appearances (played by actress Sumela Kay) but no dialogue; in X2, she was the person (now played by Katie Stuart) to whom Professor Xavier referred when he told the President of the United States, "I know a little girl who can walk through walls." In the latest installment, Kitty — this time portrayed by Ellen Page (Hard Candy) — Kitty not only gets to show off her powers, but plays a pivotal role in the plot.

I've always liked Kitty for the same reason I like Mary Marvel and Supergirl. So many superhero characters are hardened, violent young adult men that those who possess distinctly different qualities — such as femininity and innocence — become all the more compelling by contrast. Even though the (mostly) adult males writing her adventures haven't always known exactly how to portray her, Kitty has managed to maintain a fair amount of the girlish charm with which she was first introduced. I thought young Ms. Page did a nice job bringing Kitty to life, and if there's a fourth X-Men film, I hope we get the third Kitty back again.

Prominent again in the third X-film, as she was in the previous two, is Jean Grey, the telekinetic member of Xavier's happy band. Younger fans who only know Jean from the films and the more recent comics may be surprised to learn that she originally battled evil using the code name Marvel Girl, and that she started out as probably the weakest, least interesting X-Man. (Blame those adult male writers again.) Over the years, however, Jean grew and developed — both in personality and in power — until she became the most awe-inspiring member of the team.

In the picture above, artist Geof Isherwood clothes Jean in one of the costumes she wore back in the day when she still called herself Marvel Girl. Joining her is another "Marvel Girl," Mary Marvel.

No Comic Art Friday featuring X-Women would be complete without a shot of Storm, who plays a stronger, more central role in the third film. (This thanks to the producers wisely bending to the will of Academy Award-winner Halle Berry — what Halle wants, Halle gets, and what Halle wants is more face time). Here's a Comic Art Friday classic by the legendary Ernie Chan: Storm meets Thor wannabe Beta Ray Bill.

If you haven't yet seen X-Men: The Last Stand, by all means treat yourself to a ticket. If you don't expect Tennessee Williams, you'll have a terrific time.

Oh, and be sure you don't bolt from the theater until after the credits roll. There's a little surprise (a "credit cookie," as it's known in cinema lingo) at the tail end of the last reel that you won't want to miss.

And that's your Comic Art — and Comic Movie — Friday.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Keep your Sunny side up

Today is Helen Hunt's 43rd birthday.

Not that this is of great moment to anyone except Ms. Hunt and those close to her, which I am not. I can't honestly even say that I'm a huge fan of her work, even though I can recall the days when she was a budding child star and folks in certain quarters were touting her as a sort of poor man's Jodie Foster, whom Helen somewhat resembles.

The occasion of Ms. Hunt's birthday does, however, bring to mind one of those only-in-Hollywood stories.

Back in the 1990s — you remember the '90s, right? the No Style Decade? of course you do — Helen Hunt crossed paths with one of my favorite novelists, Robert B. Parker. (For the uninitiated, Parker writes the perennially best-selling Spenser mystery novels, on which the '80s TV series Spenser: For Hire and its offshoot TV movies were based. He's also responsible for the Jesse Stone novels, which CBS has adapted into a string of popular telefilms starring Tom Selleck.) I'm not privy to all of the circumstances, but it appears that Helen is a fan of Bob's work, and Bob of Helen's, and the two of them expressed a common interest in working on a movie project together.

As the story goes, Bob agreed to create a new female protagonist in the general mold of Spenser, specifically so that Helen could buy the film rights and star as the new character. The character Parker came up with was a private investigator named Sonya "Sunny" Randall, who just happened to be blonde, thirty-something, slightly built, and reasonably attractive, not unlike a certain actress bearing the initials H.H. Like Spenser, Sunny plies her detecting trade in Boston, where she interacts between clues with her supporting cast: ex-husband Richie, whose family is comprised of gangsters; best friend Spike, a muscular gay man who's handy with firearms; and dog Rosie, a bull terrier. (Parker is fond of dogs. His protagonists almost always own one.)

Parker's first Sunny Randall novel, Family Honor, made its way to print in 1999. Parker followed it with (so far) three additional Sunny adventures: Perish Twice (2000), Shrink Rap (2002), and Melancholy Baby (2004). Although the Sunny books appear to sell fairly well, and have been positively reviewed for the most part, to date there hasn't been a Sunny Randall film or television vehicle, starring Helen Hunt or anyone else. With Ms. Hunt graduating into her mid-40s — right about the age at which decent leading-actress roles begin to evaporate in Tinseltown — I'm guessing we never will see her in the role Parker created for her.

Sarah Michelle Gellar might not make a bad alternate choice. Not that anyone asked me.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Finley makes his mark

Congratulations to Giants center fielder Steve Finley, who joined baseball's elite 300-300 club (home runs and stolen bases) tonight, taking Arizona's Claudio Vargas deep to right for his 300th career round-tripper.

In his rarified new statistical neighborhood, Finley joins his teammate Barry Bonds (who smacked career homer #717 in the ninth inning), Barry's dad Bobby, Barry's godfather Willie Mays, Andre "the Hawk" Dawson (no relation to Barry, so far as I know) and Reggie "Don't Call Me Colonel" Sanders, who hit his 300th homer just this past weekend.

Interestingly, of the six 300-300 players, five — Finley, Mays, Sanders, and the Bondsmen — played at least one season for the Giants.

Finley's arrival in San Francisco in the twilight of his career — he's 41, joining Bonds (who turns 42 next month) and Moises Alou (40 in July) in what may well be the oldest starting outfield in major league history — makes for a fitting coda. Giants GM Brian Sabean has been trying to acquire Finley's services for at least five years, either by trade or via free agency. When Sabean finally lands his quarry, the guy's practically qualified for AARP membership.

Of Finley's accomplishment, the usually taciturn Bonds said for the record, "It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Awesome."

We concur.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Episode XIX: Revenge of the Swan

I finally got around to watching — nay, enduring — the final chapter in George Lucas's Star Wars prequel trilogy, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, on HBO last night.

All I can say is: Ouch.

It's almost as though Lucas gave up trying to make his movies interesting, or emotionally engaging, or even fun. Beginning with Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and continuing apace through the latest debacle, the series devolved into a morass of ponderous and predictable plot, insufferably witless dialogue, incompetent acting, and not-as-special-as-George-apparently-believes special effects.

The pundit who once observed that an infinite number of chimpanzees pounding on an infinite number of typewriters would eventually produce Shakespeare was mistaken. Instead, they'd produce the scripts to the last three Star Wars films.

Lucas's lumbering screenplays and ham-fisted direction have become so oppressive that even excellent actors like Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson look like community theater amateurs trying to navigate their way through them. People who can barely act to begin with — Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, I'm pointing right at your sorry hides — didn't have a prayer.

Now, I have to be frank here. (If your name is Frank, I'll give it right back at the end of this post.) I was never a fan of the Star Wars franchise, even back in the day when its components were more or less entertaining, if not necessarily intellectually stimulating. I remember seeing the original installment in the theater twice, just because all of my friends were so enthusiastic about it I was afraid I'd missed something the first time.

I hadn't.

Star Wars was trite, derivative, pseudo-science-fictional claptrap, with ideas stolen from sources both as diverse and familiar as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Marvel Comics. Its two successors were more of the same, although The Empire Strikes Back at least had the virtue of a pair of quality writers (Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett) working on the script, and a veteran director (Irvin Kershner) at the helm. When Lucas returned to the screenplay duties with Return of the Jedi, his penchant for silly pretension (Ewoks, anyone?) evaporated the previous film's goodwill.

It's sad to think of the $350 million (or thereabouts) that the anal-retentive Lucas squandered on his precious prequels — money that could have gone into the hands of passionate, original filmmakers who actually gave a fare-thee-well about what they were doing.

But not as sad as thinking about the countless hours of life humanity will never get back, having wasted it on King George's cinematic white elephants.

Let's pray that Lucas never gets around to making his long-rumored third trilogy. Enough is enough, already.

In a tangentially related sad note, artist Tim Hildebrandt, who in tandem with his twin brother Greg created the iconic poster for the first Star Wars film, passed away on Sunday.

Those of us who grew up reading fantasy in the 1970s recall the glorious illustrations the Brothers Hildebrandt, as Tim and Greg were collectively known, created for J.R.R. Tolkein Lord of the Rings calendars and assorted merchandise back in the day. They also contributed art to various Marvel Comics projects.

Mr. Hildebrandt will be missed, but his art survives.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

I'm ready for my closeup, Stacy and Clinton

Whenever I feel the need to better connect with my feminine side, I tune in to The Learning Channel's What Not to Wear.

A garden-variety makeover show on steroids, hilarously conceived with a heaping helping of snarky attitude, What Not to Wear chronicles the adventures of fashionistas Stacy London and Clinton Kelly as they boldly go forth to rescue America from sartorial faux pas, one citizen at a time.

Friends and family members nominate their hellishly attired loved ones for the show's ministrations, supported by unflattering hidden camera footage. Stacy and Clinton then descend on the poor unfortunate armed with a camera crew, hair and makeup artists, and a Visa card worth $5,000 for the Fashion Victim (as I like to call the episode's participant) to buy herself a new wardrobe, using fashion pointers from the two "style gurus."

Stacy — who reminds me of Fran Drescher, only without the extreme Brooklynese — usually plays the bad cop, verbally (and sometimes literally) ripping to shreds the motley garb the Fashion Victim has been wearing prior to being selected to appear on the show. The not-so-ambiguously gay Clinton more often takes the kinder, gentler tack, but manages to toss in a fusillade of barbs on his own. Both hosts derive an uncanny amount of glee from pitching all of the Fashion Victim's old clothing into steel garbage cans before sending her off to shop in some of Manhattan's toniest boutiques.

Once the Fashion Victim has repopulated her closet, charming English hairstylist Nick Arrojo and brassy makeup artist Carmindy (no surname, please, though it's Bowyer if you can't live without knowing) complete the makeover by giving her a fresh new 'do and face. The now-recovering Fashion Victim then returns home to thrill her friends and family with her striking new appearance.

The best episodes of What Not to Wear involve the guests who really don't see anything wrong with how they present themselves, and are appalled by the suggestions proffered by Clinton and Stacy. On a recent show, for example, a woman with dingy, stringy, waist-length hair adamantly refused to allow Nick to so much as breathe on her prized tresses, shaggy and split-ended though they were. But the majority of Fashion Victims appear genuinely grateful for the help, at least by the time the sarcasm, ridicule, and verbal abuse have given way to smiles and compliments.

My only fear is that What Not to Wear might start taking on the male of the species. If I ever see Stacy and Clinton rummaging through my closet, I am so out of here.

I understand that What Not to Wear is actually an American spinoff of a popular BBC series. Personally, I think the English version ought to be called What Not to Eat. How did those people build a worldwide cultural empire, while sustaining themselves with such horrible food?


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Wendy won't give you a Biggie anymore

Wendy's, the fast-food chain known for their square hamburgers and human fingers in their chili, is dropping the terms "Biggie" and "Great Biggie" in reference to their gunboat-sized French fries and drinks.

Mind you, the elephantine drinks and fries at Wendy's will still be as "big" and "great big" as they've always been. Only now, the former "Biggie" will be designated as "medium," and the "Great Biggie" will be "large."

This is exactly the same sort of sophistry engaged in by Starbucks, where small is "tall," medium is "grande," and large is "venti," whatever the heck that means.

Somehow, I don't think Wendy's founder, the late Dave Thomas, would approve.

Dave was all about the Biggie.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

This Witch doesn't melt

On our last Comic Art Friday, we cast an affectionate gaze toward the mother of all superheroines, Wonder Woman, who began a new chapter in her published life this week. Today, let's take a similarly fond approach to the character I consider Marvel Comics' "opposite number" to our favorite Amazon — Wanda Maximoff, better known to the world as the Scarlet Witch.

In general, Marvel outstripped rival DC comics in promoting the interests of female super-doers back in comics' Silver Age (basically the 1960s, although the era technically began in the mid-'50s). During a time when DC really had only Wonder Woman on the distaff side of costumed capery, Marvel created several historic heroines: Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Girl/Woman of the Fantastic Four; Jean Grey, Marvel Girl (later Phoenix) of the X-Men; Janet Van Dyne Pym, who as the Wasp was a charter member of the Avengers, and the Scarlet Witch, who joined the Avengers as the Wasp's replacement.

Perceptive readers will note, however, that Marvel's early heroines were never solo stars, but team players with unimposing, second-rate superpowers — invisibility, telekinesis, shrinking to insect size, and the ability to manipulate the probability of events. It wasn't until the creation of Ms. Marvel in the late 1970s that Marvel had a female character with the Herculean power level (and headliner status) to match Wonder Woman.

Although Sue, Jean, and Janet preceded her to the comics page, I've always thought of Wanda as Marvel's first truly great heroine. She began her career as a villain, a member of the self-styled Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, so she came equipped with a bit of an edge. She was required to play the hapless damsel in distress less often than her female colleagues. She called herself a Witch — none of that wimpy "Girl" business in her nom de guerre. Her father was Magneto, one of Marvel's greatest villains. She wore that crazy face-framing M-shaped tiara. And she married an android out of true love. How cool is that?

Today, Wanda has pretty well established herself as one of the most powerful (if not necessarily the most mentally stable) characters in the Marvel Universe. I only wish the writers would treat her more kindly — she's taken an undue amount of abuse in recent years. Artists seem to love her, though. Witness the gorgeous presentations above from (starting at the top) pencilers Michael McDaniel, Kirk Lindo, and Jeffrey Moy.

That's your Comic Art Friday, kids. School's out for summer, so don't play ball in the house.


The Verdict Is In: Bye Bye Havana

DVD Verdict's editoral staff has had me on a bit of a Cuban kick recently.

My most recent review for the site covered a film set at the time of the Castro revolution, Cuban Blood, also known as Dreaming of Julia. My latest contribution, published today, is a review of Bye Bye Havana, a documentary examining everyday life in Cuba 45 years into the socialist experiment. It's an interesting piece of filmmaking, directed by former advertising executive J. Michael Seyfert.

Enjoy the review. If you eat a Cuban sandwich as you read it, you'll enjoy it even more.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

My World Cup runneth over

FIFA World Cup 2006 begins play this weekend.

Please attempt to restrain your excitement.

For the benefit of our foreign-born readers (and we have a few) who can't understand why soccer isn't as big a draw in the United States as it is in most other parts of the globe, we present herewith...

SwanShadow's Top Ten Reasons Why Americans Don't Care About Soccer (and Never Will):
  1. It's hockey on grass, only without the sticks.

  2. It's mostly played by guys whose names we can't pronounce.

  3. We have a sport called "football," and soccer ain't it.

  4. Too much running around without anything happening. If we want to see guys running, we'll wait for the Olympics and watch track and field.

  5. The teams don't have cool nicknames.

  6. In America, soccer is a kids' game. By the time we're out of junior high, we've outgrown it.

  7. Short pants. Yes, they wear shorts in basketball, too, but at least that's played indoors.

  8. Not enough violence. At least, not on the field.

  9. If we needed an activity for brain-dead, drunken hooligans to slaver over, we already have NASCAR.

  10. Two words: Soccer moms.

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You oughta know, Alanis

Some people just can't be happy.

Singer Alanis Morissette and her fiance, actor Ryan Reynolds, have gone their separate ways.

Ryan had better hope that Alanis doesn't decide to write a song about him in the aftermath of their breakup, the way she wrote the venom-dripping "You Oughta Know" after splitting with former Full House star Dave Coulier.

Then again, Ryan should have known better than to get involved with a woman so desperate that she'd sleep with Dave Coulier.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Nothing from nothing leaves nothing

It's been a tough few days for the keyboard section.

Billy Preston, the pianist and singer often referred to as "the fifth Beatle" due to his legendary contributions to the Fab Four's final live performance (the "rooftop concert" seen in the film Let It Be), has passed on.

Preston played alongside everybody — and I mean everybody — during his long and stellar career. He was considered by many in the industry to be one of the greatest session musicians ever. In addition to his appearances on various latter-period Beatles recordings and solo projects by ex-Beatles (he was the only musician other than John, Paul, George or Ringo to receive label credit on a Beatles single, on "Get Back"), Preston can be heard on most of the Rolling Stones' albums of the early '70s, as well as records by Sly and the Family Stone, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Diamond, even folk-rock guru Bob Dylan.

As a solo artist, Preston enjoyed hits with such songs as "Will It Go 'Round In Circles," "Nothing From Nothing," "Outta Space," "I Wrote a Simple Song," "Space Race," and "With You I'm Born Again." He also wrote Joe Cocker's best-known hit, "You Are So Beautiful" (a song vandalized by legions of wedding singers in the decades since Cocker released it).

Now that's a prodigious body of work.

Rest in peace, Sgt. Pepper.

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Worst. Campaign. Ad. Ever.

It's Primary Election Day here in sunny California. I will, however, happily avoid the local precinct. As permanent absentee voters — a status we opted for during KJ's battle with breast cancer six years ago — we accomplished our civic duty last week.

The fact that I've already cast my ballot won't prevent me from taking a jab at what has to be the most poorly thought-out campaign ad since Lyndon Johnson's infamous "Daisy" spot in 1964 — the one in which the little blonde girl picking flowers in a meadow gets obliterated by a nuclear mushroom cloud because too many people voted for Barry Goldwater.

The offenders here are the handlers of Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor Jackie Speier. For the benefit of you non-Golden Staters who may have forgotten, Ms. Speier, today a member of the California State Senate, began her career in politics as an aide to Congressman Leo Ryan. Ryan, the only member of Congress in U.S. history to be killed in the line of duty, was murdered during the People's Temple massacre in Jonestown, Guyana, back in 1978. Speier, who accompanied Ryan on his fateful investigative mission, took five bullets in her own body, but survived. (Obviously.)

One of Speier's current TV spots begins with a graphic description of Speier's injuries at Jonestown, notes how she was left for dead in a South American jungle, and talks about how her indomitable spirit helped pull her through that tragedy to where she is today. Then the candidate herself comes on, and announces, "To see what I'll do, you need to look at what I've done."

Ummm... what you've just told us you've done, Jackie, is get shot five times and abandoned on a tarmac runway in a tropical rain forest.

Do you really want to do that again?

For what it's worth, I voted for Ms. Speier anyway. But I sure hope she's wrong about the other thing.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Today, on America's Test Kitchen

Great bloggers really do think alike.

Here I sit, contemplating a recipe for skillet lasagna I'm preparing for dinner this evening, and over at The Watchtower of Destruction, The Ferrett (and if you aren't him reading daily, you're doing yourself a disservice) recently posted about the very magazine from which this recipe comes — Cook's Illustrated.

I loves me some Cook's Illustrated.

Even more, I love the TV cooking show the magazine produces, America's Test Kitchen. It's a staple of my Saturday morning routine (except during pledge months, when PBS stations abandon all reason — and scheduling logic — to grovel for donations). ATK (as we aficionados affectionately call it) is one of the most entertainingly informative half-hours on television. It's similar to Good Eats, only without the sometimes overbearing goofiness of Alton Brown, and with a higher babe quotient.

ATK is hosted by the publisher of Cook's Illustrated, a tall, lanky, bowtie-wearing Vermonter named Christopher Kimball, who looks as though he wandered in from a casting call for Revenge of the Nerds V: Electric Boogaloo. Most of the actual cooking duties fall to comely chefs Bridget Lancaster (the petite, sharp-featured one) and Julia Collin (the cute, chunky one). In between the two recipes presented on each program, Chris banters with his not-so-comely male associates Jack Bishop, who conducts comparative taste tests of food products, and Adam Ried, who reviews a fascinating assortment of kitchen gadgets.

Best of all, the recipes shown on ATK actually work — at least, the ones we've sampled in our personal "test kitchen" have. As is usually the case with cooking-show fare, most of the recipes require a trip to the local supermarket, because they always call for an exotic ingredient or three that no typical American family would normally have lying about in the pantry. (Unless you're a professional chef, or host your own cooking show. Or both.) But in general, ATK's dishes are relatively simple to make (if often far more time-consuming than one might guess from watching a 30-minute program) and taste terrific.

You can download ATK's easy-to-follow recipes from their Web site, once you register. (It's free, and you know Uncle Swan's motto: "If it's free, it's for me.") Plus, when you register, Chris and the gang will send you a complimentary issue of Cook's Illustrated, which is hands-down the most user-friendly cooking periodical going.

The skillet lasagna was a huge hit with the girls the last time I fixed it. I'd invite you all over for a taste, but I only have so many skillets.

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Grateful or not, he's Dead

In local news, my fellow Sonoma County resident Vince Welnick, the fifth and final keyboard player for the Grateful Dead, passed away over the weekend, an apparent suicide.

Before joining the Dead, Welnick was a founding member of the seminal Bay Area band The Tubes, famous for their early MTV hits "She's a Beauty" and "Talk to Ya Later," and the anthemic "White Punks on Dope."

Creepy factoid: Of the five keyboardists The Grateful Dead employed during their "long, strange trip," four — Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, and now Vince Welnick — are deceased.

I'll bet Tom Constanten crosses the street a little more gingerly from here on out.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

Comics' noblest heroine

Today, Comic Art Friday gets all giddy about the debut of the new Wonder Woman monthly comic, scheduled to make its debut next Wednesday at a comic retailer near you. I was one of the handful of loyalists still reading the previous Wonder Woman series, which was canceled a few months ago.

I haven't been pleased with most of what DC Comics has done to everyone's favorite Amazon over the past couple of years. (Both Diana and one of the great Marvel heroines, the Scarlet Witch, have really been subjected to a pounding by their publishers recently. What's up with that?) But the early buzz on the new WW series, written by Allan Heinberg and illustrated by the husband-and-wife artistic team of Terry and Rachel Dodson (Terry does pencils, Rachel does inks), has me hoping for the best.

I was particularly pleased to read the excellent review Terry Dodson gave to the industry weekly Comic Shop News last month. He really seems to understand how Wonder Woman should be portrayed. Dodson's comments about his visual interpretation of the character made me stand up and applaud (an act that startled some of my fellow diners at the Chinese buffet where I was reading this interview over lunch):
Something we're trying to avoid is making her overtly sexy. We wanted her attractive, but not overtly sexy. Something that I've worked out costume-wise in that regard is making her briefs not as brief, taking them away from the high-rise bikini to more of a brief. I've also made the part of her upper costume which covers her chest larger, and I've made the symbol across her chest bigger to cover up more over her cleavage. All of those I did because she's a noble person, but she is walking around in a very small outfit, so it has to be balanced. It's just minor things, but I'd like to think that there's a little more sense of her nobility coming through because of them.
You go, Terry! It's high time we get Diana back to being the world's most powerful heroine and away from being a cheesecake calendar girl with superpowers.

In celebration of the new Wonder Woman series, I've culled from my gallery a selection of classically styled pieces showing the Amazing Amazon in action.

This stunning splash page was the very first Wonder Woman artwork I personally commissioned. The original pencil artwork, which I've displayed here previously, represents the superlative talent of Al Rio. Inker Geof Isherwood then took the piece and kicked it up about a half-dozen notches with his dazzling embellishment. The costume Diana wears here is the version she wore throughout the 1950s, with the eagle bustier, bicycle shorts, and calf-laced shoes.

This incredible battlefield scene was created by penciler Michael Jason Paz, who's actually better known in comic art circles as an inker (most recently on Maze Agency for IDW). The finishing inks were once again supplied by one of the true geniuses in the business, Geof Isherwood.

Finally, another dramatic battle scene, this one sketched and inked by artist Leonard Kirk. Leonard, best known for his work on such DC titles as Supergirl and JSA, has just begun work on a terrific-sounding series for Marvel called Agents of Atlas, featuring some historic characters from the 1950s.

If you were in dire straits, wouldn't you want Wonder Woman coming to your rescue? I know I would.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

A giggle of geese

Every now and again, I hear something that gives me pause.

For example, today one of my writing associates used the expression "gay as a goose."

How do we know geese are gay? Maybe they're just better at distinguishing the male geese from the female geese than we are. (Geese all look the same to me. But then, I try not to get that close.)

And if geese are gay, where do the baby geese come from?

I wonder what Hubert "Geese" Ausbie would say about all of this.


What's Up With That? #32: Prince Albert in the can, redux

For the second time in the year since he became ruler of the tiny European principality of Monaco, Prince Albert II of the Grimaldis has 'fessed up to fathering a child out of wedlock.

Big Al's most recently identified progeny is a 14-year-old girl living near Palm Springs in the southern California desert. The teen's mother is a former waitress with whom Albert enjoyed a brief fling in 1991, while she was vacationing in France. Last summer, the prince acknowledged another illegitimate child, a son now age three, conceived by a former flight attendant from Togo.

I still have the same two questions I was asking last year about this time:

Question one: You're the billionaire prince of Monaco, and you're hooking up with flight attendants and waitresses?

Question two: Do they not sell condoms in Monte Carlo?

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