Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Dude, your grandma's hot — which, for the benefit of our North American readers, is the European equivalent of Netflix — polled its site visitors to determine the sexiest screen stars over the age of 50.

In a mild upset, Helen Mirren (age 61) edged perennial favorite Sophia Loren (72) and runners-up Meryl Streep (a relatively fresh 57), Judi Dench (72), and Diane Keaton (61) in the distaff race. Among male stars, Jack Nicholson (69) topped his fellow sagging stallions Sean Connery (76), Robert Redford (70), Clint Eastwood (76), and Danny Glover (a mere pup at 60).

What I find interesting about the ladies on this list — you knew I'd focus there, because that's how I roll — is that with the possible exception of screen siren Loren, all of these women have always been more widely recognized for their acting talents than their pulchritude. For example, Meryl Streep may well be the greatest American actress in cinema history, but she wasn't considered a sex goddess even in her younger days. (Anyone who ever saw Streep opposite Robert De Niro in Falling in Love — perhaps one of the worst romances in movie history — knows why.) The same could be said of Judi Dench on the other side of the pond.

Had I voted in this poll, Annette O'Toole (Superman's girlfriend-turned-mom is 54, in case you were curious) would have been at the top of my ballot. That Michael McKean is one lucky fellow.

Oh, by the way...

Annette asked me to remind you that today is National Gorilla Suit Day.

A little hot monkey love would not be inappropriate. Especially with someone over 50.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What's In My Pocket? #2: Spyderco Volpe

What qualities bring a new knife into my collection? Tough question. As is true of my comic art collection, I can't always explain the reasons why I'm drawn to a particular piece. But when I lay all of my knives out side by side — as I do on occasion, when that mood strikes me — certain themes emerge:
  • Most of my blades are fairly large. Of the pieces I'm likely to shove in my pocket on any given day, only one has a blade shorter than three inches. Most measure at least 3.5 inches. That's mostly because a smaller knife doesn't fit comfortably in my chubby little hand.

  • All of my blades are practical tools. I never buy a knife I can't actually cut stuff with. Because a knife is, above all else, a device for cutting stuff. That's a key reason why I don't own any tanto-style blades, whose only real purpose is defensive. I've lived a long time without ever needing a weapon. But I need a letter opener — or box cutter, or paper slicer — several times every day.

  • I like a little style with my sharpness. Aethetically, I want a knife with eye appeal. Not one that makes me look as though I've watched too many episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (I have, but that's not the point.) Just one that, when I flick open the blade and hold the piece in my hand, causes me to squee just a bit on the inside.
Because I'm such a dogged creature of habit, it sometimes takes me a while to work a new blade into my everyday carry rotation. Here's a knife that I owned for quite some time before I ever showed it the inside of my pocket. Then, for whatever reason, I selected it for Christmas present opening duty a month ago. It's probably the prettiest knife I own, so perhaps I just felt festive that day. I immediately fell in love with it. It's been a regular in the rotation ever since.

The Spyderco Model C99 — aka the Volpe — bears the brand name and insignia of one of America's finest makers of folding knives: Spyderco, based in Golden, Colorado. The knife itself, however, is manufactured in the sleepy hamlet of Maniago, Italy by Fox Cutlery, one of Europe's premier knifemakers. (Volpe means fox in Italian.) Although the Volpe incorporates Spyderco's trademark round hole opening effect, the rest of its details sprang from the imagination of Italian cutlers Gabriele Frati and Gianni Pauletta, known collectively as G&G Design. It is, to use a word that Signori Frati and Pauletta might approve, bellissimo.

The Volpe's drop point blade is crafted from N690Co stainless steel, an outstanding Austrian-made chromium steel notable primarily for its unique cobalt/vanadium alloy composition. (Vanadium is among the elements added to steel to increase its hardness and edge-holding capability; cobalt is far less commonly used.) Like every Spyderco blade I've owned, this bad boy arrived screaming sharp and has remained so. The round Spyderhole enables smooth one-handed opening (your thumb catches in the hole and slides the blade from the handle), even for a klutz like me. The indentation on the upper edge of the blade provides purchase for your index finger during a downward cutting stroke — a terrific control feature if you're making a long, straight cut.

G&G Design lent warmth and attractiveness to the Volpe by adding blonde olivewood inlays to the handle. (Mine have gorgeous butterscotch grain. I'd post a photo, but I can't find the camera today. So the stock shot above will have to suffice.) On the flip side, Spyderco's spider logo ("the bug," as they call it) is laser-cut into the frame.

And it's shiny. Really shiny. Chrome bumper on a '72 'Vette shiny.

Mmmm.... shiny.

All in all, the Volpe makes a stylish yet functional presentation. It's classy enough to carry on any occasion, much like a traditional gentlemen's folder. Its ergonomics are excellent, its fit and finish top-notch, its utility outstanding. And, after it's warmed in one's pocket for a while, the Volpe's olivewood inlays smell nice. I can't make that statement about any other knife I own.

I think I'll see if the mail's here.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Not to be confused with the Perky Awards

I always chuckle — for two reasons — when the Screen Actors Guild Awards are handed out each year.

Reason One: The SAG Award is formally known as the "Actor." This is, without contest, the least imaginative award title in an industry that prides itself on cleverness and invention. Hmm... an award given to actors, by actors, for acting. What the heck — let's just call it the Actor, and be done with it.

Reason Two: The SAG Awards are pretty much the only occasion when you can use the word "sag" and have women take it as a compliment. In fact, given the universal eschewing of brassieres by the female attendees, they might as well call the awards the Saggies. Not only would the title fit, but it would look as though someone involved had a sense of humor.

Right, Marg Helgenberger?

What makes the Saggies — I thought of it, I might as well put it to good use — interesting to watch is the fact that, because all of the awards are given to actors, we only have to see the people onstage whom we tune in to watch. Let's fact it — no one outside of the winners' immediate families enjoys seeing some writer, producer, or composer pick up a statuette at the Academy Awards. It's the actors — of both male and female varieties, dressed to the nines — we want to check out. The SAG Awards give us all of the meat with none of the filler, so to speak.

The SAG Awards also are the only Hollywood honors that acknowledge the collective talents of an entire ensemble of actors. To win Best Picture at the Oscars, a film has to hit on all cylinders — great cast, great script, great direction. At the Saggies, since only the acting counts, a film or TV show can be recognized for the overall excellence of its cast, even if the other facets of the production aren't up to the same lofty standard. (Hence the Saggie for the actors in Little Miss Sunshine, a picture that no one in his or her right mind believes will win the biggest Oscar prize.) It's a concept I'm surprised that neither the Oscars, nor the Emmys, nor the Golden Globes have embraced.

So who won the individual Saggies, you ask? All of the frontrunners for the Academy's film acting categories picked up hardware: Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, and Eddie Murphy. Could this actually be the year that three of the four top acting Oscars go to African American performers?

In the television categories, the favorite suspects — House's Hugh Laurie, Ugly Betty's America Ferrera, and 30 Rock's Alec Baldwin — bagged three of the four Actors. The one wild card was Chandra Wilson of Grey's Anatomy, who seemed as stunned as anyone else in the room when her name was called for Best Female Actor in a Drama Series.

The Lifetime Achievement Actor (also known as the "Aren't You Dead Yet?" Award) went to Julie Andrews — who, thankfully, neither removed her top (anyone remember S.O.B.?) nor attempted to sing.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Last call for The Grab Bag

When people learn that I'm a former Jeopardy! champion, one of the first questions they often ask is, "How did you learn all that stuff?"

The man responsible for at least part of the answer died last week, at age 79.

For nearly 40 years, Louis Malcolm (L.M.) Boyd wrote a weekly newspaper column presenting arcane facts distilled for a mass audience. The column was published under various names in some 400 papers nationwide at the time Boyd retired in December 2000, but in the San Francisco Chronicle — where I first discovered it in the mid-1970s — it was known as The Grab Bag.

The Grab Bag appeared every Sunday in the Chronicle's "light reading" section, the Sunday Punch. In it, one found a veritable treasure trove of trivia, esoterica, results of various surveys, and factoids of every description, reported with conciseness (most Grab Bag items were only a sentence or two in length) and gentle humor by the redoubtable Boyd. You can browse a sampling of typically Boydian nuggets here.

Boyd started writing his trivia column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (where Boyd used the nom de plume Mike Mailway) in 1963. He and his wife Patricia began syndicating the piece nationally in 1967.

Boyd often salted his columns with wry observations on the interaction between the sexes, which he attributed to "our Love and War Man" — in reality, these tidbits came from Mrs. Boyd.

Although I can't point to a specific instance with absolute certainty, I have no doubt that, at more than one juncture in my Jeopardy! career, I came up with a correct response to a clue only because I had once encountered that very morsel of obscure information in a Grab Bag column.

Thank you, Mr. Boyd.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Selena's grace, Hippolyta's strength

Comic Art Friday reminds you that this coming Wednesday, January 31, is National Gorilla Suit Day. It's time to bust out that monkey drag and bust a move. You know you want to.

Not long ago, someone browsing my themed comic art galleries e-mailed me the question, "Why Mary Marvel?" I get that query quite often, actually, when people look through my art collection. No one ever asks why I collect Wonder Woman images. I've yet to have anyone inquire as to why I have themed galleries dedicated to Ms. Marvel (though some think it's peculiar that I prefer her original costume to her current one... don't you, Bob Almond?) or the Scarlet Witch, or even Supergirl (the latter of which is dedicated to my daughter, as I've explained previously). I suppose there's a subtle yet obvious reason why I collect art featuring the Black Panther or Storm, so I never get asked about those, either.

My Mary Marvel collection, on the other hand, always seems to have people scratching their heads.

The answer is simple. To my mind, Mary Marvel represents everything that used to be great about superhero comics, and is now largely lost. Despite her enormous power, Mary remains kindhearted and innocent — as were the comics of my youth, for the most part. Mary recalls to me the wonder of superhero fantasy that I first experienced when I picked up my very first comic book — a secondhand copy of Fantastic Four Annual #3 — in those long-distant and halcyon mid-1960s: The idea that an average, otherwise unremarkable person could be endowed with superhuman abilities, and would dedicate those abilities to championing good and helping those in need.

Most superheroes embodied that fantasy, back in the day. Many lost their way in recent decades, becoming as dark-tempered and brutal as the evildoers they're supposed to be fighting. But every time I look at a picture of Mary Marvel, I remember the superhero universe as it was, and as I hope (without much reason for optimism) that some aspects of it might be again someday. Even if I have to write those stories myself.

Besides which, artist Marc Swayze's original concept of Mary Marvel — a gently feminine twist on C.C. Beck's classic Captain Marvel costume — remains one of the most elegantly simple character designs in the history of superhero comics.

Mitch Foust, one of my favorite pinup artists of the present day, does a nice job here of capturing Mary's sweetness and light — along with a soupçon of girlish flirtation — in this drawing.

One of the qualities I enjoy in Mitch's work — aside from the grace and fluidity of his pencil line — is that his women are undeniably sensual, but generally in a manner appropriate to the character. I'm pleased that his rendition of Mary retains a youthful, coquettish air that steers clear of blatant cheesecake.

Completely different in style from Mitch's piece, but no less striking, is this sketch Bay Area artist Nathan Gilmer created at a recent "Starving Artist Saturday" event at my local comic shop, Comic Book Box.

Nathan's poetic naturalism made him an excellent choice to add another Mary to my gallery. I like the fact that his Mary possesses the anatomical proportions of a genuine teenager, rather than of a Hawaiian Tropic swimsuit model. I also like the subtle touch of drama and power Nathan lent to his depiction here. The kid's got talent.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Don't forget: Wednesday is National Gorilla Suit Day!

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thinking Thursday

It's a nippy January Thursday, and as is often the case, I stand appalled by the activities of my fellow humans...
  • The Ford Motor Company reported today that they lost $12.7 billion — that's billion with a "b" — last year. How does that happen? How do you lose $12.7 billion? There are entire countries that don't have access to that level of cash flow.

    Ford says that about $9.9 billion of the loss can be attributed to its newly established company-wide cost-cutting program. Guys, I'm no Milton Friedman here, but I don't think that program is working.

  • Responding to questions about the White House's insistence on pursuing its intended troop increase in Iraq in the face of a Senate resolution against the idea, Vice President Dick Cheney said:
    The fact is, we can complete the task in Iraq. We're going to do it.
    What's the weather like on your planet, Dick?

  • Scandal is brewing Down Under, where the city council of Melbourne hired private investigators to gather evidence against illegal brothels by having sexual relations with the masseuses at government expense. Said one detective:
    The girl is naked. The investigator is naked. You receive an oil massage and, at the end of it, you receive hand relief and that's it.
    Sounds like they take the term "private investigator" literally down in Kangaroo Country.

  • Caucasian students at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas displayed the redness of their collective necks by throwing an MLK Day party featuring fried chicken and malt liquor, Afro wigs, and costumes imitating black rappers and Aunt Jemima. (You can check out the photo array over at The Smoking Gun.)

    Perhaps someone thought MLK meant Mindless Losers for the Klan instead of Martin Luther King.

  • At the Oakland Raiders' press conference introducing new head coach Lane Kiffin, owner Al Davis took offense when a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News referred to the Raiders as "a black hole for coaches." Darth Davis raged:
    This isn't a black hole for coaches. It's a great opportunity for coaches. We know how to win here.
    Hey, Al: Your team was 2-14 in the NFL season just concluded. If the Raiders know how to win, you're keeping that knowledge more secret than the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

  • Ellen DeGeneres's ex-squeeze Anne Heche is dumping her husband of five years in favor of her Men in Trees costar, James Tupper. I guess Anne's decided to give the old hetero thing one more whirl.

    In apparently unrelated developments, Heather Graham and Bridget Moynihan will play lesbian lovers in the upcoming film Gray Matters, while former Friends costars Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston get in a little girl-on-girl action in the March 27 episode of Cox's new series, Dirt. So maybe the old hetero thing just isn't for everyone.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Brandy, you're a fine girl, but a lousy driver

Brandy — noted pop singer, sitcom star, and David Hasselhoff sidekick — was reportedly involved in a freeway accident last month in which a 38-year-old mother of two was killed.

According to the muckrakers at, Brandy told witnesses at the scene that the crash, in which Brandy's 2007 Land Rover apparently rear-ended the Toyota driven by the deceased victim, was her fault.

Brandy's publicist released this statement today:
Brandy was involved in a car accident December 30, 2006 in Los Angeles, where there was a fatality. She wishes to publicly express her condolences to the family of the deceased. Brandy asks that you respect the privacy of everyone involved at this time.
Reading the subtext:
Brandy hopes the deceased's family doesn't sue her britches off before a financial settlement can be reached.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Academy Award nominations: Dreamgirls need not apply

For the second year in a row, a film many pop culture observers expected to contend for the Best Picture Academy Award was denied even the courtesy of a nomination.

Last year, the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line was dealt a surprising shutout from Best Picture (as well as Best Director and Best Screenplay) consideration. Today, Dreamgirls, the hit musical based on the Broadway show suggested by the career of Diana Ross and the Supremes (say that three times fast), missed the top Oscar cut, despite being nominated for eight other awards (three of which are Best Original Song, and none of which are Best Actor, Best Actress, or Best Director). This despite Dreamgirls' Best Film, Comedy or Musical victory at the Golden Globes earlier this month.

Of the five nominated films, Babel, the Globes winner for Best Film, Drama, has to be considered the early favorite. Interestingly, Clint Eastwood's World War II drama, Letters From Iwo Jima, which won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film (the dialogue is in Japanese), isn't nominated in the corresponding Oscar category (mostly because of different rules for choosing the category's nominees), though it did make the Best Picture field.

It's a remarkably diverse Oscar ballot this year, perhaps more so than in any other previous award season. The nominated performers include five black actors — Best Actor candidates Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) and likely statuette awardee Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland); Supporting Actor nominees Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) and Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond); and Supporting Actress nominee Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) — two Latina actors, Penélope Cruz (Best Actress nominee for Volver) and Adriana Barraza (Best Supporting Actress nominee for Babel); and an Asian actor, Babel's Rinko Kikuchi, nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category.

Add Best Director nominee Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and Best Original Screenplay candidates Guillermo Arriaga (Babel), Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), and Iris Yamashita (Letters From Iwo Jima), and one could almost be fooled into thinking that the Academy is becoming color- and culture-blind in its dotage.

Good luck to all the nominees when the gold-plated naked guys are distributed on Sunday, February 25.

Okay, all the nominees except Sacha Baron Cohen and crew, whose Borat picked up an inexplicable nod in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Diversity doesn't have to be quite that diverse.

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What's Up With That? #42: Baby, it's cold outside

It's a brisk 28 degrees Fahrenheit today in our little burg. Still air, therefore no wind chill factor, but chilly nonetheless.

This morning, after I dropped my daughter at school, I saw a young woman walking onto campus wearing a paper-thin cotton shirt with three-quarter-length sleeves, and flip-flops on otherwise bare feet. Up the block, along came a girl in a sleeveless tank top with nothing covering it. Also joining the morning trudge to high school were several boys and girls whose only upper body garment was a T-shirt.

Now, this isn't a particularly affluent community, but neither do we have many residents living in extreme poverty. Even the poorest of kids owns at least one hoodie.

So why would these kids choose to freeze? Is a sweatshirt or jacket that uncool?

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Monday, January 22, 2007

My homework was never quite like this

This week, our coveted Mary Kay Letourneau Award goes to 30-year-old Colorado social studies teacher Carrie McCandless, who's mulling over a plea bargain after getting caught drinking and canoodling with a 17-year-old male student.

According to the Denver Post, McCandless was chaperoning an overnight field trip to a YMCA camp ("You can do whatever you feel") last October, when she and the unnamed student exchanged various and sundry carnal pleasures in her cabin. (Apparently Carrie confused the words "chaperone" and "courtesan." A common error.)

The student later told police that he and McCandless also "made out" once in the parking lot of a local Sam's Club. This young man has already learned an important romantic secret: For many women, nothing is a greater turn-on than discount merchandise.

In a note to her student-slash-paramour, McCandless told the young Lothario that steaming up the cabin windows with him was "totally fun." Obviously, McCandless perfected her educational philosophy at Ridgemont High.

Somewhere in America, David Lee Roth is grinning from ear to ear.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

We built this City on rock and roll

It being our anniversary and all, KJ and I spent yesterday hanging out in The World's Coolest City. (You do know that's San Francisco, right? Who would go to Honolulu just for a day trip?) We cruised Pier 39, strolled Fisherman's Wharf, then headed downtown to see the new Westfield Centre and Union Square. As you can tell, unlike many locals, we've never been too snobbish to trek through all of the touristy stuff now and again, because, what the hey, we like the touristy stuff now and again.

So in case you're contemplating a visit to Baghdad by the Bay (it used to be a nifty nickname when the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined it decades ago, but of course Herb had no idea how that whole Baghdad thing would turn out) sometime in your immediate future — or you're a Bay Area resident who's amenable to climbing down off the old high horse once in a blue moon — herewith follow a few random notes on our little excursion.
  • Yesterday, Pier 39 celebrated the 17th anniversary of the unexpectedly permanent arrival of the sea lion pod that has inhabited the pier ever since. The sea lions appeared to be observing the auspicious occasion by napping in the sun. Which is, so far as I can determine, pretty much what the sea lions at Pier 39 do every day, tourist attraction or no.

  • We ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, whose San Francisco branch is virtually indistiguishable from any of the other branches of the chain. The Hard Rock relocated to Pier 39 a while ago from a truly miserable location on busy Van Ness Avenue, a spot far distant from most of The City's major tourist venues and parking-challenged to boot. Coolest memorabilia item at the SFHRC: the black fedora Michael Jackson wore in his "Smooth Criminal" video. Who knew then that the whole "smooth criminal" thing wasn't just a song title?

  • Pier 39 is home to a collectible cutlery shop humorously dubbed We Be Knives. This dingy, poorly lighted hole in the wall is home to a dazzling array of sharp steel objects capable of sending a connoisseur like myself into paroxysms of envy. I was surprised to see that the place sells balisongs (Filipino butterfly knives), given that such items are legal to own in California, but illegal to carry on one's person. I wonder whether a knowledgeable police officer could write you a ticket the moment you stepped out of the store after purchasing one.

  • Sad observation: The quality of the resident street performers at Pier 39 has either deteriorated over time, or we just happened to catch the comedy juggler on a bad day.

  • Delicious irony: The odd juxtaposition of chain restaurants Hooters and In-N-Out Burger on Fisherman's Wharf. Of course, just being able to write a sentence that contains both "Hooters" and "In-N-Out" is amusing in itself. But the irony derives from the fact that Hooters prides itself on being a testosterone-fueled bastion of lustful objectification, while In-N-Out is a family-owned outfit famed as much for its squeaky-clean image and the proselytizing of its devoutly religious owners as for the quality of its hamburgers. In-N-Out is the only chain restaurant of which I'm aware that prints Bible references on its packaging materials (sandwich wrappers, soft drink cups, etc.). You've gotta know that the In-N-Out people passed a kidney stone when they learned that a Hooters was moving in next door to one of their burger joints.

  • The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which oversees the preservation of Alcatraz Island, is apparently mounting a major fund-raising push to restore the long-decommissioned prison and current sightseeing location. I did my civic duty by purchasing an overpriced "Save the Rock" coffee mug. Al Capone and Robert Stroud thank me.

  • I also bought a new pair of sneakers at the Wharf's Payless Shoe Source. My feet thank me.

  • Given the eerily identical selections of merchandise in most of the souvenir shops along the Wharf, I would not be at all surprised to discover that the same guy owns all of them.

  • Westfield Centre, the new shopping mall on Market Street, lives up to its advance billing as one of the spiffiest commercial spaces on the planet. It's also one of the most confusing to navigate.

  • The men's rooms at the Westfield Bloomingdale's are much nicer than those at Macy's in Union Square. Just in case you happen to be downtown, and need a pit stop. In fact, I'm going to call the place Bathroomingdale's from now on. (I'd imagine that the facilities at Neiman Marcus are nicer than either Bloomie's or Macy's, but I didn't have to go while we were in there.)

  • From what I can tell, Mayor Gavin Newsom's highly touted efforts at getting the homeless folks off downtown streets are having zero effect.

  • We dined, as we usually do when we're in the neighborhood, at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant atop Macy's. The Jamaican black pepper shrimp was excellent, as was the vanilla bean cheesecake. You can ask for Amy's table, and tell her your Uncle Swan sent you.

  • Every time we eat at the Cheesecake Factory, I find myself at some point mesmerized by the neon sign of Harry Denton's Starlight Room nightclub across Union Square. I have no idea what the attraction is, but that darned thing commands my attention like a candle flame draws moths.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Change their minds, and change the world

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to KJ, who effective this date has been Mrs. Me for exactly 22 years now. Anyone within sniffing distance of sanity will rightly wonder how a woman could survive living with a certifiable nutcase like me for that long.

Did someone say Wonder Woman? (If I am not the Sultan of Segue, no such potentate exists.)

We feature a pair of nifty pinups of our favorite Amazon today, both courtesy of veteran comic artist Dan Adkins. First, a classically styled pose:

Then, this moody work that captures Diana in a weary, tension-fraught posture. Adkins beautifully conveys the frustration and resignation in her expression and body language.

Both of these pieces showcase Adkins's pristine line work and absolutely flawless inking. Seen up close and in person, his blacks are so solid that you could practically fall into them.

It's no secret that I rank Mr. A. high on my list of the most underrated and underappreciated artists in the history of the medium. He might not have been the most compelling storyteller ever — which may have been part of the reason he became better known as an inker rather than as a penciler, even though he did plenty of pencil art back in the day — but the purity of his draftsmanship stands up to anyone's. And his inking? As I said: Flawless.

The very first artwork I acquired for my Wonder Woman gallery was, not coincidentally, a portrait of Diana by Dan Adkins. This one, in fact.

It's rare that I would own three images of the same character by the same artist, in the same medium. But when you observe the different emotional qualities in each of these drawings, you'll understand why they're all essential to my "Temple of Diana."

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Thanks for stopping by.

Happy anniversary, KJ. You're a wonder.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dunleavy dunleft, and duntaken Murphy with him

White men can't play.

Not all white men, mind you — just Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy.

It simply cost Golden State Warriors vice president Chris Mullin — a white man who, in his day, could play with the best of them, as a member of the original Dream Team USA — a couple of ginormous contracts totaling $80 million before he figured this out.

Now, at long last, Mullin has sent Dunleavy and Murphy packing for Indiana, along with Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod. In exchange, the Warriors get one legitimate player, Al Harrington; one legitimate pain in the gluteus maximii, Stephen Jackson; one Lithuanian with potential, Sarunas Jasikevicius (because you can never have too many guys with names like Sarunas Jasikevicius on your team); and a roster-phantom named Josh Powell.

The Warriors have been after Harrington for a while, and should prove lucky to get him. He can fill it up, yank down boards, and even play defense — a concept completely alien to Mike Dunleavy. In fact, had the Warriors been able to unload Murphy and Dunleavy for Harrington straight up, it still would have been a good deal. Add Jackson, who'll contribute if he can stay out of courtrooms and strip clubs, and Jasikevicius — Warriors coach Don Nelson has had success grooming Lithuanian players before, going all the way back to the original Sarunas, former Warrior Marchiulionis.

Incidentally, Al Harrington, the basketball player, is no relation to Al Harrington, the Samoan American actor and one-time high school football star who played detective Ben Kokua, one of Steve "Book 'em, Danno" McGarrett's henchmen, on the long-running police drama Hawaii Five-O.

Just in case anyone was confused.

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It's a holiday somewhere

Someone gifted me recently with a whole bagful of assorted coffees — an offering always certain to warm the cockles of my heart. If indeed my heart has cockles. Or if my...

Well, never mind.

Anyway, today I'm sampling a rather tasty flavored blend called Holiday Cheer, produced by Gloria Jean's Gourmet Coffees. This seasonal variety marries a full-bodied Arabica roast with hints of cinnamon and buttered rum. (I might enjoy it even better if the flavoring was toned down just a smidge, but that would be nitpicking.)

As I've just discovered, Gloria Jean's Holiday Cheer drinks as nicely with a bagel as it does with a sticky bun. According to the package, Gloria Jean's Holiday Cheer is a kosher product. So I suppose Hanukkah might be one of the holidays for which it would be appropriate to brew a pot.

Or even St. Anthony's Day, which today happens to be. All I know about St. Anthony is that he is the patron saint of herpes. Seriously. (I guess old Tony must have been close to the tail end of the line when they handed out patronages.) He was also Egyptian, which makes sense — I might have figured they'd assign the herpes job to the African guy.

Some things never change.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Do you take one Golden Globe, or two?

Just for the record: My globes are not golden — they're frozen.

It's 24 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, here in what's supposed to be balmy northern California. Yes, I realize that those of you in the Midwest who have icicles dangling from your noses are thinking that 24 degrees sounds like a vacation in Jamaica. But for us warm-climate pantywaists, this is wicked cold.

Speaking of 24: Is there a compelling reason why the second half of the four-hour season premiere always gets scheduled opposite the Golden Globe Awards? Someone in Hollywood hates me. (Not you, Trebek. We have an understanding.)

At any rate, those funloving folks at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed out their annual Golden Globes last night. Among the highlights of the mutual admiration society banquet:
  • The easiest win of the night had to be Forest Whitaker's triumph for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama. When two of the other nominees in an acting category are Leonardo DiCaprio (for both Blood Diamond and The Departed), the third is Peter O'Toole in a movie no one heard of, much less saw, and the fourth is Will Smith — an underrated actor, but no Forest Whitaker — heck, I could have won if I'd made a movie last year.

  • From the What Were They Thinking? Department: Sacha Baron Cohen winning Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy for Borat. I'm guessing it was because Cohen was essentially playing a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

  • Is it just my imagination, or does Renée Zellweger always look as though she smells something nasty?

  • I know they've both won practically everything it's possible for an actress to win, but it still felt good to see Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren pull down the Best Actress awards for film comedy and drama, respectively. Nice to see that someone recognizes that talented women remain worthy of great film roles past the age of 35.

  • So how do you feel if you're the great Jack Nicholson, nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama, and you lose to Eddie Murphy? Knowing Jack, you're probably too blotto to care.

  • Speaking of saucy Jack, his daughter Lorraine served the honors as Miss Golden Globe. (Every year, the HFPA selects a second-generation starlet to hand the trophies to the presenters on stage. Such later luminaries as Laura Dern, Joely Fisher, and Melanie Griffith started their careers as Miss Golden Globe.) A word of advice to young Ms. Nicholson: No matter what Dad's ex-girlfriend Lara Flynn Boyle tells you, hon, a cheeseburger now and again ain't gonna kill you.

  • Congratulations to former American Idol also-ran Jennifer Hudson, who netted what will surely be the first of multiple awards for her performance in Dreamgirls. Take that, Simon Cowell!

  • Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima won as Best Foreign Language Film. Later, California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger hobbled out on crutches to display his award-winning form as Best Foreign Language Politician.

  • Warren Beatty received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Mr. Shampoo gave a ludicrous, rambling acceptance speech — I think he'd been chugging cocktails with Paula Abdul before the show — that seemed to last a lifetime, or at least as long as a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular.

  • House's Hugh Laurie capped his memorable acceptance speech from last year with yet another brilliant spiel when he returned for his second Best Actor, TV Drama trophy. They should let Laurie win every year, just to see whether he can keep topping himself. The guy should hire out to coach the other nominees on how to deliver a killer speech.

  • Nice to see both Kyra (One Degree from Kevin Bacon) Sedgwick and America (the Beautiful) Ferrera snag the TV Best Actress awards. Not only because they're talented performers who deserve the accolades, but also because it gave them the opportunity to step out of their plain-Jane TV roles and let the world see how gorgeous they really are. Both Sedgwick and Ferrera seemed genuinely excited and grateful to have won, and I, for one, was happy for them.

  • On the subject of America Ferrera, was I the only person in the audience not surprised that Ugly Betty scored the Best TV Comedy award? Remember who the voters in this venue are — foreign journalists. Ugly Betty is based on a telenovela that's been a huge hit in Latin America. It was probably the most easily relatable show in the category for many members of the HFPA.

  • Three of my favorite current TV series — Heroes, Big Love, and the aforementioned 24 — were nominated in the Best TV Drama category. All lost to the pretentious soap opera claptrap that is Grey's Anatomy. I told you Hollywood hates me.
And now, we present SSTOL's annual Golden Globe Fashion Awards:
  • What's Up With That Dress? Award: It's a tie! Our first honoree is Cameron Diaz, who not only dunked her head in a bucket of Shinola before the event, but also came disguised as either a Swiffer duster or a marine tube worm, I'm not sure which.

    Not to be outdone, nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Best Supporting Actress for Babel) appeared in a frock that looked as though she was preparing to stuff an truckload of pink aspirin bottles.

  • What's Up With That Suit? Award: Jeremy Irons, who apparently could not be bothered to change out of his bathrobe and pajamas to pick up his Golden Globe.

  • The "She's Not My Granddaughter, She's My Wife" Award: Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, proving yet again that a fat wallet and Viagra trump youth and good looks any day of the week, and especially on the red carpet. The hand that robs the cradle is the hand that rules the world.

  • Giving New Meaning to the Term "Golden Globes" (also known as the Drew Barrymore Award): We'll let the people decide. Dreamgirls' Beyoncé Knowles?

    Or Heroes' Ali Larter?

    Oh, what the hey — let's make it a two-fer.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Happy Monday, and remember to drink your MLK

I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.

I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that even amid today's motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.

I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.

I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.

I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent, redemptive goodwill proclaimed the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid."

I still believe that we shall overcome!

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 1964

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Prowling for Vipers

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of legendary animator Iwao Takamoto, who passed away this week at age 81.

Like thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, Takamoto spent the World War II years in California's Manzanar internment camp. While at Manzanar, he honed his skills at drawing. After the war, Takamoto landed a job with Disney, where he worked as an animator and design artist on such classic films as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Takamoto joined Hanna-Barbera in the early 1960s, where he designed the characters for numerous cartoon series, including Josie and the Pussycats, Wacky Races, and most memorably, Scooby-Doo. He also directed the 1973 animated feature film version of Charlotte's Web.

Mr. Takamoto will be missed, but his work lives on.

Some weeks back, I spent one Comic Art Friday pondering the whereabouts of former Marvel Comics artist M.C. Wyman. I ponder no more. Not only has the elusive Mr. Wyman resurfaced — he recently posted several new sketches for sale on eBay — but he was gracious enough to place his inimitable stamp on my ever-popular Common Elements gallery with a new commissioned artwork. Here, Wyman brings together two characters from Marvel's past: the Prowler and Viper.

The Prowler began his costumed career as a villain, appearing first in one of the most fondly recalled comics from my youth, Amazing Spider-Man #78 (November 1969). The character made a dramatic impression on me because behind the Prowler's mask lived a young black man named Hobie Brown. At that time, African Americans were almost as scarce in comic books as at, say, a country and western jamboree. A black villain, in particular, was practically unheard of. The Prowler may have been among the first.

Hobie didn't remain a villain for long. With Spider-Man's encouragement, the Prowler quickly reformed, becoming one of the Wall-Crawler's best friends and staunchest allies — even donning the famous Spider-Man costume as a decoy on at least a couple of occasions. He has resurfaced several times over the years, most notably in a solo Prowler miniseries in 1994, and again most recently in Marvel's current megaevent, Civil War.

I've always retained a soft spot for the Prowler — so much so, in fact, that one of the very first purchases I acquired for my comic art collection was a recreation of that classic cover to Amazing Spider-Man #78. This recreation was drawn in 2004 by comics industry legend Jim Mooney, who inked the original ASM #78 art. (John Romita Sr., Silver Age Spidey artist and later Marvel's art director, drew the original pencils.) You'll notice a few subtle differences from the actual cover, but I think Mooney — who's in his mid-80s and still drawing up a storm — did a bang-up job of revisiting this landmark piece of Marvel history.

I was thrilled when MC Wyman agreed to depict the Prowler in my latest Common Elements commission. Paired with Hobie is the mysterious Viper, a longtime Marvel villainess who first surfaced in the same year as the Prowler, albeit a few months earlier (in Captain America #110, February 1969).

Known at first by the code name Madame Hydra, this empress of evil (whose real name, so far as I'm aware, has never been revealed in the comics) later took the nom de guerre Viper, and so she is called to this day. The character appeared — with a different identity and backstory — in the cheesetastic late '90s TV movie Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., starring David "The Hoff" Hasselhoff in the title role.

The astute among you have already figured this out, I'm sure. But for those coming late to the party, who may be wondering what common element the Prowler and Viper share: Think sports cars. Think Chrysler.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Seven for the RockHall

Just in case we haven't had enough Hall of Fame chatter here this week, what with posts on the latest inductees into the Rock and Roll and Baseball Halls, someone asked me today what performers I believe ought to be in the RockHall, but aren't there yet. After all, I always mention the worthy players who fall short of election to Cooperstown every year.

The difficulty, of course, is that evaluating musical performance is infinitely more subjective than assessing athletic prowess — especially in a sport such as baseball, where statistics can be obtained for even the most obscure or minute aspect of the game.

On the other hand, I love a challenge.

Therefore, here's a brief, far from comprehensive list of bands and solo acts — seven in all — I believe should by now have been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I've limited the choices to acts who are already eligible under the Hall's criteria — basically, anyone whose first recording was released more than 25 years ago.

In alphabetical order:
  • Alice Cooper. I was actually surprised to see, when scanning the list of current enshrinees, that Alice isn't in the RockHall by now. Extremely influential even now (ask Marilyn Manson), and hugely popular back in the day.

  • The Doobie Brothers. On the scene forever, with more hits than you can shake your moneymaker at. Maybe the problem is the stylistic dichotomy — the rough-and-tumble biker bar band of their early hits, contrasted against the blue-eyed soul of the band's Michael McDonald period. Maybe it's the near-constant lineup changes (although that didn't keep out, say, Santana). But you can't argue with their level of success.

  • Genesis. Another group I thought was in the RockHall already, but for whatever reason isn't. Genesis, like the Doobies, enjoyed a bifurcated career: first, as a hardcore progressive rock band behind lead singer Peter Gabriel; then, as a more commercial hitmaking trio when drummer Phil Collins stepped to the forefront. The fact that Gabriel, guitarist Mike Rutherford (as leader of Mike + the Mechanics), and especially Collins went on to mammoth solo success doesn't alter the fact that the band itself is worthy of recognition.

  • Heart. Perhaps they're still struggling to overcome the old "Led Zeppelin with bosoms" stigma, but the talent of the Seattle powerhouse built around sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson deserves a place in the Hall. Easily the most storied and successful hard-rock act fronted by a female lead vocalist (Ann) and a female lead guitarist (Nancy) in the history of the genre. If Chrissie Hynde's Pretenders are in the Hall, Heart should be also.

  • Jethro Tull. Baffling again. I can only suppose that the Hall voters are still steamed about Tull winning the first-ever Grammy for heavy metal — which Tull is most assuredly not. A unique assemblage of talent, with one of the most inventive and distinctive frontmen in the business in Ian Anderson.

  • KISS. Go ahead and laugh, but just try and write a history of rock music in the '70s and '80s that doesn't feature them prominently. When a mainstream Hollywood feature film can be made about your fanbase (Detroit Rock City), you're big time, baby.

  • Donna Summer. I realize that some hardliners would be up in arms about the Queen of Disco finding a niche in the RockHall, but when you strip back the glitter-ball bias and concentrate on the talent — not to mention the star power — how do you keep her out? The woman sold in excess of 120 million records, for crying out loud. Somebody thought she was onto something.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Clueless George

Excerpts from President Bush's address to the nation this evening, coupled with your Uncle Swan's idle musings pertaining thereto...

When I addressed you just over a year ago, nearly 12 million Iraqis had cast their ballots for a unified and democratic nation. The elections of 2005 were a stunning achievement. We thought that these elections would bring the Iraqis together, and that as we trained Iraqi security forces we could accomplish our mission with fewer American troops.

"We" thought wrong. Apparently because "we" had never heard the ancient proverb, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." It's impossible to stage elections for three groups of people who've been hopelessly divided by ethnic and sectarian strife for centuries, and expect them all to magically transform into Rodney King overnight. The Shi'a and the Sunni don't want to be brought together. They want to exterminate one another. And both of them want to exterminate the Kurds. All the ballot boxes in all the gin joints in the world won't change that mindset.

But in 2006, the opposite happened.

Well, duh.

The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people -- and it is unacceptable to me.

The difference is that the American people have, by a significant majority, figured out why it's unacceptable.

Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.

Three correct in a row! This could be the beginning of a trend.

It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq.

Welcome to the party. You're four years late.

We benefitted from the thoughtful recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton.

Apparently, "benefitted from" is not synonymous with "acted upon."

In our discussions, we all agreed that there is no magic formula for success in Iraq.

A good thing, too, because I believe Doctor Strange, Zatanna, and Mandrake all washed their hands of this mess a long time ago.

One message came through loud and clear: Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States.

Why is it so hot here? And what are we doing in this handbasket?

For the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq.

The safety of the men and women of our armed forces, however, can take a flying leap off a short pier.

Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.

Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: Baghdad is unsecurable. And American troops should never have been stuck with an impossible task by their Commander-in-Chief.

So America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad. This will require increasing American force levels. So I've committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.

Let me get this straight: The way to stop the violence in Baghdad is providing 20,000 additional targets? Yeah, that'll work. Just like the way to stop smoking is to up your tobacco intake to five packs a day.

Many listening tonight will ask why this effort will succeed when previous operations to secure Baghdad did not.

You cagey mind reader, you.

Well, here are the differences: In earlier operations, Iraqi and American forces cleared many neighborhoods of terrorists and insurgents, but when our forces moved on to other targets, the killers returned. This time, we'll have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared.

Replace the word "Iraqi" with "South Vietnamese," and the above paragraph turns into a quote from Lyndon Johnson, circa 1967.

In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter those neighborhoods -- and Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.

What Prime Minister Maliki actually said was: "It's time for somebody to put his foot down. And that foot... is me." When Maliki speaks, who listens? Not the people with the guns and bombs.

I've made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people.

You can't lose what you don't have.

And it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.

See above.

This new strategy will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations, or IED attacks.

So, if we've already figured out that it's not going to solve the problem, why are we doing it?

Most of Iraq's Sunni and Shi'a want to live together in peace -- and reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible.

Umm... no, they don't. If they did, there wouldn't be violence in Baghdad.

A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations.

True. It involves a time-honored operation known as "getting the heck out of Dodge."

The challenge playing out across the broader Middle East is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of our time. On one side are those who believe in freedom and moderation. On the other side are extremists who kill the innocent, and have declared their intention to destroy our way of life.

Which side is which again? I lose track.

Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue -- and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties. The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will.

That makes one of us.

A democratic Iraq will not be perfect.

Let's rephrase: A democratic Iraq will not exist. In order for democracy to occur, the people have to first understand what democracy is. Then, they have to want it. The people of Iraq neither understand nor desire democracy. In fact, they don't understand why we think they ought to desire it. Democracy is entirely outside their realm of historical experience. Selling democracy to the Iraqis is parallel to selling thong bikinis to the Inuit.

We concluded that to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear the country apart, and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale.

Sort of like what's happening now. Three thousand dead American service personnel counts as mass killing in my book.

If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home.

You left off three key words: "In body bags."

In these dangerous times, the United States is blessed to have extraordinary and selfless men and women willing to step forward and defend us.

Yes, we are. It would be an even greater blessing to us, and to their families, to have them be extraordinary, selfless, and alive.

We mourn the loss of every fallen American -- and we owe it to them to build a future worthy of their sacrifice.

What we owe them is not to add to their numbers without sound reason.

Times of testing reveal the character of a nation.

As though all of life's challenges could be solved with a Scantron sheet and a Number Two pencil.

Now America is engaged in a new struggle that will set the course for a new century. We can, and we will, prevail.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.


Lily Munster rejoins the undead

I don't know whether the role of a vampire on a television sitcom was the legacy by which actress Yvonne De Carlo would have wanted to be remembered.

But it's the one she's stuck with.

Ms. De Carlo, who portrayed Lily Dracula Munster on that hoary chestnut of '60s TV kitsch, The Munsters, died today at age 84. Fans of big-budget spectacle and/or religious cinema will also recall her as Zipporah, the wife of Charlton Heston's Moses, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.

Before the roles in which she gained her dubious immortality, Ms. De Carlo (real name Peggy Middleton, which not only lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, but also would have been easily confused with Penny Singleton, who played Blondie in a series of popular films in the 1930s and '40s; Penny Singleton's real name was Dorothy McNulty, which would not have been easily confused with Yvonne De Carlo) was a contract player at various Hollywood studios, where she tended to be cast in the sort of ethnically ambiguous sex symbol parts that often went to such actresses as Dorothy Lamour and Maria Montez (whose real names were Mary Leta Slaton and María de Santos Silas, respectively... but I digress).

Aside from her two best-known roles, Ms. De Carlo toiled busily in dozens of mostly B-level productions during a lengthy film and television career, ended by age and ill health in the early 1990s.

Truth to tell, I was always a Morticia Addams man anyway.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Tiger and the Iron Man

Congratulations to a pair of worthy superstars — San Diego Padres batting champion Tony Gwynn and Baltimore Orioles iron man Cal Ripken Jr. — upon their election today to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Given that both men garnered support from more than 97% of the eligible electors, I trust that no one has a legitimate argument in either instance. If any players of the modern generation merit Hall inclusion, Ripken and Gwynn stand right at the top of the list. Gwynn's record-tying eight National League batting titles, 3,141 hits, and .338 career batting average (not to mention five Gold Gloves) speak for themselves. If anything, Ripken's a slightly less dominating case — like many baseball aficionados, I think he extended his record-busting streak of 2,632 consecutive games played at the cost of his team's success, especially defensively — but you can't dispute two MVP awards or Ripken's stellar offensive totals as a shortstop (431 home runs, 3,184 total hits).

I'm again disappointed that relief ace Rich "Goose" Gossage and Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice, both of whom are eminently credible as potential Hall of Famers in my estimation, missed the cut. I hope both men ultimately gain election. I'm less hopeful about Andre Dawson, Lee Smith, and Jack Morris, though I'd have voted for all three of them as well.

Sadly, the great news about Ripken and Gwynn is overshadowed by the nonelection of Mark McGwire, who polled only 23.5% — largely because of the groundswell of sentiment against his alleged steroid use. I wouldn't vote to put Big Mac in the Hall of Fame either, but not because of his pharmaceutical habits or lack thereof. To my mind, McGwire was little more than a marginally more successful Dave "Kong" Kingman — a guy with a massive power stroke who, aside from home runs, often couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. A player who, at the peak of his career (1988-91, when McGwire was in his mid-20s), had four consecutive seasons in which he hit .260, .231, .235, and .201 should not be in the Hall of Fame — juice or no juice.

It's regrettable that the suspicions or allegations about steroids — regardless of their foundation — will tarnish the history of an entire generation of baseball players. I heard one sportswriter (Paul Ladewski, of suburban Chicago's Daily Southtown) affirm today that he won't vote for a single player for the Hall of Fame who played during the "Steroid Era." That's unfair. If a guy's a proven user — even though steroids weren't specifically forbidden by baseball rules until just the past couple of seasons, their use was against the law — fine. Deny him the Hall. But don't penalize others against whom there's not a shred of proof that they did anything but play clean.

As always, I'm baffled and incensed by some of the players who landed votes at the bottom of the ballot. Who were the four clowns who voted for Tony Fernandez? Or the three who penciled in Dante Bichette? Did Jay Buhner's mom somehow get hold of a ballot? Otherwise, I can't fathom how that guy picked up his single vote. Nobody voted for Devon White (and rightly so), and he wasn't that much worse a player than Jay "The Bone" Buhner.

Kudos again to Messrs. Gwynn and Ripken. I'm only sorry I had to mention either of their legendary names in the same post with Jay Buhner or Dante Bichette. Never mind Mark McGwire.


Monday, January 08, 2007

Hey hey, my my — the Rock and Roll Hall will never die

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just announced a new gaggle of inductees. Here's how we assess the about-to-be-enshrined:
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The first hip-hop act to be inducted — mostly because the RockHall only considers performers eligible 25 years after their first recorded work — and there probably isn't a better place to begin acknowledging the genre. If DJ Grandmaster Flash (real name: Joseph Saddler) and his crew of MCs (Melle Mel, Kid Creole, Cowboy, Mr. Ness, and Raheim) didn't invent hip-hop, they certainly gave it the flavor that made it the juggernaut it became. I was a college radio DJ when "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," the group's first landmark single, was released, and we all knew then that this was the start of something mammoth. Turns out we were right. (Interestingly enough, Flash himself doesn't actually perform on the group's best-known track, "The Message.")

  • R.E.M. Okay, I'll confess: It took me a long time to grasp R.E.M.'s appeal. The first few records of theirs I heard were just a bit too weird for my (plainly unsophisticated) tastes. It wasn't until the band started cutting more accessible — and, yes, more commercial — fare along the lines of "Stand," "Losing My Religion," and my favorite R.E.M. tune, "Texarkana," that I began to appreciate their musicianship and phenomenal creativity.

  • The Ronettes. Three words: "Be My Baby." No less an authority than Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys once dubbed it "the most perfect pop record of all time." The Ronettes became Phil Spector's launching pad for his innovative, industry-changing Wall of Sound recording technique, which influenced artists from John Lennon to Bruce Springsteen. It'll be interesting to see what mention Spector gets at the induction ceremony. (In case you've forgotten, Spector is scheduled to begin trial next week for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.)

  • Patti Smith. Not a fan myself, but I can't argue with the selection. Frankly, I'm one of the people who often confuses her with Patty Smyth, the lead singer for the '80s band Scandal, and current wife of former tennis superstar John McEnroe. I always liked Patty-with-a-Y better than Patti-with-an-I, anyhow. She was way cuter, and could actually sing. Plus, she turned down the chance to replace David Lee Roth as lead singer of Van Halen. How cool is that? Oh yeah... this is supposed to be about Patti Smith. Umm... "Because the Night" was a good song.

  • Van Halen. Speaking of Eddie, Alex, and company, the chartbusting arena rockers round out this year's RockHall field. When I was in college in L.A. in the early '80s, regulars of the local club scene spoke about Van Halen in the reverential tones most of us reserve for Deity. I suppose now that's appropriate — when it comes to crank-it-up, decibel-busting American hard rock, VH is about as close as it gets. I'm in the minority who liked the band equally well whether Diamond Dave or Red Rocker Sammy stood out front. (It's interesting that the RockHall's official press release mentions both Dave and Sammy but excludes third lead vocalist Gary Cherone, who replaced Hagar in the late '90s. Man, it sucks being Gary Cherone.)

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Playing Tigger makes people Goofy

In Disney's Winnie the Pooh cartoons, Tigger is a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving stuffed tiger who just loves to laugh and bounce around.

In the real world, apparently, Tigger is Evil Incarnate.

A New Hampshire family's home video captures a Walt Disney World cast member, Michael J. Fedelem, applying an armlock and a haymaker to the cheek of the family's 14-year-old son during a photo op. In a statement to local law enforcement, Fedelem claims that he whacked young Jerry Monaco Jr. in self-defense, because the kid was tugging on his costume, causing him to lose his balance.

Watching the video, I can't tell for certain exactly what happened. It's clear that Tigger wheels a mitt on the boy's head, but it's less clear exactly what happened in the seconds leading up to the blow.

That rumbly in my tumbly, however, suggests that a lawsuit is in the offing.

This isn't the first time a Tigger has found himself in hot water at the Happiest Place on Earth. Back in 2004, a Walt Disney World employee named Michael Chartrand was tried and found not guilty in a Florida court, after being accused of fondling a 13-year-old female park visitor while wearing the Tigger costume. About a month after his trial, Chartrand was again accused of inappropriate touching, this time by two female coworkers.

Here's Uncle Swan's advice, kiddies: The next time you want to have your photo taken with a Disney character, stick with Snow White.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Supergroups and Panthers we love

To usher in a brand new year of Comic Art Fridays, I thought I'd begin with a list of five currently ongoing comic series or miniseries that I'm especially enjoying right now. By coincidence, the five books share something in common — each features the adventures of a group of superheroes.
  • Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. I was skeptical when I bought the first issue of this eight-volume miniseries. After six issues, I'm already dreading the impending end of the storyline. The book features updated versions of several heroes with Golden Age pedigrees: The Ray, Phantom Lady, Doll Man, the Human Bomb, Black Condor, and of course, Uncle Sam. The writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti (or "Graymiotti," as they're sometimes known) has crafted a compelling plot featuring interesting twists on old character types. The distinctive, painterly art by Daniel Acuña complements the action perfectly.

  • Agents of Atlas. Another series resurrecting heroes from the distant past — in this case, the 1950s, when the company today known as Marvel Comics was known as Atlas (among other names), Agents brings together the most unlikely assemblage of superdoers since Marvel's 1970s Champions series. Ageless secret agent Jimmy Woo leads a reunited team consisting of a spaceman (Marvel Boy), a goddess (Venus), a simian (Gorilla Man), a robot (M-11), and a merwoman (Namora) through a series of scrapes narrated by a new character, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Derek Khanata. Writer Jeff Parker and artists Leonard Kirk and Kris Justice have taken a kooky concept and spun it into gold. As with Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, I'll be sorry when Agents of Atlas is over.

  • JSA Classified. Although a brand new Justice Society of America series recently hit the stands, I've grown fond of the more personal and intimate short-run stories being told in JSA Classified. The current story arc by writer Scott Beatty and artists Rags Morales and Michael Bair features an old favorite, Doctor Mid-Nite.

  • Heroes for Hire. I'd eagerly anticipated the start of this Graymiotti-scripted series, and I haven't been disappointed in the least. HFH throws together some sadly neglected Marvel characters from back in the day — including the Daughters of the Dragon (bionic-armed Misty Knight and katana-swinging Colleen Wing), the Black Cat, and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu — with such newer heroes as Tarantula and Humbug. Comic Art Friday perennial Al Rio takes over the penciling chores from Billy Tucci and Francis Portela effective next issue.

  • Avengers Next. I'm not a fan of Marvel's various alternate universe series, but I decided to sample this one because Ron Lim is providing the pencils. Am I ever glad I did! Former Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco is crafting a fun, fast-paced, cheerfully old-school superhero yarn, featuring a new generation of young heroes in a possible alternate future. It's everything comics used to be, and rarely are today. As expected, the art by Lim and inker Scott Koblish is energetic and awe-inspiring.
Of course, one thing I always love about comics, and have for some 35 years or so, is the Black Panther. Let's check out some BP art.

My always wonderful hometown comic shop offers frequent "Starving Artist Saturdays," where local comic artists drop in and sketch on-spot commissions for an afternoon. Last Saturday, I dropped by to visit with the artiste du jour, a fast-rising North Bay talent named Paul Boudreaux. Paul kindly drew this gorgeous, strikingly detailed, and huge — the actual image measures 14" x 16" — T'Challa scenario for me.

And, because one Black Panther is never sufficient to satisfy our craving for all things Wakandan, here's another snazzy sketch, drawn in Kirbyesque style by former Milestone Media artist Angel Gabriele.

Go read some comics, willya? Because that's your Comic Art Friday.

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The Verdict Is In: Step Up

It's another Crappy Movie Friday at DVD Verdict, and although I didn't exactly think Step Up was all that awful, my review of the latest hip-hop dance teen romance is available at the Verdict today.

To summarize briefly:
  • If you long for the days of Flashdance, but don't need to see Jennifer Beals wielding a welding torch or shimmying out of her undergarments beneath a bulky sweatshirt...
  • If you wish that Julia Stiles would Save the Last Dance for you...
  • If your six degrees of Kevin Bacon come from having seen Footloose that many times...
  • If you know that The Forbidden Dance means "lambada"...
  • If you felt the Electric Boogaloo during Breakin' 2...
Step Up might just be your plate of oysters.

The only way you'll know for sure is if you read my review.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Actors and actresses we miss

On New Year's Day — seems like an eternity ago, doesn't it? — Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle published an excellent article on the recent trend of actors who, having dropped off the face of the show business map, resurface to acclaim and applause.

Among Hartlaub's examples were Jackie Earle Haley, the former child star (Bad News Bears, Breaking Away) who'll probably be nominated for an Oscar for Little Children, and Thomas Haden Church, the former sitcom actor (Wings, Ned and Stacey) who had more or less retired before his costarring turns in Sideways (one of my favorite films of the current decade, incidentally) and the upcoming Spider-Man 3.

Actors vanish for lots of reasons. Child actors outgrow their cuteness — and their talent — or have difficulty gaining acceptance in adult roles. (Right, Wil Wheaton?) Female actors reach "that certain age" at which Hollywood stops creating good roles for women — although that's changing incrementally, especially as the Baby Boomers age — or leave the spotlight to raise families. Actors of every description simply find that their phones stop ringing, often for reasons that are entirely mysterious. Sometimes they don't get work just because it's been a while since they've had work. Out of sight, out of mind — it happens in show biz as in real life.

All of which got my brain to percolating. Who are some actors I haven't seen in a while, that I'd enjoy seeing making a splashy (or even drippy) return? I've spent random moments over the past few days jotting down a list. For some of these folks, I know why they disappeared — the reasons may appear in the preceding paragraph. For others, I haven't a clue. Some haven't ever completely evaporated, but don't seem to get choice roles anywhere near as often as I think they should, or as they would if I ruled the entertainment industry. (Which I don't. So if your name's on this list, don't call me. I can't help you.)

I did, just for safety's sake, check to make certain that no one I'm about to mention has died. Because that would be embarrassing. As well as a perfectly valid reason for not working.

Phoebe Cates. The stunning young starlet who made red bikinis famous in Fast Times at Ridgemont High married fellow actor Kevin Kline in 1989, and dropped out of acting in the early '90s to raise their kids.

Deborah Foreman. She made Valspeak chic in Valley Girl and limo driving fun in My Chauffeur. Didn't have Cates' range as an actress, but worked the cute perky thing pretty well.

Paul Zaloom. I used to watch his wacky science edutainment series for kids, Beakman's World, with my daughter when she was preschool age. Am I the only one who remembers this show? And whatever happened to Zaloom, who played the title character?

Pamela Sue Martin. Ah, Nancy Drew! (Or Fallon Colby Carrington, if your tastes run more to soaps than sleuthing.) I was reminded of her recently while watching one of those I Love the '70s flashback shows on VH1. Back in the day, I thought she was going to be a huge star. Never really happened, despite an infamous Playboy pictorial.

Michael Paré. A lanky, laconic actor in the young Clint Eastwood mold, he starred in one of my favorite films, Walter Hill's Streets of Fire, as well as the reasonably entertaining Eddie and the Cruisers. Another actor I thought would develop into a megastar, but he's spent most of his career toiling in wretched low-budget action and sci-fi dreck.

Michael Beck. Probably best remembered (not coincidentally, in my case) as Swan, the leader of the title gang in another Walter Hill classic, The Warriors, he costarred with Michael Paré in a decent mid-'80s TV buddy-cop drama called Houston Knights. Like Paré, he never totally vanished, but hasn't worked with the consistency or prominence his early roles suggested.

Jim Kelly. One of the major stars of early '70s blaxploitation, his best role came alongside Bruce Lee in the greatest martial arts film ever, Enter the Dragon. Not merely an actor, but also a genuine karate champion. I keep waiting for Quentin Tarantino to resurrect his career.

Karen Allen. The most amazing pair of blue eyes in the history of cinema, with talent far exceeding the requirements of most of her better-known roles (Katy in National Lampoon's Animal House, Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jenny Hayden in Starman).

Thomas Carter. Never left show biz, just moved into a different and more stable role. After costarring in the '70s TV series Szysznyk and The White Shadow, Carter became a successful director, first in television (Fame, Hill Street Blues, numerous other series), then in feature films (Save the Last Dance, Coach Carter). He was such a talented actor, though, it seems almost a shame to lose him in front of the camera.

Kim Richards. Grew from playing the cute kid in such Disney pictures as Escape to Witch Mountain and No Deposit, No Return to a starmaking turn as the streetwise adolescent in Tuff Turf. Then... nothing. Why didn't she evolve into the second Jodie Foster? Maybe being Paris Hilton's aunt had something to do with it.

Linda Fiorentino. Longtime SSTOL readers knew I'd get to my favorite actress eventually. Yes, I understand she's supposedly hell on wheels to work with. But how can someone with her prodigious talent — she would likely have won the Best Actress Oscar for 1994's The Last Seduction, had not a quirk in Academy rules prohibited the film from being nominated — have made only one film (Kari Skogland's little-seen, but compelling, Liberty Stands Still) in the past seven years?

Stacy Carroll. Her only feature film credit is the thankless role of Corbin Bernsen's scorned wife (who engineers a one-night stand with Charlie Sheen as vengeance on her philandering spouse) in the '80s baseball comedy Major League. She's also one of the most memorable aspects of that movie. I wonder whatever became of her. I hope Bob Uecker didn't scare her off.

Feel welcome to add your forgotten favorites to the comments section.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Unca Lloyd

Most of the people who merit eulogizing in this space are celebrities of one sort or another — whether famous or infamous — and usually significant in my memory or experience in some way.

Today, I memorialize someone who, though not a celebrity in the usual sense of that word, and not particularly famous outside a rather narrowly specific sphere, was by virtue of a few brief interactions significant in my experience, and will remain so in my memory as long as I live.

In the fraternity of barbershop singers, we called him Unca Lloyd.

I knew of Lloyd Steinkamp for several years before I actually met him. He fit that oft-repeated cliché as a person of whom everyone who spoke, spoke fondly. Few people I've known deserved the accolades more. He was a tireless promoter of the hobby he loved, both as an official Barbershop Harmony Society representative for many years, and as an enthusiastic coach and instructor — especially of young people — for many more.

When I at last met the legendary Unca Lloyd, I was astounded that so immense a reputation could fit a man at least a head shorter than I. A boisterous little fireplug of a guy, Unca Lloyd immediately filled any room he entered with his boundless joie de vivre. At any barbershop event he attended, he was always surrounded by folks renewing acquaintances, seeking his advice, or both. Thus, I could hardly believe it when, after a competition in which my chorus had just competed, he buttonholed me and introduced himself.

"I love watching you perform," he said.

Now, I've been praised often on my performing ability. I've been on stage in one form or another all of my life. More than once, judges evaluating my chorus in competition have singled me out for commendation.

But I was never more thunderstruck by a compliment as I was in that moment.

"Do you sing in a quartet?" Lloyd asked me.

"No, sir" I replied.

"Well, you ought to," he said, his eyes never leaving mine. "You've got talent in desperate need of more exposure."

I thanked him profusely, and walked on air for the rest of the day.

A year or two later, I was singing lead in my then-new quartet. Following one of our typically mediocre showings in a contest, Unca Lloyd caught up with me again. "I'm so happy to see you singing in a quartet," he said. "Now you need to be in a better one."

Again, I thanked him, and acknowledged — with absolute sincerity — that I often felt that it was my fellow quartet members who deserved a better lead vocalist. Lloyd would have none of it.

"I see everyone in this Society perform — everyone," he told me. "You're as good onstage as anyone we have right now."

Again, I thanked him. And again, I walked on air for the rest of the day.

That conversation, in one form or another, was repeated at least three times over the next couple of contest cycles. Whenever my quartet competed, I could always count on Unca Lloyd seeking me out to compliment me, and offer a helpful hint or two.

I tell this story, not to flatter myself, but as a reflection of the kind of man Lloyd Steinkamp was. Lloyd knew, coached, and was eagerly sought after by the very best talents in our musical genre. He was an immense fish in our little pond. I, conversely, am an unknown in a Society of around 30,000 singers. I was one face, one tuxedo among a few dozen on a crowded stand of risers; the lead singer in a C-level quartet with no realistic aspirations for greatness. As the pond goes, I hardly qualify as a minnow. It gained Unca Lloyd nothing to single me out for ego-boo, when hundreds of guys with grand reputations and musical gifts dwarfing mine wanted to chat him up.

But he did it anyway.

And I'll bet I was one of several thousand for whom he did.

Lloyd Steinkamp died today after a tough battle with lung cancer. Word of his passing probably won't appear on your evening news, or make the morning edition of your local paper. But it deserves mention here.

I'll miss you, Unca Lloyd.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Today's Final Jeopardy! category is... Five More Years

Okay, so I have good news and bad news.

The good news first: Jeopardy! — America's favorite quiz show® (due in no small part to the substantial sums of cash they've slipped into my pocket over the past 19 years) — has been renewed for another five seasons by its syndicator, King World Productions, an arm of CBS Television Distribution.

Now the bad news: J!'s companion program Wheel of Fortune, one of the most inane game shows ever devised (come on, people — it's "Hangman," for crying out loud!), has also been renewed for five more seasons.

That sound you just heard was Alex, Pat, and Vanna together shouting, "Cha-CHING!"

In all seriousness, when I made my first J! appearances way back in 1988 (and yes, kids, we had color TV by then — indoor plumbing, too), none of us involved with the show would have dared imagine it would still be on the air — never mind the third-most successful program in syndication — after 23 seasons. Today, it's guaranteed to survive at least through its twenty-eighth campaign, by which time my close personal friend Alex Trebek will be measuring his age in geologic time.

Congratulations to all of the nice folks on the Jeopardy! production staff, who now have many more paychecks to look forward to.

Should they ever decide to pitch another one my way, I'd be a fool to say no.

Not that that's a hint, or anything.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

And so we're told this is the golden age

It's 2007. Which would be a terrific year for a new James Bond film, were it not for the fact that one just came out in 2006.

Just another reminder that most of the world doesn't pay attention to the minute details.

I'm not one for making New Year's resolutions, mostly because I know myself well enough to recognize that I wouldn't keep them if I made them, then I'd get down on myself for making commitments to myself that I didn't honor.

Instead, I try to use themes. For 2007, my theme will be "stop thinking, and act." There are a number of things I've been thinking about doing for some time, but haven't applied much definitive action toward accomplishing them. (I have an annoying tendency toward paralysis by analysis. Sometimes, I'm my own worst supervillain.) This year, I'll make a concerted effort to break through the logjam, in at least one or two areas of my life.

I hope that whatever your approach to the coming year may be, it works out the way that you envision.

And I hope we're all here to talk about how it went, next January first. Dick Clark, too. Even if we won't always understand what the heck he's saying.

Oh, by the way...
I am 85% Spider-Man.
I am intelligent, witty, a bit geeky, and have great power and responsibility.

At least, that's what this quiz says.