Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Abby is six

My personal assistant Abby turns six today.

In canine chronology, that's about 40. So she's gaining on me.

Abby would like you to know that gifts of Milk-Bones, large knotted rawhide chew bones, and squeaky toys are always welcome, and greatly appreciated. She says any original comic art you have lying around would be cool, too.

She's still ticked off at Bob Barker about that whole "Have your pets spayed or neutered" business.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What's Up With That? #45: Baby, we were born to run

Sometimes, it's the little asides in a news story that catch my attention.

If you're a fan of American Idol — and perhaps even if you aren't — you've heard about the firestorm of controversy swirling around Idol contestant Antonella Barba (or "Barbarella," as I like to call her). As the Associated Press story goes, photographs of Ms. Barba can presently be viewed at various sites around this here Internet, showing the wannabe superstar topless on the beach, seated on the toilet, and — in some pictures whose veracity is apparently in dispute — engaged in activities that one does not discuss on a for-public-consumption blog like yours truly.

Personally, I couldn't care less about seeing Barbarella in flagrante delicto. It's bad enough that I have to listen to her uninspired attempts at vocal magic on Idol every week, until she gets voted off. I was, however, intrigued by this comment from Mark Dillon, a 17-year-old resident of Antonella's home town, Point Pleasant, New Jersey:
It's the way this town is: Everybody knows everything about their friends. At least half the people in this town have pictures of their friends on the toilet. I've personally seen at least 20. It's only because she’s on TV that they’re online.
Did I understand that correctly?

More than half the residents of Point Pleasant, New Jersey own pictures of their friends sitting on the toilet?

What the Jersey devil kind of town is this?

According to the city's official Web site, Point Pleasant has a population of 18,177. If young Mark Dillon speaks the truth, at least 9,088 of these folks are in possession of photographic evidence of their friends' excretory habits. If one extrapolates logically, it's fair to say that most, if not indeed all, of Point Pleasant's residents can therefore be observed with their trousers around their ankles, if one knows the right computers to search.

To which I can only say: Ewwww.

How did this peculiar local habit get started? Do Point Pleasanters take their own toilet photos, and then circulate them to their pals? Do they take toilet snapshots of each other? Is there a trading system? Do some folks' potty pics garner higher trade value than others? Do people in Point Pleasant emblazon their Christmas cards with images of themselves on the porcelain throne, instead of the family portraits common elsewhere in the U.S.?

Perhaps this isn't just a local phenomenon. Is this practice common where you live, gentle reader? Do you own pictures of your friends on the toilet? And, more importantly, do they have such pictures of you?

Your Uncle Swan wants to know.

He prefers, however, not to see.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Departed: All hope of Oscar excitement

Was that the most boring Academy Awards telecast in history, or what?

I almost need a major jolt of cat poop coffee to wake up after that snoozefest. Great gravy, McGee. I had thought Oscar couldn't get any more dull than last year's low-energy ceremony, but last night's show was like mainlining Lunesta.

To the commentary, quickly, while we're all still reasonably coherent:
  • Ellen DeGeneres once again solidified her reputation in my mind as the least funny big-name comedian I've ever seen. Ellen seems like a charming person, and I'll bet she'd be a delightful best friend and boon companion, but she doesn't make me laugh. A show as big as the Academy Awards needs a huge, room-filling personality at its center. That's why Bob Hope and Johnny Carson were so terrific with the hosting duties. Next year, bring back Whoopi.

  • Oh, and Ellen? Lose the red velour tuxedo. You were just a bow tie away from a barbershop quartet in that getup.

  • Did Jack Nicholson and Britney Spears visit the same hairdresser?

  • I thought the opening film by Errol Morris was fun, but it sure could have used captions so that viewers could identify the participants without a scorecard.

  • What the heck was that huge red bow doing on Nicole Kidman's shoulder? Did she not learn from Charlize Theron's similarly ridiculous outfit last year?

  • When the annual "Dead People" montage concluded, my parting thought was, I'll bet the Academy is darn glad they didn't wait another year to give Robert Altman the Lifetime Achievement Award.

  • That, and — man, Jodie Foster looked smokin' awesome introducing that segment. She and her stunning blue gown deserved a cheerier slot in the program.

  • Speaking of Lifetime Achievement Awards — for pity's sake, people, if you're going to give (a well-deserved) one to Ennio Morricone, and you know that the man doesn't speak much English, hire a presentable interpreter. Don't embarrass him, or a two-time Best Director honoree, by leaving them both to flounder onstage, fishing for the grace note.

  • Good for Martin Scorsese, finally winning a Best Director Oscar. Scorsese is a masterful filmmaker who just happens to make movies that aren't generally to my taste. But as with a great opera singer, I can appreciate the artistry even if I'm not partial to the vehicle. Go back in time 25 years: Who then would have guessed that a quarter-century later, Clint Eastwood would own two Best Director Oscars to Scorsese's one?

  • For that matter, who'd have guessed that Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (who won her first for Raging Bull, Scorsese's breakthrough film), would own three Oscars to his one?

  • Although seeing Eddie Murphy — he of Velvet Jones, Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood, and "Buh-Weet" — win an Academy Award would have been a hoot of the first water, I was glad that Alan Arkin got one while he's still around to enjoy it. Thirty-seven years between nominations is a painfully long time.

  • Forest Whitaker should win something at every awards show, if only because his acceptance speeches this season always perfectly bridged the gap between thoroughly prepared and genuinely heartfelt. Nice guys should finish first more often.

  • Michael Arndt, the guy who wrote the screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, gave a nice acceptance speech, too. Hopefully, that wasn't the only award-worthy script he had in him. Was he really Matthew Broderick's personal assistant?

  • Props to Jennifer Hudson for having the presence of mind not to thrust her Oscar at the camera and scream, "Suck THIS, Simon Cowell!"

  • Props also to Al Gore, for having the presence of mind not to snatch the Best Feature Documentary Oscar from producer Davis Guggenheim's hands and run off with it. You know, the way George W. did with Al's 2000 presidential election.

  • J-Hud has the pipes, and Beyoncé the publicity, but if you ask me, the hottest of the Dreamgirls is Anika Noni Rose. (Memo to J-Hud: Either get a red bra that matches the gown, or make 100% sure the off-white one you choose doesn't creep into your décolletage, girlfriend.)

  • I haven't yet seen Happy Feet, the winner for Best Animated Feature, but it's tough to imagine that it could be a better movie than the amazing Monster House.

  • Those little interludes where the shadow mimes formed themselves into visual references to the year's major films were weird, but at least they only lasted a few seconds each.

  • I can't help wondering how Helen Mirren's referring to the Queen as "Elizabeth Windsor" went over at Buckingham Palace.

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All he wants to do is bicycle, bicycle

Congratulations to local hero Levi Leipheimer, who pedaled his way to victory in the Tour of California cycle race that ended yesterday.

Levi, who never trailed at the end of any stage of the race, completed the 539-mile, eight-day Tour in a total time of 24 hours, 57 minutes, and 24 seconds. That works out to an average of 25.6 miles per hour. Levi finished 21 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, a cyclist from Germany.

His legs, I'm told, look fantastic.

There is, apparently, no truth to the rumored connection between Levi and the mysterious John Jacob Leipheimer Schmidt.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The best part of waking up is cat poop in your cup

Here's the sort of thing that gets reported on CBS Radio on a slow news day in late winter...

The most expensive coffee in the world is Kopi Luwak, also known as civet coffee, from certain remote regions of southeast Asia. Kopi Luwak is ground from coffee beans that have been swallowed, then partially digested by a vaguely feline creature known as the palm civet.

In short, Kopi Luwak is cat poop coffee.

You know I love my coffee, but there's no way I'm drinking this.

Roasted Kopi Luwak coffee beans sell for between $120 and $160 per pound from an online outfit called Animal Coffee. For the truly adventurous, Animal Coffee sells "completely unprocessed natural Kopi Luwak" — in other words, with the beans still embedded in palm civet feces, "exactly as found when hand-collected in the jungles of Sumatra." Oh, joy.

And here I thought my grandmother's chitlins were disgusting.

Incidentally, the palm civet is the animal best known — aside from its coffee-excreting habit — as the original source of the SARS virus that caused so much panic a few years ago. Just in case it wasn't bad enough that people were brewing their morning cup o' joe from chunkies that came out of the darn thing's butt.

What I'm curious to know is, who's buying this coffee? Future Fear Factor contestants with money to burn? Apparently, one possible answer is the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which, according to the Animal Coffee site, included Kopi Luwak as one of the freebies in the swag bags given to nominees and presenters at last year's Emmy Awards.

I wonder whether anyone told the TV stars where their coffee came from.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

A "good girl" great is gone

Today's Comic Art Friday notes with regret the passing of award-winning comic artist Bob Oksner, who died last Sunday at the ripe old age of 90.

Although Oksner worked on a number of superhero books during his five-decade career in comics — including Supergirl and Shazam! — he'll be best remembered by aficionados for his prolific work on DC Comics' comedy titles during the 1950s and '60s, especially The Adventures of Jerry Lewis (originally The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, before the duo's fabled breakup) and The Adventures of Bob Hope. Oksner also cocreated the classic series Angel and the Ape, about an unusual crimefighting partnership — a gorgeous, platinum blonde female detective, and a talking gorilla who drew superhero comics.

In addition to his monumental comedic talents and slick, accessible linework, Oksner was also legendary for his deftness at rendering the feminine form. Translated: If you wanted an artist to draw cute, buxom babes, Oksner was your guy. I dare say that the long-running popularity of the Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comics had less to do with readers' affection for those two comedy giants (although I have it on good authority that The Adventures of Jerry Lewis sold particularly well in France) than with the fact that Oksner routinely populated both books with dozens of attractive, often minimally clad women.

Hey, you don't really think guys read Angel and the Ape just for the talking gorilla, do you?

In honor of Bob Oksner, let's look at a couple of modern examples of what we refer to in the comics biz as "good girl" art. Both of the following pencil drawings are the work of a talented Brazilian artist, Jorge Correa Jr., best known in the States as the artist on the Avatar Press comics based on the TV series Stargate SG-1. As you can see in this Wonder Woman artwork, Jorge knows his way around a classic pinup-style image.

In this pensive portrait of jungle heroine Shanna the She-Devil, Correa shows his flexibility, combining his human figure artistry with a little dinosaur action.

As a point of clarification, we'll note that Correa's Shanna is the recently reimagined version created by Frank Cho — no slouch in the "good girl" art department himself, by the way — and not the more familiar original, who first appeared in the early 1970s. Old-school Shanna or new, I think Bob Oksner would approve.

When DC phased out its humor titles in the early '70s, Oksner moved on to superhero books, often those featuring young female protagonists. His version of Supergirl is recalled quite fondly by those of us with an affinity for the Maid of Steel. I'll wager he'd have enjoyed this sweet sketch by one of my favorite Marvel artists of the '90s, MC Wyman.

RIP, Mr. Oksner. Your work — and especially your wonderful ladies — will live on.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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This just in: Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack has decided to end his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

This also just in: A new poll shows that 92 percent of Americans have no idea who Tom Vilsack is, much less that he's running for President.

The remaining eight percent mistakenly believe that he's the guy who invented the footbag.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lights out, DJ

I was both surprised and saddened to learn this afternoon about the sudden death earlier today of former NBA star Dennis Johnson, at the age of 52.

Apparently, DJ had just concluded a practice with the Austin Toros, the team he coached in the NBA's D-League, when he collapsed. Paramedics worked for 23 minutes to revive him, but were unsuccessful.

I never met Dennis Johnson, but we attended the same university three years apart. I certainly heard a great deal about DJ during my years at Pepperdine. When I arrived in Malibu in the fall of 1979, Johnson had already been a star with the Seattle SuperSonics for three seasons, having just led the Sonics to the NBA Championship against the Washington Bullets in the spring of that year. But at Pepperdine, he was still "our guy."

As the biggest major-sports athlete Pep had produced to that point, DJ's name was still whispered in reverent tones around campus whenever Pepperdine basketball came up for discussion. After only one season at the 'Bu, he'd left an impression as one heck of a hoopster, taking Pep two rounds deep into March Madness in '76. When the Pepperdine Athletics Hall of Fame was unveiled at Firestone Fieldhouse in the early '80s, DJ was in its sophomore group of inductees. Not a bad feat for a guy who opted for the pro draft after only one year.

When I think about DJ as a player, I think of him primarily for his tenacious defense. Many were the guards who credited Dennis as the toughest guy they had to face off against. But he could also put the ball up when he needed to, and he dished the rock with the best of them. He was only the 11th player in NBA history to score 15,000 points and tally 5,000 assists in a career. Larry Bird considered DJ the best guard he ever played with, which is saying something.

My condolences to DJ's family and numerous friends.

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American Idol '07: It's Ladies' Night, and the feeling's right

What a difference a night makes.

Tuesday on American Idol, we were treated to a veritable parade of the overmatched and talent-deficient, when the top 12 male contestants took the stage. Wednesday, the top 12 female hopefuls took that stage back, and collectively blew the roof off the sucker.

My faith in humanity is restored.

Let's meet the ladies, in performance order:
  • Stephanie Edwards. It's never a gift to be first on stage in this sort of thing, but Stephanie came out with sixguns blazing. She'll get branded by some as another diva-style singer — and this year's class is filled with those — but in fact she has a rich, flexible voice that can do a good deal more than just belt. Her voice has personality, which is a difficult quality to achieve. She set the bar high.

  • Amy Krebs. And then Amy came out, and yanked that bar back down to earth. She's everything Stephanie isn't — bland, colorless, and a relentlessly average singer. Amy sang "I Can't Make You Love Me," and seemed determined to prove the lyrics accurate. She will, however, make a speedy exit.

  • Leslie Hunt. Leslie was okay, but just okay. She struggled to hold her own against a song ("You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman") requiring a much more dynamic voice than she possesses. On top of that, her awkward, ungainly stage presence — she moves like a marionette — detracted from what little excitement her vocals produced. Seems like a nice kid, but in over her head.

  • Sabrina Sloan. She's a spitfire, this Sabrina, plus she can really sing. She knows how to handle the mic and work the stage. She definitely came to perform, and did it with flair. She's also the prettiest of this year's contestant class, which has nothing to do with singing, but certainly doesn't hurt.

  • Antonella Barba. Another contestant who picked a bigger song than she was able to sing effectively. She wasn't horrific, but she wasn't memorable either. There's also something undefinably irritating about her stage manner. Hopefully, she won't be around long enough for me to figure out what it is.

  • Jordin Sparks. Jordin's been a favorite in our house since she appeared on America's Most Talented Kids a few years ago. Her father is former NFL star Philippi Sparks, and Jordin has inherited her dad's imposing physique. She started a bit rough and low in her range, but holy cats, did she ever bring it home at the end. Jordin probably has as much natural talent as anyone in the field, and is a sweetheart to boot, but at 17, she's awfully young.

  • Nicole Tranquillo. What was that? Nicole's all attitude and spastic facial mannerisms, without much polish to back it up. She sings with a strident, choppy delivery, and makes faces as though she's either angry or constipated or both. I think there's a voice in there somewhere, but all of the naked aggression makes it hard to tell.

  • Haley Scarnato. Two words: Pageant girl. Haley performs with the obvious, mechanical stagecraft of someone who's been overpraised and overcoached. She's excessively theatrical, and sings with that stereotypical Broadway-style delivery that high school talent shows are riddled with. Also, kid, if you're going to sing a Jim Steinman power ballad, you'd better have a voice like Meat Loaf. And you don't.

  • Melinda Doolittle. Perhaps the most surprising competitor in this Idol class, Melinda's a soft-spoken, self-deprecating little woman with powerhouse pipes behind that mousy exterior. She'll go as far in this field as her personality will allow.

  • Alaina Alexander. Ugh. Just... ugh. Doesn't belong here. Doesn't belong singing, anywhere. Enough said.

  • Gina Glocksen. Gina is this year's edition of Season 3's Amy Adams — the quirky girl with the oddly colored hair and tons of brass. Whereas Amy seemed fun and endearing, however, Gina appears arrogant and a bit nasty. I like her voice (despite the ten-cents-flat climax note) and her stage presence, and I give her credit for choosing a song no one would have expected from her ("All By Myself"). But lose the 'tude, Miss Thing.

  • Lakisha Jones. If Gina is the new Amy Adams, Lakisha is the new Mandisa, with a dollop of Fantasia tossed in for good measure. She's got a titanic voice and knows how to use it. If volume alone counts for anything, she'll hold her own with anyone here. She brought passion and thunder to the stage in a wheelbarrow. It'll be interesting to see her sing something requiring more nuance and less bluster.
Early prediction: This year's American Idol will be female. All six of the women who make the Top 12 will be better than even the best of their male counterparts. I'd say the primary challenge for the ladies could be finding a distinction among several essentially similar talents. Someone who's a bit different from the pack could run away with it all.

Some tough calls here, but I think the top six from the distaff side will include, alphabetically:
  • Gina.
  • Jordin.
  • Lakisha.
  • Melinda.
  • Sabrina.
  • Stephanie.
We'll check back in a few weeks to see how I fared.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

American Idol '07: Bring on the boys

Or don't, because with a couple of exceptions, they're not very good.

But I'll get to that.

It's another season of American Idol, and that means more Randy ("Yo, dawg, it was pitchy, but you worked it out"), more Paula ("Gotta have a bottle of J.D. if you wanna be with me"), more Simon ("That was as dreadful as the hair on my concave chest"), and more Seacrest ("My parents had three children — one boy, one girl, one metro").

Mostly, though, it means more fodder for the 19Entertainment cannon. And from the looks of the top 12 male contestants, that cannon's going to get fired early and often. This could well be the weakest field in Idol history — no Taylor Hicks or Ruben Studdard in this crew, but an awful lot of Justin Guarini wannabes.

Let's run 'em down anyway, just for kicks and giggles. In order of appearance on last night's funfest:
  • Rudy Cardenas. Rudy's one of two Idol hopefuls whom I've actually seen perform live. He sings in a terrific vocal group called M-Pact. Unfortunately for Rudy, that means I know he can do better than the unremarkable cover of "Free Ride" he served up last night. I liked his performance energy, but there wasn't much fire in the vocal delivery.

  • Brandon Rogers. Based on what we've seen of him prior to last night, I think Brandon is one of the top two or three male contenders, not that that's saying much in this group. Last night, though, he chose a song not well suited to his voice, and came in with a so-so performance.

  • Sundance Head. Love the name. The singer? Not so much. I was stunned when Sundance survived Hollywood Week; I'll be even more stunned if he's not one of the first two guys eliminated, in the wake of his oddly Meat Loafesque cover of "Nights in White Satin." I can't stand singers who deliver a song as though they've never taken the time to decipher the lyrics.

  • Paul Kim. Idol loves a contestant with a shtick. Paul's is that he always performs in his bare feet. He needs some kind of hook, though, because his vocals are seriously lacking. Paul's tepid rendition of "Careless Whisper" featured weak singing at both the upper and lower ends of his tessitura. His falsetto is worse than mine, and mine stinks.

  • Chris Richardson. Well, he's no Chris Daughtry. Heck, he's not even a Chris Sligh, whom we'll discuss momentarily. Mostly, he's a good-looking kid with boy-band style and a whiny, nasal voice that wore out its welcome quickly. He'll probably stick around a while, though, because teenage girls will dig him. And they vote.

  • Nick Pedro. Seriously in need of a last name, and voice lessons. Aside from his dull onstage demeanor, he struck far too many flat notes with his breathy, atonal delivery. Nick ought to take up a new hobby, and the sooner the better.

  • Blake Lewis. The other contestant I've seen before — he used to sing in an a cappella group called Kickshaw, which also spawned the career of Dan Schumacher of The Bobs. Blake's a terrific vocal percussionist, and as he proved last night, a pretty decent singer as well. I liked both his performance energy and the resonant tone of his voice. He's a keeper, even if his hairdo makes him look like a soft-serve cone from Dairy Queen.

  • Sanjaya Malakar. This kid gets my "Why is he here?" vote this year. He can't sing a lick, his stage presence is dishwater-dull, and his '70s Teen Beat mop of hair gives me Leif Garrett flashbacks. I'm sure he's a great kid, but he needs to start prepping for another career. And a haircut.

  • Chris Sligh. Idol's tradition of having one contestant each season who looks like a clerk at a comic book shop continues. (I love the staff at my local comic book shop, by the way. But you know what I mean.) This year's edition of Elliott Yamin is Chris Sligh, a Jack Osbourne lookalike who actually appears to have some serious talent. He's already demonstrated some versatility — he auditioned with Seal's ballad "Kiss From a Rose," then hit the stage last night with an uptempo rocker.

  • Jared Cotter. A pleasant-looking young man, and probably the most forgettable vocalist among the guys. Decent enough voice — although he doesn't use it to its fullest potential — but there's nothing distinctive enough about Jared to make either him fan-worthy or sympathetic. Will likely survive the first cut, but not much further unless he busts out some big-league skills soon.

  • AJ Tabaldo. Every now and again on each Idol season, Simon will describe a contestant's performance as "bad karaoke." He didn't say that about AJ's first shot, so I will. A weak, unimpressive singer who's trying way too hard, and is way over his head in this competition.

  • Phil Stacey. Phil got off to an uncertain start, but by the end of the song, he owned it. He's obviously better suited to rock anthems than sensitive ballads, but when it comes together for him, he can bring it. Plus, the guy missed the birth of his baby to audition for Idol — you've got to give it to him for commitment.
No real standouts here, and a sort of general thread of mediocrity throughout. But I've gotta select six of these dudes to move on to the Top 12, so here are the likely suspects, alphabetically:
  • Blake.
  • Brandon.
  • Chris Richardson.
  • Chris Sligh.
  • Phil.
  • Rudy.
Tomorrow night, the ladies. Man, I hope it gets better from here.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Fat Tuesday, and I'm a bit fluffy myself

As I sit here sipping my Starbucks Kenya from my Mickey Mouse coffee mug ("It's really swell!"), I'm thinking.

You know what happens when I do that.

Get on your bikes and ride: The Tour of California bicycle race kicked off here yesterday. The first stage concluded with a 90-bike pileup in downtown Santa Rosa. At our house, we're rooting for local hero Levi Leipheimer, who's currently wearing the yellow jersey — which means that he's either leading the race, or knows where the urinals are located.

We figure Levi deserves a little applause, mostly to make up for what his parents did to his psyche by naming him Levi Leipheimer.

You really can find IT on eBay: For years, I've been hunting for a CD by an obscure '90s a cappella cover band from Washington, DC called Brock and the Rockets. The Rockets — four men, four women — performed at the very first Harmony Sweepstakes finals KJ and I attended, in 1993. In the years since, I've worn out my cassette tape of their sole album, entitled Out to Launch.

A couple of weeks ago, by sheer serendipity, I discovered a copy of the CD on eBay for just $3.99. I'm one happy Solid Rocket Booster. You haven't lived until you've heard Catherine Boland Hackett's hilarious rendition of Julie Brown's "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid."

Life begins on Opening Day: The Giants undergo their first full-squad workouts of spring training today. The wonderful thing about the first day of spring training is that every team is undefeated, every pitching staff looks like the second coming of Cy Young, every batting lineup looks like Murderers' Row, and every infield looks like Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Hope springs eternal in the spring.

Will this be the year Bonds breaks Aaron's record, if he's ever going to? Will Zito flourish in the National League? Will Durham prove he deserved the new contract? Anything seems possible. I loves me some Giants.

Our long national Monday nightmare is over: NBC has finally pulled the plug on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Starting next week, the oddly titled drama The Black Donnellys (odd because, from what I can tell from the previews, none of the characters are black; but then, if they were, the show would probably be called The African American Donnellys) slips into Studio 60's timeslot, by all accounts permanently.

As one of the few hardy souls who stuck it out with Aaron Sorkin and company until the end, allow me to offer three quick insights about what went wrong here:
  1. Studio 60 was a show about comedy writers and comedians, but almost no one in the cast was a comedy writer or comedian. The scripts never gave the one real-life comic in the crew (D.L. Hughley) anything funny to say or do. The actor playing the show's comedy star (Sarah Paulson) was the least funny person in the cast. Why didn't Sorkin stock the crew with genuinely funny people?

  2. The show wasted tons of airtime on relationship stories that lacked chemistry. The romance between the characters played by Paulson and Matthew Perry was doomed from the start — you never believed those two people felt anything for each other that was hotter than day-old oatmeal. The late-blooming love story between Bradley Whitford's producer and Amanda Peet's network executive seemed sillier and creepier every week. The one truly intriguing combination — Nathan Corddry's geeky comic and Lucy Davis's shy English writer — never got off the ground.

  3. The writing, to put it politely, sucked. I can't remember a show that loved to pontificate as much as Studio 60 — unless it was Sorkin's previous effort, The West Wing. There, at least, the White House setting gave the pontificating some gravitas. TV writers and comedians pontificating just came off as gratuitous and self-important.
Mrs. Butterworth, I think I love you: Today is National Pancake Day, which means that you can stop in at your friendly neighborhood International House of Pancakes before 10 p.m. today, and scarf down a free stack of three buttermilk pancakes. In exchange, the IHOP folks ask that you consider making a donation to the Children's Miracle Network, or another charity of your choice. So eat up, flapjack lovers.

(Not that I'm quibbling or anything, but I hardly believe that serving French toast, English muffins, and Belgian waffles qualifies a restaurant as "International." But maybe that's just me. I definitely would not bring up this point with your waitress, should you decide to go for the free stack.)

Happy Mardi Gras! Remember: For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Taking good care of the English Patient

Now we know why Qantas was Rain Man's favorite airline.

Giving new meaning to the term "Down Under," a female Qantas flight attendant proved to actor Ralph Fiennes that her idea of passenger service included more than a bag of pretzels and a magazine. Former police officer Lisa Robertson joined Fiennes in the lavatory and welcomed the two-time Oscar nominee to the Mile-High Club during a January 24 jaunt from Darwin, Australia, to Mumbai.

Says Robertson — who has since been terminated by the airline — "I was a bit shocked that he didn't wear a condom."

If that's the only thing that shocks you, Lisa, you must not have been paying attention. Of course, the fact that Fiennes went to India specifically to promote HIV awareness suggests that perhaps the prophylactically deficient Ralph hasn't been reading the literature.

When the story of her celebrity coffee-tea-or-me first broke, Robertson told Qantas officials that she had rebuffed Fiennes's water closet advances, and that nothing really happened between her and the lecherous Lord Voldemort. Now, Lisa admits that "she was the sexual aggressor," according to Fiennes's publicist.

In case any of you ladies were curious, Robertson reports that King Ralph "is a great lover." That's handy to know, in the event that you, as I, have dozed off during any of the somnolence-inducing flicks Fiennes has starred in over the past decade.

At least we know the man can generate a little excitement, given the right circumstances.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Gung hay (pork) fat choy!

Welcome to the Year of the Pig!

Of course, for some of us, every year is the Year of the Pig.

Actually, I was born in the Year of the Ox. Which, considering that oxen are even more grotesquely humongous than pigs, is appropriate in an obvious yet unflattering way.

Not that we're implying anything about you personally, if you were born in the Year of the Pig.

Or maybe we are.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Nothing compares 2 Britney

Apparently, Britney Spears's new fashion idol is Sinéad O'Connor.

The Britster popped into a tattoo parlor in the San Fernando Valley last night, sporting a freshly chromed dome.

According to the tattoo artist who applied the new ink, Britney added a pair of lips to her wrist.

I'm not convinced that the bald look is really Britney. Next thing you know, she'll be on Saturday Night Live, shredding a photo of the Pope.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Stump the artist!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to fantasy novelist Peter S. Beagle, author of — among numerous other works — the popular The Last Unicorn. The animated film based on Beagle's famous novel is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, with a newly remastered DVD presentation from Lionsgate Entertainment.

What you may not know is that for the past quarter-century, Beagle has been involved in a legal dispute with the producers of The Last Unicorn over his rights and royalties. Although the movie is widely considered a classic — it was one of the first American animated films to be animated in Japan, and many of Japan's best-known animators worked on the project — Beagle has never received a dime of profit from the production.

Beagle's U.S. publishing representative, San Francisco-based Conlan Press, has struck a deal with Lionsgate to directly purchase copies of the new The Last Unicorn DVD for resale. Conlan's even offering autographed copies, hand-signed and personalized by Peter Beagle himself, for an extremely reasonable price. For every DVD Conlan sells, Beagle receives about half the funds. So now, at long last, there's an opportunity for Beagle — who's experienced some tough times over the years — to recoup some financial benefit from his most famous creation.

My daughter KM received her autographed copy in yesterday's mail. I've ordered another autographed copy that will soon be winging its way to my goddaughter in Maine. And it wouldn't hurt my feelings one iota if you, friend reader, dropped over to the Conlan Press Web site and ordered up a copy of The Last Unicorn for yourself, or someone special. In fact, I'd be thrilled if you dropped a note in the comments section to let me know that you did. It's a delightful film, and if you buy your DVD directly from Conlan, the money goes where it should have gone all along.

I thank you, and Peter Beagle thanks you.

I'm sure that as a fantasy writer, Peter Beagle is often asked the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" I get that same query about my Common Elements art commissions. And I answer in the same way that I imagine Peter Beagle does: "I make them up." In fact, concocting ever more mesmerizing combinations of unrelated comic book heroes tied together by some arcane connection is the second-greatest thrill — aside from admiring the art itself — I derive from my comic art collecting obsession hobby.

My greatest thrill? Coming up with a Common Element even the most expert of comic mavens can't decipher. Because I'm devious like that.

On today's featured Common Elements project, I managed to stump even the artist who drew it. I'm as giddy as a schoolgirl with a new DVD of The Last Unicorn, personally autographed by Peter S. Beagle.

Starring in this Common Elements spectacular are two of the lesser lights in the DC Comics universe: The Huntress, seen swinging into action at center stage, and Deadman, reeling into the foreground. This phenomenally designed and beautifully executed drawing sprang from the fertile mind and pencil of artist Luke McDonnell, most famed for his tenures on Marvel Comics' Iron Man and DC's Green Lantern, but a favorite of mine thanks to his work on one of my best-beloved comics from the late '80s and early '90s, Suicide Squad.

After this artwork was completed, Luke e-mailed me to ask: "The common element of this team-up escapes me; care to divulge?" After shouting "Yes!" and pumping my fist into the air in imitation of Tiger Woods, I was only too happy to fill Luke in.

The two leads in this little action drama are the only two superheroes of whom I'm aware whose first names are state capitals. Out of costume, the Huntress is Helena (as in Montana) Wayne, daughter of Bruce (Batman) Wayne and Selina (Catwoman) Kyle in an alternate timeline in which those two legends hooked up. (The current Huntress, who appears DC's Birds of Prey series, has a different backstory and surname, but she's also named Helena.) For his part, Deadman's real name is Boston (as in Massachusetts) Brand.

And before you wags write in, Black Lightning — real name: Jefferson Pierce — doesn't count. His middle name is not "City." Nor do any of the numerous superheroes whose last names are state capitals — i.e., Roy (The Human Bomb) Lincoln; Kyle (Nighthawk) Richmond. Jean (Phoenix) Grey doesn't cut it, either.

Although, now that I think about it, I believe there might be a superheroine whose first name is Madison. But I can't remember who she is.

Luke McDonnell, however, got the last word on this conversation. He stumped me with the villain who's tussling with Deadman and the Huntress here. For the record, it's the Lizard, Spider-Man's reptilian nemesis. But I didn't figure that out until Luke told me.

Well played, Mr. McDonnell.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Remember: Save the unicorn, save the author.

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The Verdict Is In: Memron

One of my favorite subgenres of film is the mockumentary, the comedy-as-faux-documentary style pioneered by director Rob Reiner in the perennial classic, This Is Spinal Tap, and perfected by Tap cowriter and star Christopher Guest in such works as Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind. The format has even been used to decent effect by a few folks not named Reiner or Guest, as evidenced by a decent little flick entitled ...And God Spoke.

If you're a fan of any of the aforementioned films, you will want to avoid — at all costs — a newly released mockumentary called Memron.

Indeed, if you value your sanity and sense of humor, you'll dash right over to DVD Verdict and check out my just-published review of this embarrassing travesty. After reading my scathing commentary, you will pity me. But you'll be glad that it was I who endured this experience, instead of you.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

What's Up With That? #44: Tim Hate-Away

When he was a backcourt star for my beloved, perpetually frustrating Golden State Warriors, Tim Hardaway's signature move was the "killer crossover," a rapid-fire maneuver in which Tim dribbled the basketball between his legs from one hand to the other.

Now, Hardaway's going to be even more famous for his killer voiceover.

The Timinator, who now works in the NBA's front office, was being interviewed on Dan Le Batard's sports radio show in Miami when he offered his opinion about former NBA center John Amaechi's recent acknowledgment that he is gay. Quoth Hardaway:
You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I'm homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States.
So tell us how you really feel, Tim.

Today, Hardaway issued a public apology, which didn't prevent the NBA from banning him from this weekend's All-Star festivities:"
As an African-American, I know all too well the negative thoughts and feelings hatred and bigotry cause. I regret and apologize for the statements that I made that have certainly caused the same kinds of feelings and reactions. I especially apologize to my fans, friends and family in Miami and Chicago. I am committed to examining my feelings and will recognize, appreciate and respect the differences among people in our society.
Hardaway's comments started me thinking about something that has always puzzled me. Why is it necessary for people to hate others who do things of which they themselves disapprove? Let's say homosexuality is contrary to your belief system. I can relate to that. But do you have to hate gay people, because you believe homosexuality is wrong? Does your disapproval of what gay people do — or what you might imagine they do — require that you hate them?

I can name many things people do that I think they should not. For example, I can't abide cigarette smoking. I can't comprehend why someone would want to roll dead leaves in paper, set the product on fire, and suck on it. I detest the smell of tobacco, I despise seeing cigarette butts scattered about the landscape, and I certainly don't want to share the carcinogenic air of those who smoke. But I don't hate smokers. I don't even dislike smokers — at least, not just because they're smokers. My antipathy for smoking doesn't cause me any animus toward the people who do it, as long as they aren't befouling my personal atmosphere. I certainly don't hate them.

Why does Tim Hardaway hate gay people? Again, my question is not why he believes what he believes about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality. Let's grant him his views so far as that goes. But even allowing for the fact that Tim may hate homosexuality, does that necessitate his hating gay people? What does other people's gayness (gayitude? gayosity?) have to do with him?

So Hardaway's afraid a gay teammate might scope out his twig and berries in the locker room. There are practical ways of dealing with that issue. I'm guessing that millions of females are ogled daily by males (and perhaps even by some females, 'cause that's how they roll) by whom they would prefer not to be ogled. As long as no one is harassed or harmed, it's a fact of life. If harassment or harm occurs, that's entirely another matter. But I don't think the overwhelming majority of those women getting ogled hate all men in general, just because some ogle.

Again, the question: Do you have to hate an entire group of people, just because you don't like something they (or even just some of them) do?

This carries over into numerous areas of conversation — religion, to choose one. If you disagree with the practices of someone's faith, should you have to hate them personally? If you're a Protestant, should you hate Catholic people because you dislike Catholicism? If you're a Christian, should you hate Jews because they don't embrace Christ? If you're a Muslim, should you hate Christians because they don't pray to Allah?

Take it another step. If someone engages in illegal or immoral activity that doesn't directly impact you, should you hate them? Even if a person is committing the most heinous, unspeakable act imaginable — pick one that offends you — but they're not hurting you or yours in any way, should you hate them? Does condemning the person's actions mean you have to hate the person?

I'm not saying my answer would be right. But I think the question's worth asking.

Just don't hate me if we disagree.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

You don't mess around with Jim

Jim Hamm, the 70-year-old California man who was attacked by a mountain lion last month, is celebrating Valentine's Day by going home from the hospital.

Jim and his wife Nell celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary during his unplanned vacation at San Francisco's California Pacific Medical Center. Nell is the hero in this story — she saved Jim from becoming lion lunch by clubbing the attacking beast with a stick until it finally took flight.

One note of future advice for Jim and Nell: Never go strolling in carnivore country, especially if your last name sounds like a tasty delicatessen meat.

In other news from the animal kingdom involving someone named Jim, a six-year-old English springer spaniel named Felicity's Diamond Jim won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show last night. The jovial Jim beat out more than 2,600 other stylish canines representing 165 breeds and varieties to claim honors as America's top dog.

Among Diamond Jim's competitors in the final posedown was the preshow favorite, a Dandie Dinmont terrier belonging to entertainment legend Bill Cosby. When notified of his pooch's defeat, Cosby reportedly said, "Hey, hey, hey — that's not okay," and assuaged his grief by consuming an entire box of Jell-O Pudding Pops.

For his part, Diamond Jim is retiring from the show ring to work as a therapy companion for Alzheimer's patients. Hopefully, his new job won't bring him into contact with any mountain lions.

Although I have it on good authority that he does enjoy a bite of ham now and then.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The stuff that dreams are made of

Paging Sam Spade: The Maltese Falcon is missing once again.

Okay, so it's not the actual Maltese Falcon from the legendary 1941 Humphrey Bogart film of the same name. It's a replica of identical vintage, used originally in publicity stills for the movie. The stolen statue most recently resided at John's Grill, the venerable San Francisco restaurant where Falcon author Dashiell Hammett held court decades ago.

The filched Falcon was birdnapped sometime last weekend, along with several books autographed by Hammett, from a locked cabinet on the second floor of the eatery. The replica bears the signature of actor Elisha Cook Jr., a San Francisco native who played a nervous gunsel named Wilmer in the film.

Kasper Gutman was unavailable for comment.

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Deuces, aces, and Presidential faces

Because you can never have enough iconic representations of old white dudes in your pocket, the U.S. Mint has unveiled its new series of dollar coins featuring portraits of all 43 Presidents.

Or at least, all of the dead ones.

The new dollar coins capitalize (no pun intended) on the popularity of the 50 States quarters the Mint has been circulating for the past several years. Every year, four new Presidential Dollars will hit the streets, following the chronological order of the Chief Executives. All of the Presidential dollars showcase a sharp new bust of the Statue of Liberty on the reverse... an innovative edge design, inscribed with the circulation date, along with the traditional mottoes E Pluribus Unum and In God We Trust.

The Presidential Dollar coins supercede the Sacagawea Golden Dollar, a relief to the overwhelming majority of Americans who can neither spell nor pronounce "Sacagawea."

Looking at the first four iterations of the Presidential Dollar, one unassailable fact occurs to me: Our Presidents have not, in the main, been attractive gentlemen.

One more reason to vote Obama in '08.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Mom! Beast is takin' my picture!

What's gotten into those lovable Disney characters lately?

Just last month, we noted that an actor playing Tigger at Walt Disney World smacked a teenage park visitor with a roundhouse punch upside the head, as the kid's parents caught the incident on video.

Now, the guy who portrays the Beast (from Beauty and the Beast) at the same park has been busted by the Orange County Sheriff's Sex Crimes Unit for collecting child pornography. Deputies raiding Disney cast member Matthew Wendland's apartment confiscated more than 1,000 images of children — some no older than toddler age — engaged in sexual poses and activities.

According to the detective managing the case, Wendland — who, in between stints as Beast, also suits up as Goofy — told them that he didn't see anything wrong in ogling pictures showing naked children barely out of diapers. "He doesn't see the difference between a naked 8-year-old and an 18-year-old woman. They're just a body to him," said Sgt. Rich Mankewich.

Mankewich also stated, "We have no evidence he committed any crimes while he was in costume. He just leans over and hugs kids." And with Wendland's proclivities, you don't suppose that might be a problem?

The truly sad fact is that Wendland has a teenaged girlfriend, with whom he's already produced a 16-month-old child.

I suppose they're both just bodies to him, too.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

All our hopes are pinned upon you

Sad news this week for us Wonder Woman fanatics: Joss Whedon — creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Fireflyannounced that he is no longer attached to write and direct the proposed feature film about our favorite Amazon.

Apparently the bone of contention between Whedon and Time-Warner (which owns DC Comics and its pantheon of superheroes, including the Superman and Batman franchises) was Warner's insistence that the film be a light-hearted period piece set in the World War II era — like the first two seasons of the Wonder Woman TV series from the '70s — whereas Joss envisioned a modernized, iconic representation.

In announcing his departure from the Wonder Woman movie project, Whedon confirmed what many of us had heard via the comics industry rumor mill: He had intended to cast Canadian actress Cobie Smulders (of How I Met Your Mother fame) in the title role.

(You'll just have to envision Ms. Smulders in a golden-eagle bustier and star-spangled briefs, unless you have mad Photoshop skills.)

Alas, what might have been. But we can dream, can't we?

Since we're all now thinking of Wonder Woman — which, given that it's Comic Art Friday, is a fine subject for consideration — let's eyeball a few images from our Temple of Diana.

In this powerful drawing by Brazilian pinup specialist Alex Miranda, the Amazing Amazon goes premedieval on the pillars of an ancient temple.

Here, Miranda provides a more contemplative take on our heroine. Nice detail work by the artist in this scenario.

The next two images both flow from the pencil of artist Scott Jones, who works his magic under the nom de plume Shade. A couple of years back, I commissioned Scott to create a Wonder Woman image, using a couple of my favorite costume modifications — a skirt (Diana has never actually worn a skirted uniform in the comics; the skirt, however, recalls the bloomers that formed the lower half of her original outfit, back in the early 1940s) and shoes that lace up the calf (worn by Diana in the comics throughout the 1950s).

The drawing above was Scott's first attempt at this assignment. I thought the piece turned out just fine, but for whatever reason, Scott was dissatisfied with the results and offered to redraw it. His second attack produced the beauty you see below.

Now here's the exercise: Stare at each of today's images one by one. Then, quickly close your eyes and try to envision that same scene, only with Cobie Smulders in it.

I know it's a poor substitute, but it's the best I can offer.

And that, my fellow Themyscirans, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Canceled permanently: The Anna Nicole Show

Just when you thought her bizarre life story couldn't possibly get any more strange...

Anna Nicole Smith is dead at age 39.

The news is just landing on the 'Net as I type, but it appears that the one-time centerfold and reality TV star collapsed and died at the Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, where she had been staying since the beginning of the week.

Anna Nicole lived out a biography that would sound like pure fiction if you saw it in a TV movie on Lifetime. The Houston native with the million-dollar bust rose from humble beginnings as a teenaged bride named Vickie Lynn Hogan who shook her twin moneymakers for cash in topless clubs, to Playboy's Playmate of the Year in 1993. She became a national media presence as the spokesmodel for Guess jeans (and more recently, the weight-loss supplement Trimspa), and international tabloid fodder when she married 89-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall II in 1994.

When Marshall died — no surprise — the following year, Anna Nicole became embroiled in a decade-long legal wrangle with Marshall's son over the dead tycoon's estate. She appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court last May, as the Nine Old Folks reinstated a California judgment that gave Anna Nicole at least partial rights to the Marshall fortune. A month later, Marshall's son died.

Five years ago, Anna Nicole threw open the curtains on her personal life in the E! Channel reality series, The Anna Nicole Show. America watched as the platinum bombshell careened through her storied existence like a drunken bull in Tiffany's.

Last September, Anna Nicole's 20-year-old son Daniel died under mysterious circumstances in his mother's hotel room in the Bahamas. Only three days earlier, Anna Nicole had given birth to a baby daughter, Dannielynn, whose paternity remains the subject of controversy. Now, Anna Nicole herself has gone to join her beloved boy in that big fried chicken joint in the hereafter.

No doubt, we'll hear much more (more, probably, than we'll want) about Ms. Smith's untimely departure in the days and weeks to come. Like her idols Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield before her, she made a sudden — and early — exit.

Perhaps as much as any other human being one could name, Anna Nicole Smith epitomized the time-honored axiom: Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

One's gay, the other not so much

It's like a page from my "Common Elements" comic art gallery: Two otherwise unrelated stories, united by a common theme...

First, former pro basketball player John Amaechi (no relation to the late Don Ameche, a fine comedic actor who couldn't bury a jumper from outside the paint to save his life) — who played center for the Orlando Magic and three other teams during a five-year journeyman NBA career — would like you all to know that he is a gay man.

Second, former Colorado megachurch pastor Ted Haggard — who resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals (no relation to the National Basketball Association) following revelations (no relation to the Biblical book of Revelation) that, when he wasn't thumping the Good Book, Pastor Ted was thumping rent boys and crystal meth — would like you all to know that he is once again a straight man.

Just so everyone's clear before we go on:

Gay man...

...straight man.

Pay attention — there's likely to be a quiz later.

Previously best known for being the first British player in NBA history — although born in Boston, Amaechi grew up near Manchester, England — Amaechi becomes the first NBA player, active or retired, to come out publicly.

Which is interesting, because you've gotta figure Amaechi's not the only gay dude who ever laced up a pair of Chuck Taylors. (So far as I know, Chuck Taylor was not one of them. Not that that would make his sneakers any less cool.)

But the fact is, only six male athletes in American professional team sports have ever come out as gay — NFL players Dave Kopay, Esera Tuaolo, and Roy Simmons; Major League Baseball's Glenn Burke (who died from HIV-related disease in 1995) and Billy Bean (no relation to Billy Beane, the former player and current general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who would like you all to know that he is a straight man — not that there's anything wrong with that); and now Amaechi. Not one of the six came out while still active in his chosen field.

Six gay men in the history of American pro sports? Yeah, right. Given the number of out (or nearly so) lesbians in women's athletics, the law of averages alone says there have to be at least a few gay men in those clubhouses and locker rooms. No one, however, wants to be the first to raise his hand and admit it.

But I guess that's why they call it "the love that dares not speak its name."

And then, there's Pastor Ted, who apparently has decided that if he can't speak it, he won't do it. According to Tim Ralph, one of the current pastors at Haggard's former church in Colorado Springs:
"He is completely heterosexual. That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn't a constant thing."
Let's break that quote down, shall we?
  • "He is completely heterosexual." Completely, except for the whole gay male prostitute thing.

  • "That is something he discovered." How does one "discover" that he's "completely heterosexual"? "Yeah, I dabbled in a few sessions of hot, sweaty man-on-man action, but I discovered in the process that I am completely heterosexual." To borrow a line from the immortal Flip Wilson, "You better discover yourself away from here."

  • "It was the acting-out situations where things took place." To be more specific, it was a motel in Colorado Springs "where things took place." Or perhaps it was in the conservatory, with Colonel Mustard and some rope.

  • "It wasn't a constant thing." How exactly does that work? "I'm gay, but it's not a constant thing. I'm only gay on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and alternating weekends." You know, I've only been heterosexual myself, but it's been pretty darned constant since at least 1969. (No innuendo intended.)
I'm just puzzled as to how Haggard could be gay — or at the very least, bisexual — three months ago, yet "completely heterosexual" now. I couldn't change favorite Chinese restaurants in three months, much less my entire sexual identity.

I'm going to send my checkbook to that counseling center Haggard attended. Maybe they can work a miracle on that in 90 days or less.

At least John Amaechi has a book to sell.

All right, ready for the pop quiz? Here we go:

Which is the gay man...

...and which is the straight man?

You thought this would be easier, didn't you?

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What's Up With That? #43: Some people call her the Space Cowgirl

In what is believed to be a first in the NASA ranks, an active-duty astronaut has been arrested on felony charges, including attempted kidnapping and attempted vehicle burglary with battery.

It's tempting to look at her mugshot and say, "She's obviously no rocket scientist." Except for the fact that she is.

U.S. Navy Captain Lisa Marie Nowak (to be referred to hereafter as "Yes-wack"), a NASA mission specialist who flew on Shuttle Discovery last July, drove from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to Orlando International Airport to confront a woman she believed was romantically involved with another astronaut. Nowak told police that she and the male astronaut in question, shuttle pilot William Oefelein, had "more than a working relationship, but less than a romantic relationship," whatever in tarnation that means.

Nowak apparently discovered — via e-mails she confiscated — that the other woman, an Air Force captain named Colleen Shipman, was involved with Oefelein. Incensed at the prospect of competition for Wild Bill's affection, Nowak blazed a 1,000-mile trail across the southern states, wearing an adult diaper so she wouldn't have to take potty breaks. (Listen, you don't want to have to stop to pee when you're already... well... you know.)

When she caught up with Captain Shipman in the OIA parking lot, Nowak was wearing a trenchcoat and wig, and was armed with a BB gun, a four-inch folding knife, and pepper spray, the latter of which she deployed in the startled Shipman's car. Shipman escaped and called the authorities, who corraled Nowak as she was disposing of the evidence of her sordid escapade.

As a member of the Discovery crew on Shuttle Mission STS-121, Nowak operated the shuttle's robotic arm during three spacewalks undertaken by two other astronauts — who right this moment are thanking their lucky stars that Lisa didn't "wig out" while they were pulling an EVA. An astronaut since 1996, Nowak gained notice at the time of her shuttle flight for being the first Italian American woman in space. [Insert your own ethnically insensitive, Godfather-derived joke here, if you have no shame.]

Nowak, incidentally, is married — though not to the aforementioned astronaut Oefelein. She's also the mother of three children, who will doubtless find themselves the subject of intense schoolyard buzz for the rest of the academic year.

According to her official NASA bio, "Lisa enjoys bicycling, running, skeet, sailing, gourmet cooking, rubber stamps, crossword puzzles, piano, and African violets."

They conveniently omitted her fondness for kidnapping, mayhem, unrequited love, and Depends.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl ads

For those of us mortals who look forward to the Super Bowl more eagerly for the commercials than for the game, Super Bowl Extra-Large-Plus-One came something of a cropper. This wasn't exactly a stellar year for the ad agencies, who annually bring out the big guns for the Big Game. I'd forgotten most of the spots already by the time I sat down to compose this post. Lucky for you, I took notes.

As an advertising copywriter, I tend to view the splashier commercials with a gimlet eye. A commercial should have as its primary aim two goals: (1) imbedding the sponsor's brand inescapably in the mind of the viewer, and (2) fostering an intense desire to purchase the sponsor's product or service. An ad that accomplishes either goal has earned its money. One that does both is golden.

Sad to say, most of the Super Bowl spots focus on a third objective: entertainment. The problem is that entertainment is the job of programming -- in this case, the football game. If all an ad does is entertain the audience, without selling either the brand or the product or both, it might as well be a show, and not an ad. Few things are a more pointless waste of money and creativity than a clever commercial that everyone in America talks about, but no one can recall who the advertiser was or what product they were selling. You might as well set three million dollars (production cost plus airtime) on fire.

So let's examine a random sampling of Super Bowl commercials using the SwanShadow Scale of Advertising Effectiveness (a maximum of ten tailfeathers possible):

Pizza Hut: Jessica Simpson bolts the red carpet for some Cheesy Bites.
I have no love for Jessica Simpson — an unattractive, talent-free bimbo, in my not-so-humble estimation — nor for Pizza Hut, which serves the nastiest pizza of any of the major chains. This ad, however, does a good job of reinforcing the brand, and making the product seem appealing. Seven tailfeathers.

Blockbuster: The Blockbuster bunny and gerbil attempt to order videos using a mouse. The furry kind.
One of the more memorable and effective spots of the day. The mouse gag makes a strong mental connection with the online service. More importantly, the spot breaks away from the humor to solidify the sales pitch, rather than trying to make the gimmick do all the heavy lifting. Nine tailfeathers.

Doritos: A guy and girl meet disastrously cute.
Clever idea — this was an amateur submission generated by a "make your own Doritos ad" contest. For me, though, as clever as the piece is, its value is ruined by all of the violent misfortune. Unless I'm selling insurance or auto body repairs, I don't want people associating my product with car crashes. Six tailfeathers.

Sierra Mist: When you can seize the soft drink from my hand, Grasshopper, you will be ready to leave. Most of the blogosphere is raving about the other Sierra Mist spot starring comedians Michael Ian Black and Jim Gaffigan, in which Black's middle manager fires Gaffigan's bizarrely coiffured employee. For me, that spot was more about the sight gags than the soda. This one, with Black playing a martial arts teacher and Gaffigan his hyperaggressive student, works better at selling the product, while still bringing the funny. Eight tailfeathers. (The "hair" ad only gets six.)

Snickers: Two macho men share an inadvertent kiss over a Snickers bar. This was probably the funniest ad of the day. It did not, however, make me want to eat a Snickers bar. Instead, it made me want to hurl. Not because of the implicit homoeroticism (borrowing heavily from a famous bit in the John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles), but because the idea of having food in my mouth that has been in someone else's (I don't care whose) turns my stomach. I can't imagine anyone viewing this ad and thinking, "I sure would like a Snickers right about now." Three tailfeathers.

Bud Light: Carlos Mencia turns an ESL class into a beer commercial.
Alcohol ads are always a valuable test for me, since I don't drink. This spot makes effective use of humor — and ethnic humor at that; tricky in any venue — in reinforcing the Bud Light brand. There's a reason why Anheuser-Busch, which I'm told by my beer-drinking associates makes a mediocre product at best, sells so much beer: Their ads consistently underscore their brand identity, to the degree that even a teetotaler such as myself knows who they are. (I always wonder: If Budweiser is the King of Beers, is Bud Light the Queen of Beers?) Eight feathers. (Another Bud Light spot starring Mencia lost the branding message in the punch line. Only four tailfeathers for that one.) Jungle lemmings.
Who thought this would be a good idea? A noisy, chaotic commercial featuring office workers in a jungle environment being attacked by unseen marauders, ending with the entire cast (or CGI versions of same) running off a gigantic cliff. I'm not sure from watching this ad what the product is, or what I'm supposed to think about it — other than that it has something to do with blowdarts and mass suicide. Yuck. One tailfeather... but just barely.

Emerald Nuts: Robert Goulet messes with your stuff.
Easily the most peculiar ad of Super Bowl Sunday — although less inflammatory than the Snickers spot — this one is just plain freaky. It didn't make me want to buy nuts, only to think that the creatives at Emerald's agency of record are nuts. Two tailfeathers, for sheer audacity.

Nationwide Insurance: "Federline! Fries!"
We rip on K-Fed quite frequently here at SSTOL, but this commercial is actually well done. I would have made the connection between the humorous body of the ad and the sales pitch more cohesive, but all in all, this was worth the money Nationwide spent on it, for the pop culture buzz alone. Seven tailfeathers — would have been eight, but KJ used to work for Nationwide, and she's still a mite peeved.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bow before my intellectual superiority!

How smart are you?

Unfortunately, I am still not as smart as Mark Lowenthal, Bob Blake, or Grace Veach.

But then, you probably aren't, either.

Unless you're Eugene Finerman. Then you probably are.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Bring the T.H.U.N.D.E.R.

For only the fourteenth time in recorded history, Punxsutawney Phil — the famed meteorological groundhog of Gobbler's Knob, near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — failed to see his shadow on February 2, thus heralding an early spring.

Myself, I think it's global warming.

Every area of human endeavor has what I like to call its "linchpin lore" — that arcane yet essential information that escapes casual notice, but is treasured primarily by the genuine aficionado. Linchpin lore provides the means of separating the true experts in a field from the mere pretenders. You may know many of the general facts that have crept into the common vernacular, but until you master the linchpin lore, you can't call yourself an insider.

When it comes to Silver Age comics — that age being defined as the period beginning with the publication of Showcase #4 (the first appearance of the modern Flash) in 1956, and continuing until Jack Kirby (the artist-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and the original X-Men) left Marvel Comics in 1970 — T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents constitutes linchpin lore.

Published by Tower Comics from 1965 to 1969, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents related the thrilling adventures of a group of superpowered individuals employed by the United Nations. (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. was an acronym for The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves. Usually, one doesn't include the initial article in an acronym, but I doubt that H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents would have sold.) The series was the brainchild of, and a showcase for, legendary comics artist Wally Wood, who came to prominence as part of the EC Comics stable in the 1950s.

The primary Agents were Dynamo, whose Thunder Belt gave him superhuman strength and invulnerability, but only for short periods of time; NoMan, who housed his mental essence in an endless series of identical android bodies; Menthor, whose high-tech helmet enabled him to read others' thoughts and move objects with his mind; Raven, who — no surprise — could fly, using a rocket-powered backpack; and Lightning, whose superspeed costume shortened his lifespan every time he used it.

Although the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents faced a number of evil nemeses, their most memorable foe was the Iron Maiden, a brilliant criminal with an inexplicable jones for Dynamo. I say "inexplicable" because Dynamo (real name: Leonard Brown, also the name of one of the series' writers), despite his chiseled good looks and the great strength that consumed him when he switched on his Thunder Belt, was always portrayed as something of a dimwit. Iron Maiden (whose true identity was never revealed, though we discovered on one occasion that she had red hair underneath her clunky helmet) could have done better.

Geof Isherwood captures Dynamo and the Iron Maiden in an intense moment. A sterling example of Geof's phenomenal mastery of human anatomy — every muscle in both figures is accurately defined — this piece also exhibits the artist's skill at tonal rendering.

Members of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents cast appear more than once in my Common Elements gallery. Darryl Banks, best known for his lengthy run on Green Lantern, brings together Dynamo and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Man, those acronyms were everywhere back in the Silver Age!)

Among the supporting players in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was a group of non-powered yet resourceful operatives called the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad. The safari jacket-clad Squad provided technical and tactical backup for their superpowered comrades. (And, in one instance, got promoted to the A-Team — T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad leader Guy Gilbert became T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent Lightning early in the series' run.) Here, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad's resident hottie, Kathryn "Kitten" Kane, joins T'Challa, the Black Panther, for a posedown, courtesy of artist James E. Lyle.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Watch out for groundhogs.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Newsom knew some, in the Biblical sense

The hot news here in the Bay Area centers around the resignation of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's reelection campaign manager, who decided to hand in his walking papers after he learned that the mayor had been slipping his wife a little "San Francisco treat," if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Imagine: A guy getting all bent out of shape over something trivial like that.

As reported by the Chronicle this morning (and confirmed by the mayor himself at a press conference that ended moments ago), Newsom had an affair with Ruby Rippey-Tourk — at the time, his appointment secretary — about a year and a half ago. This was during the period when Newsom and his then-wife, FOX News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, were divorcing. Ruby's husband, Alex Tourk, has been one of the Gav's right-hand men for most of his political career. Several news reports indicate that the Gavin/Ruby tryst was pretty much an open secret at City Hall — everyone in the building knew who was zooming whom, except for the cuckolded Alex. But then, the husband is always the last to know.

Ruby apparently outed herself and Gavin to hubby as part of her 12-step rehabilitation for a substance abuse problem. I guess it's true what they say about those addict chicks.

I also suppose this clears up any lingering questions about the Gav's sexual orientation.

The best thing about the Newsom story for me is that Ruby Rippey used to be a news reporter at our local TV station, KFTY-50 in Santa Rosa. Whenever she came on, KJ and I used to have a good chuckle over her oddly alliterative name.

It certainly seems that the mayor gets around a lot, to put it mildly. Just a few months ago, we were hearing about his relationship with a 20-year-old coed at our hometown institution of higher education, Sonoma State University. The story was that when Gavin and his youthful hottie showed up at the grand opening of San Francisco's Westfield Center, it was apparent to those present that the young lady had been drinking, despite the fact that the legal imbibing age in California is 21.

Rumor has it that Ruby Rippey-Tourk (say that three times fast) may have a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former employer/paramour in the pipeline. Won't that trial be fun?

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