Monday, July 31, 2006

Just call me Number 68

In case you missed it, America's Favorite Quiz Show® wrapped its 22nd season of the Alex Trebek Era last Friday. (I realize that most of you are too young to recall the Art Fleming Era. Trust me, the show rocked then, too.)

To celebrate this milestone, one of the participants on the Jeopardy! message boards posted a list of the show's top 137 money-winners, covering the past 22 years of J! champions. Wonder of wonders, there sits yours truly, cozily ensconced at Number 68.

Hmm. If I get bumped downward one more slot, that would really...

Oh, never mind.

Lists of this nature are always deceptive, if one proposes to use them as a benchmark of the relative quality of players over time. For one thing, everyone who's played during the most recent seasons has a leg up on us old-timers, due to the doubling of answer values that occurred a few years ago. Plus, all kind of fluke factors contribute to the size of the point totals. My own position is greatly inflated by my having turned in the performance of my life in the first round of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions last year. (Which makes up only slightly for my having played possibly the most forgettable game in Jeopardy! tournament history in Round Two.)

Were all 137 of us to play Last Jeopardy! Champ Standing, I have no doubt that more than one of the folks beneath me on the list would append my name at the end of the phrase, "I know I'm a better Jeopardy! player than..." Some of them would even be correct in so doing. Strictly on merit, there's no qualitative reason why I should outrank such J! legends as Babu Srinivasan, Doug Lach, or Eddie Timanus, just to pick three names at random.

Indeed, it's only a quirk of luck that I'm located just two slots south of Eugene Finerman, in my never-humble opinion one of the most supremely knowledgeable players in J! history. Eugene knows things that I not only will never know though I live a hundred lifetimes, but that I have no earthly clue how any single human being could know them all in but one.

So go figure.

But I have to admit, as I've noted in this space previously: It's kind of cool to be in the Top 70 of anything.

And when the "anything" is America's Favorite Quiz Show®, that's pretty cool indeed.


Sunday, July 30, 2006

The idea of North's

A sad note from Medford, Oregon, gateway to Crater Lake and birthplace of Lisa Rinna:

The original J.J. North's has closed.

J.J. North's Grand Buffet was once a thriving chain of all-you-can-eat restaurants — the kind of place you folks of Scandinavian extraction residing in the upper Midwest call a smorgasbord. The sort of joint where you walk in, grab a tray, and proceed to pile plates high with bland-yet-filling steam-table fare until you can barely walk. Back in the day, the chain went by the name J.J. North's Chuck Wagon, before new ownership took the business — if not the dining experience — slightly more upscale under the "Grand Buffet" moniker.

Years ago, we had a J.J. North's here in Santa Rosa. It was a prime location for Sunday after-church luncheons because the price of admission was cheap, the grub was plentiful, even the pickiest child could find at least a few items to consume, and you could usually shove enough tables together to accommodate a party of almost any size. Our daughter KM loved it because of the self-serve ice-cream station, if for no other reason.

Then, one day, without advance warning, our J.J. North's closed its doors. (Much like the sudden departure of the Medford outlet, or so it seems.) We showed up one evening, our mouths watering in anticipation of crisp fried chicken and mounds of fluffy mashed potatoes, and it was gone. "Lost our lease!" proclaimed the hand-printed sign taped to the front door. We hoped that meant the management might perhaps reopen in another local venue, but they never did.

My funniest memory of J.J. North's involves the night we discovered our house had been sold. About a year earlier, our friend Tom the realtor had helped us move out of our cramped upstairs apartment into a comfortable two-story townhouse condo owned by one of his clients. On this particular evening, we arrived at North's to find Tom and his family already there. We greeted them in the usual way, but Tom barely spoke to us. Later, we discovered the reason — his client, our landlord, had only that afternoon decided to sell our townhouse. Tom was struggling to muster up the courage to tell us we had just 30 days to move.

A few J.J. North's Grand Buffets survive, scattered here and there throughout California, but the North family long ago sold the franchise to a larger company. The original Medford outlet was the last restaurant remaining under the control of old J.J.'s heirs.

In a dash of irony, one of the key factors in the Medford North's closure appears to have been competition from a nearby HomeTown Buffet — a huge chain founded by a former staff member at the Medford North's restaurant.

That's gratitude for you.

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The Road Warrior needs a designated driver

Here's the good news about Mel Gibson's drunken run-in with Malibu Five-O: At least he apologized.

Here's the bad news: He needed to apologize. And he didn't really apologize enough.

The main reason Gibson's DUI is big news isn't that he was driving while intoxicated — hasn't everyone in show business? — or that he unleashed a barrage of profane, anti-Semitic vitriol on the arresting officer — it's been pretty well documented that Mel's views on Jewish folk are about as warm and fuzzy as the sentiments of the late George Wallace (the Alabama governor, not the comedian) toward people of color. (Let's just say Mel's favorite book of the Bible is probably Ezra... as in Pound.)

No, the big deal with Mel is that he expends so much time and energy on his holier-than-Hollywood attitude that his inevitable indiscretions appear all the more egregious.

Welcome to the banquet table of humanity, Mel. Enjoy your heaping helping of crow, followed by a thick, tasty slice of humble pie.

But don't worry... they're kosher.


Friday, July 28, 2006

I Love the '70s: Superheroine Edition

Today's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by the DuPont Corporation, inventors of polyester... for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Ah, the 1970s. We may never again see as maddeningly uncertain or as bizarrely self-possessed a period in American history. Although I was born in the 1960s -- 1961, to be exact -- culturally speaking, I'm a child of the '70s, because that's the decade in which I came of age. I spent those giddy years of my hormonal adolescence trotting the globe, living variously in Europe (on the Greek island of Crete), Southeast Asia (on the Philippine island of Luzon), and North America (on the virtual island of California). That's not even counting that interminable year I endured in Abilene, Texas. But my therapist doesn't allow me to talk about that.

I also spent those years reading comic books. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of comic books.

Thanks to the then-burgeoning Women's Liberation movement, the '70s were a fertile time for superheroines in comics. In a field long dominated -- and for a number of years in the '50s, exclusively populated -- by Wonder Woman, suddenly hyperpowered babes in spandex (and sometimes less) were everywhere. Many in this new generation of superwomen were merely distaff versions of existing male superheroes, as the Batgirl introduced in the 1960s had been. Others, however, including Storm of the newly revived and revamped X-Men, brought fresh powers and personalities to the superhero party.

Let's examine a couple of these great superheroines who premiered during the Me Decade. And you can bet your last money it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey.

As we've noted, one of the motivations for introducing female superhumans in comics was to replicate the success (and capitalize on the trademarks of) existing male heroes. Spider-Woman, introduced by Marvel Comics in 1977, is one such example. Desperate to preserve every possible ramification of copyright on their signature character, Marvel created a female version of Spider-Man in the person of the mysterious Jessica Drew. Aside from her wall-crawling ability and a vague similarity of costume -- the latter of which is evident in this pencil pinup by Brazilian artist Alex Miranda -- the new Spider-Woman was a very different breed of arachnid from her masculine predecessor.

The funny thing about Spider-Woman is that Marvel, having played the trademark preservation game once, couldn't leave well enough alone. Succeeding years found the company spawning not one, not two, but three more characters named Spider-Woman. In this striking tableau by Michael Dooney, we see Jessica partnered with her immediate successor in the Spider-Woman role, Julia Carpenter, who holds the distinction of being the first unwed mother superheroine in mainstream comics. (It's a tough job, but someone had to do it.)

Although her first published appearance (Uncanny X-Men #130) is dated February 1980, the heroine known as Dazzler actually showed her lovely face during the waning months of 1979, thanks to the vagaries of comic book numerology. Truth to tell, the character had been on the drawing board for several years before that, making her a genuine heroine of the '70s.

Conceived via an odd partnership between Marvel Comics and pop music label Casablanca Records, Dazzler -- a.k.a. Alison Blaire -- was originally intended to be a tie-in with a real-life musical act. As the legend goes, Casablanca planned to market a disco performer (you remember disco, don't you?) who would appear in concert and on record as Dazzler, while at the same time the fictional character appeared on the four-color page in an ongoing Marvel Comics series. At one point, model/actress/singer Grace Jones was considered a likely candidate for the role. For this reason, the comic book Dazzler was depicted, in an early concept iteration, as African-American. When the deal between Jones and Casablanca fell through, the superheroine became a redhead (sometimes pictured as strawberry blonde).

By the time Dazzler actually saw publication, Casablanca was out of the picture, as was pretty much the whole disco phenomenon. The comic book heroine, however, enjoyed an early burst of popularity, due at least in part to her interesting array of superpowers -- Dazzler transforms sound waves into a powerful (dare I say dazzling?) light energy. The fact that Marvel decided to cast Dazzler as a mutant, just as the X-Men were becoming the company's most lucrative franchise, didn't hurt her prospects either.

Unfortunately, as was true of the disco music that inspired her, Dazzler's moment in the spotlight (no pun intended) was short-lived. By the end of the 1980s, she had been relegated to relative obscurity in the Marvel universe. It wasn't until the debut of the current New Excalibur series in 2005 that Ms. Blaire returned to some modicum of her former prominence.

An interesting note about artist Phil Noto, who contributed the Dazzler image seen above. Noto's career path forms something of a reverse curve from that of many artists in the comic book field. Whereas many artists, including Captain America and X-Men cocreator Jack Kirby, enter the animation field after toiling in published comic books, Phil Noto spent more than a decade as an animator for Disney before crossing over into print. Today, he is one of the most sought-after cover artists in the industry, as well as a popular guest at comic conventions.

Now go enjoy your Friday, before I'm tempted to deck myself out in a lime green leisure suit, put on my platform shoes with live goldfish in the heels, pick out my Afro, and spend the rest of the afternoon spinning Kool and the Gang platters. You definitely don't want to stick around for that.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Have I stayed too long at the Fair?

The afternoon before last, I took the girls to Opening Day of the Sonoma County Fair. This year, admission on Tuesdays is free before 3 p.m., and you know your Uncle Swan's mantra: "If it's free, it's for me."

Believing as I do that every moment of life is a potential educational experience, here's what I learned at the Fair this year:
  • Temperature is relative. As you probably know, we've had record-shattering temperatures for several days here, but Tuesday marked the beginning of a cooling trend. Where we had hit the 106-degree mark on both Saturday and Sunday, Tuesday's high was in the low 90s. Compared to the brutal heat of the preceding days, our seven hours of pounding the sun-baked fairgrounds felt like a stroll through a shady forest glade, even though it was still sweltering.

  • Those Budweiser Clydesdales sure are ginormous. And feisty, too. One of them kept trying to spit on us as we admired him. Of course, had someone forceably removed my testicles — all of the males among the famous Budweiser troupe are geldings — I'd be a mite feisty myself.

  • Some people, upon passing their friendly neighborhood tattoo parlor, should just say no. Several times. In fact, there ought to be a cutoff point for tattoo artists, like there is for bartenders: "Hey, pal, I think you've already had a few too many."

  • The most sublime cinnamon roll you'll ever consume is one baked fresh on the premises by Crown Cinnamon Rolls. KJ and I scored a couple hot out of the oven, and good googly moogly, were they tasty. Up yours, Cinnabon.

  • Any girl wearing a tank top with "Hottie" printed on it probably isn't. And if she's younger than the legal age of consent, both she and her parental units should be spanked soundly and sent to bed without their grilled turkey leg.

  • Many of the people who enter the arts and crafts competitions believing they are undiscovered talents are sadly self-deluded. Especially those who enter the poetry contests. I've read better verse on the walls of truck stop restrooms. Someone this year wrote a poem about poop. I kid you not.

  • A few of the people who judge the arts and crafts competitions are utterly bereft of taste. In the photography pavilion, we saw some gorgeous shots that didn't win anything, while some pictures that looked as though they came out of your kid nephew's throwaway Kodak had prize ribbons hanging next to them. Ditto for the drawing and painting competitions. Go figure.

  • Local celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri recently got his trademark spiky platinum locks rebleached. Guy, winner of this year's Next Food Network Star contest and now host of Guy's Big Bite on that selfsame cable outlet, busily chatted up high rollers on his cell phone while his loyal minions doled out his famous garlic fries at one of his three food concessions. Culinary note: Major props to Guy's "pork slyder," a pulled-pork barbecue sandwich sliced into hand-sized portions roughly the size of a White Castle hamburger (aka "slider"). In the words of Ferris Bueller: "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up."

  • Certain performers simply cannot pull off certain material. I had never before heard a middle-aged gentleman of the Causasian persuasion sing "We Are Family" on a public stage. I hope never to repeat the experience.

  • Would people really pay a dollar apiece to ogle "The World's Fattest Pig" or "The World's Smallest Horse"? Apparently, some would. Your Uncle Swan was not among them.

  • Teenagers with weak stomachs — or who have consumed massive quantities of alcohol — should avoid carnival rides that rotate at a high rate of speed. Actually, I came by this knowledge many years ago. But we saw at least one kid with his head in a trash barrel to whom this informational tidbit was apparently a newfound acquisition.

  • Well-intentioned rules can appear stupid if not thoughtfully implemented. Fair security stipulates that attendees cannot carry knives onto the fairgrounds. (I left in the car the substantial folding pocketknife that usually occupies my right front pocket.) However, one can purchase in the vendors' pavilion a set of kitchen knives only slightly shorter in blade than a machete, and walk around the grounds with them for the remainder of the day. Does that make sense?

  • Sheep entered in the 4-H competitions do not enjoy having their wool shorn, or their feet spray-painted black, or being keelhauled into the show ring. For that matter, I wouldn't, either.

  • As quaint and rustic as it sounds, the Sonoma County Fair is a fun way to spend a summer day and evening. But then, I already knew that.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ken Jennings ate my baby

I can see the headlines in tomorrow's New York Post already.

In case you've missed the furor: Last week, Ken Jennings — you know, the guy who won 74 straight games on America's favorite quiz show — posted an "Open Letter" to Jeopardy! on his blog, in which he made a number of snide ripostes about the show and its host, Alex Trebek. (For one thing, Ken implied that Alex is a robot. Which I'm not saying is true, but would explain a few things.)

Before you could say "Brad Rutter," Michael Starr, a writer for the Post — a tabloid not exactly renowned for its thoughtful and accurate reportage — had published an article stating that Ken was bashing Jeopardy! on his blog.

The entertainment press went ballistic, as the entertainment press is wont to do. Within a day, every news outlet from the Associated Press to CNN screamed Ken's disloyalty and ingratitude to a ravening public.

Can't anyone take a joke anymore?

If you read Ken's original post, it's clear — at least, to anyone who's functionally literate and possesses mental faculties unclouded by pharmaceuticals or deadline pressure — that he's writing with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Maybe the satire works, maybe it doesn't — humor is a notoriously subjective beast — but satire it is.

I've never met Mr. Jennings personally, but through my experience in the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions last year, as well as via personal correspondence with others in our little fraternity, I know quite a few people who have made Ken's acquaintance. All are unanimously agreed that Ken would be an unlikely person to rip Jeopardy! in a serious manner, either publicly or privately. He doesn't appear to be the sort who'd slay the goose who's laid several golden eggs for him.

Let's face it: Ken is known to both J! fans and former contestants as a guy with a lively and quirky sense of humor, and I'm certain that the folks at Jeopardy! know that all too well, given the amount of time he spent on their set. I'd be shocked if anyone associated with the show read his screed and took it with anything except good humor. Because everything goes better with an ice cream bar, especially in L.A. in July.

Then again, Ken's new book about his J! experiences is being published by Random House in a couple of months. I'm thinking the New York Post and the rest of the news media just sold him a few thousand advance copies.

In Jeopardy! as in life, there is no such thing as bad publicity.


Monday, July 24, 2006

Tour de America

Isn't it about time we changed the name of this bicycle race?

Americans own this bad boy: First, Greg LeMond (victories in 1986, '89 and '90); then Lance "Stretch" Armstrong, the monorchid wonder (seven consecutive wins, from 1999 through 2005); now Floyd Landis, who finally found a way to silence all of the teasing he tolerated growing up with a name like "Floyd."

Seriously, when was the last time a Frenchman won the Tour de France? 1985, that's when. Lindsay Lohan wasn't even born yet.

And if Tiger Woods keeps this up, we'll rename the British Open too.

We could call it... I don't know... the Colonies Classic or something.

Earl Woods would have liked that.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Movies I don't need to see

Want to know how I can save money at my local cineplex? By not shelling out my hard-earned simoleons for a ticket to any of the following:

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Cheese, whiz, and other excretions

Please lower your napkins to half-mast...

the inventor of the Philly cheesesteak sandwich has died.

Loath as I am to speak ill of the newly deceased, and as great a devotee as I am of the cholesterol-ravaged, carbohydrate-overloaded concoction with which he is credited, I must nevertheless question the supposed genius of one Harry Olivieri, who with his brother Pat opened the first cheesesteak joint, Pat's King of Steaks, in the 1930s.

My quibble with Mr. Olivieri? Two words: Cheez Whiz.

I'm sorry, King of Steaks (or is it Brother of King of Steaks?), but you can't put Cheez Whiz on a sandwich and call it a cheesesteak.

Cheez Whiz is not cheese.

It may, on the other hand, be whiz.

Which leads us to the dubious wisdom (no pun intended) of the Kraft Foods people in giving a semi-liquid yellow comestible a name that includes a colloquialism meaning urine.

But I digress.

According to Kraft, Cheez Whiz is a "processed cheese food product." The concept of cheese food confounds me. As a proud dog owner, I understand dog food. It's what we feed our dog. I understand cat food and fish food as the pet store staples customarily fed to cats and fish, respectively. I therefore must proceed under the presumption that "cheese food" is not cheese, but rather a product to be fed to cheese.

Who wants to put that on a sandwich? Not I, said the pig.

Provolone, on the other hand, is entirely another story. Only a barbarian — or perhaps one of those darn Etruscans — would put anything other than authentic provolone cheese (notice: not provolone "cheese food") on a cheesesteak sandwich.

Even if the guy who made the first one used that funky, viscous, Day-Glo stuff from a jar.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

All in color for a dime — make that 39 cents

Today on Comic Art Friday, we celebrate the United States Postal Service, which on this historic date is releasing a new set of 20 first-class stamps featuring the heroes and heroines of DC Comics.

Half the stamps display closeups of 10 of DC's best-known characters; the other half reproduce actual comic book covers starring these same 10 superheroes. The images have been thoughtfully chosen, and represent a nice mix of classic and modern art styles.

What better way to ensure that your mail arrives safely, than to assign a superhero to ride shotgun on the envelope?

This is also the weekend for Comic-Con International, the world's biggest comic book convention, held annually in San Diego. One of these Julys, I'd love to attend CCI, despite the fact that crowded places give me the willies. (And I don't mean Mays and McCovey.) Everyone who's anyone — and everyone who wants to be someone — in the comics industry comes to San Diego for this event, which frequently affords the opportunity to see and hear creators who don't appear in many other venues.

But since we're not milling with the masses at CCI, what say we enjoy a little comic art magic right here at home?

I don't collect much color art. As much as I enjoy the vibrant realism of color in a published comic book, I prefer to view original art in its pristine black-and-white state, whether in graphite or in ink. In fact, my entire collection contains only three color artworks...and guess what we're going to look at today?

When it comes to classically styled images of supermen and women, few artists can outdraw the talented James E. Lyle. In this stunning Wonder Woman pinup, James's gorgeous ink lines are complemented by a lush painted treatment, rendered by color artist Buzz Setzer. The finished piece recalls the great masters of vintage pinup art.

One of the qualities I find most appealing in James Lyle's work is the naturalism of his figures. The people James draws look like real human beings, albeit idealized and heroic. Here's an example of how James approaches the same subject — Wonder Woman again — from a different point of view, and with another stylistic twist.

Now, check out another artist's colorful take on our Amazing Amazon. Here's a Comic Art Friday favorite by Dan Veesenmeyer.

As we did with Lyle, let's see how Veesenmeyer treats his subject in a simple pencil line drawing.

Wherever your activities take you this weekend, enjoy the boundless color and beauty of life. That's what we celebrate here every Comic Art Friday.

It's just that, most of the time, we celebrate in black and white.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

What kind of wood doesn't float?

Natalie Wood...

...who would have celebrated her 68th birthday today, had she not drowned in a still-mysterious boating incident in 1981.

(And yes, a quarter-century later, that morbid joke still draws a laugh. We're sick creatures, we humans.)

An interesting tidbit about the late Ms. Wood is the fact that, in her younger days as a Warner Brothers contract ingenue, she was frequently called upon by the studio to "play the beard" for closeted gay actors, being seen on public dates with them to alleviate any suspicions about their orientation. Among the stars for whom Wood served as a just-pretend girlfriend: Raymond Burr, Nick Adams, Tab Hunter, and her Rebel Without a Cause costar, James Dean.

Wood was one of the few child stars (Miracle on 34th Street, anyone?) of her generation to go on to acclaim and success as an adult actor. She was nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards, winning two (Most Promising Newcomer in 1957; Best Actress in a Television Drama for From Here to Eternity in 1980), and also earned three Oscar nominations.

Although universally beloved by her colleagues on and off camera, Wood had a reputation for being somewhat difficult with the press. The Hollywood Women's Press Club twice tagged her with their annual "Sour Apple Award" as the least cooperative actress in Hollywood.

My favorite Natalie Wood performances, beyond her best-known roles, are her two costarring stints with Robert Redford, Inside Daisy Clover and This Property is Condemned. She was also probably the best thing about Paul Mazursky's notorious (although relatively tame by today's standards) mate-swapping comedy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. (Wood played Carol, in case you were wondering.)

Hollywood doesn't produce stars like Natalie Wood anymore. (Catherine Zeta-Jones is probably the closest.) But then, that's why God created DVD.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Buck stops at first base

Proving that 90 is the new 70 — or something to that effect — baseball's elder statesman Buck O'Neil set a record last evening by being the oldest man ever to take an official at-bat in a sanctioned professional baseball contest.

In the first inning of the Northern League All-Star Game in Kansas City, Kansas, O'Neil took an intentional walk to lead off the lineup for the West All-Stars. A mid-inning trade to the East All-Stars enabled O'Neil to lead off again in the bottom of the frame, when he again was walked intentionally.

Buck O'Neil is 94.

On general principle, I'm usually not favorably disposed to sideshow gimmicks like this, for the exclusive purpose of setting an otherwise unattainable record. For instance, it rubbed my purist sensibilities the wrong way when the Chicago White Sox trotted out an ancient (in baseball terms, anyway) Minnie Minoso for a handful of games in 1976 and again in 1980, when Minoso was 53 and 57 years old, respectively, just so that Minnie could boast about being a five-decade major leaguer. (Minoso broke in with the Cleveland Indians in 1949 and retired from the White Sox in 1964. He therefore played in the majors in the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s.) Minoso was a pretty fair ballplayer in his day, but not so great a figure that he deserved that kind of special consideration.

Buck O'Neil, on the other hand, has been one of baseball's grand sages for decades now. A two-time batting champion in the Negro Leagues during baseball's segregated past, O'Neil has led the charge to ensure that his former Negro League colleagues receive the recognition that history unjustly denied them. As a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee, Buck helped select numerous Negro League greats for enshrinement, despite the fact that he himself came up short for Hall election as recently as this year.

If you've ever seen Baseball, the seminal 1994 PBS documentary series by filmmaker Ken Burns, you'll remember Buck O'Neil as the wise, witty star of the show. If you haven't seen Baseball, and you care anything at all for either the sport itself or American cultural history or both, you owe it to yourself to get hold of the DVD set and be enlightened.

And if Commissioner Bud Selig and the Hall of Fame trustees wanted to break with tradition and install Buck O'Neil in the Hall just because they thought it was a good idea — or even because he took two free passes in a minor league all-star game at the age of 94 — that would be all right by me.



Not being numerically inclined, little tidbits like this tend to slip past me. But I'd be remiss if failed to acknowledge the passing of a trio of recent milestones.

Milestone #1: SSTOL turned two years old on the 11th of this month. In the past 24 months, we've grown from an audience consisting mostly of myself and... well... myself, to a daily readership in quadruple digits. I don't know why you keep coming back, but I'm glad you do. Thanks for validating me. If you have a parking voucher, I'll be delighted to return the favor.

Milestone #2: In related news, SSTOL uploaded its 1000th post on Sunday. (It was the Rice-A-Roni that turned the trick.) Who knew when this all started that I'd have that much to say?

It's strange, but unlike many longtime bloggers — I'll include in that category anyone who's been at it for more than a year — I've never once been tempted to shut SSTOL down or take an extended hiatus from it. I look forward to the exercise of sharing something here at least five times a week. I plan to keep at it. So you might as well keep dropping around to see what I'll spew about next.

Milestone #3: KJ and I celebrate our half-anniversary today. There's no trophy or cash prize for tolerating my eccentricities in one's living space for 21 and a half years. But doggone it, there ought to be. If you want to nominate KJ for a Congressional medal, rest assured she's earned it.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

What's Up With That? #33: You can't overlove your innuendo

It's been on the air for more than a year now, apparently without protest. Which may suggest that I'm the only person in America who's creeped out by that pedophilic Fruit of the Loom underwear commercial.

You know the one I mean.

Tell me there's nothing uncomfortably eerie about grown men dressed up like fruit — in the literal sense of the word — singing longingly about "a boy in pure white briefs" (the boy in question being perhaps ten years old in the video), concluding with the line, "You can't overlove your underwear."

And the title of the ad is "Ripe for the Pickin'." Puh-lease.

What ad agency concocted this spot — NAMBLA?

Actually, it's The Richards Group, a billion-dollar agency based in Dallas, which represents top-shelf companies ranging from Hyundai to Home Depot. They ought to know better. (I suppose I've just shredded my chances of ever writing copy for them.)

And before you ask, no, it's not just the man-boy thing. The ad would be no less hackle-raising if the apple guy was crooning about prepubescent girls in white cotton panties. Or if an adult woman dressed like Carmen Miranda sang the praises of skivvies-clad minor children of either gender. It's the subtext that matters.

The infernal thing is, that jingle is awfully darned catchy. I find myself wandering absent-mindedly about the house, extolling in song the joys of pederasty.

It's icky. That's all I'm saying.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Judge George Hatch, R.I.P.

This afternoon, the staff of DVD Verdict was deeply saddened to learn of the sudden passing of one of our colleagues, George Hatch.

During my tenure on the Verdict editorial team, George was, for a short time, one of the writers whose reviews I edited. I found him passionate and conscientious about his work, intensely thoughtful about his wordcraft, and knowledgeable to a fault in the subjects about which he wrote.

A New York native, George was a man of diverse — and often surprising — experience, charming wit, and eclectic talents. DVD Verdict will feel his loss greatly. Although I never met George in person, and knew him only through occasional correspondence and his body of writing, I suspect that the world he inhabited will miss him greatly also.

If you'd like to get a sense for the kind of writer George was, please take a moment to stop over to the Verdict and peruse a few of his reviews. You'll find the time well spent. Probably even enlightening.

My sincerest condolences to George's family, coworkers, loved ones, and friends.

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Long tails, and ears for hats

Over the weekend, I stumbled across this article on about the greatest cartoon bands of all time.

Not surprisingly, the currently popular Gorillaz led the writer's selections, followed by Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the Groovie Goolies, and the Misfits (the rival band in Jem and the Holograms).

It was Number Five on the list that caught my attention. When was the last time I thought about Josie and the Pussycats? Umm... probably last week sometime, if I recall correctly.

Bucketloads of cartoon bands paraded across television screens during that bizarre late '60s-early '70s era, when practically every animated series worth its salt was built around a bunch of kids / monsters / funny animals who played music together. I think it was the Archies that really started the phenomenon rolling, although one could argue that the Beatles film Yellow Submarine gave credence to the whole musicians-as-cartoons concept.

Josie and the Pussycats stood out from the Saturday morning crowd for a couple of reasons. One, the Pussycats were three attractive young women dressed in form-fitting leopard suits, and there just aren't too many things on the planet better than that. (The gals also sported what were probably the first prominent bustlines displayed on children's programming since Annette Funicello's heyday.) Second, Josie integrated her band — and animated cartoons in general — at a time when much of America was still struggling to cross the color line in real life.

Plus, the 'Cats produced a wicked awesome sound for a band that only included a guitar, a drum kit, and a couple of tambourines. (How Josie and company managed to lay down that pop-rock beat without a bass player remains one of the persistent mysteries of our time.)

As a kidvid spinoff of The Archie Show, Josie and the Pussycats was relentlessly formulaic, populated with stereotypical stock characters the like of which could be seen in any number of other cartoons. The core team consisted of Josie, the redheaded all-American girl; Valerie, the intellectual (and black — the first person of African-American heritage to appear as a regular cast member in a network cartoon show) Pussycat; and Melody, the dim-bulb platinum blonde. (Arcane trivia: Future Charlie's Angel Cheryl Ladd provided Melody's singing voice, while her speaking voice came from the mouth of actress Jackie Joseph, best remembered as Audrey in the original Little Shop of Horrors.)

The Pussycats' roadies included Alan M., the strong, silent type all the girls fawned over; the bickering brother-sister team of Alexandra and Alex Cabot (essentially the duplicitous Reggie Mantle from the Archies, split into fraternal twins), and Sebastian, the Cabots' trouble-prone cat (a character type much beloved by the folks at Hanna-Barbera, who tossed a similar animal into almost every cartoon they produced, from Scooby-Doo to Wacky Races).

But the Pussycats also had style. The girls clearly were into boys, but their lives weren't defined by their pursuit of the opposite sex, as was the case with Betty and Veronica in the various Archie series. As successful entertainers, the 'Cats were independent young women who didn't need boyfriends to anchor their self-esteem. They shared a sense of sisterly camaraderie that appeared both inspiring and empowering, especially considering that one of the three sisters was actually a sistah, if you catch my drift. There wasn't a real-world all-girl band to rival the Pussycats until 1976 — a half-dozen years after Josie and the girls debuted — when the Runaways, featuring future rock legends Joan Jett and Lita Ford, exploded into the popular culture.

I stuck with Josie and the gang even when their series took a weird, science-fictional left turn and transmogrified into Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, which seemed to recycle most of the plots from the earlier version, only with more bug-eyed aliens. However, I never did get around to watching the live-action Josie and the Pussycats film that came out a few years back, mostly because the reviews consistently indicated that it was awful, and I didn't want to spoil my fond memories of the Pussycats' halcyon days. Although now that I know that Rosario Dawson, who played Valerie in the movie, is a major comic book geek, I may have to satisfy my curiosity one of these days. (You know what curiosity does to cats.)

In my heart, I hope that Josie, Val, and Melody are somewhere kicking out the jams on the nostalgia circuit, playing county fairs and Indian casinos, still wearing those leopard-skin leotards and cat's-ear headpieces despite graying hair, crow's feet, and the inexorable advance of gravity.

If they played in my town, I'd buy a ticket.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Holy vermicelli, Batman!

After many long years of geographical estrangement...

Rice-A-Roni is once again the San Francisco treat.

(The other San Francisco treat, you deve.)

When Quaker Oats ("There's nothing better for thee than me") bought Golden Grain, the company that made Rice-A-Roni for decades, they downplayed the product's San Francisco connection, eventually ditching the familiar jingle and cable car imagery altogether. For people who aren't from around here, I suppose the name San Francisco evokes certain... umm... images, shall we say, that not every company wants associated with its merchandise.

But never underestimate the power of a catchy advertising slogan to rise from the dead.

I actually like Rice-A-Roni, as an occasional side dish. When KJ and I were first married, it was practically a daily staple. We don't serve it very often anymore — our daughter isn't a fan — but I always keep a box or two handy in the pantry. Because every now and then, those old comfort foods from your childhood just taste like love, don't they?

It's interesting to note, however, that although I have consumed dozens of meals in San Francisco over the years...

...I've never eaten Rice-A-Roni there.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

I'll be superamalgamated!

It's a bright, sunny Comic Art Friday, so let's kick things off by celebrating five current comics series that make entertaining summer reading:
  1. Green Arrow. I know a lot of fans aren't enamored of former Real World housemate Judd Winick's writing style, but I like his flair for characterization. Winick does a splendid job with Green Arrow, my all-time favorite DC Comics hero, and is developing a compelling story arc for the Emerald Archer's alter ego, Mayor Oliver Queen, in the current "One Year Later" themed books. Scott McDaniel's crude, blocky artwork doesn't exactly thrill me, but I'm finding it less irritating as the issues pass.

  2. 52. I was prepared to hate this weekly "event" series — with the gaggle of writers and artists contributing, I was certain that the product would be muddled and inconsistent — but it's become one of the highlights of my weekly comic shop run. It's the first book I read when I get home each Wednesday.

  3. Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Artist Barry Kitson's whimsical style is growing on me. The recent addition of Supergirl to the mix gives the storyline a fresh spin, because you know I loves me some Supergirl. (And at least this book comes out on schedule each month — something that can't be said for the current Supergirl series. Grrr...)

  4. Hero Squared. Writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis are at their witty, sardonic, madcap best in this clever series from Boom! Studios. It's the tale of a twentysomething slacker who discovers that his mirror image in a parallel universe is a mighty superhero, while his girlfriend's opposite number is the hero's archvillain. It's always a fun read. Warning to those not familiar with the Giffen/DeMatteis oeuvre: This book contains at least five times as much dialogue as you'll find in any other comic series currently in print. I love that aspect of it, but if you prefer pretty pictures to endless word balloons, Hero Squared is not the series for you.

  5. Beyond. A new Marvel Comics miniseries, written by one of my favorite comics scribes, Dwayne McDuffie, and illustrated by a talented artist, Scott Kolins. After reading just the first issue, I'm already anxious to see the direction McDuffie and Kolins will take this odd riff on Marvel's Secret Wars concept from back in the '80s.
Speaking of odd riffs on old concepts...

About a decade ago, Marvel and DC collaborated on a collection of one-shot books until the umbrella of Amalgam Comics. The idea of Amalgam was that in a parallel universe, all of the superheroes would be characters whose powers and costumes represented a combination — an amalgam, if you will — of established personalities from the DC and Marvel universes.

Some of the Amalgam creations were pretty cool, and made perfect sense from a creative perspective: Super-Soldier, who combined the attributes of Marvel's Captain America and DC's Superman; Dark Claw, a blend of DC's Batman and Marvel's Wolverine; and Doctor Strangefate, the avatar for Marvel and DC's respective mystical heroes, Doctor Strange and Doctor Fate. Others stretched the "amalgam" notion beyond the point of lunacy, like Iron Lantern (Green Lantern meets Iron Man) and Lobo the Duck (DC's ultraviolent space assassin Lobo melded with Marvel's seriocomic Howard the Duck).

The best of the Amalgam heroes, in my never-humble opinion, was Amazon. This character brought together the best qualities of two of the greatest heroines in comics history, Wonder Woman and Storm. Knowing that artist Michael Dooney is a fan of both of these superwomen, I knew that he'd be the perfect choice to revisit Amazon for my heroines gallery.

The word "superamalgamated" was, of course, a catchphrase made famous by Dr. William Harper Littlejohn, aka "Johnny," one of the "Famous Five" associates of the legendary pulp hero Doc Savage.

I've been a Doc Savage fanatic ever since I first discovered Doc and his team by way of the paperback reprint series published by Bantam Books back in the 1970s. I consider Doc one of the premier heroic archetypes in the history of published fiction, and present as evidence the fact that so many characters that have come along after Doc have been modeled to some degree after him. Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, for example, borrowed many of Doc's traits — including his name (Doc's given name is Clark, as is Superman's), his nickname (Doc was known as the Man of Bronze, Supes as the Man of Steel), and his arctic Fortress of Solitude (Siegel didn't even bother to rename it) — when they devised their landmark superhero.

Comics publishers have attempted on numerous occasions to translate Doc Savage to the four-color medium, with middling success. For my money as a hardcore Doc aficionado, the best of the comics were the miniseries published in the early 1990s by Millennium. The writers and artists (among the latter, a pre-superstar Adam Hughes) who worked on the Millennium books took great pains to deliver a treatment worthy of, and reasonably faithful to, the spirit and style of the original pulp novels.

The first Millennium miniseries, Doc Savage, Man of Bronze: The Monarch of Armageddon, written by popular novelist Mark Ellis, was illustrated by an artist who's become a personal favorite of mine: Darryl Banks. This series was, if I'm not mistaken, Darryl's earliest published work in comics. Some time ago, Darryl graciously allowed me to purchase his stockpile of original pages from the first issue of DSMoB:TMoA, representing about two-thirds of the complete book.

This stunningly designed splash page is the book's opening image:

Next, a spectacular page showing Doc's Empire State Building headquarters, juxtaposed alongside the Man of Bronze and his Famous Five:

Finally, one of my favorite pages in the book is this sequence of images at the Hidalgo Trading Company, the mysterious warehouse where Doc stores his fabulous array of vehicles, including a submarine, an autogiro (a combination airplane and helicopter), a seaplane, and a dirigible:

If you're not superamalgamated by now, shame on you. Because that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Red Buttons (1919-2006)

Red Buttons died today.

The comedian and actor. Not the clothing embellishment.

In his heyday, Red Buttons (whose real name was Aaron Chwatt, and yes, I'd have changed it too) was everywhere: TV, movies, nightclubs, live theater. Although primarily known for comedy, Buttons was also adept in dramatic roles, winning a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1957 for Sayonara. As recently as last year, he was still making periodic guest appearances on ER.

Oddly enough, my most distinct recollection of Buttons's work was one of his least commercially successful. In the mid-1960s, at the height of the James Bond phenomenon that spawned such TV fare as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart!, Buttons starred in a short-lived sitcom entitled The Double Life of Henry Phyfe. The comic played a mild-mannered accountant (aren't they all?) who just happened to look exactly like a notorious Russian spy code-named U-31. When U-31 dies in a traffic accident, the U.S. intelligence agency drafts Henry to impersonate the Russian and infiltrate the KGB. The show's opening theme song told the whole story:
A foreign spy arrives
By the name of U-31
On his first day in
He's done in by a hit-and-run
(Henry's boss) Gotta find a man with the same face as 31
But who?

Henry Phyfe!
He swears him in and gives all the info to Henry Phyfe
He must never talk to a soul
Of his secret life
(Henry's boss) You are now a spy
You must now lead a double life!

(Henry) Who, me?
Henry Phyfe!
Henry Phyfe wasn't any better than it sounds, and it only lasted half a season on ABC (as bad as then-perennial-third place ABC was in the '60s, that speaks volumes for about the program's quality, or lack thereof). But because it ran incessantly on Armed Forces Television when I was an overseas Air Force brat in the early 1970s (probably because it was cheap to license), I probably saw every episode of it at least a half-dozen times. Enough that, 35 years later, I still can hear that stupid theme song in my head.

Thanks a lot, Red Buttons.

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Asia: Together again despite underwhelming demand

Yeah, like we were eagerly awaiting this...

The original lineup of Asia is reforming for a 25th anniversary reunion tour.

Let the ennui commence.

Back in the day, circa the late 1960s, when a rock band was hyped as a "supergroup," that handle actually meant something. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, for example, brought together key members of three superstar ensembles: The Byrds (David Crosby), Buffalo Springfield (Stephen Stills and Neil Young), and The Hollies (Graham Nash). Blind Faith combined the already legendary talents of Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds, Cream), Ginger Baker (Clapton's bandmate in Cream), and Stevie Winwood (the brilliant Traffic), along with bassist Ric Grech from the group Family. Even into the 1970s, we were still getting supergroups worthy of the name, such as Bad Company — Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke from Free ("All Right Now"), Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople ("All the Young Dudes"), and Boz Burrell (the seminal progressive rock band King Crimson).

By the advent of the '80s, however — man, that was one culturally bankrupt decade, wasn't it? — the biggest "supergroup" the music industry could scrape together was Asia, which merged the tattered remains of a pair of defunct prog-rock bands, Yes (guitarist Steve Howe, keyboard player Geoff Downes) and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (drummer Carl Palmer), with a singer/bassist named John Wetton, who had been in one of the myriad permutations of King Crimson half a decade before.

With much fanfare, Asia's self-titled (I was going to say "eponymous," but I've exhausted my allotment of pretentiousness for this week) first album was unleashed on Top 40 radio in 1982. The singles "Heat of the Moment" and "Only Time Will Tell," trademarked by Downes's screechy, repetitive synthesizer riffs (the guy had just come over from the Buggles, whose MTV hit "Video Killed the Radio Star" may have indeed sounded the death knell for rock and roll as we once knew it) and Wetton's hilariously wimpy lead vocals (if you've seen The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you'll recall that the title character is portrayed as an Asia fan, which partly explains his lack of "experience"), immediately wormed their way into Western consciousness, never to be eradicated.

Fortunately for civilization, Asia's succeeding albums fared less strongly in the marketplace. The band continued to record and tour with various patchwork lineups — something like 16 or 17 different musicians have been members of the four-person band at one time or another — and gradually faded from view.

Until now.

Darn it.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I got your World Cup right here

Italian soccer star Marco Materazzi today admitted that he did, indeed, insult French captain Zinedine Zidane during Sunday's World Cup final, prior to Zidane's head-butting Materazzi in the chest.

Materazzi, however, denies Zidane's allegation that Materazzi called him a terrorist.

"I did insult him, it's true," Materazzi said in the Italian journal Gazzetta dello Sport. "But I categorically did not call him a terrorist."

Materazzi also denied that he had profaned Zidane's mother, saying, "For me, the mother is sacred, you know that."

Unreported was the follow-up Materazzi muttered sotto voce:

"At least she was last night!"

Thank you. I'll be here all week.


Monday, July 10, 2006

UFO sighting

You can tell that you've been hurled headlong into the abyss of middle age when random pop culture memories from your childhood blindside you out of nowhere.

Just now, for instance...

Back in the day, I loved me some UFO.

For those of you who missed the early 1970s — either because you spent those halcyon days under the influence of illicit pharmaceuticals, or because you simply hadn't been born yet — UFO was a short-lived (one 26-episode season) British television series about a near-future invasion from outer space (at that time, "near future" meant the early 1980s), and the stalwart Earthmen and Earthwomen who dedicated their lives to preventing alien creatures from eating us, or stealing our viscera, or whatever it was they had in mind. (The show never clearly defined the invaders' motivation, but it had something to do with organ harvesting.)

At the forefront of the War of the Worlds (no, wait, that was another show...) stood a top-secret paramilitary organization called SHADO — the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation (you know those Brits; they spell everything funny). Although SHADO was based in the United Kingdom for whatever reason, its commander was an American officer named Edward Straker (played by the laconic Ed Bishop, wearing a embarrassing white hairpiece that made him look like an albino mongoose had taken up residence on his head).

Straker and his minions carried out their operations under the guise of a motion picture studio outside London. (This proved handy for hiding spacecraft, submarines, laser cannons, and other esoteric hardware in plain sight. SHADO operatives could always pretend that their toys were mere movie props.) SHADO also maintained a base on the moon — prosaically named "Moonbase" — the support staff of which was comprised almost entirely of comely women whose everyday uniforms included purple wigs. (I kid you not. As you'll see in the photos below.)

UFO sprang like Athena from the fevered brain of Gerry Anderson, previously best known as the producer of science fiction kidvid programs featuring animated puppets — the so-called "Supermarionation" shows like Thunderbirds, Fireball XL-5, and Captain Scarlet. With UFO, Anderson proved deft at employing many of the same special effects techniques he developed for Supermarionation in a live-action setting. For a low-budget independent production made in 1970, UFO actually looked pretty stylish. (Later in the same decade, Anderson would return to live-action sci-fi with the pretentious and deadly dull Space: 1999.)

As a kid who had just discovered Star Trek in syndication, UFO captivated me immediately when it arrived on American TV in the fall of 1972. (As I recall, our local affiliate ran the show on Saturday evenings, before primetime.) It was intelligent (if somewhat derivative), well-crafted (though often clumsily acted), and exciting, even though it tended to be more cerebral (okay, slow) than most TV science fiction of the period.

UFO also featured a multiracial cast — something one rarely saw on the major networks in those days. In fact, UFO may well have been one of the first television series shown in the U.S. to portray an interracial relationship: a love affair involving a black man, SHADO pilot Mark Bradley...

...and a white woman, Moonbase commander Lieutenant Gay Ellis.

Ah, yes: Lt. Ellis. (Other characters rarely called her by her first name. I don't think that had anything to do with the fact that her first name was Gay. Although, in retrospect, maybe it did.) Played by doe-eyed Gabrielle Drake, she provided fantasy fodder for thousands of nerdy sci-fi geeks just beginning to experience the pangs of puberty. Myself included.

Generally speaking, I'm not drawn to women who look as though their skulls are being devoured by carnivorous orchids. For Lt. Ellis, I would gladly have made an exception.

Late in the show's run, Lt. Ellis's assistant, Lt. Nina Barry (played by the lovely and talented Dolores Mantez), was promoted to Moonbase commander. In the manner of her predecessor, the coolly professional Nina could work a mauve 'do and silver jumpsuit like nobody's business.

Part of the fun of UFO came from the abundance of nifty technology, much of which looked suspiciously like updated and detailed versions of equipment we'd seen in the Supermarionation shows. Straker drove a sweet gull-wing automobile — driven, oddly enough, from the left side of the passenger compartment, even though the show was set in Great Britain — that anticipated the DeLorean by nearly a decade.

SHADO's pilots did interplanetary battle with the aliens while flying one-man spacecraft called Interceptors, the stylistic forerunners of the Tie fighters that later appeared in Star Wars.

One of UFO's more poorly conceived elements, the Moonbase-launched Interceptor was a curiously limited attack vehicle. It couldn't be flown into the Earth's atmosphere as the alien ships could, meaning the enemy could easily outrun it. (Fortunately, SHADO employed a specially equipped jet called Sky One for engagement closer to home.) Also, each Interceptor only carried one offensive weapon, a missile mounted to its nose. Who would design a fighting machine that would be rendered powerless after a single missed shot?

But of course, such improbabilities — much like the show's bizarre fashion sense — only added to the enjoyment.

Brother, they don't make science fiction like that anymore.

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Congratulations, Vocal Spectrum!

In one of the tightest finishes in the competition's history, Vocal Spectrum of St. Charles, Missouri edged out the heavily favored Max Q to win the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Quartet Championship. The margin of victory (or loss, depending on your point of view) was a scant six points out of a possible 9000.

Two quartets from Southern California, OC Times and Metropolis, finished in third and fourth places respectively, while Salem, Oregon's Flipside rounded out the top five.

Vocal Spectrum, the sixth-place International finalist last year, becomes the second quartet to take International gold after first winning the Society's Collegiate Championship. The four young men from Lindenwood University were the Collegiate champs in 2004.

In the International Chorus Contest, Dallas's Vocal Majority narrowly topped Southern California's Westminster Chorus to claim their unprecedented 11th gold medal.

Kudos to all the competitors!


Friday, July 07, 2006

Out of the inkwell, part two

Today's post comes your way courtesy of the Indian subcontinent, without whose fine ink products the comic art displayed herein would not have been possible. (Okay, so India ink doesn't really come from India. Just play along. It's Friday.)

Previously on Comic Art Friday, we took a before-and-after look at a pair of pencil drawings given fresh new vibrance by the deftly wielded pens and brushes of ace inker Bob "Jordan" Almond (so dubbed because beneath his colorful candy coating, he's one tough nut — plus he's, like, the Michael Jordan of embellishers). The heroines — specifically Mantis and her fellow Avenger, the Scarlet Witch, held court in last week's installment. This week, the heroes take center stage.

Presented first is this pencil sketch of my superhero idol, the Black Panther, created earlier this year at WonderCon by the charming and talented Ron Lim.

Bob Almond was the first and only inker I considered to finish this piece. Bob enjoys a special connection to the Panther, having been one-third of arguably the greatest creative team (along with writer Christopher J. Priest and pencil artist Sal Velluto) ever to chronicle T'Challa's adventures. (From a nostalgic perspective, I'm also partial to the trio who worked on an earlier Black Panther series back in the '70s — writer Don McGregor, penciler Billy Graham, and inker Bob McLeod. However, the Priest/Sal/Bob triumvirate took the mythos of the Panther to even nobler heights, and over a far longer period of time, during the late 1990s and early 2000s.) During Bob's run on Black Panther, he twice won the Squiddy Award as the best inker in comics, as voted by fans.

I left it to Bob to come up with an interesting background to enhance Ron Lim's unadorned Panther. Using a striking blend of ink wash techniques and artistic effects, Bob transformed a simple figure sketch into a completed artwork with amazing depth and realism.

Comic Art Friday regulars will recognize this next drawing as being from my semi-legendary Common Elements series, in which I commission artists to team two otherwise unrelated superheroes who share some — wait for it — common element. In this instance, '80s stalwart Ron Wilson — best known for his lengthy run as resident penciler on Marvel Two-In-One, starring the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing — was asked to match comics' two most famous blind heroes, Daredevil and Doctor Mid-Nite. It's fair to say that Ron slammed this assignment out of the park.

You can see by the intricate level of detail in Ron's creation, as well as the original artist's distinctive style, that Bob had his work cut out for him inking this piece. Adding to the challenge was the fact that Bob had never before inked an example of Ron's work, Mr. Wilson having pretty much vanished from the comics scene by the time Mr. Almond arrived therein.

But then, I don't believe Bob ever saw an inking challenge to which he could not rise. Witness the finished product...

Go ahead. Stand. Applaud. Cheer. Stomp. Hug your neighbor. It's okay. Really. I totally understand.

And that, you crazy kids, is your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

Four parts, no waiting

Congratulations to the ten quartets — in a field of 47 incredibly talented ensembles — who today qualified for the finals of the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Quartet Contest in Indianapolis.

Here's the order in which the Top Ten will perform in Saturday night's showdown:
  1. Storm Front, Denver, Colorado
  2. Vocal Spectrum, St. Charles, Missouri
  3. Saturday Evening Post, Colorado Springs, Colorado
  4. State Line Grocery, Atlanta, Georgia
  5. Flipside, Salem, Oregon
  6. Max Q, Dallas, Texas
  7. Metropolis, Los Angeles, California
  8. Wheelhouse, Wilmington, Delaware
  9. OC Times, Orange County, California
  10. MatriX, Columbus, Ohio
Anyone still laboring under the misconception that barbershop music is nothing more than four old white guys caterwauling in straw hats and candy-striped vests should check out the Webcast of Saturday night's competition. So should everyone else, for that matter, who enjoys tight, soaring a cappella harmonies. It's going to be spectacular.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Today on the Other Side

"Greetings, Mr. Lay! Welcome to the afterlife."

"Why, thank you."

"You're just in time. We're having a parade in celebration of your arrival."

"Really? There must be thousands of people here."

"Hundreds of thousands, at last count."

"Wow... all for me?"

"Oh, yes. These are all of the people whose descendants you robbed of their rightful inheritances. They've been eagerly anticipating this day."

"Umm... they look kind of testy."

"That's why it's called the Hereafter, Mr. Lay. It's you they're here after."

"Well, I don't want to spend eternity in heaven with this crowd."

"Oh, you thought this was heaven."


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Good luck and Godspeed, Discovery

Let freedom ring

Yesterday afternoon, the girls and I spent a couple of hours walking the Pacific coastline at Salmon Creek State Beach in Bodega Bay, about 30 miles from our front door.

We smelled the surf, listened to the roar of the waves, and combed the beach in search of mussel and limpet shells. We rescued a couple of jellyfish and a sea snail, returning them to the water.

Families were flying kites and building sand castles. Windriders were surfing with parasails. Dogs chased Frisbees and sticks of driftwood. Couples held hands as they strolled along the sand.

Then, this morning, I twice crossed the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, the second time with someone who was seeing that wonder of engineering for the very first time.

And I thought to myself...

It's pretty awesome to live where I live.

Enjoy the Fourth wherever you are, my American brothers and sisters. Remember, we can be proud of our land, our legacy, and our liberty without denigrating anyone else's.

And one more thing...

Wonder Woman loves you.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Thumbs up, Uncle Roger

Roger Ebert, the dean of American film critics — the only writer ever to win a Pulitzer Prize exclusively for film criticism — is recovering today from emergency surgery, necessitated by complications from a cancer-related operation two weeks ago.

I don't believe I'm overstating the case when I say that Ebert has been my single greatest influence as a writer. Although many Americans know him primarily as the avuncular cohost of the weekly TV show he began with the late Gene Siskel and continues with Richard Roeper, it's as a master of the written word that I appreciate Ebert the most. His reviews form an integral component of my daily online information-foraging. In particular, his essays about cinema's greatest films are classics of analysis — they should be required reading for everyone with even the slightest interest in motion pictures as a communication medium.

Our opinions don't always coincide (although we're in agreement that Alex Proyas's Dark City is one of the truly great films of the past decade) but I always feel that I've learned something valuable — about film, or writing, or both — after reading one of Ebert's reviews.

Get well soon, Uncle Roger.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Another page turns

I was sorry to learn just now that Michael Parman, the recently retired editor and publisher of our local newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, died earlier today from pancreatic cancer. He was 61.

Although I've written numerous ads and press releases that appeared in the PD (a paper owned by the New York Times), I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Parman. By all accounts, he was a decent man and a talented journalist.

For the past several months, I've followed Mike's blog, in which he recorded his experiences during his cancer treatment. As is the case with most blogs I read regularly, I grew over time to feel that I knew the writer. I'm sad that his treatment was not ultimately successful.

My condolences to Mike's family, friends, and colleagues. He'll be missed around here.

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The true North, strong and free

Happy Canada Day to our Canadian readers!

While we have your attention, Canada...

Thanks for Rae Dawn Chong...

And Catherine Mary Stewart...

And Cobie Smulders...

And my close personal friend Alex Trebek.

I'm not sure that entirely makes up for your sticking us with the likes of Celine Dion, Shania Twain, William Shatner, and Jim Carrey.

But it helps.

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